Sunday, November 30, 2014

Finding our place in this world, far away from the IIT and Ivy League

When I was in high school, India was a long, long way from becoming the world's call center.  After all, telephones were a luxury back then.  In that old India, professional opportunities were scarce and, thus, most kids who were academically smart were encouraged, pushed, and even shoved into engineering or medical colleges.

I didn't need teachers or parents to tell me that I had enough and more in me to get into the prestigious IIT, for which there was an entrance exam.  Though, there was one--and only occasion--when my father commented, indirectly, by drawing on the story of Hanuman.

In the Hindu mythology, as a child, Hanuman gets enamoured of the orange ball that the sun was in the sky and he takes off--as in flies--to grab the ball. And as a young one with way too much energy and immense superpowers, Hanuman plays too many pranks on the sages.  All these result in a curse that Hanuman would remember his powers only if and when he were reminded about them.

My father, perhaps respectful of my off-the-beaten-track ways towards education and life, suggested that I was capable of achieving a lot and that he was reminding me of that as much as Hanuman had to be reminded.

Anyway, half-heartedly, I worked with my classmate and neighbor, Kiran, to prepare for the IIT entrance exams that he was very keen on.  He became one of the very few who knew well that I didn't care for IIT and that I didn't care for engineering either.

Decades later, an email or two after informing me about Kiran's tragic and fatal accident, his sister recalled, among other things, my anti-engineering sentiments that she had gathered from her brother and how I had stopped preparing altogether.

Most fathers and parents are all alike--they think, they believe, that their children are all awesome.  Parents live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above-average.  Because parents and children tend to live in delusional worlds, even back then there were too many high schoolers writing the IIT entrance exams.  Even classmates who were struggling in math ("maths" in the old country) and physics--the subjects that were fundamental to those entrance exams--prepared for IIT!  As more "unqualified" students took those tests, well, obviously it seemed like it was getting harder and harder to get into those elite colleges.

If only students and their parents had a better and realistic understanding!

In the world that has gotten only more competitive since my high school years, in India and here in the US, and in the rest of the world too, students are finding it more and more difficult to understand who they are and what they might want to do with their lives.   The IIT stories are then replayed over and over, more and more farcically "because anyone can apply to college, well qualified or otherwise."
Earlier this year, Harvard announced that it had accepted 5.9 percent of the nearly 35,000 students who applied for admission to the class of 2018. The next day, Stanford announced an even more exacting 5.07 percent admission rate, the lowest in the university’s history.
Statistics like these have come to dominate the national narrative of elite college admissions, with each new batch of ever-more-minuscule success rates fueling a collective sense that getting into a good college has become a brutal, “Hunger Games"-style tournament that only the fittest survive.
That story is wrong.
If only many of those applicants had been slapped around with "I hate to tell you this, but you are not Harvard material.  Don't waste your time and money."

It is like with love and marriage.  My grandmothers always claimed, believed, that there is always a match for everyone--this was in the old traditions of "arranged marriage."  When it comes to colleges, too, "there is very likely a place in the best schools for you."  The key is not to worry about the "best school" but the idea of "for you."

Life is one long struggle to find our respective niche in this cosmos.  A struggle that begins at high school.  It is a never ending struggle, which is all the more why life is beautiful and exciting.

May you find a comfortable corner to enjoy it all!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Where do we go from here? Start with watching BookTV!

All of man's troubles have arisen from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.
That was what I read when I opened a page in random after the friend gifted me with E.O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence.  A very strange i-ching reading, if there is anything at all in that divining practice!  But, hey, that is all I needed for that day--the observation that we humans are in a whole lot of trouble because we have no clue where we are and have no agreement on where we want to go.

If I had even a little bit of brain, I would love to be the kind of polymath intellectual that Wilson is.  He is up there in my preferred pantheon of intellectuals, along with Dyson, Feynman, Hitchens, ... too bad they simply don't make more like them.  Another reason for me to suspect that I am really made for a generation or two prior, and that I was accidentally born later ;)

The i-ching revelation of the world continued.  The day began with that random page, and ended with me watching Wilson on BookTV.  Bored out of my wits, and drooling for McDonald's French Fries, I picked up the fries, and turned on the telly to the BookTV channel.  There was Wilson chatting with the host about the very book.  Turned out that it was at the National Book Awards--a big time red carpet affair for the literati--ah, I so wish I were one!

Given that I was watching at a late hour in the night, it was obvious that the show was not live.  So, even as Wilson was responding to questions, I checked online for who the nominees and winners were.  And, was so excited that I immediately tweeted:
I doubt whether your life is as exciting, dear reader ;)

I have no idea about the book on Tennessee Williams.  The rest, I can vouch for them.  Awesome they are.
Last spring, I gifted Roz Chast to three.  Yep, three people.  And just last week I recommended to a fourth and she has also placed the order, she emailed me.
Earlier in the spring, after watching an hour-long interview with Osnos, I emailed the big time China admirer to watch the video and almost bought him that book as a gift.
I watched Gopal talk about his book in a BookTV program a few months ago.  I was doubly thrilled because, well, he is also an Indian-American and, ahem, of Tamil origin too!

Yet again, evidence that a tool--the television--depends on how we use it.  While BookTV is streamed online, I find more pleasure in watching it on the "idiot box."

If only those who watch television only for the idiotic and dumbing programs were forced to watch BookTV and C-Span for at least an hour every week!  Then, we will begin to understand how we got here, and we might even begin to develop a game plan on where to go from here :(

Friday, November 28, 2014

The shitty modern medical treatment!

One of the attractions for us kids when going to Pattamadai--grandma's village--was the thought that we would go to the river a few times.

The village was a couple of miles away from the riverbanks, and it was one awesome morning picnic trip of sorts.

We didn't walk to the river, the Thamirabarani, but went in the bullock-cart.  If my father's cousin was also visiting at the same time, then it was all the more fun because when he "drove" the bullock-cart, we went at top speeds, with kids shrieking with delight and the older women fondly cursing the driver as the heads and pots and everything banged against everything.

The river water was even sweeter than the water at Neyveli.  We loved drinking that water.  We ate the pooris that we would have purchased at the local cafe, or the idlis or dosais made by the older women.  

The horrible truth is this: there was always all kinds of crap floating in that river.  Sometimes it was literally crap!  We simply pretended that we did not see them.  We didn't talk about the crap. Ever.  But, the sighting of crap never stopped us from drinking that river water as if it was honey.

Of course, I would never, ever drink that river water again.  But, sometimes, I do wonder if those kinds of activities contributed to the relatively good health my people and I have.  Especially after I read an essay in the New Yorker.  No, it was not about the river back in India.  The essay is about fecal transplantation.  Yep, transplanting one person's shit into another person.  
No one knows how many people have undergone fecal transplants—the official term is fecal microbiota transplantation, or FMT—but the number is thought to be at least ten thousand and climbing rapidly. New research suggests that the microbes in our guts—and, consequently, in our stool—may play a role in conditions ranging from autoimmune disorders to allergies and obesity, and reports of recoveries by patients who, with or without the help of doctors, have received these bacteria-rich infusions have spurred demand for the procedure.
It was one of the most difficult essays that I have read in that wonderful magazine.  Difficult not because it used big and fancy words, but because I felt squeamish throughout.  The very thought that shit from one person is introduced into another!  

So, why is this being done?  It is all because of our digestive tracts, which:
house about a hundred trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other tiny creatures. (As one gastroenterologist put it to me, with only mild exaggeration, “We’re ten per cent human and ninety per cent poo.”) Collectively, this invisible population is known as the gut microbiome, and lately it has become an object of intense scientific interest.
You can already guess where this is going, right?  What if somebody's microbiome is messed up and the microorganisms are out of whack?  What if we introduced the missing tiny creatures?
It's possible that no Americans have gut microbiomes that are truly healthy. Evidence is mounting that over the course of human history the diversity of our microbes has diminished, and, in a recent paper, Erica and Justin Sonnenburg, microbiologists at Stanford, argue that the price of microbial-species loss may be an increase in chronic illness. Unlike our genes, which have remained relatively stable, our microbiome has undergone radical changes in response to shifts in our diet, our antibiotic use, and our increasingly sterile living environments, raising the possibility that “incompatibilities between the two could rapidly arise.” In particular, the Sonnenburgs stress the adverse effects of a standard Western diet, which is notoriously light on the plant fibre that serves as fuel for gut microbes. Less fuel means fewer types of microbes and fewer of the chemical by-products that microbes produce as they ferment our food.
How fascinating, right?  The essay is an awesome read--it has rich details on how the FDA is responding to this, the pharmaceutical research on "crapsules," and on the growth of a "stool bank" where, yes, anonymous donors bring their stool that is less than an hour old.

I am now all the more convinced that drinking that tasty Thamirabarani water during all those visits to Pattamadai was a mild fecal transplant every single time, which helped the microbe population in my gut ;)

The path to cyborg weirdness is paved with novel gadgets

I need better hobbies.

Hobbies that won't make me feel all worrying about where things are going.  Hobbies that won't make me long for the simpler days of, oh, even five years ago.  Well, ok, any hobby other than the one that takes up all my life, it seems--the hobby of reading and thinking!

I had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal, hearty laughs and conversations, and I could have called it a day with all that.  If only I didn't have that nasty hobby!  So, stupid is as stupid does and I ended up reading this piece on how algorithms are messing with our lives.  Like I really needed to be reminded about this when I have blogged enough about this already, including only a week ago!
A single human showing explicit bias can only ever affect a finite number of people. An algorithm, on the other hand, has the potential to impact the lives of exponentially more.
Reading those two sentences, you probably think, "meh!" and move on.  If you did not worry about it, well, you ain't thinkin' enough.
we “trust algorithms, because we think of them as objective, whereas the reality is that humans craft those algorithms and can embed in them all sorts of biases and perspectives.” To put it another way, a computer algorithm might be unbiased in its execution, but, as noted, this does not mean that there is not bias encoded within it.
We humans write those programs, yes.  The programs are then used not merely to calculate the totals at cash registers but in a gazillion ways that we don't even pause to think about:
Consider the story of black Harvard University Ph.D. Latanya Sweeney, for instance. Searching on Google one day, Sweeney was shocked to notice that her search results were accompanied by ads asking, “Have you ever been arrested?” These ads did not appear for her white colleagues. Sweeney began a study that ultimately demonstrated that the machine-learning tools behind Google’s search were being inadvertently racist, by linking names more commonly given to black people to ads relating to arrest records.
Yes, humans wrote that program that was targeting her with those nasty ads.  And this was at the crème de la crème of the computing world.  Now you can begin to imagine how awful biases might creep up really lower down the computing food chain, right?  Are you beginning to worry now?
“We are all so scared of human bias and inconsistency,” says Danielle Citron, professor of law at the University of Maryland. “At the same time, we are overconfident about what it is that computers can do.”
You want more examples so that you, too, can begin to worry about algorithms (software agents is the phrase that I prefer) taking over our lives?
an algorithm may falsely profile an individual as a terrorist: a fate that befalls roughly 1,500 unlucky airline travelers each week.
Imagine the plight of a regular Joe Schmuck who, thanks to big data mined from various sources, is incorrectly identified as a terrorist.  Now, the burden is on that poor Schmuch to prove that he is not a terrorist.   I don't want to be that Joe Schmuck.

As if all that weren't enough, I then read another that covers a lot of the issues related to artificial intelligence that I have gone over even in my blog posts.  The essay ends with this from Peter Diamandis, who is the "co-founder of Singularity University and founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation":
Peter Diamandis is right that we’re at the beginning of “a transformation in what it means to be human and how society works and thinks,” maybe even “a rapid evolution of our species as machines begin to become parts of our prefrontal cortex.” But, he asked me, “Do people want to hear that? No.”
A lot do want to hear that, I told him—that’s why you guys have bestselling books and sellout conferences and an oversubscribed university built on NASA property and sponsored by Google and G.E. It’s just that a cyborg near future also weirds us out.
He nodded. He shook his head. “Why does it weird us out?”
It "weirds" out some of us, while a few others can't seem to wait for that weirdness to be here already, with a vast, overwhelming majority ignorant and apathetic about the whole damn thing because they love one novelty after another in the path that we are on towards ultimate weirdness!

If only shopping on Black Friday were my hobby--I would have never read those essays then and, instead, would have been in the line to buy the latest gadget!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

'Tis Thanksgiving. Remembering the year that was ...

As we sit down for the Thanksgiving meal with friends and family, perhaps all of us can be thankful for one thing—the year with strange and unexpected developments is coming to an end.

Who would have thought that this country would ever end up panic stricken about Ebola? So panicky we became that the photograph of a nurse biking in a small town in Maine caused quite a few, who were thousands of miles from the Pine Tree State, to worry that they, too, caught the dreaded virus infection. We became so involved with the panic over nothing that we even forgot the thousands in West Africa who continue to suffer from the illness.

Ebola came in time for us to worry about the state of the world just when the Israel-Gaza conflict ended. Of course, the end of the bombing campaigns does not mean that peace has descended upon that troubled geography. Not far away, a ruthlessly barbaric outfit that grew out of the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has quickly become a force to reckon with. And the number of name changes this outfit has had in a matter of few months—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State (IS)—has made the casual observer feel like there are multiple versions similar to the number of Agent Smiths in “The Matrix” movie series.

The big European story is, of course, about how Russia swallowed up the Crimean Peninsula. One day Crimea was a part of Ukraine, and the next day it became a Russian territory. Russia is not done with gobbling up Ukraine’s land, with more military incursions expected.

The perils of Pakistan continue, with the same old formula of a weak and ineffective government that is constantly trying to keep the powerful military away. The story of its life ever since its birth in 1947! Meanwhile, suicide bombers continue to strike, with a recent one near the border with India killing nearly sixty and injuring another estimated hundred. Terrorists have warned that the next incident will be in India.

If you are like me, every once in a while you wonder whatever happened to the more than 300 girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria. Remember all that Facebook and Twitter activism to “bring back our girls”? But then that was such a long time ago and Ebola has completely taken over our panic-stricken collective consciousness.

The global economy continues to be in a state of flux. Economists keep warning about the Euro area on the verge of a recession and, perhaps, deflation as well. An economic contraction while prices keep falling is one awful combination, which will surely be worrisome to the millions of unemployed youth, especially in the southern countries of Spain, Italy, and Greece.

While we in the US might feel sheltered from such an listing—however incomplete it is—of less than pleasant developments around the planet, the Ebola virus was a nasty reminder that we live in an interconnected world and that what happens in a remote part of West Africa will not necessarily stay in West Africa. The military conflicts around the world will force the US to act—a burden that comes with being the sole global superpower. Economic slowdown in Europe will affect us, given the highly interdependent economic web that links us to countries that we might not even be able to identify on a world map.

An old idea that is often mentioned, especially in academia, is that “war is God's way of teaching Americans geography.” We need to update that for the contemporary contexts. Now, any crisis is apparently how we Americans learn geography. Thus, thanks to Boko Haram, we were forced to look up Nigeria on a map. With Ebola in the news, there is a good chance that a few Americans were suddenly thrust with narratives about the historical connection between Liberia and slavery in the US. But then, if history provides any guidance, we perhaps passed on all the chances to learn geography.

Whether or not we learnt anything, not unlike my students, we are thankful that the tumultuous and eventful year is coming to an end. But, of course, just because the calendar year is ending, all those problems won’t simply go away. It will be a long while before the public health professionals declare an end to the current Ebola outbreak. The geopolitical tensions in the Levant, Ukraine, and Pakistan, will continue irrespective of the month and the year. Above all, there is really no respite from one certain scary development—when the calendar flips to 2015, the campaigning for the November 2016 elections will begin!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Just you and I. ... And our 923 friends?

My grandfather left his village (which my mother claims has always been a small town and never a village!) deep in the southern part of India to go study in Varanasi.  This was back in the early 1930s, in an India where most people hadn't even seen a light bulb and where outdoor dry toilets and manual scavenging were the norm.  After days of train journey, grandfather would reach his student quarters and then write a letter to inform his parents that he had reached.  That letter would take days to reach his parents.  This was the practice through all the years of his undergraduate studies in metallurgy.

Two decades later, my father, an engineering graduate in a newly independent India,  decided that exciting industrial projects were beginning in places far, far away from his village (which he does agree was a village) and went to join the dam construction projects, modeled after the US' TVA.  Typically, it took him four to five days from the time he left the village and reached his bachelor quarters.  Upon reaching, he penned a letter that typically took five to seven days to reach grandma.

My father and grandfather did not even pause to think that these were nightmarish conditions.  After all, had they thought that way, they would not have ventured out at all to places far, far away from their homes.  Often alone by themselves.  In places where the language, foods, and almost every aspect of culture was different from what they were used to.

Now, we live in a world that is hyperconnected.  We Facebook where we are, what we eat, what we do, where we travel. We tweet where we are, what we eat, what we do, and where we travel. We Instagram where we are, what ... well, you get my point.

Loneliness is no longer a part of life anymore, it seems.  To such an extent is the transformation that we easily think that any individual who is a loner is up to some kind of a mischief, a la the unabomber.  I should know, given the number of times the police have barged into my home because the neighbors complained about my solitary existence.  Nah, I am kidding. Well, kidding about the police, that is--they always brought doughnuts ;)

Loneliness makes us think about life and our own place in this universe.  In the old country, those bent on this inquiry went into the forests so that they could be alone to contemplate about existence.  Of course, such meditation was in the contexts of god and prayers, but there was a conviction that loneliness helps.

If we are hyper-connected, then when do we have the time to think about our own existence?  This atheist agrees with those who worry about it even if from a religious framework:
Silence and seclusion are harder to find, and fewer people seek them out. You find a lone bench in the park on a fall afternoon, gaze up at the sky through the branches, and begin the Rosary only to have a power walker march by barking into an invisible mic. It’s not just the noise, it’s his connection to absent persons, as if to say that being in one place alone with the Lord is insufficient.
Yep, even when we are alone, we are no longer alone, it seems.
Social media is the culprit. Text­ing, selfies, updates, chats, snapchats, tweets, multiplayer games, blogs, wikis, and email enable people to gossip, boast, rant, strategize, self-promote, share, collaborate, inform, emote, and otherwise connect with one another anywhere and all the time. The volume is astounding. Earlier this year, Facebook boasted 1.23 billion active users, while late last year Twitter’s 200 million users sent 400 million tweets per day. According to Nielsen Media, a teen with a mobile device sends or receives on average around 3,300 text messages per month, in addition to logging 650 minutes of phone calls.
Those habits, which researchers term “hypersociality,” dominate leisure time. Data analyst Bill Tancer found in 2008 that social media had passed pornography as the most popular type of search. The whole range of fallen human motives passes through the tools, but the prime one is, precisely, “I want not to be alone.”
There is something seriously wrong, don't you think, when all these decades of "education" has only led us to how we are afraid to be alone because, if alone we might have to think about important questions like who we are and why we exist?
People awash in ­social media can’t get past the paradox that the best salve for loneliness is ­properly applied alone. They look for answers in added connections, and more-­emotional ones, but God isn’t a closer contact and better friend. He transcends the social, and you must seek him beyond the medium of “share” and “like.” In solitary prayer, the secular pleasures dissipate and the successes of social media melt into nothingness. You drop your social self.
My grandfather and father used their alone time to reflect on life.  They read, listened to music, and communed with their gods.  This atheist believes that was a far better existence than the current way of being afraid of inquiring about the human condition itself.

Maybe I am nothing but an old soul trapped in a younger body and living in digital age.  But, surely there is more to life than posting a Facebook status update, right?

Source: seriously, you can't recognize this as from the New Yorker? ;)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Forget "Fair & Lovely." I want a thick skin to fight the assholes ;)

Thanks to the friend chatting with me about my favorite topic--the pathetic state of higher education--I was reminded of an event from eight years ago.  Almost to the very date.

On November 22, 2006, I got a lengthy email from a faculty, who shall remain nameless but who continues to "teach" at the university where I work, in which he defended his unprofessional and rude behavior with the following sentences:
maybe I have experienced so much criticism from all angles that I did lack a bit of courtesy; however, if you are going to exist in an administrative/director position at any level at any university I suggest you quickly develop a thicker skin...faculty are frequently, mostly without intention, discourteous and disrespectful.
Eight years later, I continue to be shocked that one would write, among other things, "faculty are frequently, mostly without intention, discourteous and disrespectful."  How awful that "discourteous and disrespectful" are considered to be standard operating procedures!

I now think that I should add this to my list of unfinished business; I have a nagging feeling I have plenty more to add to that list :(

We all suffer misfortunes in life, no doubt.  But, it is one thing if a tree falls on your home in a windstorm, and another when a fellow-human behaves discourteously and disrespectfully.  And, worse, believes it is ok to behave that way.  As Aaron James calls them, well, there are too many assholes!  Now, before you jump on James for using that word, keep in mind that he has a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard and is a tenured professor ;)

Before James writing about assholes, there was Robert Sutton, with his memorable The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.  Sutton's book was published soon after my own November 2006 encounter with the asshole.  Warning again: before you quibble with Sutton, note that he was a tenured professor at Stanford when he wrote that book ;)

Sutton authored a brief note in the Harvard Business Review on why he wrote the book, and why he used the word "asshole."  He lists seven reasons there, of which:
The most important reason that I wrote this book is that demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies. And even though there are occasions when being an asshole helps people and companies “win,” my view is that if you are a winner and an asshole, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to be around you!
Exactly!  I have no desire to be anywhere near assholes.  They may "win" and consider me to be a "loser," but I go to sleep with a clear conscience aware that yet another day in this short life I was not an asshole and, more importantly, stayed away from those who are assholes.

BTW, Sutton notes that a TV show about workplace assholes might be in the works!  If that happens, well, it will be a never ending show, won't it! ;)

The Bhagavad Gita in the killing fields of the Mahabharata

When I wrote about "do the right thing," I was, of course, channeling a thought from the Bhagavad Gita.  In the conversation that I mentioned in that post, my old friend referred to the Gita and the larger story of the the Mahabharata, as from more than four- or five-thousand years ago.  The nerd that I am, well, even in that friendly conversation I had to hem and haw and dissent about the Mahabharata being way more recent than that.

To engage with a religious text without being blinded by faith is a feature of religious studies.  Religious studies is not merely for those who are religious. If only many more among us studied the religions of the world; but, I digress!

The context for the Gita is far from what an uninformed person might imagine.  It was in the context of one of the biggest battles ever in Hindu mythology.
The text is in the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna, who, on the eve of an apocalyptic battle, hesitates to kill his friends and family on the other side, and the incarnate god Krishna, who acts as Arjuna’s charioteer (a low-status job roughly equivalent to a bodyguard) and persuades him to do it.
What might one make of such a setting in which Krishna convinces Arjuna that his duty is to, ahem, kill his friends and uncles and cousins?  What would Gandhi do?
Confronted with Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to engage in a violent battle, Gandhi argued that by urging him to “fight,” Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty. “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action; therefore, actions such as murder and lying are forbidden, because they cannot be performed without attachment.
To a true believer, the Mahabharata is not any mythology, and, therefore, the Gita is not anything metaphorical.  Gandhi appears to have waffled there, eh.

Wendy Doniger--yes, that Doniger--has authored an essay reviewing a "masterful new biography of the Gita" from which I excerpted the quotes.  She writes:
How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.
Doniger sketches how this transformation happened.  I will leave it to the interested to read that argument in its entirety, which is a must-read especially for those interested in the political economy of India and "the role of the Gita in the rise of Hindutva in India today."

I have no doubt that the Gita has plenty of lessons for us mortals to think about in order to lead a good life.  I remember my great-uncle reciting, as he often did, the following verse:

At the source of that image is a translation of the verse:
One who has studied the Bhagavad Gita just a little,
drunk even a drop of Ganga water,
has worshipped Murari (Krishna) just once,
does not meet with Yama (lord of death).
This atheist cares not about worshiping Murari, is convinced that there won't be any encounter with Yama, and will not dare to drink a drop of the highly polluted Ganga water.  But, yes, I believe that I immensely gained from the Gita that I read, even if I understood nothing, way back during my angst-filled undergraduate years.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Green Phonies": Practice what you teach? ... continued

This is the first ever post in this blog with the title of "Practice what you teach?" and yet I have added the "continued," in case you didn't notice it already ;)

Just to let you know that there was another place where I did--a decade ago, in September 2004, I authored this piece at Planetizen, in which I wrote about the difficulty in trying to achieve a consistency between what we say and what we do, and how to draw the line "between my academic life and personal decisions."

I recalled there:
Katie in the front row (of course!) asked me, "Francesca and I were talking the other day about you, Dr. Khé. How come you don't drive a small car but drive a gas-guzzling Jeep Cherokee instead?"
It has been ten years since, and I am all the more convinced about the moral of the story:
academic life means a continuous attempt to redraw the line that separates what I teach from how I live.
It does not mean that I drive a small car now.  Or, a hybrid, like a Prius.  Because, I remain convinced that there is no single identifying litmus test, like whether or not I drive a Prius, in order to understand how much I am helping the environment.

In fact, I have even made fun of Hollywood celebrities who flashed their Priuses when they were introduced.  Those celebrities, who are the very embodiment of material consumption, pretending to help the environment by driving around in Priuses was the best joke of all.  But, dammit, people so believe that a consumption hog who drives in a Prius is more "environmental" than one like me whose consumption is way minimal.

Is it possible at all to help people understand that a steak-eating, California almond-munching, Prius owner is not helping the environment?
According to recent psychological research, these outwardly symbolic displays of green values are, if anything, too powerful. They can fool outside observers into thinking that we're a lot more environmentally conscious than we are. Perhaps worse still, they may lead us to fool ourselves.
Which means, even though I have refused to be fooled, the joke is really on me.  How twisted!  It is all because of "symbolic significance fallacy":
 The idea, which grows out of a large body of research on cognitive biases and mental shortcuts, is that we tend to focus far too much on outward symbols (like Prius driving) in judging whether people are energy conscious. As a result, these powerful symbols bias us into overrating certain kinds of seemingly green behavior, and underrating other behaviors that may be quite green, but don't seem that way to us at first glance.
No surprise that I am not viewed as left-of-center, environmental, or any of those labels, which is really who I am.  The price we pay for being rational in this shallow, superficial world :(
What's the upshot of all this? First of all, Siegrist says the results should make us concerned about what he calls "moral licensing": The idea that doing something that is symbolically green, like driving a Prius, licenses you to do other things in your life that aren't (like driving it huge distances).
The bottom-line then?
as we move into a world full of hybrids, electric vehicles, rooftop solar installations, and much else, we should bear something in mind. Energy use calculations may not be very intuitive or easy to carry out, but the fact remains that there is only one way to evaluate whether someone is actually green: Substance.
Focus on the substance?  Crazy talk!  Focus on substance calls for people to engage in the hard work of thinking, which is increasingly rarer than smog-free days in Beijing!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Life's open secret: Do the right thing!

An old friend called after a couple of months.  Somehow or the other, every conversation has at least one piece about how I live my life without a god or a religion to guide me.

I explained that it is really, really simple, the way I see it.  All I have to do is this: make sure that I do the right thing.  The dharma that the Hindu philosophers refer to.

I am sure you agree with me.  If not, you are not doing the right thing ;)

See, even here I can't help but kid around!

Ok, kidding aside, to me to go through life is, thus, wonderfully simple without all that baggage of god(s) and religion(s).

Of course, doing the right thing is not really simple.  For one, how do I know that "x" is the right thing to do and not "y"?  It becomes a challenge.  A challenge that forces me to think about options "x" and "y" and conscientiously arrive at a decision.

And even if I have decided that "y" is the right thing to do, well, I still have to do it, right?  The awesome thing for an atheist is that there is no hell or god's fury to worry about if I chose not to do "y."  Yet, as an atheist I end up trying as much as possible to do the right thing.

It is worth quoting Steven Weinberg, again:
 Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God.  
A wonderful satisfaction, not a grim satisfaction, that I thought and did the right thing.  And then for the chips to fall where they may.

And, yes, to do all that with good humor.  Well, with atrocious humor as well. Like this one that one of the grocery store checkout clerks told me a while ago:
Q: What's red and smells like blue paint?
A: Red paint.
Do the right thing and keep laughing.  That's all there is to it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

In the survival of the fittest, this idiot will be terminated by natural and artificial intelligence!

Sometimes I simply want to stop reading anymore.

I know it sounds strange.  But there are moments when I wonder if my life would have been a lot better and more enjoyable if I didn't care to engage in random reading.


Because, I feel all the more that I don't know a damn thing.  During those moments, the knowing that I don't know becomes a burden.  Which is when I wonder if I would have had a happier existence, you know, leading a normal life of doing a job, and then ...

But, I am stuck with who I am.  The good news is that the clock is winding down ;)

The latest realization about my idiocy came from reading this piece at Edge.  It is a conversation with Jaron Lanier, whom I have quoted before in this blog--as recently as, ahem, the last post.  As if that level of exposing my idiocy weren't enough, the commenters, my god!  Well, not some internet trolls, but people who were invited to comment.  It is like one huge all-star lineup.

The conversation is all about artificial intelligence, and algorithms beginning to take over our lives.  Lanier provides this example that most of us can relate to:
Since our economy has shifted to what I call a surveillance economy, but let's say an economy where algorithms guide people a lot, we have this very odd situation where you have these algorithms that rely on big data in order to figure out who you should date, who you should sleep with, what music you should listen to, what books you should read, and on and on and on. ...
I'll give you a few examples of what I mean by that. Maybe I'll start with Netflix. The thing about Netflix is that there isn't much on it. There's a paucity of content on it. If you think of any particular movie you might want to see, the chances are it's not available for streaming, that is; that's what I'm talking about. And yet there's this recommendation engine, and the recommendation engine has the effect of serving as a cover to distract you from the fact that there's very little available from it. And yet people accept it as being intelligent, because a lot of what's available is perfectly fine.
... But it does contribute, at a macro level, to this overall atmosphere of accepting the algorithms as doing a lot more than they do. In the case of Netflix, the recommendation engine is serving to distract you from the fact that there's not much choice anyway.
A wonderful difference Lanier is alerting us to--"the recommendation engine is serving to distract you from the fact that there's not much choice anyway."  That is one heck of a scary thought, right?

So, on to the next step in this algorithmic world:
I want to get to an even deeper problem, which is that there's no way to tell where the border is between measurement and manipulation in these systems.
In case you are wondering what Lanier is talking about, he explains:
the only way for such a system to be legitimate would be for it to have an observatory that could observe in peace, not being sullied by its own recommendations. Otherwise, it simply turns into a system that measures which manipulations work, as opposed to which ones don't work, which is very different from a virginal and empirically careful system that's trying to tell what recommendations would work had it not intervened. That's a pretty clear thing. What's not clear is where the boundary is.
Exactly!  My worry has been this, but I had no idea how to articulate it.  I was all gobbledygook whenever I tried to get my brain to work on this!  Whether it is Netflix or Amazon or Facebook or Google,
All of these things, there's no baseline, so we don't know to what degree they're measurement versus manipulation.
Turns out there is more.
If people are deciding what books to read based on a momentum within the recommendation engine that isn't going back to a virgin population, that hasn't been manipulated, then the whole thing is spun out of control and doesn't mean anything anymore. It's not so much a rise of evil as a rise of nonsense. It's a mass incompetence, as opposed to Skynet from the Terminator movies. That's what this type of AI turns into.
 "Mass incompetence."  Hmmm ... it feels like it has already arrived.

The way big data/algorithmic world then works has tremendous economic consequences.  Like this one about the automatic translators and voice recognition.  Think Siri, for instance.  The more people use it, the better Siri gets, right?
The thing that we have to notice though is that, because of the mythology about AI, the services are presented as though they are these mystical, magical personas. IBM makes a dramatic case that they've created this entity that they call different things at different times—Deep Blue and so forth. The consumer tech companies, we tend to put a face in front of them, like a Cortana or a Siri. The problem with that is that these are not freestanding services.
... What this is, is behind the curtain, is literally millions of human translators who have to provide the examples. The thing is, they didn't just provide one corpus once way back. Instead, they're providing a new corpus every day, because the world of references, current events, and slang does change every day. We have to go and scrape examples from literally millions of translators, unbeknownst to them, every single day, to help keep those services working.
The problem here should be clear, but just let me state it explicitly: we're not paying the people who are providing the examples to the corpora—which is the plural of corpus—that we need in order to make AI algorithms work. In order to create this illusion of a freestanding autonomous artificial intelligent creature, we have to ignore the contributions from all the people whose data we're grabbing in order to make it work. That has a negative economic consequence.
This, to me, is where it becomes serious.
Why is this an economic issue?
The usual counterargument to that is that they are being paid in the sense that they too benefit from all the free stuff and reduced-cost stuff that comes out of the system. I don't buy that argument, because you need formal economic benefit to have a civilization, not just informal economic benefit.  
I.e., you can't buy a home with that informal benefit, can you?
In the history of organized religion, it's often been the case that people have been disempowered precisely to serve what were perceived to be the needs of some deity or another, where in fact what they were doing was supporting an elite class that was the priesthood for that deity.
That looks an awful lot like the new digital economy to me, where you have (natural language) translators and everybody else who contributes to the corpora that allow the data schemes to operate, contributing mostly to the fortunes of whoever runs the top computers. The new elite might say, "Well, but they're helping the AI, it's not us, they're helping the AI." It reminds me of somebody saying, "Oh, build these pyramids, it's in the service of this deity," but, on the ground, it's in the service of an elite. It's an economic effect of the new idea. The effect of the new religious idea of AI is a lot like the economic effect of the old idea, religion.
And then the commenters come in and critique Lanier.  At the end of it all, I came away wondering what the heck these smart people are talking about, and why I am feeling like an idiot.  You see why I think I would have been better off not reading that essay in the first place?

Let me leave you with this, that I have quoted before:
Apple is building a world in which there is a computer in your every interaction, waking and sleeping. A computer in your pocket. A computer on your body. A computer paying for all your purchases. A computer opening your hotel room door. A computer monitoring your movements as you walk though the mall. A computer watching you sleep. A computer controlling the devices in your home. A computer that tells you where you parked. A computer taking your pulse, telling you how many steps you took, how high you climbed and how many calories you burned—and sharing it all with your friends…. THIS IS THE NEW APPLE ECOSYSTEM. APPLE HAS TURNED OUR WORLD INTO ONE BIG UBIQUITOUS COMPUTER
Have a good day! ;)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

When kids lose their privacy ...

I might have rebelled--well, ok, I did rebel--against traditions as I transitioned into the teenage years.  But, I was a good kid.  Didn't get into trouble at all.

If I were a teenager during the iPhone era--as in now--I would have had wonderful outlets for my teen angsts of a gazillion kind.  I can imagine a teenage me tweeting pissed off comments about the principal, the English teacher, about the government.  And would have blogged and tweeted about my leftists feelings. Oh, of course, I would have tweeted about that high school love, too ;)

It is a good thing that I didn't grow up with all those technology gizmos.  Which is why I feel sorry for the teenagers and the youth of today.  So, what is the hassle if they use these, you ask?  Hassles are in plenty, my friend!

A few months ago, I got a Facebook friend request from a name that I could not recognize.  But then Facebook said we had mutual friends.  So, I went to the requester's page and, yes, it was easy to recognize the fellow.  I accepted his request, and sent him a message inquiring about the name change--the first and last names were nothing like his "real" name.

Turns out that the fake name was a recent one, and was strictly in Facebook alone and only for one reason: admissions.  He didn't want a web search for his real name to reveal his antics on Facebook.  It is a growing trend among the young to worry about those issues for a good reason; for instance, among the exclusive private colleges:
Of the 403 undergraduate admissions officers who were polled by telephone over the summer, 35 percent said they had visited an applicant’s social media page — a 9 percentage point increase compared with 2012.
This is atrocious.  What a young person has in words or photos should not be of anybody's concern when it comes to admissions.  Yet, it does.  Which is also why the smart ones are cleaning up the public presence (using the fake name is an easy way, right?)
only 16 percent of them said they had discovered information online that had hurt a student’s application — compared with 35 percent in 2012.
“Students are more aware that any impression they leave on social media is leaving a digital fingerprint,” said Seppy Basili, Kaplan’s vice president for college admissions. “My hunch is that students are not publicly chronicling their lives through social media in the same way.”
Students are now a step, or more, ahead of the admissions folks.  Good for them.
Mr. Dattagupta said he looked favorably upon applicants who posted positive comments about the college and about themselves. But he said he was troubled by applicants who publicly disparaged his college or any other on social media using offensive language.
“That’s a big turnoff for me,” Mr. Dattagupta said. “I wouldn’t want a student like that here.”
The college, however, doesn’t notify students if their social media posts hurt their applications, Mr. Dattagupta said. “We don’t have a mechanism to let a student know they were not accepted because of that particular tweet,” he said.
There is something seriously creepy about Dattagupta's take.  Even creepier it is to think that there are a lot more like Dattagupta than I would ever want.

What is a youth if there cannot be youthful indiscretions and exuberance?

Jaron Lanier talked about how it might get increasingly difficult for the young to erase their past indiscretions.  You can imagine how easy it is going to be to do opposition-research and dig up dirt from when a candidate was a mere sixteen years old.  Especially when you think about something like sexting--when kids sext!

The older I get, the more I worry about the ways in which technology is negatively affecting our lives.  I don't think this is merely the effects of age as I look at the horizon.  There is something seriously creepy when high school kids and college youth have to worry about cleaning up their digital tracks; don't you think so too?

Monday, November 17, 2014

What a way to end! Well, nobody's perfect!

Relax, this post ain't about death! ;)

The trigger for this post was simply an ending line in an essay that I read.  It was in the Economist.  One of the few magazines that I love to read, for the content and for the writing style as well.  (I even put my money where my mouth is, in this case--I am a subscriber!) Those wonderful writers, who always have that Economist way of writing.  In a magazine that is staunchly pro-individual rights and capitalism, the writers remain anonymous:
Why is it anonymous? Many hands write The Economist, but it speaks with a collective voice. Leaders are discussed, often disputed, each week in meetings that are open to all members of the editorial staff. Journalists often co-operate on articles. And some articles are heavily edited. The main reason for anonymity, however, is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it. As Geoffrey Crowther, editor from 1938 to 1956, put it, anonymity keeps the editor "not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself. You can call that ancestor-worship if you wish, but it gives to the paper an astonishing momentum of thought and principle."
Kind of ironic, right, that the emphasis is on the whole, the product, with no spotlight on the individual writer?  Almost like one of those leftist collectives ;)

Anyway, the ending sentence that impressed me was in a report on China building a new "silk road" via Kazakhstan. 
There are many ways a train can derail.
How awesome!  You need to read the entire essay in order to understand why it is such a wonderful line.

We might remember many opening sentences, like Tolstoy's "all happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" in Anna Karenina.  Or, Melville's "call me Ishmael" in Moby Dick. Or, of course, Dickens' "it was the best of times it was the worst of times" in A Tale of Two Cities.   But, the final lines don't always get that applause.

My favorite last line is from a movie. From an old movie.  No, not from Casablanca, though that is phenomenal as well.  The one I love, love, as an ending is from Some Like It Hot.  A marvelous final line! ;)

I don't care to write about climate change! Because, I am a part of the problem.

Here in the blog, I write about a range of topics.  It is nothing but a symptom of a problem that I have had throughout my life--while many classmates and friends identified whatever fascinated them and worked on that while excluding subjects and ideas that were of lesser interest to them, I continued to spread myself thin.  I have an intense commitment problem, I suppose!  But, how could I choose to ignore so many fascinating ideas and issues when I am acutely aware that I don't know a damn thing?

Yet, when I write op-eds, I write on a much restricted range of topics.  The other day, I was perusing the listing in my CV, and wondered what a word cloud might look like.  Economics and geography feature a lot, and so do higher education and India.  There are plenty of topics that are not to be found in the CV.  For instance, while I have blogged more than a couple of times about the Ukraine-Russia tensions, I have not authored a single op-ed on that, nor am I planning to write one.

The missing topics are for a simple reason: Even this wannabe public intellectual knows his limits.

I am absolutely ok with readers disagreeing with my interpretations and commentaries.  But, I don't ever want to be in a situation where a reader thinks, after reading an op-ed of mine, that I have no idea what I am talking about.  Hence, despite my passionate opinions on wars, or racism, or climate change, well, I haven't authored any op-ed that are strictly about those issues.

So, why this rambling note about the self?

This op-ed on climate change was the trigger that made me thank my awareness of my own bounded knowledge, especially on highly charged and controversial public policy issues. Am reminded of an old joke that opinions are like armpits--everybody has them and they stink!  While I might freely opine here in the blog, an op-ed is not a mere opinion, but an informed and educated interpretation.

Talking and writing about climate change is difficult for another reason--the bottom line is that it is a moral issue that has guidelines for a good life.  To think that I am typing all these in a well-lit comfortable home that is warm even though it is sub-freezing temperature outside means that this blog-post alone is reflective of the huge carbon footprint that I have, which I should try to reduce before I preach it, right?

Estimate your household emissions here

Thus, as Al Gore found out, it is difficult to be a passionate advocate for a whole bunch of lifestyle changing recommendations when his life was anything but simple--with his mansions and jetting around the world and everything else.  Remember the "hippy-crites" route that the Daily Mail went a few years ago?  Heck, it gets awkward and difficult to defend one's beef eating, when that is responsible for more damage to the environment than most things that we would imagine.

I agree with Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes at the end of her essay in which she reviews Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything:
when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.”
Which is all the more why this public intellectual does not write op-eds on climate change, though in this blog I write often about the urgency, and my new favorite German word: energiewende.

It is awfully difficult to practice what you teach.  Hey, wait a sec, I wrote a commentary on that many years ago ;)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cool heads. Warm homes.

If it is true that cooler heads will prevail, then, well, we are looking at one awesomely peaceful existence here in Oregon where summer and warm weather have become distant memories.

The temperatures have dipped ten to twelve degrees below the normal for this time of the year.  It is so cold that, as an old joke goes, cows when milked are producing ice cream, and it is chocolate milkshakes from brown cows!

It is a life far away from the hot, hot days of Neyveli, where the overnight low temperature of 73 degrees is numerically a larger number than the sum of the high (46) and low (22) temperatures here in Eugene.

But then, I have, to a large extent, acclimated to life in these cooler climes.  Cold weather is hot soup time. Cold weather is an additional reason to think about life. Cold weather is also when I went for my five-mile walk.

A few years ago, even I would not have imagined walking five miles--out of my own choice--in such temperature conditions.  Life is unpredictable even when it comes to such mundane matters too, and not merely when it is about health and wealth.

It was a little after the noon hour when I checked the temperature app in the iPhone.  38.

38!  In Fahrenheit, when in my childhood 38C was a pleasant summer day!

I headed out for the walk.

Not many were out and about.  What really surprised me was this--no kids too.  If they are not outside--playing, or biking, or simply idling--what are the kids up to these days?


A young couple, each struggling with a dog on a leash, was approaching me.  One was a puppy, who was perhaps wondering why he was not allowed to run around freely.  With his tail wagging, he attempted to reach towards me when the young man pulled the leash tighter.  I smiled at the dog.  I wonder if dogs recognize a smiling face from a frowning one.

The river was flowing fast and was muddy brown from the rains.  The boulders in the middle were mostly submerged, unlike in the late summer.  Soon, with more rains, the river will completely hide those huge rocks, and it will be a game of peek-a-boo until next summer.

As I got to the bridge to cross over to the west bank, the light breeze over the waters and the open space made it seem like the temperature dropped a few more degrees.  I picked up my pace.

The west bank was even more deserted. The colorful and beautiful golden and red leaves on trees of a couple of weeks ago were now dirty brown on the ground.  A metaphor for our own lives.  Beautiful people, too, die, like how we ugly people also die.

My nose and ears and fingers were all cold as I fumbled for the key to unlock the front door.  What a lucky guy I am to have a warm home to return to!

Mr. Curious had to know right away what the temperature was; it had warmed up from the 38 that it was when I left home:

My balding head felt icy cold, which means that I will prevail!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

It’s the Teaching, Stupid! Retire already!

Hey, I didn't have to compose that kind of harsh sounding phrases for the title of this post--they happen to be how two commentaries were titled or promoted; though, of course, I second those without any hesitation at all ;)

It seems like it has been forever that I have been complaining about the intellectual onanism that passes off as "research" at institutions like mine where teaching is the very reason why we exist in the first place.  I often feel like shaking people by their shoulders and slapping them on their cheeks (though, I worry that will only add to the orgasmic effect ... hehehe) in order to help them realize that we ain't no Harvard.  As I noted in this post from, gasp, three years ago:
an Ole Miss or my own university wasn't set up to become an alternative to Harvard!  These other institutions have missions that are distinct from those of a Harvard or Stanford.  But, even these universities think and work as if they are nothing but a Harvard-lite.  The focus on "research" at third-rung universities is a classic example--most of the research publications that faculty from third-tier universities are in third and fourth rate journals, which seem to have brought into existence only to serve as an outlet for the great pretenders.
It is the mission creep that is awful, and this occurs mostly at public institutions, whether they are community colleges or state universities. 
But, who cares about mission creep when it is students who pay the high price!

How does this get institutionalized?  Simple. Even teaching universities have forgotten that "it's the teaching, stupid!":
Research and publication are important, of course, but teaching forms the core duties of the vast majority of college professing jobs.
But, what do Kafka's esteemed gentlemen of the Academy do instead when they set out to hire faculty?
Most job advertisements in the humanities and social sciences make the bad mistake of positioning tenure-track search committees to learn much more about applicants’ research than their teaching. In order to make the hiring process better-reflect their needs, many departments should consider taking a teaching-centered approach to their next job search.
I understand why elite private and Research I institutions might pursue research-centered profiles of their candidates. Professors there can expect to receive significant and frequent paid leave time and research grants. It makes sense for these schools to find out as much as possible about their applicants’ research agendas.
Professors at most colleges and universities, however, don’t get such opportunities, and in fact they focus most of their time and energy on teaching. It puzzles me why search committees time and again, especially on the tenure-track level, take so little action to measure candidates on what they will ultimately spend most of their time doing as professors.
It is awful.  I doubt there are many other industries where there is such screwed up approach to hiring highly qualified personnel on the basis of something that has nothing to do with the prime mission.

As they get older, the faculty do not leave either, however awful or great their teaching skills might be.  Now, it is not that I am a great teacher.  But, I know for certain that even the worst of the teaching has to keep pace with the changes in the world.  I know I recognize awful teaching when I see, for instance, PowerPoint slides that have not been updated.

Almost always, it seems like only the good teachers retire!
By any measure—course enrollments, teacher evaluations, testimony from students and colleagues, peer observations and evaluations, and even—I’m a fine teacher, even an exceptional one, though hardly perfect: One student called me, in writing, an "über bitch." Although I don’t have the energy I had when I was 40, or even 50, compared with most professors in their 60s, I’m an Amazon. I’m also far smarter and cagier about how to teach than when I was a young whippersnapper never more than a couple of steps ahead of my students.
She "signed an "irrevocable agreement" with Hofstra University that paid me a bonus to retire "early."  No, even in her case, the early was not really early: "In my case, that meant at the age of 66."

So, we have a double-whammy at the teaching universities all over the country: a great number of faculty whose interests are in "research" and not in teaching and who don't retire even when it feels like they are way past their expiration dates.  The tyranny of the senior-citizen faculty, which I have blogged about before too (like here, here).

I agree with the author when she writes:
What’s far more likely is a version of what I observed in my own department—an art-history professor in his late 70s who prowled the halls up until a few years ago. He didn’t appear to be able to use email, and we all knew he was a terribly easy grader. Even so, he faithfully met his classes and always attended department meetings, where he hardly ever said a word.
In other industries, this would lead to dismissal because of professional incompetence.  But, not in higher education!
The inconvenient truth is that faculty who delay retirement harm students, who in most cases would benefit from being taught by someone younger than 70, even younger than 65. The salient point is not that younger professors are better pedagogues (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t), but that they are more likely to be current in their fields and to bring that currency into their teaching.
Septuagenarian faculty members also cost colleges more than younger faculty—in the form of higher salaries, higher health-care costs, and higher employer-matched retirement contributions. Even if these costs pale in comparison to paying for bloated administrations, it’s wrong to pretend they don’t matter.
Worst of all, their presence stifles change. I’m not talking about mindless change for change’s sake, but the kind of change necessary to keep an institution thriving.
Ah, yes, reminds me of how one senior-citizen faculty had the arrogance to tell me that I wasn't respecting the hallway culture--a culture that badly needs changing!

The author notes:
I want to face retirement the way Prospero, directly addressing the audience at the end of The Tempest, voluntarily surrendered his magical powers:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: ...
            Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant.
Yes, I too would like to voluntarily surrender my powers, whatever little that I have.  Though, that time is a long, long time into the future, despite what others think, and it should work well with the other master-plan that I have ;)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Another screw comes loose

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
That profound paragraph is from Henry David Thoreau.

Men, and women, lead lives of quiet desperation to which they have resigned themselves.

What a profound paragraph!

But, no, I was not reading any of Thoreau's works.  In the contemporary hypertexted world, in which Google search is my most trusted helper, I came across that Thoreau passage in a most interesting, and very depressing route.

I will begin from the beginning.

On Facebook, a friend had posted a link to this Washington Post story about yet another Foxconn employee committing suicide.  (The byline, too, caught my attention; but, I don't want to digress at this point.)  The employee was only 24 years old when he jumped from his dorm room and died.  He was a poet, and,
A distraught friend and fellow Foxconn employee also wrote a poem. "Another screw comes loose/Another migrant worker brother jumps," Zhou Qizao writes, a day after Xu's death. The poem ends: "A white-haired father, holding the black urn with your ashes, stumbles home."
It is from this that I borrowed the words for the title of this post.

I read the comments at the end of the story.  One comment quoted Thoreau:
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” -- Henry David Thoreau
The skeptic in me wondered whether that wonderfully sounding quote was for real--I have seen and read enough in this world to worry that something that seems too good to be true might not be true.  Which is when I put my able assistant, Google, to work.  At multiple sites, I then came across that complete passage, which I quoted at the beginning of this post. (The quote about "the song still in them" is, of course, a misquote!)

So, now, back to "quiet desperation."  I agree with the 24-year old who committed suicide that such a life is not worth living.  I wish he had not killed himself though.  

But, quietly desperate lives are what most people have resigned themselves to.  I tried that for a few months as an employed adult back in the old country.  I tried that quietly desperate life for nearly six years as a non-academic.  I then lucked out, and life is now good.

For quite some years now, it has been anything but a life of quiet desperation.  Quiet is not the word for this blogging/tweeting/Facebooking/op-ed_writing activist-faculty rich life that I lead that is far from desperation.  

The friend thinks that I am someone with "agency" that David Brooks writes about in his column.  Brooks notes about George Eliot:
After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she was capable of that completely justified assertion of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.
I won't be surprised if it takes a while to get to that stage of living "according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life."  When I was a stressed out twenty-year old in an undergraduate program that was metaphorically killing me, there were plenty of moments when I felt that a literal death was a better option.  I can, therefore, relate to that 24-year old Chinese employee who killed himself. It took quite some time of sustained efforts to figure out my own inner criteria to live a life of enjoyment and fulfillment and not a life of quiet desperation.  As Brooks notes:
Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never.
If only that 24-year old had some other outlet for his agency.  But, apparently he had tried:
Xu tried multiple times to leave his job at Foxconn. Applications for positions in libraries and book stores in Shenzhen proved unsuccessful. He also was turned down for a job at an internal library within Foxconn's compound. Xu moved away for a spell to be with his girlfriend in the city of Suzhou, but that relationship fell through, and he eventually made his way back to Shenzhen and Foxconn.
Sometimes, we are just unable to resign ourselves to that quiet desperation in which we are trapped.  It is terrible.  I will wrap this lengthy post with one of Xu's poems:
I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can't swallow any more
All that I've swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Life is good. Pure luck.

George Orwell wonderfully phrased it when he wrote, "'To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."

If I ever needed a reminder, well, it was a lesson that was wasted on me today because there I was driving behind a vehicle in which the letters in the spare-tire cover read "Life is Good." No struggle to read what was right in front of my nose!

I took out my camera and clicked even as we were speeding along.  I knew it would be a shaky, fuzzy shot.  But, life is not always about perfection.  Life is all about enjoying the imperfections, the blemishes, too.  "Warts and all" as they say.

Life is good indeed.

I am nowhere the Ebola zone.
I am not anywhere near bombs bursting in air.
I am not freezing to death without a shelter.
I am not standing in street corners hoping to get some food.
That kind of a listing is endless.

Life is good.

Soon the "good luck" vehicle and I went our ways.

A pickup truck overtook me. The license plate grabbed my attention because it was personalized.  I love some of those personalized plates in which the words seem like a cryptic Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle that then forces me think about what it might mean.  An obsessive compulsive disorder, perhaps, to try to solve those personalized puzzles.

But, this one on the pickup truck was easy: PURLUCK.

Indeed, my good life is thanks to pure luck.

The very moment that I was born, thousands of babies were born in India alone, leave alone the rest of the world.  But, how many of those hundreds of thousands of babies that share my birthday live as good a life as I do?  Come to think of it, how many of my fellow-birthday-babies are already dead?

My good life is pure luck.

I reached home.

I realized that there was no leftover food that I could quickly reheat and eat.  But, I didn't complain. Because, I know life is good.

I chopped up cauliflower, carrots, and a tiny piece of broccoli that was hanging loose with these vegetables.  Sauteed with oil, chili flakes, and cilantro, and served over a bed of white Basmati rice.

Life is good.
Pure luck!

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