Thursday, April 30, 2015

Goodbye to the cruellest month. So, ... shanti, shanti, shantihi

I have often mentioned in this blog about how the high school curriculum in the old country didn't give me a real taste for poetry.  Of course, when the English teacher slapped me around for no fault of mine, the last thing I wanted to do was to pay attention even to the little bit of poetry that we had.  And thus a prosaic life it has been.

I could read poems on my own, yes.  After all, we live in the modern world where practically every poem that is worth reading is only a mouse-click away.

But, there are two hassles with this approach.  One, I have come to believe that poems are for the ear than for the eye.  I recall attending Frank Bidart's poetry reading a few years ago and sitting there transfixed listening him. The same poem on paper was not even half impressive.

Second, poets write one thing and mean something else that I am supposed to decipher.  Poems, that way, are like women where we men are left smashing our heads into concrete walls yelling, "why couldn't you have said that in the first place?" ;)

Take the much quoted T.S. Eliot line, "April is the cruellest month."  In order to understand this line, I will then have to read the whole damn long coded stuff the guy wrote decades ago.  At least if a poet read that out, I can pay attention and enjoy the rhyme and the reason. On my own, everything is without rhyme or reason!

And when I tried reading that once, it was a Ulysses experience--as in I barely got started and I shut it off and went to play a round of bridge!  But, as I scanned through, I came across the Sanskrit word of shanti.  I wonder what the whole damn thing is about.  I will never know; I blame it all on the big fat slapper.

Whether or not April is the cruellest month, it is coming to an end in this part of the world.  In the old country, it has already ended and the real cruelty will begin, with the heat and dust of the Indian summer.  So, as a bridge between the old and the new country, with the segue provided by shanti via Eliot, perhaps I can close out this poetry month with a couplet from the old country.

The rhythmic and mellifluous chant of this couplet is a sheer joy to listen to in a real world setting:
puranam adah, purnam idam, purnat purnam udacyate
purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavasisyate.
which translates to:
That is infinite, this is infinite;
From That infinite this infinite comes.
From That infinite, this infinite removed or added;
Infinite remains infinite
Of course, the infinite that is referred to here is way more than mathematical concept, and if often interpreted through hours and hour of lectures that are devoted to each and every word in the couplet.  But, hey, it is poetry where words mean way more than what we think they are!

May peace be with you!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Foaming at the mouth

Don't worry, I am fine.  I am not foaming at the mouth.  At least, not yet!

Even students apparently know that; earlier today a student came by for a chat and said he is now too busy to read my blog posts every day.

I know what you are thinking: how can anybody be so busy that they can't read my blog, right? ;)

"Do you really have a quiet life in Eugene like you write in the blog?" he asked.

Life in the ashram is quiet and peaceful.  "Nobody to bug me, and I don't bug others" I replied.

So, foaming at the mouth is not me.  Certainly not this "steady Eddie" as the friend refers to me sometimes.

But, nature can sometimes foam at the mouth, it seems.  Photos of volcanic eruptions, like the latest one in Chile, certainly do feel like nature is furious.

And then there are times when we humans make nature foam.  Literally!

Caption at the source:
Froth from Varthur Lake spilled on the nearby road on Monday

That's no special effects, dear reader! :(
Like a washing machine that has had too much detergent put in it, Varthur lake – one of the largest lakes in the city – started to sprout out white froth, at least five feet high, on Monday.
 I wonder how far away from this lake is the residence of the debating partner.  Maybe he is foaming at the mouth after witnessing it in real time!
Environmentalist Yellappa Reddy said the froth was due to washing machine detergents, which flowed into the lake with the raw sewage let in. “These detergents have high concentration of phosphates, which leads to lowering of the biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand of the lake. This will cause aquatic life in the lake to die slowly,” he said. An officer in the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board said the froth was formed due to the reaction of detergents and toilet cleaners with warm water.
How much environmental impacts will it take for people in the old country to metaphorically foam at the mouth and demand cleaner air, water, and land?  But then, perhaps they are happy with the Faustian Bargain of economic growth at any cost.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Things will be great when you're downtown

I felt old.

Ok, it was merely yet another instance.  This time, it was not in a store, not at an office, and not at the barber's.  This was personal.  

My high school friend's son came to meet with me for a couple of hours when I was in Chicago.  And he called me "uncle" throughout the conversation.  Uncle Sriram!  Or, "Sriram Uncle" as they say in India.

As we were walking around on the lively downtown streets, I felt old.  I wondered if this is how my father would have felt when he was my age and pointing out interesting aspects of the urban landscape to a twenty-two year old.  

I now became self-conscious of everything around me.  

I then started thinking about my father. Now a grand old man at 85.  I suppose kids and adults like this 22-year old would no longer refer to my father as "uncle." He is now past that rank and is everybody's grandfather.

Meanwhile, there I was walking with the 22-year old. I pointed out the landmarks that I have come to recognize in Chicago, having been there before.

I recalled how more often than not I was inattentive when I was a young man and "old men" talked with me.  I wondered how many stories I missed out on.  I re-assured myself that I did pay attention.  Which is why I know all those old stories.  And I know them well enough to even remind my father about some of them.

When we reached an intersection, I remarked that the original deep dish pizza place was somewhere nearby.  I remembered from my previous trips.  While this old man tried to search through his memory, the young man searched in his iPhone.  We walked those two blocks.

Later, after reaching home, I updated my father about meeting the high school friend's son.  And that I took him around in downtown.

"Yes, I remember Chicago" he said.

Of course he would.  A civil engineer would love such downtowns.  The high rises. The concrete and the glass.  The old and the new. The broad avenues and the narrow alleys.  The cars and the trains.  The bridges. 

Some day, perhaps before I even know it, I won't be an "uncle" anymore to a kid in India.  I will recall walking about in cities. Walking about in villages. Hiking up the trails. Hiking by the rivers.  I would have become an old man. "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Will we ever get to healthily talking about GMO food?

The news feed reported that "Chipotle to Stop Serving Genetically Altered Food."  It doesn't matter to me; I have never been to a Chipotle nor do I have plans to go there anyway.

But, that corporate talk won't be easy to walk:
Ridding the supply chain of genetically altered components is difficult. They lurk in baking powder, cornstarch and a variety of ingredients used as preservatives, coloring agents and added vitamins, as well as in commodities like canola and soy oils, corn meal and sugar.
Oh well, what Chipotle does is its business.

But, the madness over the GMO issue is my business too.
It's a conversation that needs to change. A recent Pew survey found that the largest disagreement between scientists and the public on a scientific issue is over the question of GMO safety. While 88 percent of surveyed scientists agreed that GMOs were safe to eat, only 37 percent of the public agreed. This is substantially lower than the 50 percent of people who accept that humans are contributing to climate change—GMOs are more controversial than global warming.
As with climate change, it is not the science itself that is the hassle.  It is the PR angle.  GMO needs Apple's PR people for an image makeover; after all, almost always the GMO-haters are religiously devoted to Apple and its products!

A former Greenpeace activist and a GMO hater, Mark Lynas, writes about his conversion:
A lifelong environmentalist, I opposed genetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind.
After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.
There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues, I realized, that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe. I could not defend the expert consensus on one issue while opposing it on the other.
I have blogged once before about Lynas's (the Comma Queen says this usage is ok!) conversion.  Lynas was no ordinary petition-signing GMO hater:
He was a law breaker. He'd pile into vans with gangs of up to 30 people and spend nights slashing GM crops with machetes. 
Now on the other side, which is the correct side on the GMO issue, Lynas writes:
No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.
We need this technology. We must not let the green movement stand in its way.
I wonder how difficult or easy it was for him to write "We must not let the green movement stand in its way" when he was one of the very people who created the madness in the first place!  To undo all that will not be easy.  Meanwhile, pity the poor and struggling farmers in India, Kenya, Bangladesh, ...

You think I care about what Chipotle does?


The Nepal earthquake brings out the Nero within us?

Of course, people die every day.  It will be the biggest news of all if nobody died anywhere on the planet even for one single day.  

But, when disaster strikes, I find that I  am almost always consumed by the news reports.  Fukushima, cyclone Nargis, the Indonesian earthquake ... and 9/11, Iraq War, ... and now the earthquake in Nepal.

It is strange that as individuals we continue on with our lives even when tragedies strike.  When something unfortunate happens to us, only then do we view it as an all-consuming and most-urgent issue.  As long as it--however small or huge--happens elsewhere, well, we might feel sorry for the people dead and alive in that somewhere else, but we go on with our own mundane lives.

I suppose such an approach is key to our own survival as individuals and as humankind on this planet; else, we could easily be numbed into inaction every single time something happens.  But, where does one draw the line between that selfish view of our individual existence versus a whole range of emotions for our fellow humans?

Of course, where to draw that line has been my obsession right from my teenage years.  Eleven years ago, I even wrote about it.  I concluded there that "perhaps academic life means a continuous attempt to redraw the line that separates what I teach from how I live."  I am all the more convinced about it.  And equally convinced am I that it is one frustrating attempt.  

We talk about the proverbial Nero fiddling while Rome burnt.  But, each and every one of us practices that all the time.  We know--really well, thanks to various information channels now available to us--that parts of the world are literally or metaphorically burning, but we fiddle away anyway. 

That fiddling while burning is another way of referring to the juxtapositions I referred to in the post yesterday.  

Today, from the same newspaper--the WSJ--are the following exhibits:

The WSJ has an excellent analysis of the financial impact of the quake on Nepal:

And in a different section is this opinion piece:

In the middle of the chaos in Nepal, you think the average person is wondering how awesome sex in the future will be?  

But, we continue on with our lives.  We might offer a small prayer for the suffering millions around the world and that is where we draw the line.  We humans are an interesting species, no doubt.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why does god hate Nepal?

As I have often blogged here, living a Socratic examined life reveals a lot about our own priorities. A literal and metaphorical example came up in the context of the devastating earthquake in Nepal.  I captured this flow of tweets in my Twitter feed:

The juxtaposition of Pepsi and aspartame, and American kids and money, on either side of news about the tragedy in Nepal says a lot about the lives that we lead.  In all fairness to Vox, the Nepal news featured a lot in the tweets from that organization.  I value Vox as a news and analysis source; why else would I subscribe to that feed, right?  And, of course, WSJ tweets about all things trivial too.

Which is why I use that juxtaposition as a metaphor.  Think about some of the major events over the past few months that have terribly affected humanity.  The civil war in Syria.  Boko Haram in Nigeria. The convoluted Greek fiscal tragedy.  Ferguson and Baltimore.  The list is endless.

Caption at the source:
On Sunday, Nepalis in Bhaktapur, near the capital, Katmandu, cremate relatives killed in in the earthquake

Sure, we humans cannot be immersed in tragedies all the time and we might get tired of the bad news out there.  But, seriously, what percentage of our lives do we actually spend on the bad news?  Both in terms of time as well as money.  Or, let me put it this way: should we not at least match the time and money that we spend entertaining ourselves with time and money on the unfortunate situations that are all around us?  I don't mean our work time, how much ever that is entertaining to us.  I wish there were a meter of sorts--a meter that lets us watch sports for an hour, for instance, only after we spent at least half that time reading/watching in-depth news and reports about some of the issues that trouble fellow humans.

I suppose this rant is nothing but a secular version of the old religious ideas of caring for others, donating to help, not to be preoccupied with entertainment, and more.  But then most believers, of whatever gods they fancy, have long since walked away from those teachings, while this atheist continues to pound on those old-fashioned ideas!  Such is life :(

Just as I was writing that previous sentence, an emailed popped up--it was about Nepal:

If you feel like donating, then here is a list that the NY Times has put together.

PS: Why the title, you ask?  Click here for the answer.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

When women say no ... troubles ahead for India's young males

A couple of years ago, when visiting with the folks, an extended family relative came by to spend some time with my parents.  As is often the case, the elders inquired about her daughter's marriage--whether there were any proposals in the works.

Her reply fascinated me.  Something I would not have imagined.  Her daughter was very particular that she did not want any "boy" who was outside India or had plans to work outside India for a long time.

Such a stand by a young woman, an IT professional herself, would have been next to impossible a few years ago.  For one, not wanting to live abroad for a long time,  For another, and more importantly, a young woman with an education and career holds the trump cards.  Unlike the old days when women were at the mercy of the prospective groom's and his parents' fancies, this young woman clearly laid out the rules for this matrimonial sequence.

I was reminded of that encounter when I read this in the Economist.  About the marriage squeeze in India (and in China as well.)  Forget the causes for now (those are discussed in the essay); one of the main causes I had recently discussed in this post.

The following chart should interest you:

The chart on the left is a projection of how many men will be around waiting to get married; more men than women.

How much more?
Mr Guilmoto calculates that, in China, for every 100 single women expected to marry in 2050-54 there could be as many as 186 single men (see chart); in India in 2060-64 the peak could be higher: 191 men for each 100 women. This assumes the sex ratio at birth does not change. But even if the ratio were to return to normal in 2020 (which is unlikely), the marriage squeeze would still be severe, peaking at 160 in China in 2030, and at 164 in India 20 years later.
A marriage squeeze of this intensity would be unknown in China and India and extraordinarily rare anywhere in history.
Quite a few bachelors not because it would be their choice to remain unmarried.

The effects will not be felt uniformly across the economic levels, however:
In India and China, women tend to “marry up”—illiterate women marry men with primary education; primary-school women marry men with secondary education; and so on. As a result, men at the bottom of the pyramid, and women at the apex, find it especially hard to find spouses. So the marriage squeeze does not affect everyone equally. It disproportionately hits illiterate men and does not do much to help graduate women
Which also means that the young woman from two years ago, given that she is yet to marry, now inches closer to a risk that she could become too highly qualified and too old for the traditional marriage process, especially because marriages are not arranged when the male is younger than the female.

Interesting complications, yes.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Free speech means only thing: free speech!

There are nutcases everywhere.  Even at academic conferences.

The other day I was checking out the exhibitor booths.  And I was shocked to find a booth with a banner that read "Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization."  With a whole bunch of information brochures and documents.  Of course, I didn't want to grab any of the papers.  But, I scanned a few without touching them.  It felt creepy like hell.  It caught me off-guard; I just didn't expect such a nutcase to have a booth at the academic conference.

Naturally, I was tempted to click a couple of photos.  But then as a brown-skinned person with an accent, I chose to avoid that action.  I didn't want to confront the maniac working that booth, when one of the papers there made it clear that immigration to the US is a problem!  I stood there for a couple of minutes.  Two people stopped to chat with the maniac.  And then one other person went into the booth.  Guess what?  All were white men.

Later, as I always do, I checked my Twitter feed, and wanted to find out what people were commenting about the conference.  (Hashtag #AAG2015.)  One of the tweets was this:
More than anything else, I now had the photo that I wanted to take but did not.

If it were a tad clearer then you would be able to read what was in that paper on the top-right.  So, let me tell you what it was: a boastful statement that they were banned at two meetings of the AAAS, which is the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

When I was there at the booth, I thought it was interesting that the AAAS had kicked them out but the AAG had not.  Which is what I made sure to note in my reply tweet:
I am feeling mighty good about my professional association for granting the space to this nutcase organization, even when a much larger--and more influential--scientific community had apparently banned them.  It is easy to ban such nutcases.  But, it is way more awesome to permit them to make fools of themselves.

Free speech means making room for nutcases too.  I love free speech, even if the speech from nutcases makes me want to puke!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The traveling man observes ... that he is no Jetson

Every once in a while the in-flight magazines have really interesting essays that make me wonder why the author published the piece there.  In this funny and sarcastic essay, the author complains about the modern gadgetry that make hotels more inconvenient for us, ahem, older folks; he writes:
Across the world, hotels are becoming digitized and automated. Soon, our concierge will be an app, our chambermaid a robot and our sightseeing guide an Oculus Rift.
I agree with the author about "the eradication of human contact" at hotels anymore.

Thankfully, it was not a driver-less vehicle that dropped me off at the hotel, although, I am afraid, that day is just around the corner.

I walked up to check in.  There were more than a dozen flashing electronic screens instead of people.  Yep, those screens were for checking in.  First it was at the airports, and now at hotels too!

I followed the instructions and swiped the credit card.  It didn't work; of course!

Which is when I noticed an employee staffing the check-in counter--but that seemed like it was for customers with privileges.  I walked up there anyway.  He processed my check in.  I now had a room key, er, card.

I was reminded of that in-flight magazine essay:
When I mentioned these intrusions to a friend who works in hospitality, she was not remotely surprised. Apparently, sending electronic missives is only one way hotels are trying to connect with millennials who never look up from their communication devices. This year, she assured me, will mark the beginning of the end of the room key—and possibly the reception area—as guests check in and unlock their doors by waving their smartphones about.
Yes, millennials and others who don't bother to look away from their devices.  Even when crossing the street at busy intersections in a big city.

Earlier today, I was in an elevator going down.  It was one woman and me. A floor down, another woman hopped on.  And a third at yet another stop.  "Looks like I am the odd man out here" I remarked.  I had to--I am human.

"You are not odd" replied one as she looked up from her device.

"I mean literally" I said.  I figured that she doesn't have a sense of humor or small-talk, or both.

"Plus, all we three women are staring at our smartphones" laughed another.  Interestingly, she was the youngest of the three.

We develop technologies so that we can avoid human interactions as much as possible?  Is that what "progress" has come to mean?  If this is the future we are headed towards, where we do everything possible to eradicate human contact, then I surely do not want to be a part of it.

Yes, this hermit is not into socializing.  But, I have a deep and ongoing relationship with humanity, with an existential struggle of trying to understand what it means to be human.  All these technological razzle-dazzle is not helping me figure my own raison d'etre.

Ah look at all the lovely people ...

I wondered who my seatmates would be for the long flight.   The older I get, the lower the tolerance anymore.  Being a hermit in an ashram is not helping!

Two young people.  Perhaps in their mid-twenties.  Good looking.  I hit the jackpot!

The guy looked like he was an Indian-American.  Very fashionable at that--a jacket worn over a white shirt with the top two buttons not clasped.  A hip stubbly beard.  My people are eye candy, dammit! ;)

A few minutes into the flight, we exchanged the customary introductions.  I made sure I stayed prim and proper--I didn't want him to think I was getting into small-talk because of the Indian connection; after all, he doesn't know how much I love small talk.

The fashionable young man decided to explore the Indian roots.  "Are you originally from Gujarat?"

There's always a first for everything, I suppose.

"Nope.  I grew up in the southern part.  My parents live in Madras ... Chennai."

"Interesting.  Because you have such a facial resemblance to Modi."

I laughed.  "Every time I go to India, people tell me that.  I think they are insulting me because I don't like Modi's policies."

Small talk requires lobbing the ball back.  "What's your interest in Gujarat?"

"My parents are from there.  I am an American, they immigrated here.  I still have grandparents in Gujarat and I visit there once in a while."

He now tossed back the ball.  "Do you live in California?"

"I used to.  Now, Oregon is home."

"All my life has been in Chicago" he said.  "If you spend that kind of time in the place, then you develop the attributes of the place."

I smiled.  "In that case, I guess I should represent the stereotypical Oregon attribute of mellow and friendly."

He vigorously nodded a yes.  This fellow had quite some pep in him.  I wish all young folks were as energetic as he was, and so much at ease with himself.

"Mellow. Friendly. Progressive. ... All the way to Seattle."

We left it at that.  Small talk ended.  I dozed. Ate. Read. Dozed.

The plane started descending.

"Tell your people you met Modi" I joked to the young man by way of wrapping up our interactions.

"Maybe I should have taken a photo with you" he quipped.

I looked out.  Not a mountain in sight.  Not even a small little hillock.  Not Oregon, indeed.

I hoped I would run into some mellow, friendly, and progressive people before I returned to my ashram.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A hundred years since the Armenian Genocide ... yet ...

I am sure it was in the high school English class that was taught by the maniac with whom I have some unfinished business, we read a short story called the Pomegranate Trees.  Not that the maniac brought that story to our attention--it was in the text that we used.  I loved that story.  I have always loved those kinds of short stories that in very simple words and sentences do a wonderful job of portraying the place and people and, yes, the story itself.

Year later, towards the end of graduate school when life transitioned to California's Central Valley, my curiosity led me to understanding the place and its people.  And was reminded of that short story from the high school years.  This nerd was all excited that I was in the very geography that I had studied about in a story in a high school text.  Since then, I have used that short story in my introductory class for students to analyze the economic geography there, and have even discussed at a professional conference the pedagogical experience.

The author, William Saroyan, was of Armenian descent.  The valley, especially around Fresno, was home to many Armenian-Americans.  One of my favorite Los Angeles Times journalists back then was Mark Arax, who is also an Armenian-American from Fresno.  The treasurer of a local community group that I worked with was an Armenian-American.

Thus, it didn't take me long to understand the angst that the Armenian-Americans felt about the Armenian Genocide.

But, of course, that "g" word is yet to be used by any American president, including the current White House occupant.  The fact that it happened a hundred years ago should make it easy, one would think, for a global leader to call it for what it is.  Nope.  As Matt Welch sarcastically put it, it is not Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day but "Barack Obama/Samantha Power Sanctimony Reversal Day."

What's the reversal, you ask?  Remember Samantha Power's claim to fame via her book?  You forgot already?  She then became Candidate Senator Obama's advisor and is now the ambassador to the UN.  So, back when she was advising Candidate Obama, what did the eloquent senator say?  Again, Matt Welch provides that:
[T]he Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Ahem, Senator Obama won the election, and then got re-elected.  How many years has Obama been the President now?

Turns out that whether it is the Armenian Genocide, or Guantanamo, or illegal wiretapping, or drone warfare, or ... it is a case of Jekyll and Hyde--there was a Senator Obama and there is a President Obama.  I am all the more happy that I voted for neither one.  Not that I voted for the Geriatrics Only Party either--it is all Tweedledum and Tweedledee! :(

Who cares for the million dead in some far away place, eh!

BTW, Matt Welch provides this link to Samantha Power talking about the Armenian genocide, but back in the campaign days of 2008 when they wanted the Armenian-American votes! :(

Monday, April 20, 2015

Just-in-time means ... labor is even more screwed!

A younger colleague posted this on Twitter:
My reply to him on Twitter was from this blog-post back in June 2013, in which I had quoted William Deresiewicz (whom I had planned to invite to talk on campus, but the managers did not green-light my suggestion!):
An intellectual is not an expert, and a public intellectual is not an expert who condescends to speak to a wider audience about her area of expertise. An intellectual is a generalist, an autodidact, a thinker who wanders and speculates. As Jack Miles puts it in a stellar essay on the question, “It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual.”
Whether I am an intellectual or not, undisciplined preparation has very much been the story of my life.  A lack of discipline means that I read, watch, and listen to, seemingly unconnected topics.  But, those fragments help me understand the world.

One fragment today came from Robert Reich.  Yes, the "New Democrat" Reich, who served in Bill Clinton's cabinet.  And, this post of Reich's will appeal even to the pro-business blogger, who is the consistent (and almost always the lone) commenter here.  After all, my friend Ramesh has recently blogged agreeing with the commie Labor Party leader, Ed Miliband, and even loudly criticized Walmart as "a sad commentary on the business world."

Reich writes:
Just-in-time scheduling like this is the latest new thing, designed to make retail outlets, restaurants, hotels, and other customer-driven businesses more nimble and keep costs to a minimum.
Software can now predict up-to-the-minute staffing needs on the basis of  information such as traffic patterns, weather, and sales merely hours or possibly minutes before.
This way, employers don’t need to pay anyone to be at work unless they’re really needed. Companies can avoid paying wages to workers who’d otherwise just sit around.
Employers assign workers tentative shifts, and then notify them a half-hour or ten minutes before the shift is scheduled to begin whether they’re actually needed. Some even require workers to check in by phone, email, or text shortly before the shift starts.
Welcome to the app-economy!

So, when Ramesh blogged about agreeing with Miliband, I had merely read and blogged about the possibilities but didn't know that it was already a serious real policy/political problem in the UK.  A few days after that, Slate reported on the same issue, that New York's attorney general:
 is concerned that “a number of companies in New York State utilize on-call shifts and require employees to report in some manner ... to learn whether their services are ultimately needed on-site that day.”
Back in the days of manufacturing, just-in-time manufacturing was a big deal.  From Toyota and from Japan it quickly spread everywhere.  Now, that just-in-time concept is being extended to the service industry, where the "inventory" is labor; the reserve army of labor, as Marx phrased it.

Reich notes:
employees are now becoming variable costs of doing business – depending on ups and downs in demand that may change hour by hour, possibly minute by minute.
Yet working people have to pay the rent or make mortgage payments, and have keep up with utility, food, and fuel bills. These bills don’t vary much from month to month. They’re the fixed costs of living.
American workers can’t simultaneously be variable costs for business yet live in their own fixed-cost worlds.
They’re also husbands and wives and partners, most are parents, and they often have to take care of elderly relatives. All this requires coordinating schedules in advance – who’s going to cover for whom, and when.
But such planning is impossible when you don’t know when you’ll be needed at work. 
Yep, it is the share-the-scraps economy!

Which then leads to the question that I have been wrestling with since the commie days of my youth.  Marx said "philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."  What good is my intellectual understanding (assuming it is intellectual) when I can't do a damn thing?

Meditate on this: birdie num num

Every time I watch The Party I am reminded of Deepak Chopra.

Yes, that movie.  Not politically correct anymore to even mention those kinds of movies in which white people darkened their faces in order to play the roles of dark-skinned characters whose actions were the triggers for slapstick comedy.  But, hey, at the end of it all, it is that character who gets the girl!

Ah, I digress.  So, what's new! ;)

Yes, Peter Sellers:

Am not sure if Deepak Chopra plays the sitar.


Oops, sorry, that was Mike Myers ;)

Ok, kidding aside, whenever I come across a reference to Chopra, it is Sellers' Hrundi Bakshi that I immediately think about.  Which is what happened even as I started reading the opening paragraph in this New Yorker piece:
Last month, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Deepak Chopra described the usefulness of meditation for people on Wall Street. Speaking about a friend who manages a hedge fund, he said, “His entire staff meditates. I know many others now on Wall Street that we teach, actually. It makes them much more productive, because they’re centered, they’re not distracted.” Chopra was appearing on TV to promote a free twenty-one-day online meditation course that he offers with Oprah. Its theme is “Manifesting True Success.”
Chopra is a living example to prove PT Barnum's wise words that there is a sucker born every minute.  And Chopra knows how to get all the money that sucker has got!

Chopra is a lot more damaging caricature of Indians than was Bakshi.  This charlatan peddles crap and there are people ready to pay him top dollars for it.  Meditation as a way to make money?  Meditation was for anything but material benefits, and this television evangelist warps the idea.  I imagine that Chopra's next stop will be at the Pentagon in order to sell meditation as the path towards a lot more effective killing and destruction!

But, the New Yorker offers more, which is why I pay my damn money and have subscribed to it for years.
American capitalism has had a long and durable romance with Eastern spirituality, and the latter has hardly undermined the former. For well over a century, business-minded Americans have been transforming Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices into an unlikely prosperity gospel.
The essay is not about Chopra but about how American capitalism has played on the PT Barnum approach for the longest time.  Chopra is merely one of the latest additions.  My favorite example from there is the following:
Consider the work of Yogi Ramacharaka, whose popular and influential books included “The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath” (1903) and “Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism” (1904). Writing in Advanced Thought, a New Thought magazine, Ramacharaka emphasized that his ideas coincided with those of its editor, William Walter Atkinson. “The editor of this magazine has frequently told you that the Touchstone of any teaching is this: ‘Does this make me Stronger, Better and More Efficient?’ I cheerfully support him in this statement, for the same truth is given (in other words) in the best Hindu teachings—in fact, as he, himself, would freely admit, he obtained the idea from such sources.”
And then comes the punchline:
Its not surprising that Atkinson and Ramacharaka claimed the same Hindu sources, because they were, in fact, the same person. Ramacharaka was one of Atkinson’s several noms de plume, and, as the historian Carl T. Jackson points out, Atkinson was “by no means the only New Thought writer to masquerade as an Oriental teacher or to offer an ‘authentic’ course in Eastern wisdom.”
 Suckers after suckers born every minute.
“With business meditation, we have a practice that is extrapolated from Buddhism and secularized so that all of the theological underpinnings are swept away,” Catherine Albanese, the author of “A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion,” says. “So we have Buddhism stood on its head. Mindfulness meditation has been brought into the service of a totally different perspective and world view.” By now, that’s part of a venerable American tradition.
I am the real sucker, in the American sense.  Instead of living a hermit life in my ashram by the river, I ought to be monetizing my half-baked understandings.  Hey Hrundi, any suggestions for me?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

At least on Earth Day ask forgiveness and feel sorry?

My neighbor has always made fun of me, whenever he finds me sweeping away the cobwebs around my home.  "You don't have to do it if you spray the chemicals I use" he reminds me and jokes that I am one of those who doesn't want to kill even spiders.

Which is true.  I don't want to kill spiders or ants or anything unless they directly interfere with my life.  I don't want to see ants in my kitchen, but I don't care if they are having a party on the sidewalk outside my home.  I don't like to see spiders or flies or gnats inside my home.  When I do see them inside, well, I do kill them.  But I feel bad for them.  I feel guilty when I crush those tiny critters. Sometimes I even apologize to them, as if that makes any difference to the ant!

I am no tree-hugging nutcase to whom environmentalism is a religion, and I routinely make fun of the Earth Day rhetoric, But, I care for, and worry about, the natural environment--the living and inanimate--because of a deep conviction that the cosmos is not merely about us humans and our own comfortable material existence.  My sincere belief that there is nothing for me after the remaining twenty-four years of my life does not mean that I am going to trash this place while I am here.


This being the Earth Day time, my various news feeds feature writings on many aspects of our existence on this glorious pale blue dot.  In one, the author reflects on a part of his life in which he was an animal experimenter:
First, I had to learn how to shock a pigeon. A graduate student demonstrated how one person held the pigeon upside down while the other plucked out the feathers in back of its legs, cut two lengths of stiff stainless steel wire from a spool and pushed them through the skin and under the pelvic bones. The wires were then soldered to a harness placed on the pigeon’s back. The harness contained a plug that would be connected to a source of electric shock during experiments. No anesthetic or sedative was used.
One day, while programming an experiment, I accidentally touched the electrodes and got a jolting shock that numbed my entire arm. I was amazed that, according to my professor, the shock level was the correct one to use for pigeons. I told myself that pigeons must not feel pain as much as I did
We tell ourselves all kinds of things in order to keep doing those things over and over.  
I was told that everyone had to take a turn killing the pigeons after the experiments were finished. A graduate student showed me how to dump a couple of dozen birds into a clear plastic garbage bag, then pour a splash of chloroform on them and tie the bag shut. I remember the first and only time I did the killing
I would imagine that except a minority, most of us would get messed up beyond repair if we conducted experiments on animals.  Especially if we did that more than once.  I would think we would forever be haunted by the images and the sounds.  
As I look back on this nearly 50 years later, I am astonished that the daily grind of depriving, shocking and killing these animals did not move me to leave my job. My rationalization is that I was a student and young worker in institutions of higher learning, programmed to receive the wisdom of academia. I was studying how the science that supposedly advanced our civilization was done. Speaking of his infamous experiments in which human subjects followed orders thinking they were giving extremely painful shocks to other humans, the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram said, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.” I think that describes me pretty well.
Even when I kill ants and spiders that come into my home, I make sure I kill them as fast as I can.  I don't want those critters to suffer.  Yet, experiments on animals is nothing but watching them suffer.  If from those experiments we derive some life-extending benefits to humans, are our additional years worth all that suffering we put the animals to?
I sat with a small notepad writing the alien’s speech as my thoughts drifted back to my days in punishment research. The words flowed in almost final form as I drew on my own rationalizations for my acts of animal torture. Tears welled up in my eyes as I wrote: “We now recognize that you, too, are a sacred life-form. We deeply regret what we have done. We ask forgiveness. We are sorry.
I don't ever get trapped into the Earth Day rhetoric of "save the planet."  As George Carlin joked, the planet knows how to take care of itself.  The planet will easily shake us humans off--a volcanic eruption alone can knock us out.  Instead, it is the every day life (and death) issues, starting from how we treat the ants and the spiders and the pigeons and the pigs, that Earth Day should be about.  And for those, we need to think of every single day as Earth Day.  But, that's not how we humans will do it, and neither will we ask forgiveness and feel sorry :(

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Caveat emptor! All PhDs are not created equal

Back when I was in India and thinking about graduate school in the US, and given that those were the prehistoric days before the internet, I thought that most good universities were comparable and that it might not make that huge a difference on where I did my schooling.

It didn't take me long to know that I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Thus, I briefly flirted with applying to a couple of elite universities.  But, it was too much work all over again.  I ditched the plan, even as I watched two other students from India move on to Berkeley for their PhDs.  (One returned to India, primarily because he couldn't find an academic position here.  The other, I tracked down after all these years, thanks to thinking about this post.)

A PhD from USC sounds great to somebody in India. It might impress somebody in Peoria.  But, insiders know all too well that it ain't a PhD from Harvard.  All PhDs are not created equal.


Now, when I attend conferences and watch the eager-beaver younger people whose identities are so wrapped up with their doctoral dissertations, I am tempted to ask them if they had thought whether or not their PhDs would really get them the academic positions that they are dreaming about?  When they have so much access to information that I never had when I was 22, did they not pay attention to how difficult it is to find a permanent job in academia?  Heck, when as undergrads they had the experience of teaching assistants with strange accents and adjunct faculty who were tired and poor, did they not worry about the post-doctorate phase of life in which they could be unemployed or underemployed?

I suppose to be youthful means to be optimistic and over-confident.  But, then they should not complain later, right?  To complain after seven years of graduate schooling will mean that they lack the very critical thinking that academe is about.

Dan Drezner, whose blog I followed a lot more before he moved on to WaPo, warns about the "cult of the PhD."  Though in the context of his fields of political science and international relations, his observations are equally valid to most, if not all, other disciplines as well:
if your goal is to become a professor and you are not accepted with a scholarship into a top-20 political science program, I would not in good conscience recommend that you get a PhD.
Most of the professoriate in international relations comes from the elite schools. Whether this is because these schools function as a prestige cartel or not is immaterial: the reason will not change the current realities. The academic job market is brutal; getting an academic job without a degree from a top-20 institution is even more brutal.
USC ain't in the top-20.  Well, its academic creds have vastly improved over the past decades.  But, if I were an undergrad in this country and thinking of a PhD program in order to have a career as an academic, USC would be more like my "safe school."

Drezner concludes with this:
If you really want to be a professor, then you need to get a PhD. If you want to advance your career as a wonk, then, all else equal, a PhD would probably help. But all else is not equal. If this is the kind of world you want to enter, then fine, you’ve been warned. But do not claim, seven years from now (if you’re lucky), that someone sold you a fake bill of goods.
Yep.  I have been saying the same thing for years.  And have also been blogging forever, it seems like, on why going to grad school is the worst move for most people.

The WSJ adds:
universities contribute to a glut of Ph.D.s by admitting students who take out loans (some 40% of the $1 trillion in student debt is for graduate school) even when they know few will ever work as full professors. By admitting them into graduate programs, the schools in effect are producing for themselves a low-paid work force.
“To put it crudely, they are hiring their own serfs,” says Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who runs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He says it’s “as much a moral issue as an economic one.” A university truly devoted to the well-being of its students would be more honest to grad students about the dismal job prospects for Ph.D.s—and more candid to undergrads about their actual instructors.
Caveat emptor!  Yes, that phrase too I learnt only in graduate school ;)

Friday, April 17, 2015

They are not worth the search? I always get my man!

Two college campuses. One where I work. Another in the town where I live.  And both announced the hiring of new presidents in the last couple of days.

Over the years, universities have adopted a formula for hiring presidents.  A university typically assembles a "search committee"for which, sometimes, there could even be an advisory committee.  Usually people who think they are kingmakers or those who have nothing better to do sign up for these activities.  (As you can imagine, I have never bothered with these!)  And then there is that other piece in the formula: a search firm. Headhunters.

This is the formula that both the campuses put into place.  So, will the presidents be the transformative messiahs that the campuses were waiting for?
there is no evidence that the use of a search firm improves the quality or longevity of administrative leaders compared with those chosen the old-fashioned way, by an internal committee, the board of trustees, or the appointing officer based on crony politics. The same lack of evidence applies to the promotion of inside candidates.
There is no evidence.  Yet, search firms are very much integral to this formula.  To ask "why?" means that we have not understood higher education.  Pretty much nothing we do anymore in higher education is driven by evidence.  Do we have evidence that student learning improves with gazillion dollar gyms?  Are student graduation rates better because of the fancy foods in the cafeterias?  Who cares for evidence!
Underlying the perceived necessity for a search firm is the notion that each college is unique, a highly dubious proposition.
Go on, am listening.
Several years ago I perused ads in The Chronicle to develop a brief list of commonly cited characteristics desired of candidates for almost any job. Here they are: the ability to articulate a vision, a collaborative working style, capacity to lead and inspire diverse groups, a commitment to excellence, superb communication skills, distinguished scholarly and professional achievement, well-developed interpersonal skills, an ability to work effectively with a wide range of constituents, and a commitment to diversity.
Given the huge number of applications that many ads attract, it is comforting to know the easy availability of people with a commitment to excellence and an abundance of natural charm.
I tell ya, it is the Lake Wobegon thing all over again, where all our college presidents have "the ability to articulate a vision, a collaborative working style, capacity to lead and inspire diverse groups, a commitment to excellence, superb communication skills, distinguished scholarly and professional achievement, well-developed interpersonal skills, an ability to work effectively with a wide range of constituents, and a commitment to diversity."
So, you see, it should be sufficient for an ad to read simply, "Wanted: President," with the name of the institution. Applicants could be evaluated according to the knowledge revealed about the institution and the noting of relevant personal qualifications. Colleges have sufficient talent, academic and otherwise, to carry out the functions of a reasonable search with adherence to public-policy requirements, without the time and expense of search-firm mythologies.
But, of course, that is not how we will ever do it.

And then, almost always, even before the proverbial honeymoon phase is over, even those who participated in the search committee and advisory committee start muttering about the new president.  Then, as Robert Browning put it, "And the muttering grew to a grumbling; And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling."  It is a rare university president who is loved and respected more than otherwise.
While many of my personal experiences were painful, over all my sardonic mode prevailed, buttressed by my love for a line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: "you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search."
I suppose it is a good thing that most people in the academic world and in the search firms don't read Shakespeare anymore ;)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Who cares about what I say or write, when I am a nobody, right?

I have on many occasions referred to a graduate school professor, Martin Krieger, who made a btw-kind of a remark during class discussions, which was profound to me then as it is even today.  Krieger said "it is not what you say, but who you are when you say it."

I am a nobody. So, what I say doesn't register a blip in the radar.

Of course, there are a few friends who read what I write, and pay attention to what I say.  But, otherwise, it is all a waste.  Yet, I say what I have to say and write have to write.  Stupid is as stupid does! ;)

In an email, my debater-friend asked me "Aren’t you going to write 432 posts on Fareed Zakaria’s book – In defence of liberal education ????"  Yes, Fareed Zakaria.  You know, the one who I referred to once as Omar Sharif on intellectual steroids.

But, I had no plans to--I have written enough and nothing has ever happened anyway.

And then I read Nicholas Kristof's column today, for which Zakaria's book is the trigger.  In that Kristof writes, while arguing in favor of liberal education,
John Adams had it right when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, in 1780: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History and Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
That was a column that was published today, April 16th. In 2015.

I will now quote from my op-ed, which was published on March 8, 2014:
This tenuous existence of pursuits that are not about vocations per se is such a vivid contrast to the future that John Adams imagined in one his many letters to his beloved Abigail. Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war, so that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
Other than the fact that I used a version in which the text had been updated to use contemporary grammar, we are saying the same things, using the same logic, and using the same quote.

My op-ed was titled (by the newspaper's editor, which is always the case)
Balancing living a life with making a living in higher education
Kristof's is "Starving for Wisdom."

But then I am a nobody.  Such is life.  Which is something that I learnt way back in graduate school, decades ago.  Thanks to Krieger.

However, I did say something that Kristof did not.  In that op-ed, I noted:
Of course, the higher education industry itself is also at fault. Over the decades (especially during the “false” enrollment gains that resulted from people unable to find jobs in a recessionary environment), campuses spent multiple millions on fancy buildings, and even more millions on sports, as if building monuments and entertaining the population were the mission in higher education. If only they had instead strengthened the implementation of education that would help students learn how to make a living and how to live.
But, is anybody listening? I suppose my friend in the other part of the world will be happy to know that the first of the 432 is done ;)

Heaven on earth

"Can I ask you something?  Why do you live in Eugene?" the younger colleague asked when I went to recruit her for a series that I am working on.

I am used to this question, and I have a standard spiel.  After reciting that, I added, "like today, I enjoyed an awesome rainbow when driving to work.  It was just awesome!"

I might be old, ancient, but tell me there is a rainbow in the sky and I will dart out of the room faster than a kid will.  Back when I really was a kid--yes, I once was--and later even as an adult, there were always two things that stopped me if I ever spotted them in India: elephants and rainbows. I would watch the sashaying pachyderm for as long as it was within my view on the street. There is something majestically wonderful about elephants.

Rainbows were rarer than elephant sightings.  A rainbow is magical.  Yes, there is that dull boring science that explains what causes a rainbow.  But, rainbow is not just some science crap.  Even after the physics teacher, Vasudevan, had presented us with the explanation of white light and Newton's experiment with the prism. The scientific technical details made it all the more impressive.

After moving to Oregon, in the rainy early fall, and throughout the spring days, I have now probably seen more rainbows than I have in my entire life before-Oregon. Yet, every time, I am impressed even more than ever.

A rainbow.
The colors.
How it changes by the minute.
Sometimes it is in full from end to end.
Other times it is broken.
Sometimes it is bright.
Other times it is faint.

Every once in a while I see a double-arc rainbow, and that is when I think there can't be anything better than this--neither here on earth nor in the imagined heavens.

Thankfully, I know enough, from my years on this planet, not to talk this much with a colleague whom I had just met.  I stopped with "it was just awesome!"

Sometimes--only sometimes--I think to myself that during one of these April showers when the sun also shines through, and when there is rainbow across the darker sky, maybe the ultimate would be to watch an elephant walk through the green, green grass, while the tune of "elephant walk" also plays :)

That, dear reader, will be heaven on earth!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

If only economists understood that it is wicked problems all around :(

The commie leanings during my early years were primarily why I ditched electrical engineering.  Of course, I ditched most of the commie thoughts even before I applied for a student visa to come to the US, and over the years have come to even delight at the nonsense spouted by "socialists."

Engineering, however, gave a false sense of confidence about solving the pressing problems.  I simply believed that qualified minds had to approach the problems like how engineers tackled problems and, bingo, the world will become a better place.  Come to think of it, that is what the commie thinking also told me ;)

And then came the reading list in the first year of graduate school.  Through that I came to realize that an engineering approach to solving problems will not work for the social issues that I wanted to not only study but solve.  Because, of the "wicked problems."

If you have never come across the phrase 'wicked problems" before, hey, it isn't your fault--you had better things to do than go to graduate school and doodle around like I did ;)  Ok, seriously, there is a fair chance you have not come across that phrase before, but the moment you read up about it, you will fall in love with that idea.  Soon, the world will look like it has nothing but wicked problems.

So, what the hell is a wicked problem, you ask?  Instead of directing you to the papers by Churchman, Webber, and Rittel, I will give you the Wikipedia overview:
[A] problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of term "wicked" here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.
You see right away plenty of examples, right?

Now, if only economists understood that most of what they study is also nothing but wicked problems.  Instead, they believe that economics is a science--like physics--and, therefore, they can solve the problems like how we can approach scientific problems.  Thus, it is no surprise to me when I read this:
Ten years ago, a survey published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that 77 percent of the doctoral candidates in the leading American economics programs agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "economics is the most scientific of the social sciences."
In the intervening decade, a massive economic crisis rocked the global economy, and most economists never saw it coming. Nevertheless, little has changed: A new paper from the same publication reveals how economists continue to believe that their science is superior to all other social sciences
Yep, as the joke goes, economists have correctly predicted eight of the last six recessions! ;)

The author--Moisés Naím--notes:
The world is still living with the effects of the most recent economic crisis, and the inability of economists to offer solutions with a significant degree of agreement shows how urgently their discipline needs to be disrupted by an injection of new ideas, methods, and assumptions about human behavior.
Yep, remember that old joke about President Truman calling for a one-handed economist?

Naím concludes his piece with this:
Ten years ago, I suggested that economists would “be well advised to trade in their intellectual haughtiness for a more humble disposition.” That's advice that has yet to be heeded.
Makes it quite a wicked problem for economists!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Life in the slow lane suits me just fine

"How are things going?" I asked as I placed my groceries for the clerk to ring them up.  You know, the small-talk.

But, I didn't expect some serious response from him.  All these years, whenever I went to his lane, he has always been a nothing more than a typical response kind of a guy.  Not today.

"Am trying to speed through" he said.

Before I could figure out what was going on, he added, "that's what everybody wants these days.  Rush, rush, rush."

Perhaps it was a bad day for him.  Or, perhaps he recognized a simpatico in me.

I have no idea where everybody is rushing faster than ever.  On the road, they zoom past.  In the stores, they whiz through. Sometimes I wonder if these are the same people who are at the fast-food places and the drive-through coffee kiosks.  I, on the other hand, take my own sweet time walking in the stores, driving along the winding roads, preparing my own foods and eating them slowly, and brewing my own coffee and relishing every drop as I sip the black elixir of life.

"I know what you mean" I told him.

That encouraged the clerk.  "It wasn't this way when I was growing up" he said.  I doubt if he is even forty and he already feels this way?

"I talk with people born in the 1940s and 1950s, and they talk about everyday life that was slower."

I nodded.  I was impressed that unlike me, he was able to talk and do his job even though he was also a male.  I either lose my thought, or ... wait, what are we talking about? ;)

As I walked back to the car, I thought about the article that will frame the discussions on Wednesday.  "Speed kills" screams that title, with "Fast is never fast enough" as the subtitle.  The author asks there:
Speed has become the measure of success—faster chips, faster computers, faster networks, faster connectivity, faster news, faster communications, faster transactions, faster deals, faster delivery, faster product cycles, faster brains, faster kids. Why are we so obsessed with speed, and why can’t we break its spell?
Another simpatico.  We are becoming an endangered species, ahem, really fast!

The author observes:
Acceleration is unsustainable. Eventually, speed kills. The slowing down required to delay or even avoid the implosion of interrelated systems that sustain our lives does not merely involve pausing to smell the roses or taking more time with one’s family, though those are important.
My foot is steady on the pedal, sometimes even easing off, as I slowly ease through the rest of the third.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Thoughts on the Tamil New Year Day

As we said in the old country, "ஒரே கல்லில் இரண்டு மாங்காய்" Or, if you prefer the English equivalent of the idiom, "two birds with one stone."

What two, you ask?  This is poetry month, and the 14th is Tamil New Year.

So, here is a classic from quite a few years ago.  The lyrics are by the poet Bharatidasan,

I wish somebody has translated this wonderful poem into English.  This poem is a sincere and touching homage to the language, Tamil.  And, of course, set to delightful music by the old masterful team of Viswanathan-Ramamurthy.  Ah, they don't make like 'em anymore!

Tamil is one of the oldest living languages of the world--if not the oldest--with a vast body of literature.  The older I get, the more I appreciate the immense richness in which I grew up, but failed to systematically study.

But, of course, the old Tamil is even more difficult to understand than Shakespeare's English can be to a teenager of today.  We needed experts to interpret that old Tamil to us, but the teachers we had in school fell far short of conveying the beauty and lush gold in the historical past.  Come to think of it, those teachers murdered the language.

So, I learnt a completely dead language of Sanskrit instead!

And I wonder if all that is why even now I don't have an aptitude for languages?

The song in the video below is a poem by Manonmaniam Sundaranaar Pillai.  It later became the official state song of Tamil Nadu.

As always, once a state adopts something, then, well, it dies. The quickest way to kill anything cultural and traditional is to have the government interfere with it.  America's founders were brilliant in working this insight into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and making sure to restrict the role of the government; but then, I am digressing, as always ...

I am willing to bet that most kids in Tamil Nadu now will not be able to recite the poem in full, leave alone explaining what the poem means!  But then, neither can I; how sad :(

Happy new year, dear reader!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Career success doesn’t make you happy

If one read the autoethnographic posts in this blog from the time I began blogging, which was back in 2001 ... ok, you can't--I deleted them all in one stroke in 2007.  I then took a break, and restarted the blog in 2008.  If one read the autoethnographic posts since then, there is a good chance that a reader can put together a composite picture of who I am and what I value most and what I couldn't care for.  

Ever since my young adult years, I have been consciously making decisions in order to lead a life that makes meaning to me.  Meaning that cannot be measured in material terms.

While some might say I had no drive and am a failure, this blog itself is more than evidence that I am trying as much as I can to follow that old sage's advice not to lead a life that is not examined.

Thus, I was immensely pleased when I came across words that somebody else had crafted, which I could then make mine as well: "I'm in the twilight of a mediocre career."  I have been largely at peace with that because I have never intentionally and mindfully worked on progressing in a career anyway.

A career does not make a person.  It is irrelevant to who the human is.  Of the people I have quoted in this context in this blog, my favorite is Bill Watterson, whose creations always make me smile and think.  Watterson said:
having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.
To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.
David Brooks, who is a couple of years older than me but has always sounded way, way older (!) has yet another book coming out.  In one of those pre-release interviews:
“I’ve far exceeded my expectations. But then you learn the elemental truth that every college student should know: career success doesn’t make you happy.” In midlife, it struck him that he’d spent too much time cultivating what he calls “the résumé virtues” – racking up impressive accomplishments – and too little on “the eulogy virtues”, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered.
Sooner or later, most--if not all--of us realize that a successful career is not by itself the source of happiness.  Happiness is one of those strange things that comes from within.  A blue sky with puffy white clouds makes us happy. The giggle of a four year old makes us happy.  A dog chasing his tail makes us happy.  A good time with friends makes us happy.  What the hell has a career got to do with all these, right?

In his latest column, Brooks projects his book against the upcoming end of the academic year ritual: the commencement:
Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?
Even that is unnecessarily complicated.  I way prefer the Bill Watterson bottom-line: go about inventing your own life's meaning as the route to your happiness; "you'll be happier for the trouble."   As simple as that.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

It is a scientific reality that fracking causes earthquakes

I worry a lot about issues over which I have no control whatsoever.  A lesson that I should have learnt a long time ago, at least when when the campus recruitment interviewer literally drew it on a piece of paper.  But, stupid is as stupid does!

One of those issues that I worry about is energy and the environment.  Especially the fossil fuels.

My worry about the fossil fuels is also why through my tired and sleepy mind and body I read through a depressing and comprehensive report on the earthquakes that are being caused by fracking.

The links between fracking and seismic activity have been reported for a while now.  The essay is not "news" in that sense, but it is awesome for how it brings it all together.  Readers--whether or not they comment here--will benefit from reading that essay in its entirety.  It will be a disservice to quote anything from that essay in one of my favorite magazines ever--the New Yorker.  But, with an understanding that you--the reader--will read that essay, I will quote just a little.

There is a global oil glut; one major reason is the extraction via fracking in the US.  But, the extraction comes at a huge price:
Until 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater each year. (Magnitude-3.0 earthquakes tend to be felt, while smaller earthquakes may be noticed only by scientific equipment or by people close to the epicenter.) In 2009, there were twenty. The next year, there were forty-two. In 2014, there were five hundred and eighty-five, nearly triple the rate of California. Including smaller earthquakes in the count, there were more than five thousand. This year, there has been an average of two earthquakes a day of magnitude 3.0 or greater.
William Ellsworth, a research geologist at the United States Geological Survey, told me, “We can say with virtual certainty that the increased seismicity in Oklahoma has to do with recent changes in the way that oil and gas are being produced.” Many of the larger earthquakes are caused by disposal wells, where the billions of barrels of brackish water brought up by drilling for oil and gas are pumped back into the ground. (Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—in which chemically treated water is injected into the earth to fracture rocks in order to access oil and gas reserves—causes smaller earthquakes, almost always less than 3.0.) Disposal wells trigger earthquakes when they are dug too deep, near or into basement rock, or when the wells impinge on a fault line. Ellsworth said, “Scientifically, it’s really quite clear.”
Scientifically clear.  But, throw in the social and economic conservative ideology, and add to that the powerful politics of the industry, and science gets tossed aside.  Scientific data and results get hidden from the public, and discredited.
In state government, oil money is both invisible and pervasive. In 2013, Mary Fallin, the governor, combined the positions of Secretary of Energy and Secretary of the Environment. Michael Teague, whom she appointed to the position, when asked by the local NPR reporter Joe Wertz whether he believed in climate change, responded that he believed that the climate changed every day. Of the earthquakes, Teague has said that we need to learn more. Fallin’s first substantive response came in 2014, when she encouraged Oklahomans to buy earthquake insurance. (However, many earthquake-insurance policies in the state exclude coverage for induced earthquakes.)
Note how the market works with the reality--excluding coverage for the induced earthquakes--but the politics operates in an invented reality?  That approach to create a reality that does not exist started happening big time only a few years ago; recall that old shit from the Cheney/Bush people?  You forgot?
We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
We ordinary people were powerless and couldn't stop the war machine from going to Iraq.  We ordinary people are powerless and cannot stop the machines from inducing earthquakes in Oklahoma.

That does not mean I won't stop worrying and commenting.  Stupid is as stupid does!  I am sriram, sriram khé ;)

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