Tuesday, September 30, 2014

So, the Hindu fundamentalist leader made it to Times Square ...

When I read the news that there would be a big event at Madison Square Garden where India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, would speak, I was reminded of Barack Obama in Germany when he was the presidential candidate.  Remember that?  I thought that was bizarre.   Now, Modi in Madison Square Garden?

Here is Shikha Dalmia:
... quiet gestures were not enough for Modi who has the autocrat's instinct to be the star attraction. His gaudy displays—literally unprecedented for visiting leaders—are not merely unbecoming. They are also deeply disturbing, because they highlight Modi's need for self-aggrandizement. 
Yes, self-aggrandizement.  Well put!
His fans should save their adulation till he shows real signs that he isn't planning to run the Indian economy like his personal fiefdom—but then such a man wouldn't court their adulation, would he?

I wish we knew how many of the Modi maniacs at Times Square were not Hindus.  I.e., was it an Indian-American rah-rah rally or was it a Hindu-Indian-American rally?  We will never know.

But, there is a proxy measure for the presence of the Modi maniacs at Times Square.  The same hooligan mentality that the underlies Modi's Hindu fundamentalists in India was apparently on full display at Times Square too:
Standing outside Madison Square Garden on Sunday, ahead of a rally for India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, the Indian television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai reminded viewers back home that the New York arena had been the site for many famous events, including "Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier.”
Within minutes, after a crowd of Modi supporters had turned on him — apparently because of his failure to share their enthusiasm for Mr. Modi — Mr. Sardesai found himself in a strange clash of his own, exchanging pushes, insults and misdirected slaps with a man who had harassed him during his live report.
Yes, the anger because a prominent news person from India wasn't all pumped up for the big man and was, instead, doing what he was supposed to be doing, which was to provide his commentary, even if his views are not considered objective and neutral--at least according to the Modi maniacs.

This tweet embedded in that report says a lot:
The mob is comprised of, gasp, Indian-Americans!  And notice the "Saffron" colored shirts in the mob?

The tweet-conversations here add even more evidence that the Modi maniacs are well established in this country.  I wish my government could deport them back to the provincial backwaters from where they came.

Meanwhile, back in the part of the old country where Modi flexed his Hindu fundamentalist muscles:
 The police have made hundreds of arrests in the past several days in an attempt to stop religious riots in the Indian city of Vadodara, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.  So far, the violence has been confined to stabbings and the torching of around a dozen vehicles, D.J. Patel, a senior police official in Vadodara, said on Monday. 
As Forrest Gump said, "stupid is as stupid does."

Monday, September 29, 2014

If this is how academe approaches income inequality ... game over!

An email to faculty, from a "comrade," opened with:
Colleagues: Please help raise the critical consciousness of students and others by recommending two outstanding books: 1) Donald Barlett, James Steele, The Betrayal of the American Dream; 2) Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.  
Every once in a while the brain works and I recalled reading reviews of that first book, especially in the NY Times.  (Even normally I care very little for Naomi Klein, who is way too shrill an ideologue for my preferences, even when she addresses issues that worry me too.)

So, of course, the nerd then did a quick google search and located the NY Times piece, and more.

Catherine Rampell, whom I have quoted many times in this blog--and, btw, I am unhappy that she ditched the Times in favor of a columnist gig at WaPo--leads her review with these sentences:
There are two major flaws in “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” a new book about the dismantling of the middle class. The first is its diagnosis of what’s causing the country’s economic troubles. The second is its prescriptions.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? ;)

Rampell's follow-up sentence is a classic:
At least it got the symptoms right.

If a relatively centrist Rampell takes that tone, I wondered how the WSJ reacted to it.  Thanks to Google, no problems tracking that down either.  This review, too, makes clear right with the opening sentences:
Beware of investigative reporters offering economic analysis. There will usually be a conspiracy theory lurking somewhere. A serious study of economics—macroeconomics especially—doesn't mate well with conspiracy theories.
This surely will not lead to any huge applause for the book, right?
Don't look for any answers to that problem in this book, because they aren't there. But, yes, it probably will sell well.
Above and beyond these reviews and the book itself, a couple of points stand out.  One, isn't it interesting that academics are getting excited that a book by investigative reporters at Vanity Fair will raise critical consciousness?  If academe is about critical thinking, and the great scholarship that ensues will lead to a lot more nuanced understanding, then shouldn't the route be via academic books authored by professors?  Could it be that those books rarely do any damn thing outside of graduate seminars because, well, academic writing stinks?

As many of my posts suggest, and much to Ramesh's annoyance, I am deeply concerned by the widening income and wealth inequalities, and the increasingly bleak outlook for those who didn't choose their parents well.  When academics want to discuss these issues, then shouldn't the book to raise that consciousness be via reading and discussing the much acclaimed work of Thomas Piketty, who has earned the respect even of those who disagree with his interpretations?  Especially when Piketty is zeitgeist and the recommended books are from a couple of years ago!  Or even  the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz in conversation with John Stewart!

I worry that this is merely the latest in the long running degradation of academic discourse, which has slipped into an ideological trash-talk mode that, unfortunately, the impressionable undergrads will believe to be the truth because of their uncritical faith in their favorite and popular professors.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

That awful stink? Academic writing!

I am addicted to reading and thinking.  Which is why even as I was getting ready for a full day of meetings and talks, I had to create a "me time" early in the morning, before the activities began, when I could read.

One of the essays I read was Steven Pinker's "Why academics stink at writing."

And then tweeted about it ;)

Of course I liked that essay, for the question that was being tackled there and because of the author too.  After all, it was only slightly more than a month ago that I had even included a video of a talk by Pinker, and the talk was on the godawful academic writing that I was complaining about.  Well, something that I have been complaining about ever since I realized in the early years of graduate school that I had no clue how to write.

Pinker notes there:
The most popular answer inside the academy is the self-serving one: Difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of our subject matter. Every human pastime—music, cooking, sports, art—develops an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to use a long-winded description every time they refer to a familiar concept in one another’s company. It would be tedious for a biologist to spell out the meaning of the term transcription factor every time she used it, and so we should not expect the tête-à-tête among professionals to be easily understood by amateurs.
But then consider the following example I had presented in that post:
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.
How can anybody possibly defend that writing, right?

I agree with Pinker that it is easy to be an awful writer, and that it takes a great deal of effort--for most of us--to be even remotely decent writers:
Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice.
Here is the craziest thing of all--most academics are not clueless that academic writing stinks.  Yet, they continue with this awful practice because, well, there is no penalty!  Where is the incentive for them to write well?  Thus, they are being "rational":
professionals may not bother with this costly self-­improvement if their profession doesn’t reward it. And by and large, academe does not. Few graduate programs teach writing. Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing.
I read.
I tweeted.
Attended committee meetings.
And then popped into a session where researchers were presenting their papers.

A student asked me how I ended up writing op-eds.  I referred him to the Steven Pinker essay.  "Google for 'academic writing stinks'" I told him.

I try.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Happy New Year!

"Hi ma, I wanted to wish you a happy new year.  Call me when you get this message. I am waiting for the plane--there is a delay."

It was hard to ignore this when it came from right behind me in the lounge.

I guessed it was the Rosh Hashanah greeting.

Happy new year, indeed.

We mark time in different ways.
Birthdays are our personalized new years, right?
There is the January 1st new year.
The Tamil New year.
The Islamic calendar.
Rosh Hashanah.
The academic new year.
A gazillion more "new years" all in the same year.  How about that!  Now, isn't that a simple measure of diversity on this planet!

So, why was I waiting in a lounge?  And what lounge was that?

An airport lounge, where I put in enough hours that would be qualify for time-and-a-half if I were to report for those many hours in a day at my office!

All because of a missed flight.

No, I didn't miss the connection because I was chasing after some redheads.

It was not my fault by any means. I swear, on the redhead sitting next to me ;)

The flight landed in SFO on schedule, but after taxiing, we had to wait a few minutes for a gate. We almost reached the gate, when the plane came to a stop.  "We are waiting for gate attendants" the voice said.  I imagined valets at the gate who would collect the keys from the pilot and then after everyone deplaned, the attendants take the plane for a quick spin!  Ah, my imaginary world is quite fascinating, at least to me.

A few minutes later, we turned around.  "We have been reassigned another gate."

We reached the new gate.  The jet-bridge inched closer and then stopped with a clear gap.  "The bridge is stuck and we will need to wait until they get a mechanic" the flight attendant announced.  The damn thing wouldn't retract either for us to deplane via the door/steps.

Many among us started getting fidgety.  The co-pilot tossed his bags on to the bridge and hopped over and kept going.  "Can I do that too?  I have only five minutes to get to my connection" a female passenger pleaded.  "Sorry. We have liabilities to worry about"

Finally, with a simple technology of a footbridge over the canyon, we were allowed to exit the plane.  I sprinted to the gate for my connection.  The door was closed--boarding had ended.  In the post-9/11 era, there is no opening the door once it is closed.  Through the window I could see the ground crew getting the tiny little plane ready for departure!

I was/am on my way to end one year, and to bring in a new year.  The term of the office I hold in the professional association expires with the annual meeting that will end on Saturday night.

Maybe getting stuck in the middle is merely the cosmos telling me that the old year will be over soon, and it will be a new year, again.

May you, also, have new beginnings!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When I'm 64 ... is not now, dammit!!!

"It is good to be working with you after a long time" she said.  "I haven't even seen you for quite a while."

With a nod and a smile, I said, "hey, when people yell at me to shut up, I figured I would rather keep doing other things."

"I thought you had retired or something."

I clutched at my heart a la Red Foxx.  "Retired?  I barely turned fifty a couple of months ago!"

I have to add this to the long running series (you can backtrack from this post) on people thinking that I am old and decrepit.

The balding head. along with the graying hair on top and on the face, and my fuddy-duddy ways convey to people that I am way older than my age.  The commenting duo make it clear that even my "doing it standing up" makes me old.

Proudly announcing some of the everyday aspects of life, for instance that I own a turntable and that I play LPs doesn't help, I suppose, when the youthful way is to listen to music blasting into one's ears via earbuds and headphones that are connected to smartphones.

What must this man do for people to immediately think that he is a dashingly handsome forty-year young fellow?

Shave the beard off?
Perhaps even get rid of the gray hair from the head, which means complete baldness.
Young I would be, but then, I would look like this:

How would I then pretend that I am thinking, if I didn't have a beard to stroke?
Or, how would I fake my frustrations if I didn't have hair on top to fake yank out?

Oh well.
It is what it is.
So be it.
Some day I will really be 64 anyway!

Monday, September 22, 2014

I became a time traveler when I read about Einstein's "Time Dilation"

The mortal that I am, I have worries in plenty.  It is difficult to put into practice the wonderful words of wisdom from the old country of centuries past:

शोकस्थानसहस्राणि दुःखस्थानशतानि च ।
दिवसे दिवसे मूढमाविशन्ति न पण्डितम् ॥
- महाभारत, अरण्य

Everyday there are thousand reasons to feel sad, hundred reasons to worry.
Such things only bother fools; not wise men.
Mahabharata, Aranya

A fool I am!  Let us see when I become wise ;)

When I decided that I needed a distraction from what seemed like a growing mountain of worries, oddly enough it was not poetry that I turned to.  It was not music that I played.  Instead, I moused over to the Scientific American website.  I suppose there is always that old math and science nerd in me!

Even more interesting was this: Scientific American did not let me down.
Experiments at a particle accelerator have confirmed the "time dilation" effect predicted by Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity
What a wonderful distraction to read about this!

The nerd was curious now.  At least two clocks will be needed to compare the slowing down, which means the question was simple: where was that second clock?
 the researchers used the Experimental Storage Ring, where high-speed particles are stored and studied at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for heavy-ion research in Darmstadt, Germany.
The scientists made the moving clock by accelerating lithium ions to one-third the speed of light. Then they measured a set of transitions within the lithium as electrons hopped between various energy levels. The frequency of the transitions served as the ‘ticking’ of the clock. Transitions within lithium ions that were not moving served as the stationary clock.
The researchers measured the time-dilation effect more precisely than in any previous study, including one published in 2007 by the same research group. “It’s nearly five times better than our old result, and 50 to 100 times better than any other method used by other people to measure relativistic time dilation,” says co-author Gerald Gwinner, a physicist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.
I have no idea what these people are talking about anymore.  The frequency of transitions serving as the ticking of a clock?  WTF!

But, that didn't stop me.  As an old Sanskrit couplet noted, the mind is the fastest mode of transport ever, and before I knew it, the mind had moved away from the website and was back in the old country.  I was a student talking and arguing physics with my old friend.

The worries are there, yes.  But, pleasant memories do help.

To live a life is, I suppose, to create enough pleasant memories that can sustain us through.  The third act of the drama of life is all that remains to create memories, and to overcome worries--which will only increase, I imagine.  I wonder what the future holds--if only the mind could travel into the future too!


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ebola or ALS? Which is an urgent "challenge"?

Four weeks ago, a friend "challenged" me with his ALS "ice bucket" video and I couldn't be bothered with that challenge.  As I wrote then,
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?
Since that post, Ebola has become even nastier that an entire country is shutting down:
Sierra Leone is holding a country-wide experiment: For three days, no one is allowed to leave their home.
It's part of the country's strategy for controlling the deadly Ebola virus. While people across Sierra Leone stay at home, teams of workers go door-to-door, educating the public about the disease.
The effort got its shaky start on Friday.
The streets were empty in the heart of Freetown, the capitol. The only sound came from a few street sweepers and a police van blasting a song from an old speaker.
The lyrics: "Ebola is real. It's a terrible disease, and there is no cure."
The United Nations has declared this iteration of the Ebola outbreak to be a "threat to international peace and security":
The council unanimously adopted a resolution calling on states to provide more resources to combat the outbreak.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned an emergency meeting of the council that the number of Ebola infections was doubling every three weeks.
More than 2,600 people have now died in the worst Ebola outbreak on record.
One columnist (I have lost track of that source) noted that more people have now died from this Ebola outbreak than from the events of 9/11, and called it Africa's 9/11 that should require global attention as much the collapse of the WTC towers did.

When such is the emergency, have you seen any "challenges" on Facebook regarding ebola, unlike with "the feel-good health story of the summer"?
The contrast between the Ice Bucket Challenge and this summer’s other major health story, the worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history, could not be more striking. While thousands of Americans soak themselves to benefit ALS research, Ebola has become a public-health catastrophe in West Africa, one of the world’s poorest regions. The virus kills up to 90% of its victims by interrupting the blood’s natural ability to clot, causing terrible bleeding and shutting down vital organs. 
While the following interpretation might be harsh, I unhesitatingly agree with it:
Ebola’s main victims – poor, black, African – are part of a demographic that, to put it mildly, is of little interest to mainstream America. Consider, for example, the different perspective on August’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which followed the police shooting of a young, unarmed black man. Surveys reveal that 80% of African-Americans thought the issue had raised important questions about race in the United States; only 44% of whites agreed.
So it should not be surprising that the $110 million that the Ice Bucket Challenge has already raised for ALS is almost 50% more than the US government has committed to fighting Ebola, despite public-health leaders’ pleas for funds. Maybe the ALS Association, which sponsored the Ice Bucket Challenge, would consider allocating a proportion of its money to help the effort to end the Ebola epidemic. Such a move would be unprecedented, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
If only all those who proudly showed off their ice-bucket videos will pitch in with making Ebola a priority, and match their contributions to ALS with comparable--or even higher--contributions to fighting Ebola!

Barack Obama announced the largest humanitarian deployment by America’s armed forces to fight an infectious disease. Saying that the epidemic “is not just a threat to regional security—it’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down”, the president began the process of sending some 3,000 American troops to set up treatment centres with 1,700 beds and to train local health workers.
A little late, yes.  But, as the old saying goes, better late than never.
 In August the World Health Organisation estimated that it would take nine months and cost $490m to contain Ebola. Now it reckons the cost has risen to over $1 billion. The longer the world prevaricates, the harder and costlier it will be to contain this outbreak.
The CDC USAID has linked its page to a list of organizations to which you can donate and help fight this outbreak.  I bypassed that and donated to Doctors Without Borders.

I challenge you to donate.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Question: Summarize in one word, "all talk and no shit"

Answer: Divestment.

As in fossil-fuels divestment.

This becomes yet another post on energy issues within the past few days, with the theme of Energiewende.

As much as I am in favor of consciously moving in the direction that is away from carbon, I get ticked off at the irresponsible and exaggerated claims from the uber-supporters and the uber-opponents of fossil fuels.  Bobby Jindal, whose state is a big time carbon-energy producer, wants to increase oil and gas extraction and, get this, accuses the President of--you may want to hold on to your chair before you read on:
On Monday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) told attendees at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on Monday that the Obama administration was comprised of "science deniers" because of its energy policies -- even as he downplayed the role of energy production in the problem of global warming.
Yes, an accusation coming from the same Jindal who wants schools to teach students creationism and intelligent design in science classes where evolution is taught!  Seriously, this guy is a President wannabe?  Oh well, if Reagan and Dubya could have been presidents, for two terms at that, then why not this moron!

Crap, this post is about divestment and I am digressing. And about the dogmatic stupidity of the uber-opponents of fossil fuels.  Beating up on Jindal should not be interesting ;)

In the brainwashed college environment where critical thinking has long been dead, it is easy for faculty and students to get all high and mighty about doing good for the world without ever pausing to reflect on how many roads to hell have been paved with good intentions.  One fine institution after another, in response to pressure from students and faculty, then makes a grand announcement about getting rid of coal stocks from its investment portfolio.  Hey, whatever pleases the mob, right?

What the maniacal mob doesn't realize is this: universities divesting from coal won't make a damn difference to the goal of tackling climate change.  It is wonderful feel good rhetoric, no doubt, even better than when beauty pageant contestants wish for world peace.

The president of Pomona College, who is a chemist by training, writes:
Feel-good measures that have no effect on actual greenhouse-gas production are a diversion from the critical actions we must take before it is too late.
Symbolic actions have their place. But at colleges and universities, our first goal is to educate students to be skeptical about simple claims and to weigh competing values. Then we encourage them to build on their values to make a difference in the world. That will be done most effectively in the area of climate change not by headline-grabbing divestment decisions at individual institutions, but by helping to build a coalition and elect public officials for whom climate change is a compelling and urgent issue.
While there are many efforts in higher education that seek to solve climate change, from trying to foster carbon neutrality to divesting from fossil-fuel companies, we must rethink how colleges are dealing with this issue because, frankly, we simply have not had much success in changing corporate policies, bending the stubborn will of politicians, or capturing the hearts and minds of most Americans.
Now is the time to move well beyond symbolism and ideologies and create a movement driven by young people. Decades from now, they will be able to look back with a sense of achievement (and relief) and see their results. Let’s get on with that important work.
Exactly!  Somebody give this man a big prize already.

But then it is easier for students and faculty to unthinkingly call for divestment in this age of lazy Facebook activism!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I am not alone ... in thinking that I don't want to live past 75

This is an awful time to blog about this topic, one might think.  I could even be accused of being insanely awful and insensitive: It has been only days since the friend's father passed away, and the treatment protocol for my mother's fracture after her fall is yet to be sorted out and, yet, I blog about this?

I would argue otherwise.  Such contexts are valuable opportunities to think about our own fragility and what we want to do with our lives, with how much ever useful time we have remaining.  During such crises, we have evidence right in front of us, unlike when one is happy vacationing in Tahiti.  The insane person is the one who contemplates about his own mortality when vacationing in a tropical paradise.

A couple of weeks ago, when everything was so well, during a conversation with cousins, they asked me when I started thinking about eating and living healthily.  "For almost twenty years, I would think" I told them.  We talked more about healthy lifestyles and I suggested that they think about advanced directives too.  After all, things can go bad at any age, at any minute.  Which is also when I told them that as far as I am concerned, I am on a twenty-five year countdown.

They were shocked.

But, to me, the shock is that most of the population don't seem to have thought about their own mortality and don't seem to have an idea of the ideal age they would want to die--with well thought out arguments.  How can that be!  We plan for retirement. We plan for vacations.  We even plan on where to go for a dinner with a few others.  We don't plan for our death, which is the only certain thing ever?

As I noted in this post, 75 seems like a wonderful age for me to call it quits:
I have experienced a good life, have seen quite a bit of this world, and have met a mix of good and bad people.  A quarter century more seems a luxury at this point.  And when that end comes, I look forward to a good death, without machines and tubes and chemicals to keep me "alive."
For that matter, as I wrote there, it is completely ok if the end happens today too.  What a wonderful life I have had!

It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise to read a lengthy essay in The Atlantic with a title that says it all: "Why I hope to die at 75."  The author, unlike me, is a somebody:
Ezekiel Emanuel is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
As I often remind myself, it is not what I say because the world cares about who says it--and I am a nobody ;)

So, what is Emanuel's logic?
Its specificity forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, the world. The deadline also forces each of us to ask whether our consumption is worth our contribution. As most of us learned in college during late-night bull sessions, these questions foster deep anxiety and discomfort. The specificity of 75 means we can no longer just continue to ignore them and maintain our easy, socially acceptable agnosticism. For me, 18 more years with which to wade through these questions is preferable to years of trying to hang on to every additional day and forget the psychic pain they bring up, while enduring the physical pain of an elongated dying process.
Seventy-five years is all I want to live.
No different from my own reasoning!  As I wrote in another post:
When we realize there is only a limited amount of time, we are then able to easily rank some as important and others are not worth even a tiny second of our lives.
If the latter, we stop caring for sports in which people get paid gazillions to entertain us. We stop caring for movies that are formulaic.  We don't care for unprofessional colleagues. We end marriages and we divorce. Life is way too short for these.
I would rather spend time, and money, on what truly matters.
Anyway, you don't want to know what I think, and would rather hear from Emanuel:
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.
Let me be clear about my wish. I’m neither asking for more time than is likely nor foreshortening my life. Today I am, as far as my physician and I know, very healthy, with no chronic illness. I just climbed Kilimanjaro with two of my nephews. So I am not talking about bargaining with God to live to 75 because I have a terminal illness.
Precisely!  I am way more of a health-obsessed guy than most other people who would want to live well into their old age.  As a student once joked, if I want to die at 75 then I should stop doing the healthy stuff and take up smoking instead!

Even as I healthily work towards that countdown, for now, like any mortal, all I want is for my mother to be on her feet soon.

And thus begins another academic year ...

After a record-breaking number of 90-plus degree highs on summer days, the temperature is beginning to cool down. No surprise, therefore, that while filling gas on my way to campus, the small talk at the pump was all about the summer heat and the drizzle that had started falling.

"The drops are getting bigger" the attendant said, to which from the other car came a reply, "I hope it rains well.  We need it."  All our heads nodded, in perfect unison.  I suppose no "real" Oregonian ever says anything against the rain.  After all, we know all too well that there is no green without the heavenly waters.

The little bit of rain and the clouds was a wonderful way to welcome in a new academic year.

Too bad the year always begins with meetings.
Dull and boring meetings.
Meetings where people pontificate.
Meetings where it is the same bullshit over and over again.

But then roses come with thorns.  The beautiful lotus is always in the most awful ponds.  Perhaps the ugly makes the beautiful that much more awesome.

I walked into my office and saw the roses--the cards I have received from students over the years.  If only I had had the sense to retain the ones from the early years of my career.  While I did appreciate getting them even when younger, it is with age that I have learnt to value and treasure them.  Especially in the era of email and Twitter, the handwritten thank-you notes are priceless.

To say thanks, with the deepest of sincerity, is not something that I knew when I was young.  The old country traditions did not even have a place for "thanks" in the interactions.  Now, when I visit with family and friends, and on occasions that merit a heartfelt thanks, I convey my thanks to them.  Once, after returning to Eugene, I mailed thank-you notes to my parents' neighbors who helped out when my parents came down with the flu.  I came to know later that those thank-you cards were the talk of the building for a few days.

I was walking back to the car when I heard my name being yelled.  Back in the old country, a gazillion male heads would have turned in response.  Here, there is perhaps no other Sriram within a hundred mile radius ;)

It was one of the roses from the past.

There couldn't be any better beginning to a new year.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Is my iPhone worth all the pollution in China?

The morning began with the sun rays gleaming in an odd yellowish hue.  A smoky day that would ruin my walk.

I hoped that the air would clear up, but it got worse.  Mid-afternoon, when I stepped out to get the mail, I yelled out to the neighbor across the street who was out on the porch: "stop smoking. It is killing me."

"Oh crap, I thought it was you" came the quick retort.

Another neighbor who was walking by chipped in with "it is Tim back there with his cigar.  His dog is even worse."

We laughed.

We could laugh about it because though the smoke--from the forest fires a few miles away--made our lives unpleasant, we knew it was temporary.  As the fires die down, and as the wind shifts, we will be back in paradise.

I attempted the walk, but gave up on that barely two minutes into it--inhaling the smoky air was putting a strain on my system.  If I cannot handle the little bit of smoke and particulate matter in the air for a day and have to even forego my favorite walk by the river, I cannot even begin to imagine the horror stories from China that I read about!
The environmental costs also are on display. The roads leading to Jizhong's mines, power plants and coal-preparation plants are covered in dust and soot, and large coal trucks drive in and out, kicking up debris.
Outside many of the company's compounds are plots of land where farmers grow apples, peanuts and corn to sell to local markets, and some landholders complain that the soot makes their crops unsalable.
"The ash from the power plant's chimneys is too much," said 67-year-old Yang Hexiao, who lives just outside a Jizhong power plant in Xingtai. "My clothes are covered in ash. The grain I dry on the roof is covered in ash."
I imagine myself traveling in Xingtai.  As I typically do when I travel, I will walk around the place observing people and things and taking photos and making mental notes.  Throughout all that, I will be breathing in the highly toxic air.  And might not ever come back alive!  (In that case, I bet quite a few of my colleagues will gladly pay for my trip to Xingtai ... hehehe!)

Are jobs worth all the destruction?  Do we love the latest iPhone and curved screen TVs and all other products from China so much that we don't care about the destruction, which is no exaggeration, to life and the natural environment there?

It is not Mandarin that we all need to learn, but one German word: Energiewende (pronounced in-ur-GEE-vend-uh)

Maybe one day I will be able to walk the streets of Xingtai without worrying about my lungs.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Energiewende is the zeitgeist word. No schadenfreude, please

What if globally we are at, or at least close to, that worst point along the environmental Kuznets Curve, and things could only get better from now on?

Of course, I could be--and for all I know--completely wrong.  But then, keep this in mind: Nobody. Knows. Anything.

We try to make order of the chaos that the world is by connecting the dots.  It is, however, to some extent like how we connect the celestial dots--the stars--and give them "shapes."  But, we could connect the stars differently and come up with completely different shapes, right?  Of course, I am using the stars analogy only for illustrative purposes--here on earth, we can confirm with the passing of time whether or not the shape that I create is wrong and whether somebody else's is correct.

I suppose I am connecting a few dots out of my optimism.  A wish that we might be on to a path of screwing up the natural environment a tad less, and make it better.

It all begins with the world's factory--China--where "environmental anxiety is spreading."
This growing anxiety is reflected in the rising frequency of environmental protests. In the past year, people have taken to the streets in cities throughout the country to protest the building of coal-fired power plants, chemical plants, oil refineries, waste incinerators, and the like. According to Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s political and legislative affairs committee, pollution is now the leading cause of social unrest in China.
Why this budding environmental consciousness now? The answer is simple: 2013 was, by any accounting, one horrific year for the environment. ...
China’s environment is a disaster. But by casting a bright light on the country’s severe pollution problems, the crises of the past year have stirred a greater environmental consciousness in the people. At the same time, they have spurred the country’s leaders to take more aggressive environmental action.
There is hope.

Meanwhile, the big European industrial power, Germany, continues to wage its seemingly lone war against climate change:
Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Many smaller countries are beating that, but Germany is by far the largest industrial power to reach that level in the modern era. It is more than twice the percentage in the United States.
The word the Germans use for their plan is starting to make its way into conversations elsewhere: energiewende, the energy transition.
Germany's efforts involve China too:
Germany’s relentless push into renewable energy has implications far beyond its shores. By creating huge demand for wind turbines and especially for solar panels, it has helped lure big Chinese manufacturers into the market, and that combination is driving down costs faster than almost anyone thought possible just a few years ago.
But, it does not mean that all is well.  There is a catch:
Much concern is focused on Germany's reliance on brown coal, which harms the environment more than other types of coal, for a secure and affordable power supply. Last year lignite was the single biggest source of German power, generating 25.8 percent, and it has risen every year since 2010.
Greenpeace says no other country in the world extracts and converts as much brown coal into electricity as Germany.
"Germany is making itself a laughing stock because it hasn't set limits on brown coal," said Greenpeace's Karsten Smid, who wants the government to say when it will phase it out.
These lignite-based power plants (which is why Germans were technical advisers for the industry in the town where I grew up) are needed because, more than anything else, the renewables are intermittent.

I am confident a majority on this planet are in a situation where we can echo this:
“Indeed, the German people are paying significant money,” said Markus Steigenberger, an analyst at Agora, the think tank. “But in Germany, we can afford this — we are a rich country. It’s a gift to the world.”
Germany is not the only rich country, right?  We can all afford to begin to afford to experiment with Energiewende (pronounced in-ur-GEE-vend-uh) and make it a century of carbon in other ways than merely burning it up:

Monday, September 15, 2014

I so want Scotland to break free. Jack the Union (Jack)!

I have never been to Scotland, and I doubt I will ever get there.  Despite all my longing for travel to far off places that have their own long and rich histories, that part of the world has never fascinated me enough to day dream about a Scottish lass.

I suppose there is one connection to Scotland that I can think of.  My accent.  No, not because the English I speak is as hard to understand as one spoken with the full-throated Scottish accent.  Apparently my accent is not the stereotypical Indian accent that people expect to hear.  Can't blame them when anything about me is far from stereotypical ;)  Once, at the end of a conference session, as I was exiting the room, another guy who was about my age said that my accent intrigued him.  "Obviously you are from India, but you seem to have picked up a Scottish accent too.  Did you live in Scotland for a while?"  He should know about Scottish accents--he said he was from Scotland.

So, there, that qualifies me to blog about Scotland!

I am all in support of an independent Scotland for a very simple reason.  We are so much wrapped up with the idea of globalization that we forget we are humans and we like, we love, identities.  Identities especially when there is a long and rich history of the peoples.  Economics--being materially well off--does matter to us, yes.  But, we seem to overlook that we do not live on bread alone.  There is a lot more than mere material satisfaction that makes us human.  Identity--religious, ethnic, linguistic, ... and often these are also intertwined.

Scotland is a prime example.  There are more in the queue: Basque, Catalonia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Kashmir, Balochistan, ... it is a long list.  You cannot convince them to stay put in whatever political union they are by merely offering economic arguments:
the economic arguments against independence seem not to be working — and may even be backfiring. I think I know why. Telling a Scot, “You can’t do this — if you do, terrible things will happen to you,” has been a losing negotiating strategy since time immemorial. If you went into a Glasgow pub tonight and said to the average Glaswegian, “If you down that beer, you’ll get your head kicked in,” he would react by draining his glass to the dregs and telling the barman, “Same again.”
No, it is not some crank basing it on the stereotype of a Scot who walks around drunk with whiskey.  Ok, it is a crank, but an accomplished intellectual, Niall Ferguson, who knows a thing or two about Scotland, and yet is baffled with the momentum that the "Yes" campaign has picked up:
With days remaining before the Scottish electorate votes on whether or not to remain in the United Kingdom, the result is too close to call.
Born in Glasgow, but having spent most of my life in England and America, I am rather baffled, too
Another Scotland-born author, who also now lives in the US, writes that "the idea of nationalism has also been redefined by this vote":
Foreign nationals who are resident, however, can vote. If you live in Scotland, you are taken to be part of the project that is Scotlandyou are taken to be Scottish. (This is a fairly well-established idea, culturally. When I offered work to anthologies of Scottish writing as an up-and-coming author, submissions were usually sought using a form of words along the lines of “if you are Scottish by birth, residence, or choice…”) This definition of national identityI would hope not an unfamiliar one to citizens of the great melting pothas been echoed in Scottish parliamentary efforts to produce a country which is now perceived by immigrants as being one of the more welcoming areas of the UKwhich is, admittedly, an increasingly racist entity. So a “Yes” vote isn’t a return to the SNP’s beliefs during the 1930sthe beliefs they’d like us to forgetwhich involved disturbing yearnings for an Aryan future. There is a tiny wild-eyed fringe of people who will vote “Yes” on a kind of racist autopilot, but they are a minority.The “No” vote largely reflects a secure type of Scottishness under a British umbrella, a fear that now is not the time to do something riskyfinancially or otherwiseand a lack of trust in Scotland’s available politicians. There is an ugly minority of “No” voters who are wedded to the brand of Unionism familiar to Northern Irelandthe one that’s about Empire supremacy and a feeling that rampant savages may overwhelm the white Protestant barricades at any moment. The “Yes” votersand I would be one of them if I could votemay detect also traces of post-Empire low self-esteem in the “No” camp.
Add me to that list of people who would love to watch the old British Empire get another kick in its ass. Er, make that "arse." ;)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What's in a name? Try Kim! Or, how about Venkataramasubramanian?

One of the many practical issues that a global village idiot like me has to deal with as we move away from the cultures and traditions in which we were raised is this: from reading a name, how do we know whether it is male or female?

I laugh now thinking about the months and years when I continued to be fresh-off-the-boat.  But, it was not easy then and was quite stressful.

The first was with a Kim.  As a political junkie, I had known that Kim is a common Korean last name.  But then there was also Kim Bassinger; how could a young man forget this Kim!  Yet, I was stumped when I had to address an application for financial support to a Kim "lastname."  I checked with my professor, Jim.  He politely said something like "I think it is a female and you might want to use Ms."

Years later, here in Oregon, as is my practice, I scanned through the rosters before the first day of classes, to check for any familiar names of students I might have had before and for names that could potentially stump me.  I walked into one of the classes and as they introduced myself I was checking off the names in my printout.  It turned out that the student with the name "Kym" was male!

Over the years, I have learnt to be careful with Robin and Pat and Taylor and Jordan--one can never assume the gender with those names.  But, these days life is getting more and more complicated as parents aim for creative names and spellings for their children.  There was a Michael, but a female student.

I have never had to wonder what people in an alien culture might think about names like mine.  I experienced that right from my first day in this adopted country of mine.

I do miss some old names.  A favorite from the old country was the multi-syllable Sivaramakrishnan.  In graduate school, my adviser once gave me a copy of a book authored by a Sivaramakrishnan and told me that he was not even going to attempt pronouncing the name.  He knew the author was a guy because of the bio on the book jacket!

Growing up in India, I was fascinated by a name: Zbigniew Brzezinski.  Now, with that kind of a name, it really does not matter if a male or a female answered the call--you just don't mess with a person walking around with that name and it is simply "Yes, ma'am. Uh, yes, sir. Uh, sorry. Yes!"

BTW, why so many Kims in Korea--like the recent golf winner Kim Hyo-Joo? (Quick, do you know if the name Kim Hyo-Joo is of a male or a female?  Keep in mind that the surname comes first.)
As in many other parts of the world, surnames were a rarity until the late Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). They remained the privilege of royals and a few aristocrats (yangban) only. Slaves and outcasts such as butchers, shamans and prostitutes, but also artisans, traders and monks, did not have the luxury of a family name. ... The stranger, in turn, acquired a noble surname.
As family names such as Lee and Kim were among those used by royalty in ancient Korea, they were preferred by provincial elites and, later, commoners when plumping for a last name.
What an interesting life I have lived, and you have also lived, so far away from our respective old traditions, right?

Thus ends the blog-post by this writer who was once formally referred to, during the ritualistic Hindu Brahminical ceremonies, as Venkataramasubramanian, which is definitely a testosterone-filled manly man's name! ;)

Don't know much about geography. Don't know much about, well, everything.

The Onion made fun of bloggers like me:
So, of course, here I am returning to my blog after a break of, gasp, two days!

BTW, if there is nobody to read a blogger's post, then does the blog post make that philosophical noise in the forest? ;)

Anyway, two months ago, I remarked on how much even the attention-paying few realize that yesterday's news becomes quickly forgotten:
We live in a world in which yesterday's news is not merely yesterday's news but feels like something that might have happened back in the Jurassic Age! 
Apparently, I was not the only one to think along those lines, though it does almost always feel that way in my world.  In today's paper, I read this commentary, where the author writes that "even dedicated news junkies are bound to tune things out" because of the sheer volume of events:
A look back at this year shows just how fickle the public’s attention can be. Several stories have peaked in the news, but no two have commanded the same peaks of attention at the same time.
Google Trends tracks how often people search for keywords — including those related to major events — all over the world. Back in March, the conflict in Ukraine grabbed the world’s attention, but it was largely forgotten when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared.
It wasn’t that the action in Ukraine or its global importance diminished, as we would see later in the year. Audiences and news organizations simply switched head space and resources to the other story.
Two stories could not claim the same peak of attention at the same time.
Then, in July, the fighting in Gaza ramped up along with its audience. But just as it was heading for a Google Trends peak as high as those of Ukraine and MH370, something else happened: the downing of another Malaysia Airlines jet in Ukraine. With two big stories developing simultaneously — the plane was shot down on the same day Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza — neither managed the heights of attention of Ukraine and MH370 earlier in the year.
Within weeks, however, attention shifted again. An outbreak of ebola in West Africa wiped almost everything else off the map. In August, there was another change. Ebola dropped well off its peak, as the crisis in Ferguson, Mo., began to capture eyes from around the world.
Then, as the Islamic State has advanced farther across Syria and Iraq and has committed horrific crimes, it has pulled readers and viewers away from ebola and other stories. Of course, none of this has any impact on whether the deaths from ebola are mounting (they are) or concern from public health officials is growing (it is).
Forget the "average" person.  What about the experts?  No, I am not referring to Thomas Friedman.  And, no, by experts I am not pointing to where John McCain drools.  I am referring to real experts like, well, me.  Hahaha!  Ok, seriously, what do the experts think?  Here is Dan Drezner, who has now started moonlighting at the Washington Post, opining that nobody knows anything:
Let me be blunt:  I didn’t expect a lot of this to go down in this fashion. After all, I’ve been relatively upbeat about global economic governance, and I was hopeful that as the developed economies recovered, so would their ability to tamp down geopolitical tensions.  Oops.
It has been one awful year. Just when it seemed like we were all settling into more peaceful and friendly ways, kaboom!

Drezner ends it with an important piece of advice:
when the world seems like an uncertain place and you’re looking for some guru to help explain what the world will look like in 2015, please remember:  Nobody. Knows. Anything.
If that is the case, then is it even worth following the news?

YES, DAMMIT!  Don't ever take your eyes off the world news.  Otherwise, the McCains and the Friedmans of the world will screw us even more than they have.

Ok, I exaggerated.  Ignore the world news.  Ignore the Onion.  READ THIS BLOG! ;)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hey college students: stop thinking--it might hurt you!

No, this post ain't about me; I have already said enough and, I bet, there will be more once the new academic year begins!

This is about, you know, those elite schools that supposedly uphold free speech.  Like, uh, at the very place that the "Free Speech Movement" was launched half a century ago--University of California.  Reason reports that Chancellor Nicholas Dirks recently sent a campus-wide email about free speech, but "with Orwellian doublespeak":
As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged, and debated. Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled. As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community's foundation.
In other words, better shut up if the free speech could be "divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings."  WTF, right?

And you thought only the likes of Putin will want to silence speech like that of Pussy Riot!

Meanwhile, a different kind of silencing of free speech across the continent, at the Ivy League university that was founded with wealth that was plundered from Madras (Chennai) and the rest of India.  You scratching your head about the university?  How could you?  And I thought you are one heck of a smart person!  Tsk, tsk, tsk!!!
Oh well ... on to the free speech story:
Representatives from 35 campus groups and student organizations have signed a letter drafted by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) that expresses concern over an event that is bringing a controversial speaker to campus.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali — a Somali-born American activist known for her women’s rights advocacy and critical remarks about Islam — is slated to give a lecture titled “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West” on Sep. 15 as part of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program speaker series. The daughter of a Somali politician and opposition leader, Hirsi Ali has publicly voiced criticism of practices such as female genital mutilation and has also voiced support for atheism and women’s rights. The MSA’s letter does not ask for a withdrawal of Hirsi Ali’s invitation, according to MSA board member Abrar Omeish ’17, but rather draws attention to her allegedly hurtful anti-Muslim statements and her lack of qualifications to speak broadly about Islam
Seriously?  Ayaan Hirsi Ali lacking qualifications to speak about Islam?  And the Pope is not Catholic?  And she might make "hurtful" statements?  WTF, right?  The following additional piece will make you laugh, if not for the fact that it is not from the Onion:
University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and Coordinator of Muslim Life Omer Bajwa issued a joint statement to the News in which they confirmed the University’s commitment to free expression but raised concerns over Hirsi Ali’s prior comments about Islam.
“We are deeply concerned … by Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s long record of disparaging, and arguably hateful, comments about Muslims and Islam,” the statement read. “To better represent the whole Yale community and its educational goals, we recommend the organizers consider actions to expand the event, such as allowing concerned students to present their perspectives or adding a scholarly voice to create a more nuanced conversation.”
We have become afraid of free speech not only when it comes to Islam or war or race or ... but even when a college student simply yells out of a window, "I hit it first."

Yes, re-read the following words: I hit it first.

Four words that landed that student in trouble. Not one charge, but five charges!  Right here at the university that is attached to the minor league football team called The Ducks:
On June 9, 2014, the female student in question was visiting with friends in UO’s Carson Hall dormitory. According to the student, looking out of the dormitory window, she spotted a male and female student walking together (she did not know either of them) and shouted “I hit it first” at them in jest. The female of the couple responded with two profanities and the couple reported the student’s comment to the Resident Assistant of the dorm. The Resident Assistant located the student and insisted that she apologize to the couple for her remark. The student readily obliged.
That did not end the matter, however. On June 13, the student was shocked to receive a “Notice of Allegation” letter charging her with five separate conduct violations for her four-word joke. In addition to dubious allegations of violating the residence hall’s noise and guest policies, UO charged the student with “[h]arassment,” “disruption,” and “[d]isorderly conduct.” 
Free speech, my ass!
Oops, did I say that?  Am I going to be in trouble for writing "my ass!"??? ;)

All the world's a stage. Internship required.

In the movie Today's Special, Aasif Mandvi's character is all set to go to France and work with a leading chef as a stage.  I got what stage meant because, in explaining to his father, the character made sure that idiots like me would also understand that French word--unpaid apprenticeship.

Or, as we refer to it in the world that I am familiar with, internship.

If ever students approach me with questions career planning, I tell them that starting with the summer after their second year of college they need to gain career experiences via internships.

But then it is a rare student who ever talks with me about those issues.  After all, I am a faculty who dishes out practical feedback, often via questions such as "why do you want to go to graduate school?" or "sure, the part-time job as a bouncer is fun now, but what about the longer term?"  I don't tell them "of course, you can do whatever you want" but instead remind them about the costs and benefits of their choices.

For the vast numbers who are not at elite universities, and even for some of those at the prestigious schools, internships are integral to landing that first full-time job.
One reason is a far larger graduate labour pool. In 1970 one in ten Americans over 25 had a bachelor’s degree; now a third do. That means jobseekers need an edge.
Yes, you see how this ties in to one of my favorite rants about the overproduction of college graduates, which in turn makes the diploma itself worthless, and drives up the importance of internships?  Ah, the complicated webs we weave into which the gullible youth are trapped!

Colleges and universities are often eager to promote internship for academic credit, but for the wrong reasons:
Another motive for American colleges and universities is that 90% offer academic credit for work placements, sometimes during term time. A growing number make an internship a condition of graduating for at least some courses. And students usually continue to pay fees while doing them. “For universities it’s really cheap money,” says Gina Neff, a professor of communication at the University of Washington. “They are getting tuition dollars and not having to spend instructional dollars.”
It is one heck of a racket!

If the higher education business can try to make a quick buck or two capitalizing on the internship, you think businesses that are out to make a buck or two will let the opportunity slide?
Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of unpaid internships has grown just as hiring has become riskier, pricier and more complex. In recent years anti-discrimination and unfair-dismissal rules have been tightened, and minimum wages raised, in many rich countries. The growing cost of benefits such as pensions, health care and maternity leave makes employees more expensive. Interns have therefore become an appealing alternative.
Think about it: Who is then watching out for the youth?

Decades ago, before the college-for-all mania, except in the creative arts professions, internships were meaningful and they paid.  Even when I was in graduate school.  In the creative arts professions like in the entertainment or fashion industry, well, abuse was the typical payment interns received.

This being America, where there is always somebody waiting to monetize anything, yes, there are agencies that promise students that they will get internships--for a fee.  If the price is right, then you too can become an intern!
Internships can even be bought. Washington has several organisations which promise to get students an internship for a fee. The largest is the Washington Centre, which has placed nearly 50,000 interns since 1975. It charges $6,200 for procuring a ten-week summer position (and offers housing for an extra $4,350). It says it has placed clients at the Treasury, the State Department and the White House. Dream Careers says it has sold more than 13,000 internships in firms from Standard & Poor’s to Moschino. Fees for its eight-week internships, including housing, start at $8,000.
All the world's a stage!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The (relatively) worthless college degree

This catchy tweet appeared in my newsfeed:

My first thought was this: I wrote an op-ed on this seven f*ing years ago!
college education serves as a filter for employers who are faced with the daunting task of selecting from among the many, many applicants for jobs. This further reinforces the notion that college degree is important.
I calmed myself down and tweeted using polite language:
It is the story of my life--it is not what you say but who says it!

Oh well, enough about woe-is-me and let us get going with the issue of, to borrow Catherine Rampbell's column title, "the college degree has become the new high school degree"
Regardless of what you actually learn in college, graduating from a four-year institution may broadcast that you have discipline, drive and stick-to-it-iveness. In plenty of jobs — such as I.T. help-desk positions — there is little to no difference in skill requirements between job ads requiring a degree and those that do not, Burning Glass found. But employers still prefer college graduates.
With college attendance more routine today it was than in the past, degrees are becoming a common, if blunt, tool for screening job applicants. In 2013, 33.6 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds had a BA, vs. 24.7 percent in 1995. Bachelor’s degrees are probably seen less as a gold star for those who have them than as a red flag for those who don’t. If you couldn’t be bothered to get a degree in this day and age, you must be lazy, unreliable or dumb.
That is no different from the arguments that I made seven f*ing years ago!  Crap, I am getting way too pissed off that we have been taking the youth and society for an expensive ride all these years.

Employers have figured out a cost-minimizing approach to the recruitment and training of young hires: use college degree as a filter to weed out those who could be "lazy, unreliable or dumb," and, on top of that, leave it to the youth to pick up job-skills at the college, instead of training them--even if the grads are hired only to be glorified secretaries.

We then mix up the data of students graduating from elite universities with students graduating from Podunk U., and brainwash the youth and society about higher education. For instance, in the following chart, do you see any small time public regional university?

It is f*ing insane that we don't ever engage in honest discussions on this important public policy issue, and instead try our best to distract everybody by touting college sports, climbing walls, and fancy dorms.

And then we wonder why we are graduating the most indebted generationever. Ever!
“As the transition to adulthood has protracted, and the costs of education have risen, young adults have shifted their credit use away from home mortgage debt and towards student loan and consumer debt”
On my part, I will continue with the full-disclosure with the students. Though, this means that it will only continue to worsen the enrollment issues and I will be writing my own professional pink slip--I can't thank tenure enough!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

A man does it standing up, a woman sitting down, and a dog on three legs

It was only after the event, when I analyzed within, that I was reminded of how much some practices that I systematically learnt have now simply become a part of who I am and my instinctive and reflexive behavior.

At the friend's place, another (female) friend was leaving and I automatically walked ahead and held the gate open.  A simple act, but one that provides me with enough and more to ponder about the world.

As I continued along this self-analysis (note to myself: stop analyzing!) I was reminded of my recent visit to India.  After a lunch meeting with high school friends, as we were exiting the building, I waited for the (female) friends to exit before I followed suit.  "Oh, a gentleman" one remarked with a smile.

Of course, like you and everybody else, I was not born with instructions such as holding the door open coded into my brain.  I learnt this behavior.  But not in the old country.  There, all I had observed during my growing up years was that women "followed" the men.  It was a less than equal treatment of women, which always made me highly uncomfortable and angry on many occasions.

Exiting the old country was not to lead a life of an Indian in a new setting.  Nor was it to ditch the old country and adopt a new persona.  It has, instead, been a glorious experiment to try to combine the best of the two worlds, and to avoid the worst in both. (Though, of course, some result in humorously awkward situations too, like this one.)  How I relate to women is, thus, a product of this cultural fusion.  The old country's traditions certainly did not teach me to hold the door for women.   

A couple of days ago, I was at a gathering with the friend.  We were sitting around the dining table.  A much older couple were leaving and as the woman neared me, I stood up to say bye to her.  "You don't have to stand" she said with a smile.

In the old country, I didn't know about the standing up either.  After all, back then women did not even sit and eat together with the males.  This is one of those that I picked up with living here and from the travels.

But, America is a strange place, too, with uber-casual interactions.  
My mother is big on politeness. Recently, before a long trip with my girlfriend’s family, she wrote me a letter outlining the things I should remember to do: stand up straight, hold open doors, and rise when ladies approach the table. “I could go on and on,” she wrote, wrapping things up. “Just please reread the etiquette book I got for you in highschool.”
I did not reread the etiquette book. I trust my own sense of decorum, particularly while on vacation; I’m good at vacations. I’m also a thirty-one year old financially independent human who has lived several time zones away from my mother for over a decade. But a short time after returning from that trip, my girlfriend and I moved from the city where we’d met and spent our entire professional, semi-adult lives, to a different one, across the county, and I wished I had reread it. I’ve come to realize that the thing about moving to a new city and meeting lots of strangers who might, eventually, become my friends—or people I have only interacted with on the internet but are kind of friends there—is that no one knows how to greet anyone anymore.
This is a uniquely American problem.
It certainly is uniquely American.

BTW, in all my life in the old country, I certainly did not know about what I am alluding to in the title of this post.  The title is nothing but a funny way in which I was once taught about etiquette.  The humor in that comes from when you ask somebody, "what does a man do standing up, a woman when sitting down, while a dog does when on three of its legs?"  Almost immediately we might smile thinking about peeing.  But, of course, that is only a trap--it is about shaking hands: a man stands up to shake hands but a woman does not have to.  And, of course, a dog extends its paw with its other legs on the ground.

Another day in my autoethnographic rumination! ;)

Monday, September 08, 2014

Money cannot buy you happiness. But a career in teaching can.

I critique education.
A lot.
I often blog, even scathingly and sarcastically, about teachers, especially in higher education.

But, through all that, I am sure readers--yes, I am referring to you--did not go away with a feeling that I hate education and teachers.  I am pretty confident that I managed to get across that there is nothing else but teaching that I would do, and that there is no other activity but the education part that I want to be involved with.

So why critique then?

Simple. I cherish teaching and education that much.
I want things to be even better than they are now, and every criticism is nothing but yet another pointer to how we could improve on the current conditions.

I used to say that teaching is a calling.  But then a few years ago when an uber-religious faculty colleague said that, I realized how much misleading it could be to refer to what I do as a "calling."  I suppose that by using the word "calling" I wanted to convey an idea that, at a fundamental level, while teaching is a profession, most of us are drawn to it not because of the economic incentives.  As I noted before, "the salary is almost a bonus, which I cannot live without."  It was a pleasure, thus, to read the following sentences in an otherwise controversial piece:
In many ways, education is a lousy business. Teachers are not normal economic actors; almost all of them work for less money than they might fetch in some other industry, given their skills and advanced degrees. Students are even weirder economic animals: Most of them would rather do something else with their time than sit in a room and learn algebra, even though the investment is well documented to pay off.
Those who want to earn truckloads of money know that the economic rewards are immensely greater when schooling for a Wall Street job, or a healthcare job, or a ... well, there are plenty of those types.

Society knows that too.  Which is why we in the teaching profession are respected way more than most of those in high income earning professions can even dream of.
From 1977 to 2009, the percent who thought teaching was a profession with “very great prestige” has gone from 29% to 51%. The graph below shows this percentages for teachers, and for comparison, athletes, bankers, and priests.
As you can see teachers have done relatively well. In fact, no other occupation in the survey has seen such an improvement in their public perception over this time-period. The next closest are engineer and business executive, which only have 36% and 23% reporting “very great prestige”, respectively, and have both only gone up 5% over time.
In addition to have prestige in the public’s eye, the evidence shows that teachers have an even higher public perception of their trustworthiness. As of 2013, a Gallup poll found “grade school teachers” were ranked third in terms of the percent of respondents who rated their honesty and ethical standards very high or high.  An impressive 70% of respondents rated teachers very high on this measure, which placed them under only nurses and pharmacists. Similarly, as of 2011, this Gallup poll showed “high school teachers” had 62% by the same measure. In contrast, clergy had 47%, police officers 54%, and the lowly journalist had 24%.
Many of my colleagues--I mean in the large context and not merely those who work at the same place I do--however overlook this exclusive club in which we belong.  To my horror, they complain forever that they are underpaid.  Of course it might seem like it is slave labor.  That has almost always been the case throughout history in most cultures.  But, it is also equally a consistent theme throughout history that teachers have been respected and revered.

Those responding to the "calling"--the clergy--are our real competitors for the respect ;)  In the pursuit of money and power, do we really want to compete, and slide down, to the ranks of athletes or Wall Street bankers?  Or, gasp, Congress?

The whiner teachers aside, at the end of day, most in the teaching profession are happy with their careers and lives:
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Princeton economist Angus Deaton have found that happiness does not increase with annual income after reaching the $75,000 mark. Unfortunately, most young people today don’t seem to understand this. When asked why they want to go to college, an all-time high of nearly 75% of incoming freshmen in 2012 said “to be able to make more money,” according to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.
A career in teaching may not rank high in the minds of most college students, especially those seeking big salaries. But all that may soon change if young people realize the real secret to a good life.
Teachers beat out investment bankers, consultants, accountants, engineers, sales professionals, and entrepreneurs on how they rate their lives overall.
So, a brief pause before I return to criticizing higher education and unprofessional colleagues ;)

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Unfinished business ... I want to meet with those who ragged me!

The friend remarked a few days ago about unfinished business in one's life.  I have always known that there is one in my life that I would like to square away.

It is from a particular incident, from years ago in the old country.

I was as an excited seventeen-year old who headed out all the way from Neyveli to Nagpur, to join the Visvesvaraya Regional College of Engineering (VRCE) as it was called then, which is now the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology.

The college had a lovely, spacious campus with trees and buildings woven together into a pleasing landscape.  Tea shops outside the college walls where students were hanging out was exactly the kind of ambiance I had pictured in my mind. 

A group of senior students, also from Tamil Nadu, treated my much older cousin—who was to help me with the travel and transition—and me very well, and I was confident that I had come to the right place.  I was having such a good time that all I could think was how friendly people were. 

My cousin had barely left for the railway station to return to Madras when one of the seniors suggested that I go with him.  He led me into a hostel room.  There were about seven or eight students sitting around an empty space in the middle.

Before I knew it, the seniors, who only about an hour earlier had been joking with me, turned out to be the dreaded raggers that I had often been warned about.  It was one of those “et tu, Brute” situations—I had no idea about the devils inside all the friendliness they displayed when my cousin was there. 

But, I had no time to analyze the situation as I was led to that empty space.  I was directed to strip down to nothing.  I remembered going to a physician to get his advice regarding a rash on my thigh, and sitting there with only my underwear on was, up until then, one of the most horrible experiences ever.  Now I was stark naked in front of strangers in a closed room.

I knelt down, as per the instructions, quite dazed, trying to figure out how to extricate myself from this situation.

Meanwhile, the group was getting impatient with me.  The guy who was closest to me--was his name Asokan?--slapped me hard over my left ear and repeated the instruction.  I was now even more shocked that I was being slapped for no fault of my own.   

There was no way I was going to carry out the orders--after all, I was the same guy who had tried, and continues to try, his best to resist authority.

Before I could process the instructions coming from all around, more slaps and more bizarre questions followed.  I was also made to understand that this was only the initial session and that there were quite a few more to follow. 

I endured one more day of this and then I packed up my stuff and left the college for good. 

After I returned home, a schoolmate, who even until today has no idea of the details, remarked that I could have easily handled the ragging, given that I was an avid reader of spy and war novels.   I wondered if the implicit understanding was that boys were expected to toughen up by reading stories where physical and mental tortures were the norm.  Or, was this remark a pathetic example of how our senses get dulled to such an extent that we fail to recognize acts of violence?

I have often wondered why I did not protest at the first minute itself.  Should I be ashamed that I did not stand up to them?  But then I remind myself that I was, after all, only seventeen.  Yes, way closer to seventeen than to eighteen. 

Every once in a while I think about those raggers.  Did they feel bad after I packed up and left?  Or did they laugh at how much a wimp I was, and that they were merely training me to be tough?  Did at least one among them feel a sense of remorse that they messed up my life?

I suppose there will always be a few humans who delight in causing misery to others.  It will be truly wonderful if the world were otherwise—where people exist not to harm but to help others.

That wonderful world surely did exist, in my mind, when I was a naïve and idealistic seventeen-year old.  And then it was slapped to pieces.  "All the king's horses and all the king's men | Couldn't put Humpty together again."

At the reunion, one of the classmates, Kishan, who was also at the same college for a brief while--a little longer than my stay--remarked, with laughter, to a few others who were standing around "ரகின்க்ல அவன் செம்ம அடி வாங்கினான்" (he was beaten up badly during the ragging) ... oddly enough, it was comforting to know that there was at least one person who knew about the violence.  But, it was, and is, absolutely creepy that he laughed about it :(

The reality is also that it does not take much to remind me about my experience.  Every minute of the day I feel the effect of ragging; the sharp stinging slap across my left ear apparently damaged the hearing mechanism.  A few years ago I started hearing chirping sounds from within my ear, and my physician said that those sounds are normally the first signs of hearing loss.  Now, my left ear is only about a third effective, and I can no longer locate the origin of the sound by triangulation, which means I sometimes end up looking in the wrong direction--a problem that, until now, I have been able to successfully camouflage in the classroom.

My doctor recommends that I consider wearing a hearing aid if I want to overcome that hearing loss, and I guess it is my vanity that prevents me from doing that.  I ask myself, well, if I can wear glasses for my eyes, then why not a device for my left ear, more so when the hearing loss was inflicted by somebody else? 

I would like to meet with those few, who will be middle-aged parents of children perhaps about the age that I was when they beat and tortured me.
I don't want them to apologize--I don't care for that, and never have.
I want to find out from them what they were thinking when they did what they did.
I want to know what they were thinking when they were informed that I had quit the college because of their actions.
I want to know whether they continued to rag students during the rest of their college lives.
I want to know whether they have thought about these in the decades since then.

A very strange piece of unfinished business, yes.

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