Friday, August 29, 2014

To everything ... turn, turn, turn

And like that the summer is seemingly gone.

Not gone, gone yet.  But, change is in the air.

In fact, it was even on the ground; it was a shock to find these leaves even before August had ended, and when the official end to summer is more than three weeks away!

A far change from the corner of the old country where I grew up.  There, the  significant deviation from the hot days and months was when the rains came, and when the monsoon downpours that then filled up the gully by our home.  We would watch through the window the volume and the velocity picking up as the water became muddier by the minute.

There were seasons of different kinds in the old country.
Like the mango season.
The wedding season.
The annual school holiday season.

Seasons are how we mark time.

In this corner of the world that is home to me, I joke with students that if it were not for the seasonal changes in the temperature, I would not know how to get ready for classes.  With the academic calendar wonderfully in sync with the changes in the conditions in the natural world, if it were the glorious summer all year round, then we might never ever get to any serious work at all.

But, perhaps life in a tropical paradise where nobody really worked is not a bad thing;  after all, life is not about working, and if one simply enjoyed the existence in a tropical paradise, who is to say that a life thus lived is inferior to one that is governed by work and calendar!  Does it really matter if one simply lived, ate, had sex, and died convinced that it was a wonderful life, without having ever wondered, even for a nanosecond, how all these came about?  Is it condescending and judgmental to claim that a life not examined is not worth it?

You see, this is what happens as the summer begins to yield to cooler temperatures.  Frivolous thoughts are pushed aside and yield to contemplation.  It is no surprise, therefore, that even Hollywood waits until the fall and winter to release the serious movies--when the berries abound and when the roses are in bloom, it is difficult to imagine that life is not an endless Oregon summer.

The seasons change.
We, too, change.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Peripatetic Pedant Professes: These feet are made for walking

The day warmed up in a big hurry.

I wimped out of walking when the iPhone reported it was 81 outside.  "Maybe I will walk in the evening" I told myself as I tried to work on the syllabi for the new academic year that will begin soon.

Evening came.

It was a freaking 91 degrees even at  half-past-six.

I was left with only one option: walking canceled.

The day felt incomplete.

So, of course, a pretentious post on walking is the result!

This New Yorker essay, which notes that "people are made for walking, but we are not very good at it" includes extensive commentary on Frédéric Gros' A philosophy of walking:
The purpose of walking, he tells us, is not to find friends but to share solitude, “for solitude too can be shared, like bread and daylight”; the philosopher Kant’s life “was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; when walking, the body “stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape.”
I like that interpretation.  To share solitude, with the river and the birds and the trees, and smiling--and the rare unsmiling--humans.  Well, even with those damn bugs.
Contemplative walking is Gros’s favored kind: the walking of medieval pilgrims, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau, of Kant’s daily life. It is the Western equivalent of what Asians accomplish by sitting. Walking is the Western form of meditation: “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.”
I do wonder whether this view of life is a male perspective.  The stereotypical male is more comfortable with the solitude in many, ahem, walks of life than the typical females who are social even when it is about going to the restroom.  In any case, it works for me as a male.

I checked the weather app.

All clear to share solitude with the river--today, and for quite a few days more too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Maybe students would prefer me tweeting my course syllabus?

This is a post with two objectives:
  • to discuss one of the madness in higher education, which is about the course syllabus, especially because I am trying hard to get them done (yeah, right!)
  • to convince some of you readers about how we put Twitter to wonderful use, and we don't merely tweet about what we ate 
Speaking of what I ate, should I tell you about the awesome beet-salad that I made for myself the other day?  Why not; it is my blog, after all!

Sliced boiled beet in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, finely chopped garlic, and fresh ground pepper
topped with shredded cheese

Anyway, back to the objectives.  As always, Rebecca Schuman had a wonderful column at Slate.  It is all about the "Syllabus bloat" at American colleges and universities.  Excerpting from there will not do any justice. Read it in full.

I tweeted about it
Within minutes, there was a response from Schuman; I guess some of us academics never go to sleep! ;)
And then quite a few other responses.  More than that, the retweets:

A simple addition means that my tweet about Schuman's article was retweeted to 10,561 Twitter users thus far.   Of course, some might be in more than one of these loops.  Let us assume that it was 9,000 separate individuals whom the retweets pinged.   From there, it would have been retweeted more.  Just like that, with the click of a mouse button Rebecca Schuman's article gets distributed!

I cannot even begin to imagine the logistical hassles of sharing ideas and news in the old days, even twenty years ago!  For people like me who love to live in the world of ideas, there has never been a better time in history than now.

It is such an awesomely different world that the youth are beginning to explore.  Which is why the Mindset folks at Beloit College include in their latest compilation of "reminder to faculty to be wary of dated references"
"Press pound" on the phone is now translated as "hit hashtag."
Should I add that to the course syllabi and tweet about it?

Wait, I already did--about the Mindset ;)

PS: A note to the reader who thinks he is funny--don't even dream of "tl;dr" as your comment ;)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

When adults go commando ...

The end of August leading up to Labor Day is traditionally slow news time here in America.  Even C-Span has to resort to reruns!

(I know what you are thinking: Don't I have better things to do than watch C-Span? You don't know what you are missing out on, dear reader!)

A senator--of course, an old, white, male--was introducing Seth Rogen.
Yes, that Seth Rogen.
At the US Senate!

He had his glasses on--the typical celebrity approach to coming across as serious and intellectual and ready to utter something moving and profound.  These movie people literally live up to "all the world's a stage."

I decided to watch anyway.

One of the best things I could have done.  In fact, I would recommend that you, too, watch it.

Seth Rogen told a wonderfully warm story about a horrible aspect of life--his mother-in-law was diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer's when she was only 54.  Fifty-four!  It has been downhill since then for her.  Unlike other top ten reasons for death, Rogen noted, "there is no way to prevent, cure, or even slow the progression of Alzheimer's Disease."  He commented about how it was way more expensive than treatment for heart conditions, which are expensive to begin with.

I suppose this discussion continues, in a way, from where the ALS Ice-Bucket-Challenge post ended.  But then, as my links to posts from the past show, the conversations on any of the topics have not ended, have they?  Nor is this the first time that I have something to say about Alzheimer's and dementia.

Alzheimer's is one awful disease.
For the patient.
For the family and friend.
And, yes, for the bank balance too.
In 2012, one out of every eight people aged 65 and older in the U.S. – more than 5 million – had Alzheimer’s, and payments for health care, long-term care, and hospice services were estimated to be $200 billion (not including the work of unpaid caregivers).
By 2050, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent or more effectively treat the disease, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s may triple to 16 million, with annual costs of care projected to reach $1 trillion. Without disease-modifying treatments, the cumulative costs of care for people with Alzheimer’s from 2010 to 2050 will exceed $20 trillion, in today’s dollars.
The article notes that this is a projection and it does not mean that we should start setting aside twenty trillion dollars.  Instead, and wisely, the author compares it with the case of polio:
From 1940 to the mid-1950s, polio struck 400,000 American children and millions more worldwide. The epidemic peaked in the early 1950s with 58,000 new cases in 1952 and another 35,000 in 1953. But, thanks to the Salk polio vaccine, by 1957, new polio cases had been cut by 90 percent, and by 1960 the disease was almost entirely eradicated in the United States.
Michael Milken has pointed out that, in the early 1950s, the cost of polio care in the U.S. was predicted to be $100 billion by the year 2000 – back when a billion dollars was a lot! In fact, he says, “today’s polio immunization programs cost one thousand times less than that and have virtually eliminated the disease.”
Yes, it will require many more Salks.

NPR reported that one group that is helping us with the research for treatment of this awful disease is people with Down Syndrome.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that's best known for causing intellectual disability. But it also causes Alzheimer's. "By the age of 40, 100 percent of all individuals with Down syndrome have the pathology of Alzheimer's in their brain," [Michael Rafii director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at UCSD] says.
A depressing post on a warm summer night, yes.  But, life is not all fun all the time--even Seth Rogen knows that.

On the worry that the least-skilled will fall further behind

Charles C. Mann notes in his insightful essay on the rhetoric and (in)action regarding climate change:
In the 3,600 years between 1800 B.C. and 1800 A.D., the economic historian Gregory Clark has calculated, there was “no sign of any improvement in material conditions” in Europe and Asia. Then came the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution was one hell of a game-changer.  China and India, which at that point accounted for more than a half of the world's GDP, had no idea what lay ahead; no surprise that they are both terribly wounded civilizations that are even now trying to figure out what happened and why they are not the admired and prosperous lands, though China is in a hurry to reclaim its status.

In his book, his talks, his interviews, well, anywhere, Andrew McAfee stresses the importance of the Information Revolution by reminding us about the Industrial Revolution:
As historian Ian Morris writes in his fascinating book Why The West Rules — For Now, “the industrial revolution… made mockery of all that had gone before.”
If that changed the world in a hurry, then, as McAfee likes to point out, we ain't seen nothin' yet with respect to how much the next revolution (that is underway?) will completely overhaul everything.

That is not a new topic in this blog.  I keep coming back to it because of a deep concern that the vast middle class was perhaps a freakish accident in history, and that we will revert to conditions that prevailed throughout almost all of recorded history--the patricians and the plebeians.

The concern over the plebs is nothing but another way of saying that inequality is a troubling issue to me.  Not merely within the US, but across the world.  Now, I have quoted Branko Milanovic and others who have correctly noted that global inequality has narrowed, as this chart from an old post shows:

But, within countries, the gap is widening.

And even the Economist pitches in with "why globalisation is not reducing inequality within developing countries"
Economists are puzzled: the data contradict the predictions of David Ricardo, one of the founding fathers of their discipline. Countries, said Ricardo, export what they are relatively efficient at producing. Take America and Bangladesh now. In America the ratio of highly skilled to low-skilled workers is high. In Bangladesh it is low. So America focuses on products requiring highly skilled labour, such as financial services and software. Bangladesh focuses on downmarket products such as garments.
Comparative advantage predicts that when a poor country starts to trade globally, demand for low-skilled workers will rise disproportionately. That, in turn, should boost their wages relative to those of higher-skilled locals, and so push down income inequality within that country. The theory neatly explains the impact of the first wave of globalisation. In the 18th century, Europe had a high ratio of low-skilled workers relative to America. When Euro-American trade took off, European inequality duly tumbled
Any time the Economist or the Wall Street Journal runs such pieces, then I joke that it means it is time to say "holy shit!"

Anyway, what might be the story here?
[Eric Maskin's theory] relies on what he calls worker “matching”. Unskilled workers can be more productive when matched with skilled ones—that is, when they work together. Assigning a manager to a group of workers can do more for total output than just adding another worker. He places workers into four classes: skilled workers in rich countries (A); low-skilled workers in rich countries (B); high-skilled workers in poor countries (C); and low-skilled workers in poor countries (D). Crucially, he thinks low-skilled workers in rich countries (the Bs) are likely to be more productive than high-skilled workers in poor ones (the Cs).
Before the current wave of globalisation started in the 1980s, skilled and unskilled workers in developing countries—the Cs and Ds—worked together.
So, yes, globalization.  What happened?
The latest bout of globalisation has jumbled the pairings: high-skilled workers in poor countries can now work more easily with low-skilled workers in rich ones, leaving their poor neighbours in the lurch. ...
The Cs work with Bs and end up being more productive. The Ds are left by the wayside.
The Ds number in the hundreds of millions.   Which is why the Economist concludes with this thought:
 if he is right, he poses a challenge to globalisation’s advocates: figuring out how to reap its rewards without leaving the least-skilled in poor countries behind.
Well, hey, it might be a realization that is a tad too late.  But, better late than never, right?

There is one easy solution to this; can you guess what that is?  Hint: it cannot happen again, now that we are already here ;)

Monday, August 25, 2014

I did not take up the Ice Bucket Challenge. No, I am not heartless!

A friend, who sat a row behind me in the final two years of school back in that wonderfully magical town in the old country, challenged me in Facebook and gave me twenty-four hours to follow up with my own ice-bucket video.

The deadline has passed.

In case anybody else has plans to challenge me, I will make it easier for you: I will not take it up.

The reason is simple. I am far from convinced that ALS ranks way high among the gazillion problems that humans experience on this planet and, therefore, it is more important for me to spend whatever that I can on issues that are of much higher priority.

Let us begin at step 1, which is to find out how many people in the US suffer from ALS.  Why not check in with the philanthropic organization where the ice-bucket-challenge money will end up--the ALS Association, which "is the only national non-profit organization fighting Lou Gehrig’s Disease on every front":
  • It is estimated that ALS is responsible for nearly two deaths per hundred thousand population annually.
  • Approximately 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year. The incidence of ALS is two per 100,000 people, and it is estimated that as many as 30,000 Americans may have the disease at any given time.
Right this very minute, about 30,000 Americans have this awful disease.  That is 30,000 more than what we would prefer, certainly.  But then we also have to ask ourselves a question, however uncomfortable that might be: why is raising funds and awareness for the 30,000 more urgent than the money and awareness for any number of other diseases, or conflicts, or other ways in which humans around the world suffer and die?

Consider, for instance, malaria.  It is a disease that is not only curable but even preventable.
An estimated 207 million people suffered from the disease in 2012, and about 627,000 died. About 90 percent of the deaths were in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 77 percent were among children under age 5.
More than 200 million suffered from it, and kids less than five years old accounted for nearly half-a-million deaths.

Or consider Ebola, which in this latest iteration has the world quite alarmed.  We have known about Ebola for some time now, but have not really committed resources to developing drugs to cure patients and methods to eradicate it.  Why?
When pharmaceutical companies are deciding where to direct their R. & D. money, they naturally assess the potential market for a drug candidate. That means that they have an incentive to target diseases that affect wealthier people (above all, people in the developed world), who can afford to pay a lot. They have an incentive to make drugs that many people will take. And they have an incentive to make drugs that people will take regularly for a long time—drugs like statins.
This system does a reasonable job of getting Westerners the drugs they want (albeit often at high prices). But it also leads to enormous underinvestment in certain kinds of diseases and certain categories of drugs. Diseases that mostly affect poor people in poor countries aren’t a research priority, because it’s unlikely that those markets will ever provide a decent return. So diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, which together kill two million people a year, have received less attention from pharmaceutical companies than high cholesterol. Then, there’s what the World Health Organization calls “neglected tropical diseases,” such as Chagas disease and dengue; they affect more than a billion people and kill as many as half a million a year. One study found that of the more than fifteen hundred drugs that came to market between 1975 and 2004 just ten were targeted at these maladies. And when a disease’s victims are both poor and not very numerous that’s a double whammy. On both scores, a drug for Ebola looks like a bad investment: so far, the disease has appeared only in poor countries and has affected a relatively small number of people.
How would I justify contributing to ALS as a higher priority compared to a contribution to fight any one of those neglected diseases that affect millions and kills millions?

Felix Salmon writes that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a bad idea:
William MacAskill has an informed estimate that a good 50 percent of the money being given to ALS is ultimately coming out of the pockets of other charities. So it’s reasonable to ask: Are we better off in a world where the ALS Association has an extra $100 million and other charities have roughly $50 million less?
Salmon adds:
there are thousands of charitable organizations out there that could really use the money going to ALS—could use it to make the world a better place today. Some are medicine-based, treating the sick around the world; others might be in areas such as education, or clean water, or animal rescue, or the arts, or simply just giving money to poor people. In virtually all these cases, there’s an obvious positive effect to any donation. Not all philanthropic activity should be obvious, of course, or require immediate positive effects. But the less good you’re going to do in the short term, the more good you should expect to achieve in the long term. And I don’t think the ALS Association quite gets there.
Asking such tough questions is never the way to win friends.  But then a long time ago I decided that my career would be about engaging in difficult questions, even if it means I will be friendless and waiting for that cup of hemlock!

I do wish that the ill--whether the disease is ALS, or malaria, or depression, or ...--don't have to suffer at all, and that science and technology and philanthropy will make this world a much better place for all of us. I hope I am doing my part towards making the world a better place, even when I decline the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

It was no Sunday in the Park with George

The river was very different on Saturday.  All because of a couple of simple changes to my routine five-mile walk.

For one, I walked in the evening and not in the morning.

And, for another, instead of hanging a left after exiting the gate, I turned right and completed the loop.

Made one heck of a difference.

There were kids and teens and adults and even one old man cooling themselves in the river.  One kid, about five or six years old, walked away from the river, turned around, and like Michael Holding's run-up in his bowling, she ran a long way and canon-balled into the river.

At another spot, two kids were cheering their dad and encouraging him to get into the river.  "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" they chanted.  He dipped his toes first and slowly waded.  The vegetation hid them as I continued walking, but the greenery didn't muffle the sound from the "daddy" that said it all: "Don't you dare splashing water on me!"  Ah, yes, wimpy fathers most of us are.

Past the bridge was the park where a young couple was seated on a blanket and were eating.  The girl seemed to be enjoying it while the guy did not appear to be at ease.  Perhaps the gender issue--women think that a visit to a beach or a park includes taking blankets and books along. As for most of us men, well, let me put it this way--blankets are for sissies! ;)

I kept walking at my usual pace.

In another part of the greens, I saw a woman with a hijab on and three kids with her, all seated on the grass and munching on something.

As I reached the bridge, I passed a young couple playfully pushing each other as they walked.  Ah, yes, to be young and in love!

I had no idea that the best was reserved for near the end.

A bicyclist was coming towards me at quite some speed.  He was without a shirt, which was no big deal.  But, from a distance at least it seemed like he was not wearing anything at all.  A nude cyclist?  I couldn't discount the possibility; after all, this is Eugene.

He neared me.

As he passed me, it was clear that he did have something on.  That something was only a tad larger than a male thong.  Even the கோமணம் (kōmaṇam) of the old country covers more, I think.

I was now less than five minutes away from home when an old man with a long white beard passed me in the other direction.  He looked perhaps sixty, or even sixty-five years old.  His outfit exemplified the liberal, hippie, free spirit, image that Eugene has--his top, yes not a shirt, was a red top with a spaghetti strap, and for the bottom he had a pair of hot pants.  He was an old man with a long white beard.

To think that I would have missed out on all these had I walked in the morning as I always do, and if I had started in the other direction as I always do!  I wonder what else I have missed out on ... what a wonderful world it is!

On not blogging. As in taking a long break from it.

Calm down.
Don't panic.
I am not going anywhere.
I will continue to blog.
Breathing easier now?

There are people who strum their air guitars and imagine themselves to be rock stars. You know a few of them, right?  I can relate to them--by reading, thinking, blogging, and writing op-eds, I imagine I am a writer.  I know my claim to being a writer is as ridiculous as those lunatics pretending to be Eric Clapton.  But, hey, we do whatever that gets us through life.

If I pretend that I am a writer, then I suppose I can also pretend that I have writer's block?  Or that I should take a break from this imaginary qualification in order to get some fresh and original insights?

But, I suppose the best thing about this Walter Mitty alter ego is that I don't ever run out of material to write about.  I mean, think about what you have read until now.  Isn't all that nothing but a truck load of bovine refuse?

Real writers have serious issues because they have reputations to defend.  I don't have any reputation.  No honor and all oblivion.  No wonder that at some point writers quit. For some it is earlier than for others.  Even a celebrated writer like Philip Roth called it quits:
My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.
Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.
At least Roth did that after decades of quality writing, unlike:
After “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Joseph Mitchell published nothing new in his remaining 31 years. E.M. Forster published no more novels between “A Passage to India” and his death 46 years later. And then there were those hall of fame figures: J.D. Salinger, who published nothing for the last half of his life, and Harper Lee, whose post-Mockingbird silence should be enough to canonize her, the patron saint of not-artists of any discipline.
Not a problem for us fakes. We can keep going for a long, long time.

So, my dear reader, take it easy--I am not quitting anytime until, well, you know!


Friday, August 22, 2014

What the hell is happening in Pakistan?

I suppose it is a curse that some families and countries face--just when everything seems settled, they create new problems on their own and it is crisis all over again.

After decades of turbulence, for all the right and wrong reasons, for the first time ever a democratically elected government completed a full term in office and handed over power to another democratically elected government.  Marking that historic transition, I blogged (which later morphed into an op-ed):
Let us hope that this third attempt will help strengthen democracy in Pakistan, and usher in peace and prosperity to the hundreds of millions of Pakistanis who have been patiently waiting for better days.
But, apparently the politicians decided otherwise.

Despite his deep-rooted Hindu nationalist politics, the newly elected Narendra Modi invited to his inauguration Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.  It provided hope that the siblings could perhaps finally work out a truce.

That was in May.  

"What a difference a day makes" sang Dinah Washington.  Pakistan set out to prove that a lot more can happen in a hundred days!

Pakistan's former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, writes that Pakistan risks anarchy with its obsession over India:
Sharif’s participation in Modi’s inauguration was billed as the first time a Pakistani prime minister had attended such celebrations in India – an opportunity for laying foundations of a new relationship between India and Pakistan. The prospect of a new beginning, however, was soon undermined by incidents of firing along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.
Haqqani reminds us that the original idea was very different:
Soon after independence, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had said that he expected India and Pakistan to live alongside each other like Canada and the United States. But as long as Pakistan’s establishment continues to paint India as an existential threat and a permanent enemy in the minds of its people, no Pakistani leader –civilian or military –can embrace the Canada-US model. For now, the two sides will maintain their well-worn pattern of diplomatic engagement interspersed with periods of intense hostility.
The firings across the LoC rubbed Modi the wrong way, and he called off the talks after Pakistan's ambassador to India held talks with leaders of separatists in Kashmir.  It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that such a meeting will not win brownie points with India's government and, yet, Pakistan went ahead with it?

If that is the case across the border, well, it is worse within the borders!  The former opening blower superstar, Imran Khan, is leading the offense against the government:
Khan, a famed cricketer-turned-politician, and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have led massive protests from the eastern city of Lahore to the gates of parliament in Islamabad to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
Caption at the source:
Supporters of Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan attend an anti-government protest
in front of the Parliament building in Islamabad.
Across the border, India canceled the high level talks.  Within the borders, it is no different:
"I have suspended the talks with the government," Khan said. He warned that his supporters would storm the prime minister's office if authorities launched any crackdown. It was not immediately clear if Qadri was also pulling out of the talks.
Because the US government issued a statement reminding everybody that Sharif heads a democratically elected government, Imran, as he is known, is pissed off at the US:
"You like only those governments in Muslim countries that are your slaves," Mr. Khan said in remarks directed at the U.S. "Is there another democracy for you, and another for us?"
This commentary in the Financial Times ends noting that:
In his third term, Mr Sharif has failed to restore the economy to health or end the electricity shortages Pakistanis so detest in the heat of summer. But the government has been in power for only 15 months, and even if Mr Sharif is removed from office, it may not be Mr Khan who replaces him. He may have made his move a year too soon. 
"He may have made his move a year too soon."  That's all there is to such irresponsible political leaders.  In other words, it is a big "fuck you" to the 200 million Pakistanis.  What a curse!

We are all responsible for the drought in California?

Cogito, ergo sum is one that has been a wonderful guiding philosophy for me ever since I came across that.  (No, it was not in a Latin class, my friend!)  I often remark to students that education is all about thinking.  Thinking almost always challenges out gut instincts, which will not only make us a tad uncomfortable but force us to view the world in completely different ways.

But then thinking is hard work.  When students parrot statements condemning GMO food, or WalMart, or even the virtues of locavore as helping the local economy, it worries me very little.  They are, after all, in the process of figuring out how to think through.  I then prompt them with questions.  It is like the typical response we all received from our mothers throughout most of our childhood: "what were you thinking?" but without the judgmental tone.  Hmmm..., and then I wonder why enrollment in my classes has been on a decline! ;)

When I came across a Facebook comment, made perhaps in a lighter vein, that the ice-bucket-challenge was a waste of water, I was tempted to point out that the ice-bucket-challenge was a mere, ahem, drop in the ocean of wastage.  But, I did not, because Facebook is not really about serious discussions.  I have my blog for that! ;) provides a logical way to think through how we use water, and compares it with the gallon used in the ice-bucket-challenge:


The Slate piece that the chart is based on is not about the ice-bucket itself but a related water story--on how so much bottled water is exported out of California, which has been experiencing a terrible drought.
On Monday, Mother Jones produced this set of viral maps showing that most of the country’s bottled water comes from California, which just so happens to be in the midst of an epic, soul-crushing drought.
Barring a tropical storm or other variety of apocalypse, there is really no reason to ever buy bottled water. Bottled water is expensive, and it’s wasteful. But truthfully, exporting bottled water across state lines contributes an incredibly tiny amount to California’s annual water loss. You should never buy bottled water, but it’s because of the plastic, not because it’s making California’s drought worse.
Our gut instincts might tell us that exporting water from a state that has a serious water shortage is the worst thing Californians can do.  Which is where our gut instincts are wrong.  Not because exporting bottled water is wrong--it is wrong because of the plastic, as the article notes, and not because of the water itself.  What is the reality that challenges our gut instincts?
According to the bottled water industry, Americans consume about 30 gallons of bottled water per capita, each year. That may sound like a lot, but you’d do more to stem California’s drought by forgoing a single glass of Napa Valley wine or a single slice of Central Valley cheese. Skipping a single car wash would save more water than two people buy in bottles each year. But here’s the kicker: A single steak dinner uses as much water as almost a lifetime (61½ years’ worth, to be exact) of drinking bottled water. Animal products use so much water mostly because of the inherent inefficiencies of growing hay or grain first, and then feeding it to the animals. Animals raised industrially (not on pasture) are even worse: It takes a lot of water to wash away all the poop that would otherwise just recharge the soil.
Imagine a scene in California: a lovely middle-aged couple having a steak dinner with two glasses of wine and a tomato salad.  And their table also has bottled water.  A typical environmentalist will point only to that bottled water as a crime against nature, when the reality is far from that.

As long as you are checking your "gut" regarding thinking, you might also want to check your real gut:
Since California’s agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water anyway, small changes in your diet can go a long way. And since a good chunk of the entire country’s food comes from California, that means you don’t have to be a local to make a difference.
Even if you are a vegetarian--good for your health and for the global environment--and are eating almonds and cheese from California, you have contributed to worsening the state's drought way more than a schmuck does drinking water that was bottled in the Golden State ;)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why the middle class doesn't buy Lululemon at WalMart

I am a university professor in the social sciences, and one who comes to political and economic issues mostly from the center-left.  However, unlike most people in those two camps, I do one thing quite frequently. And to many of  those people my action will certainly be offensive. Even unpardonable.

I have no problems going to WalMart and buying a few things there.  And to check my blood pressure too ;)

A few years ago, my daughter was shocked.  "But, I thought you hated WalMart?"

That was a long, long time ago.  And she had missed out on my evolution!

I disliked WalMart not because it was flooding the market with stuff that we really did not need.  It was just that a WalMart almost always immediately altered the spatial arrangement of various economic activities.  Smaller stores closed down, and the empty buildings were not only a waste but were also terrible eyesores.

But then I made my peace with it and continued to coexist.

Sometimes, even when I do not need to buy anything, as much as I might simply walk through the mall, I walk through a WalMart too.  Because, it gives me a feel for what the vast middle-class that lives on tight budgets purchase.  I get a sense of how a middle-class family with a couple of kids has to juggle the competing claims for the few dollars they have.

Over the past few months, it seemed like the crowds weren't there.  The store--the same one that I have been popping into for years--seemed less cluttered, and with fewer customers.  Some of that can be explained away by online shopping, perhaps.  But, the trend was no different at the other big box store--Target.  Could there be something?

Turns out that I was not imagining anything at all.

A couple of days ago, Slate reported with the following headline:
The Working Class Is Sinking and Dragging Walmart Down With It
Today, WSJ has this as the headline for a story on Target:
One Thing That’s Consistent at Target Lately: Fewer Customers 
If I didn't have students to interact with I might not have known about the middle-class reality.  Early in my teaching career, I was shocked to realize that most students in that class hadn't ever flown in a plane.  Not even once.  It was one hell of a reality-check for me.  Teaching at regional universities--in California and here in Oregon--I deal with demographics that are starkly different from the student population at the affluent private university where I was a graduate student.

Thus, I know students are serious about money when students tell me how relieved they are that there are no textbook expenses for my classes (though, I started going textbookless for pedagogical reasons and in order to make use of the rich materials that are for free on the web.)

And then there is the "other" America; here is a classic example--"Yoga participation grew 4.5% in 2013" but:
sales of yoga apparel were up 45%, according to Matt Powell, an analyst for SportsOneSource, a sporting-goods industry tracker.
"Everyone is wearing yoga pants, even people who aren't doing it," said Karen Score, the owner of Yoga Mandali, an independent yoga store in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Ms. Score, who also runs an adjoining yoga studio, is drawing up brochures for fall classes with the tag line: "Do you wear yoga pants? Why not try yoga?"
Lauren Wheeler-Woodburn estimates that she owns at least 25 pairs of yoga pants.
As a graduate student at the University of Southern California and social-media strategist, she says she wears them mostly every day, for class or to work, or just sitting at home lounging.
"I sound like the yoga pants version of a crazy cat lady," said Ms. Wheeler-Woodburn, who prefers Lululemon but dons other brands too.
Ahem, do you know how much those Lululemons cost?  No wonder she is a grad student at the same university where I earned my doctorate!

Just for the heck of it, I checked whether WalMart carries that brand.  
You guessed it correctly!
But, you can buy a yoga starter-kit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You’ll be safest in the middle

I could not resist the urge.
It was a golden opportunity.
I went for it.

This was the result:
I tell ya, it really doesn't take much to amuse me!

Of course, it is not always about groaners and fart jokes.  And, of course, I don't follow the Scientific American on Twitter for the fun of it, particularly jokes of that kind.  I go there for the real McCoy, like this one on statistics, which notes that "most of us are regularly fooled by the survivor bias."

That is in the monthly column, the title of which will easily explain why I am always drawn to it and its author, Michael Shermer: Skeptic.  It is a no-brainer that I should be a fan of that column, given that I am always questioning anything that my thinking skills allow me to.  (Yes, that skeptical approach lands me in trouble too!)

Back during my California years, a friend, who was openly atheistic in a highly politically and socially conservative setting, gave me as a gift one of Michael Shermer's books: How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science.  Another friend in that same group, who even attended the annual meeting of the Skeptics Society, had a couple of wonderful jokes about religion, like this one:
What is the difference between a religion and a cult?
One hundred years!
Ah, I digress, as I always do.

If only we had more skeptics around, and if only education--especially higher education--helped students think on their own and live productive and fun-filled lives as skeptics!

Perhaps we are a less thinking species than we "think" we are, and have more in common with the sheep, whose behavior we often point to as an example of lack of independent thought.  Or, perhaps, as this critic of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep notes in recalling his father's comment, our thought is that:
in medio tutissimus ibis

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My life as an exile. Am enjoying it though ;)

A few years ago, a senior faculty came to my office to talk with me. Not as a friend, not even as a colleague, but in his official capacity.  He  said that every institution has its own culture, and that there was a significant hallway culture where I was, and not working with that culture was how I ended up not socializing with my colleagues--including him, of course.

I certainly did not make him happy when I told him that slavery too was once a part of our culture, but that does not make slavery valid.  A few more exchanges, in which I was my calm discussing (not argumentative) self, and he left my office seemingly worse off in his moods than when he came to talk with me.

He wanted me to be a part of the community.  But, apparently he could not understand why I should differ from the groupthink.

A few months later, after reading an op-ed of mine, he emailed me:
Just as once you enjoyed exchanging ideas with your peers, couldn't this occur again? You have friends in the Division.  You can build from there.  In your conversation and writing, often your sense of humor triumphs over differences.  Your editorials likewise bridge ideologies.  Couldn't this happen in the Division as well?
What he failed to understand, perhaps because he did not want to accept it, is this: I had already been excommunicated and by his failure to speak against it, he was very much a part of the excommunication process.

It is a strange experience to be exiled even while being within.  Of course, things could be otherwise--with a welcoming atmosphere to discuss ideas, even when there is complete and total disagreement.  Or, I could have at least pretended to be a part of the community--but, I did not because, heck, I am too much an old-fashioned guy who loves Socrates as a role model.
Socrates turned himself into an outsider in his own city, but didn’t move to another. He became “átopos,” which meant “out of place,” but also “disturbing” and “perplexing.” Being átopos is crucial if you are to be a straight-talking philosopher, as Socrates was. There is in every community something that has to remain unsaid, unnamed, unuttered; and you signal your belonging to that community precisely by participating in the general silence. Revealing everything, “telling all,” is a foreigner’s job. Either because foreigners do not know the local cultural codes or because they are not bound to respect them, they can afford to be outspoken. To the extent, then, that philosophy is exposure of “everything,” especially of things no one wants to hear about, foreignness is highly necessary for its practice. The philosopher, at least the straight-talking kind, is bound to remain a metaphysical gypsy.
I could not, and cannot, be bothered with respecting the institutional culture when I did not agree with it.  An exile, thus, goes with the territory!
Socrates’ case is telling. Like few others he saw the philosopher’s need to uproot himself from his own community. Yet he refused to go into an actual exile himself, preferring instead a symbolic one. He lived in Athens as if he were a foreigner. This means that he practiced philosophy as a rather dangerous pursuit. Such a tightrope walking can never take you too far, especially when you, performing it with no safety net, make incessant fun of your audience.
Literally making fun of the audience, so to speak, is not one that I do all the time.  But, I do--only once in a while, though.  Like in this tweet from a few days ago:
All together, is it any wonder, then, that I have not gone far!  But, I could not tradeoff expressing my views on issues, even though I know well that there is a price to pay.

Truth-seeking and truth-telling are dangerous practices, especially with no safety net.  At least I have one net that has been holding me up.  I hope that net won't tear anytime soon ;)

Monday, August 18, 2014

For a good education, you need to have good teachers. But, that ain't me?

I can feel in me the seriousness, the urgency, of the upcoming academic year and the conference.  My senses are so focused that even when I took a break to play a few minutes of bridge, I was lethally there.  It is as if I knew exactly what the other hands were.  When we are focused, we see things--as simple as that.

A focus on intellectual and emotional preparation for the courses means that all of a sudden I see that essays are popping up from every direction for me to read, reflect, and, of course, blog about too.  But, the essays that I read today made me wonder why students are not enrolling in my classes even when I am doing exactly what those authors seem to describe as habits of a good teacher.

Exhibit I is from this essay in Slate, by William Deresiewicz, who is all over the thinking-circuit after his lengthy cover essay in The New Republic:
In class, you do not spend your time transcribing information. The proponents of distance learning are not incorrect to believe that lectures are usually an inferior form of instruction. That is why a significant portion of classes, at least, should be small enough to run as seminars. The purpose of a seminar is to enable your professor to model and shape the mental skills she’s trying to instill. She conducts a discussion about the material, but she doesn’t simply let you talk. She keeps the conversation focused. She challenges asser­tions, poses follow-up questions, forces students to elaborate their one-word answers or clarify their vague ones. She draws out the timid and humbles (gently) the self-assured. She welcomes and en­courages, but she also guides and pushes. She isn’t there to “answer questions,” at least not for the most part; she’s there to ask them.
This is exactly what I have been doing for years now, ever since it dawned on me that my role in the classroom is to help students explore and understand not via any monotonous lectures aided by fancy Powerpoint graphics but by asking questions and making them think. But, then I think of this one student, who perhaps articulated aloud what many think within, when she said something along the lines of "I know you want us to think about this and understand the importance, Dr. Khe, but I really don't care about the subject. I just want to get going with my life."  I was shocked at her brutal honesty, but much preferred that to complete nonchalance.

As I read this part of Deresiewicz's essay, I kept thinking to myself that, again, this is exactly what I do as an advisor:
 You do not talk to your students; you listen to them. You do not tell them what to do; you help them hear what they themselves are saying. You ask the kinds of questions that Lara Galinsky talks about as being im­portant at times of decision—those “why” questions that help peo­ple connect with what they care about. Most advisors just tell you what courses to take, a student at Brown remarked to me, but the best ones “help you to think in a different way about the choice.” As Harry R. Lewis suggests, a mentor looks for the questions behind the questions their advisees ask. “The most important job of the advisor,” he writes, “is to help students understand themselves, to face and take responsibility for their decisions, and to support and to free them to make choices that are at odds with the expectations others have for them.” 
A few years after a student had graduated, when we met again, I asked her during that lengthy chat how she decided to reveal to me, of all people, the problems that she was having with her boyfriend.  To her it was simple.  "You are a good listener" she said.

Finally, Deresiewicz writes this:
Great teachers, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus remark, are not bound by disciplinary ideas of what they’re allowed to say. They connect the material at hand, in a way that feels spacious and free, with anything to which it might be relevant. They connect it to ex­perience, and so they shed light on experience—on your experience. Just as great art gives you the feeling of being about “life”—about all of it at once—so does great teaching. The boundaries come down, and somehow you are thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, and instead of seeing things as separate parts, you see them as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the subject is.
That is precisely what I do too.   It is always about helping students see the connections, and to make sure they don't develop a tunnel vision of sorts of the world via some narrow disciplinary thought.  I am that way in the life outside the classroom too.  The other day, the friend asked me how my mind connected between two things and I told her that it just happens.  That is how I am wired, I think.  I even wrote an essay on this, back in 2005, in the context of the Honors Programs--click here to download that short essay and read it.

Which means, I, as a failing professor who cannot seem to bring in more than a couple of students to my classes is a living and breathing example of if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and even quacks like a duck, well, I ain't no duck!

It is one hell of a crappy reality, it seems.  But, am enjoying it; so, who cares!

Tomorrow, Exhibit II, after which you might treat me to a cup of delicious hemlock ;)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A walk is never, ever, simply a walk

Once bitten, twice shy.

So, I didn't go for a walk for two days!

Ok,I exaggerate ;)

When I approach the area where that mysterious bug got me, I move to the middle of the path in order to be as far as away from the vegetation as possible.  A few paces later, I return to the normal mode.

There is a curiosity in me to know what that bug was.  "This is no bee or wasp sting" was all the doctor said.  "But something venomous to have triggered such a reaction in your system.  You might want to watch out for another week or two for any systemic response" she added.  Perhaps she thought she was comforting me!

Once past that wild, wild zone, I was lost in my thoughts, as always.  The warm sun and the caressing breeze made me feel half my age.  The water looked lovely. The egret and the heron were patiently perched on dead wood.

I was distracted by a guy walking in the other direction waving out to me.  Out of sheer reflex, I waved back.  He was soon gone. He, too, had a hat on, and was bearded as well.  About my height and age.  Not from the old country--a white guy. For a few minutes I kept wondering who he was and whether I was supposed to know him and ought to have recognized him.

Soon, my mind drifted away into thinking about the upcoming conference.  I wondered whether I ought to prepare myself with a few groaners, like the one that Wendy at the checkout counter asked me the other day:
Is it ok to kiss a nun?
As long as you don't make a habit of it!
I smiled recalling that groaner.  It does not take much to amuse me.

Two women, much older than me, were walking on the other side, and one was cradling a small dog in her arms.  As I neared them, I could not resist the urge to wisecrack.

"That's not how you are supposed to walk the dog" I said.  And, of course, laughed.  Remember, it does not take much to amuse me!

They laughed.

When women laugh at the silly jokes that we men love, I always have a nagging feeling that when away from us they roll their eyes way up, more than how much a pre-teenage girl can, and make remarks like what Lynn Redgrave delivers in Gods and Monsters:
Oh, men!
Always pulling legs. Everything is comedy.
Oh, how very amusing.
How marvelously droll.
People passed by, and I passed a few. A guy with washboard abs jogged pushing a stroller that had two bottles in two cup-holders.  Cup-holders in strollers; only in America!

I felt my paunch jiggle as I quickened my pace.  I was reminded of Zits:

I chuckled.  Yes, it doesn't take much to amuse me!

And then that same bearded guy with a hat on.  I suppose he, too, was walking the entire loop.  He waved and I waved back.

"I like your editorials" he said.

"Oh, thanks."  I removed my hat.  So, that is how he knew me!

"You are the one who writes, right?"


"They are always very well written."

"Thanks so much."

We were back on respective paths.

I crossed the bridge to get to the home-stretch.

If ever I needed an incentive to keep going past Number 170, I could not have asked for anything better.

Am ready to tackle the bugs--the venomous people included!

I tell you, it's not fair. Damn it, it's not fair

As I get older, some of the finer details from the years past get fuzzy.  I don't mean I am imagining events and places--it is just that sometimes I am not sure about the contexts.  I guess it happens to all of us with aging--earlier than normal for some, and much later for a lucky few.

There is one that I am certain about--every time my father reads a collection that I put together from my blog-posts, he remarks, as if for the first time ever, that my narrations remind him of Somerset Maugham's storytelling, of the characters he portrays and the places he describes.  Of course, it is a parental duty to exaggerate a child's accomplishments, even if the child is an old man himself!

There is a reason, perhaps, that subconsciously I have been trying to follow Maugham's path--I read quite a few of his works when I was young.  And when I was older, too.

I loved Maugham's short stories in particular.  I was in Neyveli or in Madras or in Coimbatore, and hadn't been outside the country ever, and yet I was able to be in the very settings that Maugham described and interact with the characters that he so easily and vividly described.

There are many favorites of mine, and one of them I am blogging about today because it is past midsummer and I am beginning to worry that I have eased off way too much.  Perhaps I have not been enough of an ant, and like a grasshopper I enjoyed the summer without preparing for the seasons that follow.   Remember that old and familiar story of the ant and the grasshopper, from which we learnt about hard work and saving for the rainy day as the "moral of the story"?

This is where my memory begins to get fuzzy: did I read the short story in which Maugham played on this ant and the grasshopper theme because it was in the school curriculum, or was the story in the collection that father owned, or was it in an anthology that I had borrowed from the library?  Ah, when I was younger even such fine details were within grasp and now I am left to wonder forever!

It is not the aging, or being unable to recall the fine details, that I refer to in the title of this post, "I tell you, it's not fair. Damn it, it's not fair."  So, what's it about then?  Google for Somerset Maugham's short story in which he plays on the ant and the grasshopper fable and read it for yourself and you will also chime in with, "I tell you, it's not fair. Damn it, it's not fair."  Or, maybe you want the story to be read to you, while you lie on your hammock and enjoy the summer, you lazy grasshopper!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Is the fateful day just around the corner?

Even after having authored 169 op-ed essays over the years--yes, I counted them a few minutes ago--there is a worry in the back of my mind: what if there is nothing more in me to write about?

This worry is not anything new.  It has been the case for a long time now, though I am not certain when exactly this emotion kicked in.  It is a terrible nightmare.  A nightmare of my own creation, no doubt.  But, it comes up, especially soon after an op-ed is published.

Dreading about failure is not unique to me by any means.  And to write about such a fear is also a typical approach that writers take, I would think.  It is cathartic. Further, if we lower our bars ourselves, then we come out looking good if we do produce something, right? ;)
failure in writing is more of an intimately crushing day-to-day thing. O.K., minute-to-minute. Measured against your ideal of yourself.
You see how that writer describes the failure as an intimate experience that is triggered by measuring "against your ideal of yourself" and yet she writes about it for the entire world?  I tell ya, such public cleansing avoids what would otherwise be a huge expense of gazillions of dollars that we don't have on shrinks!

When I started going down this path of a lowly-paid faculty who wanted to write op-eds, I used to send copies for my father to read--after all, the op-eds are on topics that would interest him too.  Once he asked me how much I got paid for the op-eds, and was shocked to hear me tell him that there was no money involved.  But, hey, there are things we do in life for money, and then there are things we do in life.  If writing is what we do, then writing is what we do whether we get paid nor not, and whether we succeed or fail.
As you get older, rest assured, you accept failure as part of your writing life. You realize the many forms failure can take: There is sentence-to-sentence failure, in which the words fly from your brain out the window or throw themselves on the page like suicide bombers. There is the failure to get on the page what is in your head. There is a failure of will. There is organizational failure, in which you wind up collapsing.
You develop strategies to deal with it all. You develop a kind of sixth sense, a detective’s intuition about what will fail and what won’t. But above all, no matter how much you fail, you still sit down at your computer every day, and you keep going.
Exactly!  It is every single day at the computer reading, blogging, and then every once in a while piecing together an op-ed.  And then worrying that the well has dried up.

But, hey, at least my writing makes sense--even if only occasionally!

BTW, one more round of editing and I will email #170 to the editor. Phew; apparently not this corner! ;)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Neither you nor I is an academic ... if you understand this post!

For a couple of years, the late Denis Dutton, who founded one of my favorite websites ever and one which I religiously check every single day, ran a bad writing contest.  No, you did not write in order to win this championship--I would think that Dutton and his colleagues would have had one hell of a challenge choosing from the bad writing that was in plenty in the academic world.

Consider the following "winner," for instance:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Whereas Renee Zellweger's character in Jerry Maguire famously said, "you had me at hello," chances are pretty good that you did not even read through the "winning" sentence because it had you, I mean had you, at "The move from a structuralist account."

While that sentence, my dear reader, is an extreme, most academic writing is similarly beyond comprehension.  I have always suspected that academics write after a few glasses of wine, and the reviewers and editors read those essays after consuming a few bottles of wine.  There is no way, otherwise, those kind of sentences will ever, ever, end up in print.  Even worse that some even talk that way in conversations and at meetings!

Imagine the horrors when faculty expect students to learn to write like how they do.  Guess what?  That horror happens term after term, in college after college.  Should not surprise, therefore, that at the end of the undergraduate program graduating students come across as even worse off than how they were as mere high school graduates?

The author of this essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education asks, "how many professionals these days, apart from actual academics, write in an academic style?"  Nobody.  Therefore:
The fact that they’re students, and that they’re operating in an academic environment, does not make them academics. Nor will more than a fraction of them go on to become academics, thank goodness. The overwhelming majority won’t be writing academic prose in their professional lives, so why should we be teaching it to them in college, much less high school?
That indoctrination to academic writing is part and parcel of what appears to be the only goal that most faculty have, which is to replicate themselves.  Thus, they actively sell the subjects they teach and try to convert as many students as possible to their own fields of study--the "majors"--and teach students how to think and write the way they do.  Awful.  Simply awful!

I am sure that my colleagues who read my self-evaluation report would not have been pleased with the following sentences (among many others) that I had there:
My approach to teaching has always been about helping students understand the world, and not by any means to impress them with my fluency with the academic jargon, and not to recruit them into majoring or minoring in Geography either. My goal in teaching is to develop in students a commitment to, and an interest in, learning in ways that I hope will also become a lifelong pursuit.
Thus, if ever a student wrote papers with sentences that even remotely resembled that "winning" sentence, my favorite comment on the margin of the paper is this: "what are you trying to say?"

Is it any wonder then that my colleagues do not consider me to be "academic" enough!

ps: one of my exciting moments was when Denis Dutton commented at my blog.  Yes, he did!  I cannot thank him enough for Arts and Letters Daily.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

All in a day's life!

Out on the path, I noticed that I was catching up on a much older neighbor.  At a curve, when she stopped to look at a bird, she saw me.  She waited, and as I reached that spot, she said "may I join you until the bridge?"

It is a different culture here.  In the old country, I cannot imagine a "may I ...?" from another person, especially one who is much older.

"Of course.  Will be my pleasure" I replied.  I meant it.  I knew we would talk about France and the Dordogne, and her daughter's family, and her blueberry cobbler that was heavenly and divine.  We did.

"Speaking of France, did you catch the movie?" I asked her.

"Oh, wasn't it lovely!" she exclaimed.  And then came the thought to her that neither she nor I had referred to the movie by the title.  "You mean The Hundred-Foot Journey, right?"

I knew fully well that it was not my place right then to analyze the movie.  I did not want to tell her that I didn't find it to be lovely.  But then I am not into bullshitting either.  So, I focused on what really caught my attention.

"The part of France they showed was gorgeous.  And it reminded me so much of the old towns by the Dordogne."

"I understand the place is called Saint-Antoine" she said.  I made a mental note to Google it myself!

We were about a minute away from the bridge when I felt a sharp prick on my calf.  "Ouch!" I jumped.  "Looks like a damn bee or something got me."

"Like any animal, maybe you can also put your saliva on it" she suggested.  I did.

"You are not allergic to bee stings, are you?"  Thankfully not.

We went our separate ways.  Every once in a while, I stopped to examine my calf, which was slowly swelling up.  And itching.

I reached home.
I got into the car to run errands.

It was a gorgeous evening, with gathering dark clouds and a wonderful breeze.  I opened the sunroof. I thought an insect stung me.  I decided I was imagining things after that bee sting.

As I continued to drive, I felt another nasty one. And another. I could now feel the bumps on my hand. On my back.   I did not want to take my focus away from the road and my driving.

I reached the parking lot, and rushed out of the vehicle. I removed my t-shirt, stood topless and examined myself. And shook the shirt a few times. I examined the car seat.

Quite a spectacle I would have been--a middle-aged, gray and bald guy, topless, waving his t-shirt around like a mad man.

But, a man has got to do what a man has got to do.  After all, it is life in the wild, wild, west! ;)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

There is no finish to a war

I know of only one way to fight, whether at workplace or in geopolitics--civil disobedience.  Thanks to Gandhi, of course.  And the older I get, the more I turn away from violence.  

Thus, these days, this news junkie finds very little to be enthused about.

We are far from Gandhi's pacifism.  What a horrible spring and summer it has been in this year alone.  It is almost as if we humans decided that we will not rest until we completely nuke away the "peace dividend" that we thought was possible when the Soviet empire collapsed and the Cold War ended.

It appears that we have forgotten that, as Hemingway put it, war is hell.  He wrote in A Farewell to Arms:
"There is nothing as bad as war. ... When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy.  There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them the war is made"
"I know it is bad but we must finish it."
"It doesn't finish.  There is no finish to a war."
"Yes there is."
Passini shook his head.
"War is not won by victory. ...
Yet, we continue with wars. There certainly seems no finish.

The following, which Einstein said in the context of nuclear weapons, is applicable to the non-nuclear kind too:
We cannot desist from warning, and warning again, we cannot and should not slacken in our efforts to make the nations of the world, and especially their governments, aware of the unspeakable disaster they are certain to provoke unless they change their attitude toward each other and toward the task of shaping the future.
Even Japan, a country that renounced war, in favor of peace, right in its constitution, has eased up on that and now encourages exports of weapons.  We humans are, perhaps, doomed to live as the most violent animals until we cause our own extinction.

This piece at the New Yorker discusses, via a Hirohima survivor, a public-health hypothesis that
suggests that untended wartime trauma can move vertically and horizontally through individuals and families, morphing across years, decades, or even centuries.
All the more to worry that there is no finish to a war, right?
Sixty-nine years ago last week, a slender woman named Tomiko Shoji was struck and sent aloft by a bright white light. She’d just arrived at her secretarial job, at a tobacco factory, and was standing by the door when the flash occurred; the light’s source had a nickname, Little Boy, but it meant nothing to her at the time. She flew backward under the crushing force of the office door, passed out, and awoke with shards of glass in her head and an expanse of bodies around her—some dead, some alive but dazed, and many more, she soon found, floating “like charcoal” in nearby rivers. The nineteen-year-old climbed up and out of the shell of her younger self; she had survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Nearly seven decades later, Keni Sabath, Shoji’s youngest granddaughter, started to wonder: Had the bombing’s aftermath reshaped not just the psyche of her bachan (grandmother) but also, in ways both culturally and historically particular, her own?
The horrors of war!
In recent years, a growing body of scholarship has sought to better understand accounts like Shoji’s and Sabath’s through the framework of “trans-generational trauma,” which traces experiences of catastrophic loss across the span of a family or a community. A wide range of studies have examined evidence of “secondary trauma” in the children of Holocaust survivors, the wives of Vietnam veterans, and, more informally, in the families of U.S. veterans who’ve faced P.T.S.D. after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, a study on the wives of fifty-six traumatized war veterans in Croatia found that more than a third of the veterans’ wives met the criteria for secondary traumatic stress; often, this meant symptoms “similar to those present in directly traumatized persons: nightmares about the person who was directly traumatized, insomnia, loss of interest, irritability, chronic fatigue, and changes in self-perception, perception of one’s own life, and of other people.” More recently, speaking to Mac McClelland for an article on trauma in the families of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, the clinical psychologist Robert Motta said, “Trauma is really not something that happens to an individual.” Instead, he proposed, “Trauma is a contagious disease; it affects everyone that has close contact with a traumatized person.”
Wishing for peace is something we have been doing for thousands of years.  Perhaps every time we think we are getting close to achieving it, we humans decide to return to our old ways of killing.  I will leave it to Hemingway to explain why this happens:
"There is a class that controls a country that is stupid and does not realize anything and never can. That is why we have this war."
"Also they make money out of it."
I am guessing that the typical war-monger has never read Hemingway :(

Caption at the source:
MORA DE EBRO, Spain—Hemingway on the front lines with members of Gen. Enrique Lister’s Loyalist 5th Regiment
who were holding out against Gen. Franco's offensive, Nov. 5, 1937.
Update at 22:45 on Aug 14th:
Marine Cpl. Robert Richards, a medically retired combat veteran who was badly wounded in Afghanistan and later appeared in a controversial video urinating on dead Taliban insurgents, was found dead Wednesday night in his home in North Carolina. He was 28.
a sniper team led by Richards recorded a video on July 27, 2011, of him and other Marines urinating on the remains of Taliban fighters they had killed. It was never intended to be seen by the public, but Richards later said that the Marine who owned the camera stepped on an IED a couple weeks afterward, and it ended up in the hands of another Marine in the unit. It was posted online, causing an international uproar that led to eight Marines facing discipline.
In an exclusive 90-minute interview with this reporter for Marine Corps Times in September 2013, Richards acknowledged intense struggles with post-traumatic stress and night terrors afterward, and taking a variety of medications to deal with it. In one ugly night in Florida, he said he was caught off-guard by a celebration involving replica cannons being fired, and fired a pistol in his hotel room while his wife, Raechel, was present. He thought he was under attack, he said.
There is no finish to a war :(

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