Thursday, December 31, 2015

The old year's gone away ... by the rivers of Babylon

We have to keep time and contextualize the life that we lead.  The passing of a day with the sunrise and sunset.  The week consisting of seven days.  A month with weeks, and a year with months.

Have you ever wondered why there are seven days in a week?  After all, it is arbitrary--not anything defined by the sunrise and sunset, right?  It could have been ten, given our ten fingers to count.  Or, five for the fingers in one hand.  Why seven?  Why this "totally random, basically meaningless divisions of time" that is "constant to almost every single culture"?
Jews, who use a lunar calendar made up of either 12 or 13 months beginning with the New Moon, use a seven-day week. The Bengali calendar, which splits the year up into six seasons of two months each, uses a seven-day week. Even the Bahá'í, with their 19-month (and change) year, use a seven-day week.
So, why seven, dammit?
“Only by establishing a weekly cycle of an unvarying, standard length could society guarantee that the continuity of its life would never be interrupted by natural phenomena such as the lunar cycle,” writes Eviatar Zerubavel in his book, The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week. In other words, this is all the moon’s fault for being so unreliable.
Zerubavel especially links the need for an interval of this length to the rise of market culture: there needed to be an agreed-upon time in which vendors and buyers could meet, and about four times every lunar cycle seemed a pretty good frequency.
Damn market! ;)
our best guess for the creation of the seven-day week is that the idea originated in ancient Babylonia. The Babylonians, living in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), held the number seven as a holy number, that being the number of objects in our Solar System they could observe at the time: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Babylonians already had months, just like anyone else, and if you want to split up a period of around 29 days into a smaller period, why not divide it basically into four parts, especially when that number is damnably close to your holy number of seven? So the Babylonians used a seven-day week, with the seventh day having certain religious responsibilities (relaxation, cessation of work, worship, that kind of thing).
Yes, from the cradle of human civilization.  And then the idea spread--perhaps one of the first global memes.
There’s nothing in particular about a 7-day week that makes it a requirement for anybody to observe; it seems that the idea took off simply because there was a need for a unit of time somewhere between five and 10 days long, and seven was a cool number. What’s surprising is that humans haven’t come up with anything better
What was good for the Babylonians is still good for us in this 21st century.

To say goodbye to the old year, here is a poem from my favorite source:

The Old Year  
by John Clare
The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
     Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
     And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
     In every cot and hall--
A guest to every heart's desire,
     And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
     Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
     Are things identified;
But time once torn away
     No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
     Left the Old Year lost to all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Into the swing of things ...a year later

My neighbor who joked that I had a job of milking the cows early in the morning--all because I told him I wake up every day well before six--perhaps will be convinced that I am really out milking cows here in the old country because I have been up every morning between 415 and 430.  For all I know, even the cows are taking it easy at that hour.

Weekday, weekend, vacation, shmacation, it does not matter to me; I wake up early.  Even if it means that soon after coffee I wonder why I had to be up when it is still REM time for most.  But, stupid is as stupid does!

As always, after the fresh coffee and a little bit of reading, I headed to the park for a few laps of brisk walking.  Every round, as I passed the swings, I wondered whether I should take the chance to swing away blissfully.  All these days, I have been avoiding it because of the experience from a summer ago, when I was yelled at--"The swing is for children, and you should not be swinging" a guy scolded me in Tamil.  Once bitten, twice shy, they say.

So, there I was today, yet again passing the swings. And drooling for some good old merriment.  

Finally, I could not take it.

I stepped off the walking path.  I walked up to a swing.  I sat there.  Across from me on another swing was a young boy, perhaps about ten years old.  He smiled at me.  

My feet pressed against the ground.  And with one strong push, I started swinging.  

My feet were now off the ground.  I started gaining speed.  I became the boy that I was back in Neyveli--the only difference is that I did not stand while swinging.

I was lost to the world.  It was heavenly.  If Eliza Doolittle thought she could have danced all night, I know I could have swung all day.

And then came the sounds from behind me.

"Stop.  This is for children only."  

I dragged my feet on the ground in order to slow the swing.  I was crawling to a stop when another man--the local security guy with a mustache that could be a typical National Geographic feature--yelled at me.  "This is for children less than six years old. You will break it" he said in Tamil.  
I got off the swing and started walking away.  There was a sense of public humiliation that I had to wash off.  But, I simply had to swing today.  

As I was walking, the security guy ordered the ten-year old boy also off the swing.  I suppose the guy was not going to relax the rule.  But then, it is not as if there are swings in the park for ten year olds and teenagers and for middle aged folks, or even for the old who might want to gently swing recalling their years.

Tomorrow I will go to the other park ;)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Our own felicity we make or find

"Have you ever read my school's Golden Jubilee book?" asked my father.

I know that the school that he attended in the village is an old one, founded many decades ago.  Yet, I had forgotten that the school dates back to the late 19th century and the book that he was referring to is from 1941-42.

The down-the-memory-lane essays by two distinguished alumni were a treat for this pretentious intellectual and writer.  One of them was certainly a classy essay that was about the school days, which were from 1900.  It vividly brought to life the personalities--the headmasters and the teachers--and the few students who were mentioned.  A piece of writing of the highest caliber, in which wonderfully woven was the quote from Oliver Goldsmith, "Honour sinks where commerce long prevails."

I had never come across that quote.  Yet again, I am humbled by how little I know.

Google gave me the source of that quote,  It is from Goldsmiith's poem, The Traveller.  It turns out that the poem is about one of my favorite topics--the pursuit of happiness.  Wikipedia offers this:
The dedication to The Traveller sets out Goldsmith's purpose:
I have attempted to show, that there may be equal happiness in states, that are differently governed from our own; that every state has a particular principle of happiness, and that this principle in each may be carried to a mischievous excess.
He begins the poem by extolling the happiness of his brother Henry's simple family life. Then, from a vantage-point in the Alps, he surveys the condition of the world. Every nation, he says, considers itself the happiest, but this is only because each nation judges by its own standards. In fact, happiness is probably equally spread, though in different forms which tend to be mutually exclusive.
The poem is from 1764, when "nations" meant different from how we think of nations now.  We could, therefore, even think of cultures, and the sentence reads very well: "Every culture, he says, considers itself the happiest, but this is only because each culture judges by its own standards."  We could also bring that down to the individual level, and it still  makes sense that we would judge happiness by our own respective standards.

I located a site that had the entire poem.  As tempting it was to note "tl; dr" I gave it a quick read.  The poem, certainly philosophical, is loaded with thoughts, place names, and events, all of which require careful reading.  I can easily imagine the essayist remembering the impressive headmaster reciting the poem and interpreting it for the class.  I wish I had that kind of a teacher even now who would  provide me with the kind of a thrilling and memorable learning experience that the essayist had as a school-boy in the classroom more than a century ago.

Wikipedia further notes that Goldsmith concluded the poem with the philosophical notion that wherever we might be--England or America or France or Italy--happiness comes from within:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consign'd,
Our own felicity we make or find
May you also find or make your own felicity.

There is a point to this post

Way back when I was a kid who was just about getting into the teen years and was all excited about bell bottoms, my father's childhood friend and his wife visited with us in Neyveli.  It was the first time that I met with them (and the only time with him) because the visitors were from the United States--they had immigrated quite a few years prior.

Two pieces of technology that they had impressed me--the Polaroid camera, and a ballpoint pen.  I was more impressed with the pen than with the camera.

For one, I only got to see how the camera worked, but the pen was mine to keep.  More than that, writing with that pen was a pleasure.  The tip glided along on paper.  But, as was bound to happen, after a few days, the ink ran out.

I decided to re-use that ballpoint.  Despite all my natural instincts to stay away from doing any physical task--the story of my life--I knew I had to something.  I figured that I needed to inject the writing ink into the tube.  I grabbed a regular Indian refill.  I removed the tips from this refill and from the American one, and after aligning them I kept blowing into the Indian tube to push the ink into the American tube.  Most of the ink flowed in and, of course, a bit oozed out.

I could not wait to clean up the work.  I re-inserted the ballpoint tip and after a few shakes to force the ink into the tip, I scribbled on a piece of paper.  Success!  The American ballpoint pen was functional again.

These days, I rarely use a pen to write anything, similar to how it became rare to use a pencil after the first few grades in school.  The computer and the smartphone have replaced the pens.  I cannot even recall the last time that I purchased a ballpoint pen and, yet, I seem to have quite a collection at home thanks to the freebies at conferences and hotels.

The pen has become a lowly object that now suffers the same Rodney Dangerfield curse that afflicts me.  I wonder if a generation from now whether children will be able to understand a phrase like "the pen is mightier than the sword."  But then the sword is also outdated.  With pens and swords condemned to history, will we then employ something along the line of "a tweet is mightier than a gun" or "a Facebook post is ....?

Nah!  The fountain and ballpoint pens might go extinct. The sword might become dull.  But, it will always be "the pen is mightier than the sword."

At this point, if you are like me, you wonder who it was that coined the phrase "a pen is mightier than a sword."  Google knows everything; a search yields this answer from the BBC:
The English words "The pen is mightier than the sword" were first written by novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, in his historical play Cardinal Richelieu.
A little bit more detail, please:
Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII, discovers a plot to kill him, but as a priest he is unable to take up arms against his enemies.
His page, Francois, points out: But now, at your command are other weapons, my good Lord.Richelieu agrees: The pen is mightier than the sword... Take away the sword; States can be saved without it!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The luck of the draw

We never ask to be born.  We appear on this planet, and for a good chunk of years do not even have the legal claim to make our own decisions.  It is one heck of a random occurrence, which I have addressed in many posts over the years, like here.  This randomness of existence and the advantages or disadvantages that we are born into, raised in, and grow up to, determine most aspects of our lives.  Addressing this randomness becomes a moral issue.  As the comments in the previous post show, well, there can never be any single moral compass to guide us.

One aspect of the randomness in life is longevity itself.  A mere check with Wikipedia reveals the tremendous variation among countries when it comes to average life expectancy at birth.  Take Chad, for instance:
In Chad the average life expectancy at birth is about 50. Children who survive childbirth — and then malnutrition and diarrhea — are likely to die of pneumonia, tuberculosis, influenza, malaria, AIDS or even traffic accidents
Note the different hurdles a typical kid in Chad has to overcome before he is lucky enough to reach my current age.  Notice there is one major disease missing in that list: Cancer.  Why?  Because it takes time for cells to mutate and become malignant.
In fact, cancers of any kind don’t make the top 15 causes of death in Chad — or in Somalia, the Central African Republic and other places where the average life span peaks in the low to mid-50s. Many people do die from cancer, and their numbers are multiplied by rapidly growing populations and a lack of medical care. But first come all those other threats.
Cancer, in other words, is almost a rich person's disease because only the rich live long enough to begin with.  Most men in the decades past, for instance, did not suffer from prostate cancer because they rarely ever lived long enough to suffer that curse.

In the affluent countries, if one is lucky enough to be accidentally born there, it is a story that is different from what happens in Chad.  The report looks at Jimmy Carter's cancer treatment:
How different this is from the United States, where oncologists are working to rid a 91-year-old former president of metastatic melanoma, one of the deadliest cancers. One of Jimmy Carter’s drugs, a new immunotherapy agent called Keytruda, has been priced at $12,500 a month, in addition to the cost of his surgery and treatment with computer-guided radiation beams.
Carter's treatment is not all that exceptional.  Octogenarians undergoing heart surgeries is not news anymore, even though the treatment is at a considerable cost.  All because of the randomness of existence in an affluent country, as opposed to being born in Chad where cancer or heart trouble is the least of the health worries in life, as the following map shows.


It is a moral question of whether or not one ought to be concerned that, for instance, a typical citizen of Chad has to fight the ultimate fight for life all because of the randomness of where we are all born.  Addressing even one aspect of the randomness--longevity--requires redistribution of income, which apparently won't be an easy sell.

So, given that I have won the ovarian lottery, why should I really care about all these?  A verse from the old country says it best for this atheist:
Vaishnav people are those who:
Feel the pain of others,
Help those who are in misery

Friday, December 18, 2015

Flying high ... what about those down below?

We engaged in meaningless chatter which is what family gatherings are essentially about.  The conversation threaded its way to travel and flying.  "So, here's a question for all of you" the professor in me kicked in.  Why not make the family get together also a class discussion, eh!  Hey, they should be thankful that I did not crank up a PowerPoint presentation ;)

"There are more than seven billion people on this planet, right?  What percentage of the people do you think have ever flown?" I asked them.

I am sure the manner in which I asked loaded up the dice.  They figured it had to be way low.  The responses were as low as half-a-percent.  

"Only five percent of the population has been up in a plane" I told them, recalling the data from a post that was less than a month ago.  (And you thought I blog and then forget everything, eh! tsk, tsk, tsk ...)  "In fact, even in the US, a fifth has never been in a plane" I added.

The group seemed to appreciate this.  Damn, I should teach or something.  Oh, wait, that is my day job!

"Given the multiple trips each of us here has made, it means that we all are not only the elite in India, but among the elite on this entire planet.  By this measure alone, we have nothing to complain about.  We ought to be thankful" I continued.

But, complain we all do.

"It seems like the gap between the rich and the poor is rapidly increasing in India" father chipped in.  The professor was happy that the class discussion was being productive.  Students in the non-traditional settings are way more excited about such things than are the traditional students going to college straight out of high school.  The more I teach, the more I seem convinced that college for the vast majority of high school graduates is the wrong choice at the wrong time.  Instead, they need to do something in the real world--learn at the school of hard knocks, as my neighbor often remarks--and should then decide whether they want to attend college.

"Yes, that's what the data also shows" I replied.  "Think about it, do you think that the maid has even been inside a two-tier air-conditioned coach in the trains?"

"I doubt that she has even been in a reserved compartment" replied my sister.

It is so incredibly easy to understand how lucky we are; yet, we conveniently forget that there are hundreds of millions who are relatively way more materially deprived than we are.  We are so quick to resort to "woe is me!"

In an opinion piece on India's wealth inequality, Professor  Asit K. Biswas and Kris Hartley, who is a doctoral candidate, conclude:
India should examine its collective soul to ask whether an economy by and for the obscenely wealthy is just. The inability to establish a political consensus on the extent of redistribution is a convenient excuse for ideological purists to abandon redistributive policies altogether. However, there is a line beyond which inequality is too high, and India is close to – if not already beyond – that line. “Who decides how much inequality is unacceptable?” is no longer an excuse for inaction.
Something is rotten in the country of India.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Er, Tamil Nadu

It has been a few days since the catastrophic rains and floods.  I have been walking around, yes, but not any long radius from home.  I am intentionally a lot more restricted in my movements this time--in some parts, I see and smell sewage-smelling stagnant water, which is not what I want to encounter.

Life, otherwise, seems to be no different from what it was during the previous trips to the old country.  The streets that had been washed clean by the flood waters are now back with rotting garbage piling up.  The floods apparently did nothing to remind the vast majority about the delicate ecosystem in which more than eight million live.  As if they woke up from a bad dream, people are back to their bad old habits.
  • The young and the old alike casually toss away the trash, especially after eating fast foods at cafes and mobile stands.
  • The dogs have a field day digging through the scrap and, in the process, stuff gets dispersed all over the streets.
  • The rag pickers toss things out of the bins in their search for anything salvageable and recyclable, which is how they make their living.
The net result: there seems to be a permanent putrefied stink in the air, in addition to the sewage smell at some places--like at the gas distribution agency to which I walked with my father.  It has been quite a few days since my parents had booked for their replacement cooking gas cylinder. The phone calls did not go through.  So, finally we walked over.  At one place, we carefully stepped past the horribly stinking black pool of water all over the road.

The gas agency office had the smell of a structure that had been inundated--the smell was so strong that I rushed out preferring the smell of sewage.  My father joked that these are the instances that he thanks his sinus problems, because of which he is unaware of stinks.

From a public policy perspective, the rotting garbage is a public health menace.  One can easily imagine that the public health implications are not that far away from the London of the old, where a single water pump turned out to be the source of a deadly cholera. 

I am once again ticked off thinking about American politicians, especially the rabidly nativist Republicans, who frequently talk about the US having to compete against India.  I wonder if any of them see and experience this kind of a ground-level reality.  Comfortably ensconced in their own bubbles, America's rich and the middle-class alike hysterically yell about the competition from India, when the reality in India stinks, chokes, and more.

As for the dogs, I wish the locals would elect dogcatchers instead of politicians who are only out to swindle.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Face it, this post is hairy!

“You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion” wrote G.K. Chesterton.   Of course.

Or, as a late great-uncle--a bearded man himself--put it, "I don't grow a beard.  I simply stopped shaving."

As a bearded male, I have more than a passing intellectual interest in beards.  If only I could recall that exact moment in graduate school when I decided that I would grow one--a beard, that is.  But, those are the moments that I seem to have forgotten.  Just like I don't really remember when it was that the first hair on my chest showed up.  Or on the legs?   For that matter, when did the first pubic hair appear?  I wish somebody had told me to remember those historic events in my own life; instead, I remember trivial events of world history!

Intellectually, scientists have long been puzzled by the facial hair--on men, to be clear.  As I noted earlier in the context of many young men sporting beards these days,
The answer, according to The University of Western Australia researchers, is because men are feeling under pressure from other men and are attempting to look aggressive by being more flamboyant with their whiskers.
Published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, Dr Cyril Grueter and colleagues were investigating the idea that in big societies, male primates have developed increasingly ostentatious "badges" which may enhance male sexual attractiveness to females and give them the edge over other males.   
But, there is more to the scientific curiosity about male facial hair.  A lot more.  Especially because it is so unique:
It is tempting to think that beards are a holdover from our much hairier progenitors, that for whatever reason, this trait survived as we developed into the naked ape. Yet bonobos, our closest relative in the animal kingdom, lack hair around their mouths—precisely where the human beard grows. It would seem that, if anything, human beings have added hair to their faces, even as they lost it most other places. Even if our ape ancestors had had hairy faces, a question would remain: Why did women lose this hair while men retained it? As it is, a hairy chin and upper lip are virtually unique to the human male.
No, do not slip into thinking that we were made in god's image; most Indian male gods are clean-shaven, which would make me a satan then!

What if the beard is nothing but an evolutionary accident?  You know, that old theory--shit happens!
But most scientists have been reluctant to let it rest there. For one thing, insignificance is an unprovable supposition. It is impossible to say for certain that beards are simply along for the ride, at least not until all the functions of all the human genome are discovered. Scientists seek reasons for things, after all, and it is far more interesting to suppose that beards serve a purpose, obscure though it may be.
In other words, scientists always want to know why that shit happens.  Or, here, why the male facial hair?
A second possible solution builds on Darwin’s idea that beards are ornaments that charmed prehistoric women and can presumably still charm women today. Adherents of this line of thought have worked to replace Darwin’s reliance on vague notions of taste with more concrete psychological and biological explanations for women’s preferences. A third theory takes the opposite approach, arguing that hair is a threat device useful in intimidating rival males and establishing dominance. Women, then, have been attracted, not to the beard as such, but rather to the social dominance that impressively bearded men achieve over other men.
My beard serves a practical purpose too--stroking the beard makes it seem like I am a thoughtful and thinking professor in the classroom.  It works, as long as students do not find out that the beard is a mere prop in the awesome stage that the world is, especially in the fifth part (age):
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On this painful existence

I did not stir out of my home in California for two days after the fateful events on September 11th, 2001.  I even skipped attending the back-to-school events, including the president's address in which he referred to a research project in which I was the lead researcher.  I was exhausted from thinking about the families whose loved ones had jumped to death out of the flaming buildings, the ones who were trapped inside, the ones in the planes, the fire and rescue personnel, ... the losses were acutely personal to me, even though I had not known even one of the dead or injured.

It was a replay of similar emotions after the Christmas tsunami. The Fukushima earthquake and the tsunami. The mass shooting in Oregon.  The recent rains and floods in Chennai. And a lot more.

I feel for the people at such events.  And then I worry that my empathy levels could become unhealthy--or worse, that it already is.

Compared to those events around the world, my troubles seem so trivial.  I have to remind myself my daughter's pragmatic suggestion years ago, of which she perhaps has no memory.  She matter-of-factly told me that a person's problems were important and huge to that person.  Whatever the problems might be.  End of story.

The psychotherapy column in the NY Times has that same bottom-line as well: "Got First-World Problems? Don’t Feel Guilty."
Focusing on your hurt feelings because a cousin didn’t invite you to her bridal shower can easily appear shallow if you place it in the context of African genocide or refugees drowning in the Aegean Sea.
The therapist advises not to feel guilty that your hurt feelings take priority over those catastrophic global issues.
If we allowed every mass tragedy to affect us deeply, we would soon suffer from empathy overload. Most of us would agree that having empathy for other people is a good thing, a core human capacity that supports morality and civilization. But it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. Empathy has a downside when it makes you ashamed of what matters to you, or when it distracts you from other important emotions of your own.
If we didn't feel hurt and angry and frustrated in our daily lives that are peaceful and rich, then I suppose we would not be truly human experiencing the emotions that make us human.  But, of course, we do not want to live a selfish life that is shut off from all those problems either.  A fine balance between empathy and selfishness is what we need.

A similar issue pops up in a column about life after the catastrophic rains and floods in Chennai.  The author, a Chennai resident, writes:
There was a family celebration recently, a zero-number birthday, and we went out, had dinner at a nice place. The money I spent, I didn’t feel... guilty about it, exactly. After all, some of my money has found its way to relief organisations. And we can’t stop living, right? Life goes on, right? But when I handed over my credit card, I felt weird. I think I understood — rather, felt — for the first time what Siddhartha must have felt when he stepped out of the palace and saw people who did not have the privileges he did. Again, I’m trying not to make too big a deal about this — but these are big thoughts, big emotions. About, through some freakishly random accident, being born into a certain kind of family, having all kinds of opportunities, having the freedom to chuck a phenomenally well-paying job and pursue a maybe-it’ll-work career in another field, now living in a flat in a high-lying area that floodwaters couldn’t reach — all of which led to this evening where I’m taking a casual look at the bill and handing out my credit card.
There is empathy, yes.  But, life goes on.  Babies are born. Wedding are celebrated. Funerals are conducted. Parties are held.

All a part of the human condition on this pale blue dot.

Monday, December 14, 2015

I write because ... I don't know!

When I began writing op-eds, it seemed like I was purpose-driven.  I had an agenda.  I then sat down to piece together words and sentences.  They definitely interested me, and grabbed the attention of a few readers too.  The agenda system worked.

Of late, I find that I truly do not know what exactly I would bring to an op-ed.  Yes, I know what the topic is that I want to write about, but beyond that ... I end up surprised to some degree at how I wove together the ideas, and I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment.  I marvel at the process, which seems mysterious.

While I am only a wannabe essayist, I am excited to want to belong to that group.  I always wonder how the accomplished and celebrated essayists do it.  Are their practices vastly different from mine?  Is there something that I can pick up from them?

In this vocation of mine, it is not as if I can hire coaches, unlike how Tiger Woods or Novak Djokovic have their own personal coaches.  Other writers then become my unpaid consultants.

One of those consultants made my day!  Charles D’Ambrosio says:
The essay isn’t a form for know-it-alls, though it’s often used that way, which is probably a leftover expository habit we all pick up in grade school. Mostly I try to write about what I don’t know, which is so vast, so very much the larger part of my existence, and I guess as a result my threshold for surprise is set pretty low. Every one of these pieces surprised the shit out of me. Sometimes I’m just surprised to learn that I think what I think. It’s kind of an article of faith for me that if you aren’t taken by surprise in the process of putting words on paper then you’re only writing about what you already know, you’re trucking in conclusions. I need a crisis, I’m courting failure, the possibility of silence, because it’s only at that moment that I actually need to find words, new words hopefully. This is a writing thing, a method, however harebrained, but it’s also personal, a way of being—and they’re related, I think. A pundit like Anne Coulter’s prose suffers not because she can’t write a decent sentence but because she can’t complicate the speaker. Her ideological certainties are already baked into her sentences, so right or wrong, she’s a tiresome read. There’s no crisis, therefore no surprise. The solution for me is to dramatize the problem of thinking about the problem, presenting that spectacle, and some of the narrative umph, I guess, comes from the cliffhanger: is this going to makes sense or not? The outcome of any given essay is truly uncertain, right up to the deadline –and in some cases even past that.

As I have often noted, quite a few of the posts at this blog are on topics in which I am far from fluent.  I shouldn't even be opining about those, yet that's what excites me, though that might be the very reason that I am in the twilight of a mediocre career.  I increasingly find it to be boring to write only on topics that are too familiar to me.  Now, after reading that unpaid consultant's thoughts, I am all the happier that I am doing alright.

Anything else, oh consultant?
I feel like we live in this fucked up surplus economy where you can get cheap answers just about everywhere but real questions are in desperately short supply. It makes me feel lonely because I’m spending my life over in the other economy, an economy of need, with a ton of questions that, in all likelihood, will never get answered. I’d like to say bad answers isolate and good questions create community but I doubt I could defend that, not this late at night. Like a lot of people, I’m searching, not for answers, but for the questions that make answers necessary; meanwhile, we’ve got such a glut of answers that it’s kind of like, who cares? And why? The streets are fucking paved with answers! Just like the road to hell.
I’m very tired –and stoned on Fanta (orange).
To come down out of the clouds, in these essays my only real answer is in the act, the doing, so in the end I know I’ve said something where before there was only silence and I’ve made something where before there was nothing. That may seem like a pitifully small victory but sometimes it gets me by just to answer that emptiness.

Hey, at least one unpaid coach seems to be green-lighting my thinking and writing.

Modern medieval maidens

Even through the few years of my existence, I have been witness to a phenomenal change--for the better--in the treatment of women.  From a grandmother, who was condemned to live a life of widowhood from the age of eighteen to her death at 67; to a mother and aunts who graduated high school and went to live in cities far away from the old village; to a sister and cousin sisters and schoolmates who went to college not only for an undergrad but also for graduate and professional degrees; to a daughter and niece and other young women whose professional accomplishments are so stratospheric that even most men cannot dream of ...

Yet another reason why I cannot ever agree with people who talk about the good old days, when the old days were good only to the fewest of few males somewhere.

Against such a background, I have been increasingly troubled by the recent uptick in American colleges and universities to "protect" young women.  Of course, we need all the education about good practices like treating genders equally and not harassing women, for instance.  But, we seem to be going way overboard to such an extent that the system seems to want treat young women as helpless maidens in some medieval literature.  The more I listen to the chatter, the more I am amazed at the prevailing sentiment to equate women with damsels in distress..

It is a shame that young women seem to be characterized that way.  Even the female students in my classes are such a contrast to all that.  Most women in my classes seem a lot more together, confident, and purposeful, compared to the typical male student who comes across as an overgrown adolescent.

Of course, I am not the only one who is upset these days about how the system is caricaturing young women as ones who need all the parental guidance.  My favorite feminist, Camille Paglia, says that and more with her usual blunt talk.
I am continually shocked and dismayed by the nearly Victorian notions promulgated by today’s feminists about the fragility of women and their naïve helplessness in asserting control over their own dating lives. Female undergraduates incapable of negotiating the oafish pleasures and perils of campus fraternity parties are hardly prepared to win leadership positions in business or government in the future.
Now, that is some criticism, eh!

Paglia takes it up another notch:
If today’s young women want to be passive wards of the state, then that is their self-stultifying choice.

I have complained enough (like here) that young women and men seem to want a lot more rules and not fewer rules.  And even more bizarre that they seem to be all too eager to obey those rules.  Paglia's phrase of "passive wards of the state" can equally apply to young men too.  But, our interest in this post is about feminism and young women.  So, what would Paglia like to see happen?
Too many people, both men and women, have foolishly conflated their personal identities with their jobs. It’s a bourgeois trap and a distortion of the ultimate meaning of life.
The childless Gloria Steinem, who was unmarried until she was 66, has never been sympathetic to the problems faced by women who want both children and a job. Stay-at-home moms have been arrogantly disdained by orthodox feminism. This is a primary reason for the lack of respect that a majority of mainstream citizens has for feminism, which is addicted to juvenile male-bashing and has elevated abortion to sacramental status. While I firmly support unrestricted reproductive rights (on the grounds that nature gives every individual total control over his or her body), I think that the near-hysterical obsession with abortion has damaged feminism by making it seem morally obtuse.
I want universities to create more flexible, extended-study options for young women who choose to have earlier (and thus safer) pregnancies, and I want more public and private resources devoted to childcare facilities for working parents of every social class.

I have no disagreement there.  Well, I don't have the cojones to disagree with Camille Paglia ;)

Monday, December 07, 2015

It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is

Often, I wonder why venture into reading something that I have no business reading about.  It happened, yet again, today.  And this time it is about a lawsuit that will be settled by the US Supreme Court.  I am no constitutional lawyer, neither am I neck deep in political theory or philosophy, but I was drawn to reports on the lawsuit like a drug addict is ... oh wait, I have no idea what a drug addict feels; I better stay away from bullshitting about that then! ;)

The case is scheduled to be heard tomorrow, Tuesday the eighth of December.  Mother Jones, which is no friend of the GOP, puts it this way:
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will examine the bedrock principle of "one person, one vote" in a major case that could yield the Republican Party a critical advantage in future elections.
So, what's going on, you ask?
Texas residents Sue Evenwel and Ed Pfenninger want the court to create a uniform national standard for drawing legislative districts based on the total number of eligible voters in them, as opposed to the total number of people, which is the standard that Texas and many other states use now.
Mother Jones lets us know what it thinks about the plaintiffs:
The plaintiffs behind this high-stakes legal challenge are an unusual pair. One is a Texas tea party activist who has promoted a conspiratorial film suggesting President Barack Obama's real father was Frank Marshall Davis, a supposed propagandist for the Communist Party. The other is a security guard and religious fundamentalist who believes the Earth doesn't revolve around the sun and that unicorns were real.
Wait, what?

Can somebody closer to the center, from the other side, explain this, please?
on December 8th the Supreme Court will consider a fundamental question it has elided in previous rulings: When states draw electoral districts, who should they consider to be the population that is being represented? Is it the eligible voters who count—a category that excludes non-citizens, children and felons, among others? Or is the total population—including people who are not eligible to vote—the right metric?
The parties’ briefs in Evenwel v Abbott give the impression that the question may be best addressed in a university seminar room. The dispute in those pages has the air of a dry academic exercise, with few glimpses into the political issues involved. But to pick up the many amicus (friend-of-the-court) briefs on both sides is to see the centrality of the case to the real-world jockeying of America’s political parties. The stakes of Evenwel are potentially huge, and it appears that Democrats have the most to lose.
Wait, what?  When even the Economist notes that "Democrats have the most to lose," isn't it time for people like me to run to the jungle and stay holed up in a cabin?  Any other take?
The change would produce a political earthquake. Eligible voters as a group are older (no children under 18, to begin with), wealthier, and more Republican—and, even more important in Texas, whiter and more Anglo—than the population at large. Many people in the Southwest—both legal residents and undocumented immigrants—are not citizens. Under the proposed Evenwel rule, only those eligible to vote count.
Crap, that does not help!  Back to the Economist then:
 Nine unelected judges hold in their hands a fundamental question of American democracy that could alter the political terrain for decades to come.
Oh my freaking lord!  When even a junkie like me did not know about this case until now, ... Gimme some hope.  Somebody. Anything to grasp, please.
Victory for the plaintiffs seems unlikely, however. The Court is hearing this case not so much out of choice but because, as a direct appeal from a three-judge court, it can’t just refuse. Whether it heard arguments or not, its decision would set a precedent. And the plaintiffs are on shaky ground. They are in essence asking the Court to open itself up to a decade or more of hell adjudicating its new rule. Consider this soothing phrase from their brief: “This appeal need not resolve every implementation issue.” Indeed. A rule basing districts on “eligible voters” would be a nightmare to administer, with district courts around the country required to find information about eligible voters—information that’s not available anywhere.
As an amicus brief for a group of former directors of the Census explains, “there is no actual count of the number of voting age citizens.” The Census counts the number of people in the country. The only systematic information about citizen population is a sample, like a voter poll in other words, taken by the Census. And that sample is too small to produce a reliable estimate of citizens in a given district, the former officials warn: “Adequate data to support Appellants’ positions simply do not exist.”
Oh well.  The umpire is not really an umpire at all

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Halal home, Alabama

The Wall Street Journal of the old days--as in pre-Murdoch era, which was also the pre-9/11 years--used to have wonderful feature articles that typically began in a column above the fold on the front page and then continued on in the inside pages.  It would be about a place or a person or people somewhere, and not always with a business subtext.  In my mind--and I don't think it is my imagination--I even recall Daniel Pearl's columns from back then.

It was those charming essays, that were also well written, and the op-eds, that made me a WSJ subscriber for a few years.  At one time, I was a subscriber to three newspapers: the WSJ, the Los Angeles Times, and the Bakersfield Californian.  After all, those were the very beginnings of the internet years and print ruled.

It is for a similar reason that I continue to subscribe to the Economist.  I love the wide variety of topics that are covered there.  It gets even more exciting and interesting to read the off-beat stories, like this one about a Frank Randle, who is a "farmer-philosopher who confounds expectations about Islam and outsiders in the South."
His clientele expanded to include Muslims throughout southern Alabama and up to Atlanta: professionals and university types from across the Arab world, Africa and South-East Asia. Demand spikes with the births of children and the feast at the end of Ramadan; every year a Malian imam in Tuskegee hand-delivers a religious calendar so Mr Randle can anticipate it.
Who would have imagined that deep down in Alabama is a White American philosopher-farmer who is the go-to-guy for halal mutton!
Some of his customers have become friends. Sitting on his porch—wind-chimes jangling, turkey vultures circling overhead—Mr Randle recalls a banquet on the lawn between his house and the orchard, involving dates, pomegranates and palpitation-inducing shots of coffee, consumed cross-legged and without cutlery. Afterwards his guests prostrated themselves in prayer, he remembers, pointing the way towards Mecca.
This description is way too surreal in contemporary America where beating up on Muslims has become the national favorite past time.  And in the South!
Mr Randle himself has been warned by xenophobes that he is “consorting with the enemy”. “It’s a free country,” he tells them.
Good for him!
Having raised his lambs from birth, Mr Randle isn’t keen to slaughter them himself; in any case, he explains—stooping to return a lost newborn to its mother—state rules forbid him to, though his Muslim guests may do so for their personal consumption. He admires the solemnity and reverence with which they go about it: evidence, he thinks, of a sense of responsibility to the natural world, and of the sanctity of life, which he shares. When employed expertly and painlessly, the halal technique is “the most humane way”, says the farmer-philosopher of Alabama.
After reading that page, I was curious to find out more.  Of course, his business has a web presence.
While we are not certified organic, it is our goal to produce food that we are comfortable serving on our own tables. That means we do not use harmful pesticides on our crops, animal byproducts in our livestock feed, or a program of antibiotics for our livestock. Rather than being certified organic by a government agency, we receive our certification from our customers, who understand how we farm.
We employ sustainable techniques to cultivate a healthy soil, including cover cropping to build organic matter and reduce soil erosion. We use manures for fertilization, rotate crops to reduce disease and pest outbreaks, and control insect pests without damaging beneficial insect populations.
Sounds lovely, right?  And a lovely family picture with the philosopher-farmer sporting a mustache too:

In case you wonder why Randle is not going big time:
After taking in a slice of an old plantation, the farm now encompasses some 230 acres. Mr Randle reckons that is ample: “If you can’t walk over it in a day, you don’t need it.”
People like Randle give me hope. Plenty of hope.

Time to renew the subscription to the Economist!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Carry on, love is coming, love is coming to us all

My commitment to cut through the bullshit in any walk of life means that the atrociously unprofessional all-campus emails flying back and forth (which I have only been observing because, after all, it has been years since I was declared persona non grata!) has gotten me all worked up.

All that while I have been trying my best to figure out what was happening on the other side of the planet with the catastrophic rains and floods.  Not able to communicate with the family while wondering whether they were alright was stressful, to say the least.

Meanwhile there was the mass-shooting down in Southern California.

These were not helping my highly empathetic personality.  I was sure my blood-pressure was through the roof.

I swung by my usual place for the check-up.  Well, my doctor will be happy with such a display:

I suppose I chose my parents well--their genes are certainly the reason behind this, or at least they play a significant role.

With immense relief, I got back to my work. I had no idea such a note from a student was waiting for me:
What has helped me comprehend the way the world is and how it works come from the way that you have asked us to think about them, it is you who have helped me develop a better understanding of the world, not necessarily the content of the course. Sure anyone could post news links and academic articles and instruct students to read them but it is what you ask of us that makes the difference. Your views and questions provide the direction that enables us to see and make the connections that are needed to have a better idea of the world.
That feedback is worth A LOT in my book.  A kind of feedback that money cannot buy.

The grading of the finals will soon begin.  And then it will be time to board the plane and fly to the old country.  I have much to be thankful for, and there is no better (worse?) time than now for me to pay my dues.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

On the Chennai floods ...

Will be a while before I get back to blogging ... time and energy spent on the catastrophic rains and floods back in the old country.

A few recent news reports:

From the BBC:

From the Indian Express:

The airport has been closed until December 6th (at least?)

It isn't over yet, by any means:
The weather office in Chennai has predicted more rains in Tamil Nadu over the next 24 hours due to presence of a low pressure in Bay of Bengal. “Due to low pressure rainfall will continue in next 24 hours in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry with some places receiving heavy to very heavy rainfall,” said Regional Meteorological Department Director, S.R. Ramanan.
This satellite map alone says what is ahead for the next few days:

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

This, too, shall pass

"Will we have a class on Wednesday" asked a couple of students last week, hoping that I would cancel the meeting because the day after that was Thanksgiving Thursday.

"Of course, we will meet" I told them.  "Rain or shine, I will be here" I added.

We met on Wednesday.  Two students brought doughnuts for the entire class.  We had an oversupply of goodness!

It was now the Monday morning after the long four day break from school.  The radio reported that a few schools south and west of us had closed for the day because of freezing rain.

"Freezing rain?"  I checked the weather report for where I was headed--yes, freezing rain.

"Rain or shine, I will be here" or canceling class were the options.

I started driving.

It was a dry 27 when I left home.  A few minutes later, little drops fell.  Ice on the windshield.  It was now a damp 28.

A slow drive it was.  "No sharp turns" I reminded myself.

A few miles in, I saw the first of the three casualties--a car in the ditch.

"Am I being stupid to drive to work today?"  But, I continued on.  I had by now joined a caravan of slow moving cars and trucks.  It felt good to have company.  "If they are with me, then I can make it."

The truck in the other direction had the hazard lights on as it approached us, and as it kept going.  I figured the driver was warning us about something ahead.  The traffic was slowing down.  I was impressed with my fellow-drivers.  We were such good drivers--slow speeds, lots of gap between vehicles, and all the safety protocols in place.  There is hope.

I could see the flashing lights of the cops.  And then the sight of another car in the ditch.  An older man was walking up the grade to the road.

It could have easily been me in the ditch, as it happened once a few years ago.  Thankfully, only that once.  I felt sorry for the older man.

Any given day, any disaster can strike any of us.  A tiny error in judgment is all that it takes.  Shit happens!  We fail to understand and appreciate how fortunate we are when things are "normal."

The class made it all worth.

The weather the rest of the week will be back to normal for this time of the year--no freezing rain and black ice.

As the Monday fades away in the rear-view mirror, memories of this white-knuckle experience will also fade away.  I suppose it is a good thing that the human mind forgets most of the bad experiences--else, humanity would never take risks of any kind.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Masala for your heart

Back in graduate school, a friend who was Jewish joked that his family always scanned the news for Jewish names.  He laughed while acknowledging that he, too, did that.  I joined in the laughter because I found myself watching out for Indian-American names.  Yes, even when I was fresh off the boat.

More than two decades later, it seems like Indian-American names are popping up all over the place.  It used to be only in the academic circles, or in the research wings of those large multinational corporations.  Now, Indian-Americans are seemingly everywhere.  Even governors and stand-up comedians.  Thankfully, no gun-crazy Indian-American on a shooting spree!

The NY Times had a Sunday review essay on heart diseases, which was authored by Sandeep Jauhar, who has authored a few pieces for the Times, and has also been at other major media outlets.  An interesting background too--he decided to pursue the medical profession while he was a PhD student in physics at the University of California, Berkeley!  How do people become such brainiacs?

Anyway, back to the NY Times essay by Jauhar.  It is on heart diseases.  What is of interest is this:
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and rates have risen over the past several decades. South Asian immigrants to the United States, like me, develop earlier and more malignant heart disease and have higher death rates than any other major ethnic group in this country.
The reasons for this have not been determined. 
One grandfather of mine--my mother's father--died from a cardiac event that, incidentally, was not his first either.  My grandmother--father's mother--died from an enlarged heart condition.  Whether or not that elevates my risk level is, well, we will find out within the next twenty-four years ;)

Jauhar writes about the Farmingham study that was initiated in 1948 with a key goal "to establish risk factors for coronary heart disease."  He quickly reviews there the research that went into identifying the risk factors that we now think is common sense--like high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking.  

But, those were about people who were of White European stock.  
Traditional cardiac risk models, developed by studying mostly white Americans, don’t fully apply to ethnic communities. This is a knowledge gap that must be filled in the coming years.
I need to remind myself that this was a guy who was on track to get his PhD in physics and after a career change, has been a cardiologist for years now!

So, why the "masala" in the title?  Did I have it there in order to provide a hint that the spices are killing South Asians?  Nope.
Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health have started such a study. Named Mediators of Atherosclerosis in South Asians Living in America, or Masala, it has enrolled about 900 South Asian men and women in two large metropolitan areas, the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago.
I think that the researchers had decided a priori that the study would have a name that would also be a cultural reference, and then they came up with an acceptable scientific expansion of "Masala" ;)
Researchers are focusing on novel risk factors, including malignant forms of cholesterol (previous research has suggested that South Asians may have smaller and denser cholesterol particles that are more prone to causing hardening of the arteries), as well as other social, cultural and genetic determinants.
Hmmm ... for all I know, the tasty European butter that I prefer is transforming into artery-hardening cholesterol!  Oh yeah, there is a cardiologist in the family--he is not an Indian-American but is married to one though ;)  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Angels and demons

One way to look at our economic activities is through the conventional framework of selfishness--we do what we do in order to serve our self-interests and that the "invisible hand" of the market produces all wonderful things that all of us get to enjoy.

That self-interest then leads critics to label the system as one that is driven by greed.  Of course, greed is not what most of us would consider to be a virtue.  Even as children, we instinctively understand that greed can be awful.  When we were kids, "greedy pig" was one of the many words that we yelled at siblings when unhappy about another's actions.  Michael Douglas, via his Wall Street character Gordon Gekko, made sure we would always equate the market economy with greed; remember that famous line?

Ricardo Hausmann offers a different way to think about the market:
But a market economy should be understood as a system in which we are supposed to earn our keep by doing things for other people; how much we earn depends on how others value what we do for them. The market economy forces us to be concerned about the needs of others, because it is their need that constitutes the source of our livelihood. In some sense, a market economy is a gift-exchange system; money merely tracks the value of the gifts we give one another. 
I earn my salary as a university faculty.  I get paid for educating students, whether or not I am really contributing to students' education in my classes.

My neighbor, "Archie," runs his own machine tool business, in which he makes products that others use.

I earn my keep by doing things for others.  Archie earns his by doing things for others.

Ah, if only it were that simple.  If only we were able to create a paradise in which we did things for others and everybody lived happily ever after!

We  humans are not always good-hearted.  That view of human nature is also why I, after a great deal of looking around, chose the Bernard Shaw quote as the title for this blog.

Of course, the understanding that we humans are not always good is not new; as James Madison put it:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
We humans are no angels.  There are all kinds of satans within us.  Most of us try our best to control the inner demons.  But, there are many who carry out the demon's instructions.  Government becomes a necessity.  But then, not all those who work in "government" are angels either!

Try as we can, as we do, I suppose we will forever be trapped in this struggle over dealing with our selves that are far from angels doing only good things for other people.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

I worry about climate change. So ... I contribute more to it?

I have been pissing people off all the time.  Throughout my entire life, it seems like.  It is that constant questioning approach that pisses people off.  Back when I was a student doing an internship to pay bills, my supervisor told me I was being a contrarian, which I am not--all because I questioned the ideas behind the project to which I was assigned.

It is difficult to consistently align one's ideas through all walks of life.  Those are the inconsistencies that people prefer to gloss over, which I question.  Even in my own life.

Take for instance my concern over climate change.  Unlike the deniers, I am convinced about the science behind it.  Climate change is for real.  When that is the case, then I have to ask myself what I do to help the cause.

I have blogged about the impacts of eating meat, for instance--the scientific analysis showing that being a vegetarian is significantly less of an impact on the environment unlike the effects of a carnivorous or omnivorous lifestyle.  I can feel good about myself.

I have also blogged about the very little trash that I generate--I barely have two small bags of trash for the garbage truck to haul away every two weeks.  Yep, one small bag of trash per week.

I rarely throw away food.  Because I do not buy a whole bunch and let it rot.  I do not cook a whole bunch and toss them away.  I do not eat out much either.  Good for the environment and good for my health, I gloat.

I continue to use old and outdated gadgets.  The music system that I use is a relic from the early 1990s.  My smartphone is so old that even the YouTube app has stopped working.  I feel smug that I am not participating in the wasteful disposable culture.

But, I also know I am one awful culprit.  I contribute way more than the average meat-eating, gadget-buying, food-wasting, middle-class American.  Consider, for instance, the following estimate of my carbon footprint, based on the average in the zipcode where I live and the income and household characteristics:

Check your footprint here

You see the travel component?  You see how it towers over food?  Over "other goods"?  Especially the air travel:
Flying is a luxury. Just 5 percent of the world’s population has ever set foot on an airplane. Of the almost 20 percent of Americans who have never flown, their household income is much more likely than average to be less than $30,000.
Imagine that!  A fifth of the American population has never, ever flown.  95 percent of the world's population has never, ever flown.  I, meanwhile, add up my frequent flier miles.

And, yes, flying is one hell of a contributor to climate change.  Yet, that source is the least regulated of all, compared to the stationary sources like factories and mobile sources like cars.  Why?
“Boeing is, by dollar value, the United States’ largest exporter,” she says. “The political clout of Boeing is huge.”
Actually it is more than Boeing alone.
Vera Pardee, the senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, a party to the 2007 lawsuit, says recent related action by the European Union to force the industry into reducing its emissions via a carbon-trading platform also fell victim to industry influence. For nearly a decade, the European Union worked to establish an emissions-trading scheme that it wanted to apply to all aircraft landing in EU territory. In 2012, as the proposal was being finalized, Pardee says China, Brazil, and other countries threatened to cancel their orders with Airbus, which is based in France. Likely wanting to protect the bottom line of one of its biggest companies, the European Union agreed to “stop the clock” in 2013 on its enforcement of aviation emissions. According to Pardee, that’s evidence of the “amazing influence that the industry has over this entire process, and continues to have.”
I will continue to fly all the way across the continent for academic conferences, and all the way across the world for family reasons.  Yet, I refer to myself as environmentally conscious and that I worry about climate change.  Bah, humbug!

Oh well.  Soon the world's leaders and their scientists will fly to Paris for the global meeting on climate change.  And they will eat meat. And will drink bottled water. And will exchange notes via the latest electronic gadgets. And will wear fashionable clothes.  They too, like I am, are worried about global climate change.  Aren't we all!

How many will I have pissed off with this post? ;)

Friday, November 27, 2015

The times they are a changin

I was a prized grandson.  Not because I the most charming baby ever; I suspect I was as ugly as I now am.  Not because I was a child prodigy; have always been dumber than a doorknob.  But, because after having daughters, and then after the first two daughters in turn having daughters each, well, the grandparents were excited that I came along.  A boy!

Those were the days of old India where boys were considered assets and girls were seen as liabilities.  What an awful view of life that was!


That kind of a systematic ill-treatment of girls, especially in the less literate and developed areas of India, and similar practices in China and a few other Asian countries, were why demographers and thinkers--especially Amartya Sen--wrote and spoke about the missing hundred million women:
In 1990, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist, shocked the world with an article in the New York Review of Books that estimated there were 100 million missing women because of discrimination.
Since then, demographers have devised more precise methods of calculating missing women in each country. They factor in the toll caused by malnutrition and poor medical care and, more significantly, also the numbers lost to abortions of female fetuses, a problem recognized in the years after Dr. Sen wrote his article.
In June of 2015, the Population Council, a New York City-based research organization, published a study saying there were 88 million missing women world-wide in 1990, when Mr. Sen wrote his article, and that there were 126 million missing in 2010, roughly half of them attributable to prenatal sex selection. Of those, more than 112 million were in Asia.
The paper, by John Bongaarts, a distinguished scholar at the Population Council, and Dr. Guilmoto, projects an increase to 150 million missing by 2035 and then a slight decrease to 142 million by 2050.
Of course, as one can expect, the missing women will also mean a whole bunch of problems for men who will be looking for spouses.

But, that is not the problem that I want to blog about.  Because it has been talked about a lot--it is one of those serious issues over which there is often a lot of talk and very little action.  Instead, I want to write about something impressive about women in the very areas in India that have had decades of gender issues.

Rajasthan in India is notorious for the lopsided female/male ratios, and for unequal treatment of women.  Yet, even there, there are wonderful stories like two sisters, Rimppi Kumari and Karamjit, who farm on their own.  Yes, women farmers.  Not on some tiny strip of ancestral land either:
"When my father died seven years ago I decided to take up farming. We own a lot of land, around 32 acres," [Rimppi Kumari] says, a smile playing on her lips.
How awesome is that!  And, there is more:
Rimppi gave up a job in information technology to grow soyabean, wheat and rice.
She is making more money out of the land than even her father did, helped by her decision to embrace modern farming techniques.
What?  Giving up IT?  How dare she! ;)

Caption at the source:
                     Rimppi is queen of all she surveys on her farm which is making more money than ever                 

Of course, the larger population is not in support:
But despite their success, the sisters are viewed with disapproval in their village.
Eighty-year-old Sardar Karamjeet Singh voices the opinion of many others when he says that "what these two sisters are doing is wrong. They should have been married by now".
"We don't allow our women to leave the house. Forget about farming."
The eighty-year old perhaps has no idea that the world is changing, and changing rapidly.

But, who cares about the world of eighty-year olds when the girls have an important woman backing them--their mother, Sukhdev Kaur:
"If you give opportunities to girls, if you allow them to grow, they can fly high," 60-year-old Sukhdev Kaur says.
"They just need their wings unclipped. I have always believed in my daughters. They show that daughters can surpass sons."
Indeed.  The daughters can, and will, surpass sons.  Well, especially the prized ones will be the ones left behind in the dirt.  Wait, why am I covered in dirt? ;)

Thursday, November 26, 2015


It was a cold, rainy morning when I pulled into the gas station.

It is one that I like to frequent because the attendant there is always pleasant, with a smile that is welcoming.  He definitely has seen more moons than I have, and with a weathered exterior that makes it clear that desk jobs are not what he has done through his life.

He handed me the receipt when it was all done.  As always, he added, "have a good day."

"Thanks.  And have a good Thanksgiving" I replied even as he was starting to walk away to the other car that was waiting.

He paused.  Perhaps  to make sure within himself that he did hear what he thought he had heard.

He retraced his path to my car.  "You too, man" he grinned.  "I got to work though.  But then, working is better than not working" he added with a chuckle.

I smiled, waved, and got back on the road.

On a cold and rainy morning, when a man who is older than I am genuinely smiles and chuckles about having to work filling gas on Thanksgiving, I feel so humbled realizing that I have no grounds to complain about any material aspect of my life.  I, like many, take my privileges for granted.

A couple of hours later, I opened the discussions in class with my favorite pre-Thanksgiving groaner that I have been doing for years now, ever since I gained my citizenship.  "Ask me why I am the best person ever to be invited to a Thanksgiving meal" I told them.

A student then asked me that question.  And now came my big moment for the punchline.  My life is always a punchline, it seems.

"Because, at the table, I am simultaneously an American and an Indian" I said.  And laughed along with the class.  It is really a good thing that I find my humor to be amusing; it keeps me entertained.  All these years and I still laugh at my stale groaner!

"No Thanksgiving for me.  I have to work" said one student.  Another joined in with having to work.

Plenty of people work on a day that is a holiday to most.  At coffee-shops, gas stations, airports, utilities, ...   The grocery store displayed a note that it will be open until three in the afternoon.  Meanwhile, at homes across the country, mothers and aunts and grandmothers prepare the Thanksgiving meals, putting in even more hours than they do on regular days, with fathers, uncles, and grandfathers occasionally chipping in.  We take all their work for granted.

I thank them all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I, too, am America

I could not wait to become a citizen of the United States. I filed the application practically the minute I became eligible and then impatiently waited for the letter that would provide me with the details on the swearing-in ceremony. Finally, that cherished day arrived, during the halcyon days of the year 2000. There were the usual congratulations and wishes from friends and colleagues. One gift was special—a quilt.

A friend, who was a Japanese-American, brought the gift and explained that it was her mother who made the quilt. It had red, white, and blue in the square patches, obviously to reflect the colors of the American flag. But, those colors alone did not make the gift special.

The friend’s mother was one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were forced to relocate from their homes to the concentration camps. She was a young child when she was forcibly moved to a camp in Manzanar, California. The quilt was, therefore, very special because she loved the country despite how she and other Japanese-Americans were atrociously and inhumanely treated by her government and fellow-citizens. Her commitment to, love for, and pride about the United States were all there in the quilt that welcomed a new citizen.

I was reminded of that quilt and the Japanese-American friend when viewing the traveling exhibit—Art of Survival: Enduring the Turmoil of Tule Lake–at Eugene’s federal courthouse. The photographs and descriptions were about the conditions of the Japanese-Americans who were forced to live in the concentration camp in Tule Lake, which is in the dry elevations of northern California’s Siskiyou County, immediately to the south of Oregon’s border.

It seems so unreal that the federal government, under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who led the country out of the depths of the Great Depression and instituted various programs including Social Security, rounded up its own people and sent them to camps where all their constitutional rights were stripped away. Their only crime was that they looked like the people of the country that attacked Pearl Harbor. The calculation apparently was that because Japan attacked America, Japanese-Americans were suspects.

Years later, the federal government, under the presidencies of Reagan and Bush, formally tendered its apology to Japanese-Americans. Of course, there is no amount that one can ever pay as compensation to those whose lives were so rudely interrupted, and which tremendously affected the rest of their lives after being released from those camps. 

Even though it happened seventy-plus years ago, it was chilling to look at photographs that had signs saying: “Japs Keep Moving, This is a White Man’s Neighborhood.” It was also surreal to view the images at the exhibit, and to think about the horribly simplistic thought that people had made equating Japanese-Americans with the enemy.

It is even more surreal to think that we are employing that same crude thinking in the context of the refugees from Syria and Iraq, and about Muslims in this country. Because the al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists are Muslims, and because the recent terrorist acts in France and elsewhere are by ISIS, this country is quickly sliding into a dangerously erroneous conclusion that the Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq are terrorists, and that even American citizens who are Muslims cannot be trusted. It was shocking, to say the least, to hear one presidential contender talk about the need for a database to track Muslims in the country.

I suppose my brown-skinned and bearded appearance, along with an accent that makes it clear that I am not from here, could make some believe that I am a Muslim who needs to be monitored. As the political hysteria gets louder, my worries about my own welfare increase, as was the case in the days and months after 9/11. If that’s how I feel, when I am not a Muslim and when I am not from Iraq or Syria, I would think that Muslim refugees and brown-skinned Muslims in this country are way more worried than I am. And then I think about the Japanese-Americans who were sent to concentration camps for the only reason that Japan had attacked America—what they experienced seems to be of a magnitude that I cannot even imagine.

The quilt from the Japanese-American mother was more than a mere gift. It was a profound statement on her love for America, with its warts and all. It was a patchwork quilt that echoed the African-American poet Langston Hughes’ line, “I, too, Sing America.”

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