Sunday, May 31, 2015

The US college degree is sold, and exported ... if the price is right

A few years ago, when I served as the director of the university's Honors Program, I regularly met with the university president and the provost, mostly to update them about the quality improvement that I was observing in the program's incoming and graduating students.

At one of those meetings, the then president of the university talked about the institutional arrangements that he was putting in place to bring more Chinese students to the university.  He emphasized that many of them were excellent students and that I could think about getting them into Honors as well.

Of course, who wouldn't love working with smart and dedicated students!  But, I refused to aggressively court those students. I told the president that the students would be an awesome addition but as long as they demonstrated fluency in the English language comparable to what I expected from the "native"students, given the writing-intensive nature of the curriculum.  Does it surprise you that the president was not pleased with my response?

Over the years, the university's foreign student population has grown a lot.  From China and from Saudi Arabia.  Perhaps because of the content of the courses that I teach, or perhaps because of my emphasis on reading, writing, and discussing, I rarely ever have a foreign student in my class.  To my knowledge, no student from China or Saudi Arabia has been in the Honors Program even after my exit from there.

Public universities, even the no-names like the one where I teach, actively recruit international students, because it is all about the revenue stream.  They pay full price and more.
Chinese students have become a big market in the United States—and nobody understands this better than the universities themselves. Over 60 percent of Chinese students cover the full cost of an American university education themselves, effectively subsidizing the education of their lower-income American peers.
A few weeks ago, a colleague referred to how the international students are so segregated from the main student body, and from the town itself.  I told him that the university couldn't care because it is all about the money.  "As if they are walking ATMs" I added.
But the symbiotic relationship between cash-strapped American schools and Chinese students is not without its problems. Demand for an overseas education has spawned a cottage industry of businesses in China that help students prepare their applications. The industry is poorly regulated and fraud is rampant. According to Zinch China, an education consulting company, 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit fake recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts, and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive. As a result, many students arrive in the U.S. and find that their English isn’t good enough to follow lectures or write papers.
Any honest faculty member will acknowledge that the typical Chinese student coming for an undergrad education in the US has immense problems with the English language.  But, good luck tracking down a few honest academics!
“American universities are addicted to Chinese students,” Parke Muth, a Virginia-based education consultant with extensive experience in China, told me last year. “They're good test takers. They tend not to get into too much trouble. They're not party animals. The schools are getting a lot of money, and they, frankly, are not doing a lot in terms of orientation.”
But, sooner or later, all these shenanigans get exposed.
A startling number of Chinese students are getting kicked out of American colleges. According to a white paper published by WholeRen, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy, an estimated 8,000 students from China were expelled from universities and colleges across the United States in 2013-4. The vast majority of these students—around 80 percent—were removed due to cheating or failing their classes.
I would bet my money that almost always the students cheated or failed because of their problems with the English language.  It is not the students' fault really--they have been trapped by circumstances, including shortage of college seats in China; pressure from their families; and the mercantile attitude of colleges in granting them admission.  These circumstances have also led to cheating at the college entrance exams like the SAT and TOEFL:
 Fifteen Chinese nationals have been accused of cheating the college entrance examination system with a scheme that involved fake passports and test-taking impostors, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Thursday.
It is not merely these fifteen and the "customers" they served:
Mr. Hickton, the prosecutor, said he believed the issue extended beyond the 15 people charged on Thursday.
“I would not want anyone to be left with the impression that that’s the sole country involved or the scope of it,” he said.
I am not surprised at all.  These are also the kinds of things that happen when education is treated as a business.  But, even the educators don't get it--they are convinced it is a business, as this University of North Carolina trustee declared as the rationale for closing quite a few academic programs:
“We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.”
Ah, yes, coming from the same university where thousands of students over the years took fake "paper courses" in order to make sure they were academically eligible enough to play football and basketball.  Capitalists who are ready to sell college diplomas for the right price!

Maybe it is time I stopped being some old-fashioned academic, and got on with the times, eh!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

What a nightmarish story to read!

No, it wasn't about the Islamic State.
Nor was it about the deaths in India from the scorching heat.

Those, and more, are beyond me.

Within my own sphere of influence, what could be a nightmarish report to read?
Think about what worries me, a lot, about my own life.

Yep, the worry that I will live past 75!

I read about supercentenarians, which did not make my morning good! ;)
Supercentenarians — people who have lived past their 110th birthday — generally come from a heartier stock than most people. They tend to have few age-related health issues and are much physically and mentally sharper than their peers during their 80s and 90s.
Am exhausted from reading that.
When she died, [Gertrude] Weaver was the seventh-oldest person in verified history. The woman who preceded her as the oldest living person in the world, Japan’s Misao Okawa, died a month after she turned 117 — older than all but four other people in verified history. (Okawa credited her longevity to lots of sleep and lots of sushi.) The current oldest living person in the world, Jeralean Talley, is one of 11 children of Georgian farmers and is the 12th-oldest verified person in history; Brooklyn resident Susannah Mushatt Jones is only 44 days younger than her.
The rapidly changing world won't help me either:
As we enter an age with less war and infection and fewer accidents, more and more people with these superior aging genes have been able to make it to a point in time when they can show them off.
Maybe this summer I should start smoking, drinking, and eating nothing but the reddest of red meats and ensure that I am gone before 75.

There is, but, a faint ray of hope for me:
Ninety percent of supercentenarians are women. Some scientists think the two X chromosomes that women have explain some of the gender imbalance among the world’s oldest people. “The second X is like a backup,” Young said. “Males only have one chance to make a mistake.”
Thank heavens for that Y chromosome, whose geography I tracked down a couple of years ago! ;)

Which means, I can continue to eat healthy and tasty foods, like the one that I had last night, and still exit at 75?

Friday, May 29, 2015

The end of men. Why can't it be the end of mice, instead!

For years, nearly two decades now, I have been worried about boys lagging right from middle school on, and young men beginning to fall behind.  I have even tagged many of those posts with "save the males," as I have done in this post too. But then neither mice nor humans care about Sriram's views!;)

The worry is because this is not any zero-sum game in which girls and women advancing means that boys and men have to lose.  Instead of a win-win-win-win, the Y chromosome is failing.  Sometimes failing badly.

Talking about males and females has become a political landmine as well.  It is a charged topic.  But then, come to think of it, which topic is not charged.  It is unfortunate that even as we have become more educated as a society, we have not developed the abilities to have constructive and productive discussions.

But then people will take notice when the issue becomes a cover story at the Economist, which has apparently woken up to this issue, finally!  Let me give you the magazine's bottom-line first:
The growing equality of the sexes is one of the biggest achievements of the post-war era: people have greater opportunities than ever before to achieve their ambitions regardless of their gender. But some men have failed to cope with this new world. It is time to give them a hand.
I tell ya, it does piss me off that nobody listens to me.  But, heck, it is such an awesome feeling within that I am doing a good job of connecting the dots.

The magazine notes:
Men cluster at the bottom as well as the top.
When trying to talk about boys and men clustering at the ends, Larry Summers missed a step or two and he was soon pushed out of the presidency at Harvard; remember that?  I cannot understand why this has to be such a political issue!

Anyway, back to save the males; what's the net result?
 Poorly educated men in rich countries have had difficulty coping with the enormous changes in the labour market and the home over the past half-century. As technology and trade have devalued brawn, less-educated men have struggled to find a role in the workplace. Women, on the other hand, are surging into expanding sectors such as health care and education, helped by their superior skills. As education has become more important, boys have also fallen behind girls in school (except at the very top). Men who lose jobs in manufacturing often never work again. And men without work find it hard to attract a permanent mate. The result, for low-skilled men, is a poisonous combination of no job, no family and no prospects.
Yep, all the issues that I have blogged about in plenty.
The economic marginalisation this brings erodes family life. Women who enjoy much greater economic autonomy than their grandmothers did can afford to be correspondingly pickier about spouses, and they are not thrilled by husbands who are just another mouth to feed.
Hanna Rosin talks of “plastic women”, who adapt deftly to economic and social change, and “cardboard men”, who fail to adapt and are left crumpled.
If boys and men aren't adapting, or at least fast enough, then shouldn't the rest of us think about what to do?

Oh, btw, here's a video clip from the wise Stephen Colbert talking about Rosin's article and interviewing her, which I blogged about five years ago--almost to the date ;)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Eat to live, but do not live to eat ... carried to the extreme!

Read the following sentences from the NY Times:
“I think engineers are ready to throw in the towel on the illusion that we’re having this family dinner,” he said. “Let’s do away with all the marketing facade and get the calories as quickly as we can.”
The time wasted by eating is, in Silicon Valley parlance, a “pain point” even for the highest echelon of techie. Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, once said, “If there was a way that I couldn’t eat so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal,” according to a new book on the entrepreneur, written by Ashlee Vance. 
When I blogged less than a year ago, worrying about Soylent and its philosophy, I didn't imagine that the Soylent industrial food would so quickly become a significant part of the tech-world.  Yet, that's what the NY Times is reporting:
Boom times in Silicon Valley call for hard work, and hard work — at least in technology land — means that coders, engineers and venture capitalists are turning to liquid meals with names like Schmoylent, Soylent, Schmilk and People Chow. The protein-packed products that come in powder form are inexpensive and quick and easy to make — just shake with water, or in the case of Schmilk, milk. While athletes and dieters have been drinking their dinner for years, Silicon Valley’s workers are now increasingly chugging their meals, too, so they can more quickly get back to their computer work.
So that they can quickly get back to their computer work?
Why this monomaniacal approach to work?
Why this reduction of life to work, work, and more work?
What the hell is going on?  

These workers, perhaps "slaves to work" is a better descriptor, do not seem to have any grasp--even the remotest understanding--of life and what it means to be human.  Ok, they do; at least Musk does:
Vance cites an anonymous Tesla employee who claims Musk upbraided him via email for missing a company event to attend his child’s birth. “That is no excuse,” Musk reportedly wrote. Musk has denied the claim, saying, “I would never do that.”
Maybe not. There is evidence in Vance’s book that Musk possesses at least some degree of sympathy for human frailty. For instance, a SpaceX engineer once vented to a colleague that he was nearing a breaking point after ruining both of his pairs of eyeglasses in an all-consuming work sprint that left him no time to see an optometrist. Musk overheard him, and within hours his assistant approached the employee with an appointment card for Lasik surgery, and Musk picked up the tab.
Oh well, it is his life and Musk can live it any which way he wants to.  Those techie engineers can drink their Soylent and bet at their computers 24x7.  I couldn't care about that kind of a life.  That's no life at all; I would rather not live if that were the only choice I have.

The other day, I walked by the river after work.

While walking, I spotted a pond turtle that was slowly crossing the path.  And stopped.  I worried that a bicyclist or a skateboarder coming at top speeds around the bend might not see the turtle and that will be the end of the critter.  So, I stood next to the turtle with my hands stretched to indicate a "stop" in either direction.  A bike came hurtling, saw me from afar and slowed down to a stop.  From the other side, a family on bikes immediately shushed at the chatty ones in the group and they came to a stop.  The turtle kept crawling at a turtle's pace and slowly meandered across.

Confident that I had passed along the watchman job to the group, I continued with the walk--in order to digest the dinner that I had, which included this salad that I made:

I tell ya, the countdown to 75 looks more and more appealing when I think about the likes of a Soylent-fueled future ;)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation

Every visit to India, I worry that most interactions amongst people are defined by the "in group" and "others" criteria.  In the non-work social space, there appears to be a great deal of conscious and subconscious decision-making on whom to associate with based on various "in group" attributes, especially religion, and caste and sub-caste.

It worries me even more than that this gets spatially reflected: neighborhoods with dominant "in group" demographics.  Worry is an understatement--it freaks me out.

Such a geographic separation of "in group" and "others" was not uncommon here in the US, too.  After all, for instance, the history of "white flight" as a response to racial integration is not easily forgettable.  Fair housing laws and a lot more inter-racial and inter-cultural mixing, along with education and understanding, has decreased a great deal of geographic exclusion of the "others."  Thankfully!

Sometimes, I think of the geographic exclusion in India as non-violent and passive-aggressive "ethnic cleansing" of neighborhoods.  It freaks me out even more.

India, with its long history of the awful caste system, has a terrible history of geographic separation of people.  My grandmothers' villages were classic examples of these.  In the small village of Pattamadai, the brahmins, for instance, lived in "agraharams" while Muslims lived in a different part of town, and the non-brahmins in yet another part of town.

In my other grandmother's place, in Sengottai, it was no different.

 In the map on the right, which is of the eastern half of Sengottai, the brahmin neighborhoods were clustered about the center.  (Click on the figure for a clearer image.)  As is typical of the "agraharams," temples were the focus of the neighborhoods. 

The Muslim part of town was across on the west side.  In between are the traditional non-brahmin neighborhoods, including the one where the my high school friend's grandfather's home is located.

During my childhood, I have spent many summer breaks in Sengottai and Pattamadai.  But, never had I even remotely wandered into the Muslim areas.  It was much later that I walked around and got a sense of the layout of the town.  Graduate schooling, which helped me better understand these issues, furthered my intellectual and personal curiosities. 

The good news is that even these villages and small towns are beginning to change.  A few years ago, during Christmas time, I was pleasantly surprised to see a lit up decorative star hanging outside one home in a agraharam.  A Christian family had moved in to the neighborhood, I was told, when I casually asked my uncle.  Of course, it was at the end of the street, far away from the temple.  To me, it was progress.  A huge progress.  Over the years, many non-brahmins have also moved into those agraharams.

I never saw a Muslim household though.

Now, it could be that I had not taken any systematic census, and could have overlooked a Muslim-occupied home or two.  But, my sense is that Muslims hadn't moved in.

If that was the case in the villages, changes in cities are also very slow, compared to the phenomenal changes in the economy.

Given that open notices about sale or lease are rare in India, and with space availability information transmitted more by word of mouth, well, the words are transmitted only to the in-group in the first place. And when the word is out, they employ euphemisms and proxies--urbanites being more literate and worldly-wise know that outright discrimination is not correct. .  For instance, "I don't want to rent out my house to those who cook beef"--excludes Muslims and Christians right away. Or, "I don't like the smell of cooking with mustard oil" is a way to keep away the population from Bengal and the Northeast parts of India.  Imagine if in the contemporary US, an apartment manager denies an Indian immigrant family an apartment because of the curry smells from the kitchen!

Of course, change is difficult for those whom the status quo has served well.  But, that status quo is simply unfair.  The more people are resistant to change, the more the unfairness continues, like in this news item about a young woman in Mumbai who "was denied a flat in the city just because she is a Muslim":
After a hard search, Ms. Quadri found a tidy 3-BHK apartment at Sanghvi Heights in Wadala. Her new flatmates — two working women, in their early twenties and Hindu — found her on Facebook.
However, a day before Ms. Quadri was to shift, the apartment’s broker warned that the housing society did not accept Muslim tenants.
Long story short, after signing "a “no-objection certificate” and ready for any harassment from her neighbours because of her religion," she was forced to leave the place.  And this:
Incidentally, the other women had to pay a price for sheltering a Muslim; they have vacated the house unwillingly.
The big world city of Mumbai is no different from the very small town of Sengottai!  Or perhaps the big city is even worse!

ps: the title of this post is from Khalil Gibran's poem, Pity the Nation

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Do not read this post. You will laugh!

I placed the groceries on the belt and waited for the guy ahead of me to pay up.

"How are you?" I asked the checkout clerk as I moved up the line.

Not often do I end up at her lane because my shopping times rarely match up with her shift.  But, when I do, she always chats with me, continuing with where we left off.  Until the last time, she had apparently been under the impression that I was a writer for the local paper.  "How come you I don't see you in the paper these days?" she asked me.  I told her I was busy with the teaching work.

She was shocked.  "All these years I read your stuff, I talk with you, and I had no idea you are a teacher!  Where do you teach?"

I told her.  She was even more shocked.

I remember her stories and she does mine.  Not all checkout lane conversations are meaningless small-talk.  No surprise, therefore, that she continued with where we left off.

"So, what do you do in the summer ... do you starve?" she asked with a chuckle.  "You teachers are off during the summer, right, and you don't get paid?"

I was so happy that there was at least this one person outside the academic world who was familiar with how teachers operate only on a nine-month contract.  The unpaid summer furlough, as I joke about the "time off."

"You are right. We don't get paid for the summer."

But then, it's me--so, of course, I had to joke.

"No starving. I eat only bananas all summer."

We both laughed.

Life's alright when we laugh.
When we are able to laugh.
While we can cry all by ourselves and the world would not think that to be strange, we can't laugh sitting by ourselves.
Laughter requires at least one other human.
Laughter is an emotion that makes us human.

Laugh with me.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Hotdog! It is Memorial Day already?

A few years ago, when I was working with the physical therapist on my Calcific tendinitis, the only way I could get over the uncomfortable closeness of a stranger was by chatting with her--the silence at that proximity was way unsettling ;)  I recall asking her if she had any plans for the Memorial Day cookout.

"Did you say cookout?" she was shocked.  And I couldn't understand her reaction.

She explained that out in the west people seemed to use "grill" and "barbecue" more than "cookout," which is the word that she was used to in the Midwest.

It didn't surprise me at all that people find my vocabulary and accent rather strange and offbeat.  More than a couple of people find that I pronounce "about" as if I had spent some time in the Canadian frontiers.  One couple asked me years ago whether my English teachers were from Scotland, or if they had been trained in Scotland, because of what they considered to be traces of Scottish accent.  I was asked about my Scottish accent at a conference here in the US..  A student asked me about my Irish-sounding accent.  Back in graduate school, a fellow Indian student thought I spoke with a Bengali accent.

The other day, a junior colleague asked me whether I had any culture shock when I came to the US.  In replying to her question, I played the same joke that I have shared with students for years: "if you think my accent makes me difficult to understand, you ought to be thankful you didn't meet me when I was fresh off the boat."  The colleague said, "you have a beautiful accent."

I have no idea where I picked up the accent that I have and the words that I use.  The friend comments that sometimes I use words and idioms that became out-of-fashion back in the 1950s!  I suppose I am an old soul who has traveled the world including places that I have not been to!

My point is, I have no idea why I asked the therapist about the "cookout" as opposed to the "barbecue."

I do have plans for a cookout.  Not at my place.  At a friends'--a Memorial Day tradition almost since moving to Oregon, with a couple of missed years in between.

Yet again, I will climb down from the veg-wagon.  This time in order to have the annual hotdog--almost charred and smoked while holding it over the embers.

Having already shared with the regulars there my favorite Dalai Lama joke that I picked up from a philosophy show a few years ago, I will refrain from that this year.  But, I will share that with you ;)

The Dalai Lama visits Times Square and is excited being a tourist.  He decides to get himself a New York hotdog, and walks up to a vendor and says "make me one with everything."
(I will pause for your laughter.  What?  You didn't get the joke? tsk, tsk!)
Anyway, after getting the hotdog, the monk asks how much he has to pay.  The vendor says "eight bucks."  The Dalai Lama gives him a twenty and waits for the twelve back.
The vendor does not give him anything.
The Dalai Lama then asks the vendor, "hey, what about the change?"
The hotdog vendor replies, "change comes from within."
(You got this joke at least?)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Racists like us. Our robotic future!

Were you like me who guffawed a lot a few years ago when a Google search for "miserable failure" led to this?

Soon after that, Google modified its algorithm and the laughter subsided.  But, the fundamental problem itself continues.

What's the problem?  Remember all my posts (like here) worrying that the searches that do, the photographs that we tag with people's names, our interactions with voice-activated features, are all how the machines learn in order to become better and better?  I.e., we provide the data, which eventually becomes the basis for the "brain" for the machines, and we then turn around and ask questions to which machines provide the answers.

Aha, now you see the problem, don't you?

Latest exhibit: our racism means that the machines become racist?  We--not you the reader nor me the blogger--but the collective we are apparently racist folks in how we do searches.

Do you see the huge problem in the graphic below, which is a Google map of the White House?


What happened?
It was discovered that when searching for “n***a house” and “n***a king,” Maps returned a surprising location: the White House.
It is one thing to laugh at the result of a search for "miserable failure" but another when it takes a sharp racist turn.

BTW, it was not only racism:
A search for “slut’s house” led to an Indiana women’s dorm.
What's going on?  "the internet itself is racist and degrading":
“Certain offensive search terms were triggering unexpected maps results, typically because people had used the offensive term in online discussions of the place,” wrote Jen Fitzpatrick, VP of Engineering & Product Management. “This surfaced inappropriate results that users likely weren’t looking for.”
The more we users had referred to the White House as the place where a N*a lives, the more the machines learn that association and then they repeat that to us.
The type of invective that led to this more recent Google Maps grotesqueness, though, isn’t something you can simply flip a switch to turn off, because it’s woven into the fabric of the internet itself. Essentially, we’re making internet algorithms racist.
This is truly atrocious, and not at all funny like the old "miserable failure" search because:
And it’s important to understand that while the technical function of producing the recent racist results are similar to how a Googlebomb works, there’s one very big fundamental difference: A Googlebomb is calculated. A group of people decided they wanted to game the “santorum” results and made it happen. In the case of the White House and other offensive Maps searches, the algorithm wasn’t subject to a coordinated effort, it just gathered up all the data the internet could provide, and the internet provided trash.
Yep, nobody was orchestrating a campaign.  The machines simply picked up our usage--they learn really well!

In addition to such racist behavior being despicable, we also need to keep this in mind:
Google doesn’t show us the world; just a curated version that it thinks we want to see.
What it shows is really ugly.

If only the internet users were really just lovable dogs!


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Leave me alone. I don't want to live till 100, and beyond!

I spotted a student rushing past my office.  "Hey" I said more as a hello than to call him over.  There was no response. I figured that he was way past my office to even hear me.

He then peeped in through the door.

When chatting, he said,"you are a vegetarian, right?"

"For the most part.  Unless I fall off the wagon."  A few days ago, I intentionally got off the wagon, had that all-American food, and then climbed back on.

"We have gone meatless Mondays at home" he said.  "The oldest is having some trouble with it.  But, last Monday after eating burritos with beans and veggies, he didn't seem to miss meat."

"Of course, man, once the system gets the proteins it craves for, it is happy.  And beans are awesome proteins" I said.

We talked some more and he left.

"The secrets of the world’s longest-lived people include community, family, exercise and plenty of beans" screams this report in the Wall Street Journal.  And yet again reminding me that if I want to keep on schedule for the countdown, then I should stop eating beans and healthy foods and walking!
More than 65% of what people in the blue zones ate came from complex carbohydrates: sweet potatoes in Okinawa, Japan; wild greens in Ikaria, Greece; squash and corn in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Their diet consists mainly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other carbohydrates. They eat meat but only small amounts, about five times a month, usually on celebratory occasions.
As I joke sometimes, eating meat is not the Bill of Rights!
The cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world was the humble bean. One five-country study showed that beans were the only food that predicted a longer life—for each 20-gram serving (about two tablespoons) eaten a day, the chance of dying dropped by 8%. Fava beans in Sardinia, black beans in Costa Rica, lentils in Ikaria, soybeans in Okinawa. Seventh-Day Adventists, America’s longest-lived subculture, eat all kinds of beans, taking their cue from God’s injunction, in the book of Genesis, to eat the fruits of “seed-bearing plants.”
I didn't know that what this atheist and the Adventists have in common does amount to a hill of beans ;)
Dollar for dollar, most beans deliver more protein than beef. More important, beans’ high fiber content serves as a gut compost of sorts, enabling healthy bacteria to thrive.
I simply do not understand why most people don't get this.  Even back in the "veg" India, especially in my part of the old country, people don't include the vast varieties of beans in their daily foods.  Instead, they load up on carbs--hills of rice.
They lived in places where fresh vegetables were cheap and accessible. Their kitchens were set up so that making healthy food was quick and easy. Almost every trip to the store, a friend’s house, work or school occasioned a walk. Their houses didn’t have mechanized conveniences to do house work, kitchen work or yard work; they did it by hand.
But then, stupid is as stupid does; I made this for dinner last night, and I am blogging this after a five mile walk!

A basmati rice dish with onions, tomatoes, and edamame;
with a side of boiled peanuts with coconut and onions
Damn beans!  I don't want to live to be a centenarian; I wonder if there is anything I can learn from these long-lived people?
When it comes to longevity, the long-standing support of a community is significant. In the U.S., you’re likely to die eight years earlier if you’re lonely, compared with people who have strong social networks.
Aha, that's the way I can make sure my odometer stops at 75 ;)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Palmyra: maybe the Islamic State militants need some good ol' toddy!

I will be honest with you--until I read the news reports of the Islamic State militants capturing a place called Palmyra, I had no idea that there was a settlement in the world--and an ancient one at that--called Palmyra.

I tell ya, every single day the cosmos reminds me that I don't know a damn thing.  It is alarming that they let me teach, given my ignorance!

The certified idiot that I am, my immediate thought was this: is this town Palmyra the origin of the tree palmyra that was all around in my part of the old country?  What if the spellings look the same, but the pronunciations are different?

I tell ya, every single day I keep asking the cosmos questions and it couldn't care whether I even existed.  The cosmos simply is.  Whether I want to understand, ask questions, or ignore them all, is really my call.  I choose against ignoring the questions that pop up, even if the questions are seemingly inane, like whether the advertising "mad men" pressure women into removing their armpit and leg hair!

So ... palmyra.  The tree, that is.  In case you never knew about the tree, first, let me tell you what Wikipedia has to say about this tree and my old country:
The Palmyra tree is the official tree of Tamil Nadu. In Tamil culture it is called karpaha,"Nungu" "celestial tree"
You see why the news about IS taking over Palmyra made me think about the tree in the old country?  ;)


The "nungu" was very much a part of the growing up experience, though I way preferred the tender coconut water and the pulp over this.  But, I did like the jelly-like nongu:
The coconut-like fruits are three-sided when young, becoming rounded or more or less oval, 12-15 cm wide, and capped at the base with overlapping sepals. The outer covering is smooth, thin, leathery, and brown, turning nearly black after harvest. Inside is a juicy mass of long, tough, coarse, white fibers coated with yellow or orange pulp. Within the mature seed is a solid white kernel which resembles coconut meat but is much harder. When the fruit is very young, this kernel is hollow, soft as jelly, and translucent like ice, and is accompanied by a watery liquid, sweetish and potable.
How does it look like?  Like so:

Of course, there is that toddy from the palmyra trees--but, I have not tasted it ever.

In this first-person narrative that I came across as I read up about the palmyra in the old country, the author wonders if the tree was native to the Subcontinent, given its long historical record:
I started the search from the other end, Africa. Palmyra grows all across that continent's savannas. It truly seemed at home there, surrounded by giraffes, zebras, elephants and other animals. The only creatures I've seen ambling around these palms here are cows and goats. Then it hit me. I was looking at Borassus aethiopum, and one of its other names was Borassus flabellifer. The World Agroforestry Centre suggests that the African species may have been domesticated and became the Indian palmyra. Years of selective breeding may have created a new species, just as domesticated wolves became dogs.
Excited by this discovery, I emailed another friend Rohan Pethiyagoda who shares my interest in history. Within hours, he sent me a scientific paper that showed our palmyra was a distinct species in its own right, even though it looks almost identical to aethiopum. The former ranges across the Indian subcontinent and into the Malayan peninsula, while the latter is strictly African. But that doesn't resolve the question of palmyra's origin. Prehistoric trade could have dispersed a domesticated species far and wide, especially if it had many uses. Rohan says a genetic study currently underway will resolve the ambiguity.
That was from three years ago.  Maybe since then science has provided a definitive answer.  But, I don't care; I am content with the notion that the palmyra, like me, has its origins in Africa.  If the militants keep up with their maniacal destruction of the heritage sites, of which Palmyra is one, it will make it that much more difficult for us to trace our story back to Africa :(

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The yellow brick road leads to ... my class?

I bet that sometimes you--the reader--wonder if I am merely spinning yarns about the good things from students and the godawful things from faculty.

Don't. Ever. Wonder.
It is all real.
As real as the Piggly Wiggly! ;)

The latest exhbit: an email from a student who is going to take my class next fall.
(A note to the non-US readers: in the undergraduate program, as we reach the end of an academic term, students register for classes for the term that follows.)  In that email, the student writes:
I look forward to being in your class, you come highly recommended and I cannot wait to see what the hype is all about.
Can't beat such words, right?  

I don't want to over-analyze, but then to analyze is my job.  Well, analyzing is all I do.  I remember my daughter telling me once, "why do you have to analyze the movie, and not just watch it!"  Notice that I didn't add a question mark at the end of that sentence, but included an exclamation point--I was smart enough to know that it was not an invitation for a conversation but a suggestion that I should shut up ;)  

I liked the way this student has crafted "I cannot wait to see what the hype is all about."  Why? Whether intentionally or not, she has inserted "what the hype is all about."  What if I am all hype and no substance?

But then, most things in life we go through without verifying for ourselves whether or not something was worth our time, energy, and expense.  The other day I spent ten dollars on a movie.  For a fraction of a second, I hesitated buying that ticket.  The worry was that the movie would not be worth the ten dollars and the hype--in this case all the glorious reviews that I had read.  But, I did spend it.  And, I am happy to report to you that the movie was worth every nickel--and more.  

That email from the student itself was a follow-up email.  Her initial inquiry was an awesome piece of communication by itself.  If only even faculty communicated the way that student did!  Unfortunately, when I read something from most faculty colleagues,or after listening to their five minute spiels at meetings, I am left with only one question in my mind: "so, what was your point?"

Life is all about sorting through the hype and the bullshit.  The hype about the parents, about the family stories, about the teachers, about the politicians, about the ancestors, about every damn thing.  Education makes inquiring skeptics out of us.  Some of us become irreverent to the core.  It is so much easier to be blissfully ignorant and to unquestioningly accept the hype.  

Now, I can only hope that she doesn't change her mind and decide against taking my class, even if it means that Dorothy will find out that I am nothing but a man behind the curtain.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Celebrate, or condemn, this self-service economy?

I have blogged about:
  • grocery stores, especially the small-talk
  • robots and automation
  • self-service future; remember this?
  • reading the Economist
  • watching television
In this post, I can bring them all together--hey, understanding the cosmos is all about connecting the dots, right? ;)

Every once in a while, I catch re-runs of That '70s Show.  Sometimes, I even stream it on Netflix as I work.  In one of those episodes, two hormone-raging teenage males decide to hit on, and pick up, married women at the grocery store--the Piggly Wiggly.
When watching the episode, I thought it was a fictional store, like how the town where they lived, Point Place, was a fictional name.

Now I know better.  Piggly Wiggly is for real!  I learnt that from reading this piece in the Economist, which argues that "businesses should think carefully about continuing to heap work on their customers."  The report begins with:
IN 1916 Clarence Saunders changed the face of retailing when he opened his first Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Memphis, Tennessee. Hitherto, shops had kept all their goods behind the counter: customers told the staff what they wanted, waited while their purchases were bagged up, then handed over their money. Saunders came up with the idea of self-service. Customers selected their own groceries from the shelves, and took their baskets to a cashier on the way out. Saunders proclaimed that by cutting labour costs his idea would “slay the demon of high prices”.
Who woulda thunk that!  Piggly Wiggly is for real.  And it began in Tennessee.  And it was nearly a 100 years ago that this idea of self-service began.  "as an idea it has conquered the world" indeed.  That Saunders was way ahead of his time, eh!

You thought I waste time watching TV! ;)

The self-checkout at grocery stores is merely taking the 100-year old idea to the next level.  And, of course, not going to the store but clicking the order from home and have somebody deliver it is all in that same continuum. As the Economist notes, "The variety of businesses touched by the self-service revolution is ever greater." The magazine includes its unique humor:
Before long, no doubt, self-service barbershops will invite customers to pop their heads into a clipping machine and turn a dial to select the severity of the cut.
Thankfully, I will be gone long before that--and I don't have to miss all the joyful small talk at the haircut place ;)

But, ... yes, there is always a but!
The rise and rise of the self-service business raises two worries in particular.
What are they?  For one:
Consumers are being ever more clearly divided into a “cattle class”, herded into the back of the cabin and offered precious little service, and a pampered “business class”, for whom no amount of fawning is too much.
Well, some people do not care about such inequality.  However,
Not only might this intensify resentment of the haves by the have-nots; it also robs the have-nots of entry-level jobs. 
Any other but?
The second worry is for businesses themselves. If they never meet their customers, they will lose touch with them.
 So what, you ask?
 although self-service is great for saving costs, its effect over time is to train customers to shop on price, and thus to switch as soon as a slightly cheaper rival comes along.
Maybe I need to stop reading and thinking, and instead do what those teenagers in That '70s Show always did! ;)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Can we have more butter, please?

For a long time, in blog-years, I have been worried that the Great Recession and the anemic recovery are not any temporary issues but that they could be reflective of serious transformations in the economic structure.  Nothing in the American economy, nor in the global economy, has given me reasons to think otherwise.  The only good news is that students do not come asking for career and employment advice--because, if they do, then I would end up sharing my gloomy assessment, which will not do them any good.

But then, thankfully, I am only a nobody harboring such worries.  It is not like such assessments are in the New York Times, in analyses authored by respected economists who are not of the "loony left."

Oh, wait, here is Tyler Cowen writing in the New York Times
the recession was a learning experience that we haven’t fully absorbed. From this perspective, the radical and sudden changes of the financial crisis were early indicators of deep fragility and dysfunctionality.
In case you are not aware of Cowen, he is is an economics professor at George Mason University.  Cowen and his folks at George Mason are far from the "loony left."  Check out the blog that Cowen and his buddies run in order to understand their approach to public choice policies.

Anyway, back to Cowen's NY Times piece.  The title of that says it all:
Don’t Be So Sure the Economy Will Return to Normal
Welcome to the "new" normal!
Slowly but surely, we may be responding to these difficult revelations by scaling back our ambitions for the economy — reinforcing negative trends that were already underway. In this troubling view, we have finally begun to discover some unpleasant truths. Borrowing a phrase from the University of Toronto economist Richard Florida, it’s possible that we are experiencing a “Great Reset.”
So, what do we do then?  How can we reset this Great Reset?
If a reset is underway, we might have to accept that public policy cannot reverse it easily. Once unsustainable economic structures begin to fail, it takes a significant improvement to make them viable again. Yet because of the difficulty of making major changes under our current political alignment, most new government policies today are no more than changes at the margin. Perhaps the most basic problem is that it is difficult to be sure when a reset is underway, and it is harder yet to raise public alarm about changes that seem to be gradual and slow.
Most of all, it is not always wise to fight a reset.
Perhaps the most crucial issue is whether economies will return to normal conditions of steady growth, or whether we are witnessing a fundamental transformation, unveiled in bits and pieces. Nominations for the nature of that transformation include a “robot economy,” a new political economy where elites have too much power or, perhaps, a new global economy where the United States no longer holds such a dominant position, to the detriment of American firms and workers.
No one knows whether or how much of a reset may be underway.
It is rare for economists to openly admit that "no one knows."  Which means only one thing: things are not looking good.  They are looking real bad.

BTW, here's one more worry, which is more like a corollary.  When the American economy falters, staggers, guess what the bipartisan approach is to revving up the economy?  Think.  Think some more.  Yep, war.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Into each life some rain must fall

I have long believed that education helps me (us) to make sense of the world, the universe, like how we played connect the dots as kids.  We created shapes out of those dots.  Education--not the one that is measured by the diploma but one that is a never ending activity in life--helps us connect the dots that we observe around us.

As we connect the dots, we make order out of the chaos out there.  After all, the cosmos is.  It is up to each and every one of us to make sense of it.  Of course, we can always be lazy and "outsource" connecting the dots to religious leaders, to thinkers, and even to charlatans and believe what they describe as the real thing.  But, a long time ago, I chose to make those connections myself.  The way you connect the dots might be different from mine, as apparently will be the case even on issues like this one, which makes life that much more interesting too.

In such an exploration, aha moments abound.  We think the aha moments always have to be on important breakthroughs, like Archimedes running naked out of the bath after figuring out why and how things float or sink.  But, aha moments happen all the time--if we are consciously connecting the dots, that is.

My aha moment today is why I have "Into each life some rain must fall" in the title of this post.

This is the second post with that exact title; when I blogged about it earlier, a few months ago, I had simply borrowed that from the Ella Fitzgerald classic.  Today, I found out there is more about that line.

But, that aha breakthrough didn't happen because I was reading about the singer or the song.  No, sir. No, ma'am.  There I was reading an essay on students in higher education who are the first from their families to ever go on to college. While discussing the situations those students face, the author, who teaches at the University of Michigan, writes:
They remind me of the Longfellow poem "The Rainy Day," which includes this line made famous by the Ink Spots in the 1940s: "Into each life some rain must fall."
Aha!  "Into each life some rain must fall" was a line in a Longfellow poem?

Google then helped me connect the dots, instead of making me stupid, and I tracked down the poem by H.W. Longfellow:

The Rainy Day
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

The cosmos makes that much more sense now.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Toilet Paper and Pee, aka, the TPP

Sometimes--ok, more often than not--I wonder why I think I am qualified to write about whatever it is that I write about.  Egomania? Egotism?

But then I tell myself that I write about very, very, very few topics at all.  I have never, for instance, blogged about art history, or Mendelssohn, or rocketry.  I know enough to know that I don't know a damn thing about most things.  I stick to what I know and what I can understand at least a little bit.  What a tiny, tiny, tiny sliver of knowledge this is--so tiny it would not even blip in the knowledge screen.

Klout even tells me what its algorithms think about my expertise!

Well, enough about you; let's talk about me! ;)

Back when NAFTA was being debated, I remember being conflicted about it.  There are very few things in life that I am certain about, and two decades ago I was a cautious and doubtful supporter of the trade deal.  But then I am almost always suspicious of anything the suits put forward!

Now, it is the TPP, which doesn't have a neat aural effect as NAFTA.  TPP doesn't easily roll off the tongue.  When I read or hear TPP, my mind thinks about TP and pee.  Maybe it is my problem.  Well, enough about you; let's talk about me! ;)

Anyway, about the TPP, John Cassidy at the New Yorker, writes:
Many moderate Democratic senators have been put off by the secrecy surrounding the putative agreement, which has been in negotiations since 2010 and whose provisional text is classified
My suspicious mind is always inclined to worry about any agreement or bill when the material is classified.  What are they trying to hide from you and me?  How much of a secret is the text?
When Senator Barbara Boxer went to inspect it in a secure room at the Capitol, a guard told her she couldn’t take notes.
Pause for a moment and think about it.  TPP is not any national security document from which we can find out how much the government has been spying on you and me.  It is a freaking trade deal. What are they trying to hide from you and me?
A number of legal experts, however, including Yale’s Judith Resnik and Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, have raised similar concerns to the ones Warren expressed, warning that the T.P.P. could allow corporations and investors to challenge the laws and policies of member countries, including the United States, outside the scope of their existing legal system. In a recent letter to congressional leaders, the experts referred to a known provision of the T.P.P., which would see disputes resolved not by the courts but by a new conflict-resolution panel, the prospective makeup of which is far from clear. This panel “risks undermining democratic norms because laws and regulations enacted by democratically elected officials are put at risk in a process insulated from democratic input,” they warned.
But then an idiot like me wants an example of these concerns.  Which is what Joseph Stiglitz does in his commentary:
The real intent of these provisions is to impede health, environmental, safety, and, yes, even financial regulations meant to protect America’s own economy and citizens. Companies can sue governments for full compensation for any reduction in their future expected profits resulting from regulatory changes.
This is not just a theoretical possibility. Philip Morris is suing Uruguay and Australia for requiring warning labels on cigarettes. Admittedly, both countries went a little further than the US, mandating the inclusion of graphic images showing the consequences of cigarette smoking.
The labeling is working. It is discouraging smoking. So now Philip Morris is demanding to be compensated for lost profits.
Pause for a moment and think about it.  We know really well that cigarettes are not dietary supplements and that they kill.  So, we have laws restricting it even while allowing the sale to be legal.  The manufacturer then turns around and sues for the compensation that it "loses"?  This surely merits a WTF!

Stiglitz writes:
The proceedings are so expensive that Uruguay has had to turn to Michael Bloomberg and other wealthy Americans committed to health to defend itself against Philip Morris. And, though corporations can bring suit, others cannot. If there is a violation of other commitments – on labor and environmental standards, for example – citizens, unions, and civil-society groups have no recourse.
If there ever was a one-sided dispute-resolution mechanism that violates basic principles, this is it. That is why I joined leading US legal experts, including from Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley, in writing a letter to President Barack Obama explaining how damaging to our system of justice these agreements are.
This egomaniac has nothing else to say, other than quoting Elizabeth Warren and Rose DeLauro:
Congress should refuse to vote for any expedited procedures to approve the TPP before the trade agreement is made public. And Congress certainly shouldn’t vote for expedited procedures to enact trade deals that don’t yet even exist.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Is smart technology making us dumb?

We use search engines, like Google, every day.  Increasingly, when we start typing our search, Google even prompts us with alternatives as if it knows what we want to search for; like in the image below:

If a human did that to us, we would most likely yell at the person for interrupting our thought.  "Let me speak first" we would complain.  A fight could even ensue.  With Google, we are happy that it completes the thought for us?  Is Google thinking ahead for us good or bad?

I have always conveyed to students what I consider to be the most important function of education, which I recently did--yet again--in one of my classes:
 an important part of education is to know how to ask questions and to then knowing how to answer them.  This is important not merely because that's the way to earn a good letter-grade.  Nope, there is way more to that.  Throughout life, as we become more and more in-charge of our lives (and that autonomy rapidly increases with the proliferating digital technologies) the ability to think through, ask the right questions, and to then figure out the answers will be a prized attribute--in professional and personal lives.
To be able to ask the right question.  In work places, we have been at meetings where we have wondered, mostly within, "what is your point?"  At public forums, or even in C-Span if you watch those shows with the call-in features, it is quite common for the moderator to interrupt with "what's your question?"

I worry that because we have the likes of Google so easily available, we do not intentionally, purposefully, cultivate how to ask questions.  This is one of the many points that was brought up at the recent Intelligence Squared debates, which was on, well, the title of this post: Is smart technology making us dumb?  One of the debaters, Andrew Keen, argues:
 Nick was just saying that while the problems with Google or our search-centric culture is people are increasingly lazy . And what they're really lazy about is asking questions . What we're having is the automation of the act of asking a question . And that is one of the consequences or casualties of this digital revolution . And, of course, Socrates' greatest -- one of his greatest contributions to our culture was in the art of asking the question . That was the whole point of his philosophy, was it was about asking questions.
That's what knowledge was, asking questions . And as Nick has made it clear, we have forgotten, or we are forgetting how to ask questions, and that's extremely troubling.
To me "extremely troubling" is an understatement.

But then I ask myself whether it has always been the case that most humans couldn't be bothered about asking questions.  Most humans didn't care that they didn't know how to ask questions.  Thus, for instance, the frustration that Socrates had with Athenians who couldn't think.  Not knowing how to ask meaningful questions, and the apathy about that, are perhaps not new at all?  For the most part, humans have only been sheep and glad to follow whatever the shepherd said, be it out of ignorance or out of whatever divine the inspiration was?

Nicholas Carr was also a debater at that Intelligence Squared event--the "Nick" than Keen referred to.  Like most people, I came to know about Carr almost a decade ago, thanks to his lengthy essay in the Atlantic on whether Google is making us stupid.  In an interview with the BBC, Carr observes about automation:
the question isn't, “should we automate these sophisticated tasks?”, it’s “how should we use automation, how should we use the computer to complement human expertise, to offset the weaknesses and flaws in human thinking and behaviour, and also to ensure that we get the most out of our expertise by pushing ourselves to ever higher levels?”
We don’t want to become so dependent on software that we turn ourselves into watchers of computer monitors and fillers-out of checklists. Computers can play a very important role, here, because we are flawed; we do fall victim to biases or we overlook important information. But the danger is that you jump from that to saying, just let the computer do everything, which I think is the wrong course.
So, where are we headed?
I hope that, as individuals and as a society, we maintain a certain awareness of what is going on, and a certain curiosity about it, so that we can make decisions that are in our best long-term interest rather than always defaulting to convenience and speed and precision and efficiency.
I believe we should ask of our computers that they enrich our experience of life; that they open up new opportunities to us instead of turning us into passive watchers of screens. And in the end I do think that our latest technologies, if we demand more of them, can do what technologies and tools have done through human history, which is to make the world a more interesting place for us, and to make us better people. Ultimately, that is something that is up to us.
Yep. Whether smart technology is making us dumb, or better humans, is up to us. Each and every one of us. All of us.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The emptiness of a secular society ... and education

A couple of years into my teaching, I began to wonder if there was a simple reason why students didn't think of me as an awesome one in the classroom.  Well, assuming they can't ever figure out that I am an intellectual facade covering an idiot!

I wondered if I am not making an emotional connection with them.

I laugh, I kid around, I empathize with the poor and the suffering, I criticize the privileged.  Students know all that.  But, I figured I was not stirring their emotions.

On the other hand, students flocked towards faculty who whip them up into a frenzy with their personal emotions-laded lectures on topics like the messed up environment, the evil corporations, the dirty politicians, the abused women, and more.

Even when I address those issues, I calmly point out to students that the world is a much better place than it ever was on pretty much every one of those issues.  I point to how dirty Los Angeles was, for instance, and how it is cleaner now.  If it were not for corporations, they would not have the smartphones they love.  Politicians have always been dirty--at least they operate in the open now, in contrast to the smoke-filled backrooms.  Women have immensely more opportunities and freedom now compared to even a couple of generations ago.  Yes, there is lots of work to be done on every one of those issues and more, but ...

I fail to stir the emotions within them.  And worse, I point out the bullshit in the claims made by faculty and students.

I have always wondered if my experience in the classroom and the academic environment is no different from the world outside.  Two essays tell me that I am not in the wrong to think that way.

In this essay, in which the author reviews a " short book, adopted from the Henry L. Stimson Lectures that [Michael] Walzer delivered at Yale University in 2013" is this line:
Secular revolutions unwittingly give rise to religious zealotry.  
An interesting hypothesis to work on, right?  The religious fanaticism that we see all around across various countries was borne out of the secular revolutions.
Looking at what began in Israel, India, and (to a lesser extent) Algeria in the middle of the 20th century, Walzer does not ask, "What is to be done?," Lenin’s famous question, but "Why did they do it?" David Ben-Gurion, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Ahmed Ben Bella may have believed that the anticolonial movements they led would help usher in a new society. Instead they prepared the groundwork for clerical authority, unbending dogmatism, and second-class status for women.
 Israel's politics has shifted so much to the religious right that one has to search for remnants of a secular society anymore.  India's religious tensions seem to be reaching newer and newer depths.
Secularists, he argues, lack a thick sense of culture. They are, and for some time will be, unable to provide the sense of belonging and "appeal to history" that Orthodoxy possesses. They have lost whatever hegemony they had.
An op-ed at Project Syndicate is, to a large extent, about these very issues:
The decision to abandon relative peace and prosperity for brutal war and instability may seem irrational. But young people, born and raised in democratic societies, have increasingly been yielding to the appeal of death-dealing groups like the Islamic State, leaving their homes and families to wage jihad in faraway places.Why has democracy lost the allegiance of these restless spirits, and how can it recapture the hearts and minds of others who would follow suit?
I find the answer to be compelling:
democratic ideals and institutions are failing to provide a palpable enough sense of community and purpose – people seek a sense of meaning elsewhere, which in some cases leads them to malevolent causes.
It is easy to get to students' emotions by showing them photos of the polar bear and sweatshops, and it is just as easy to get the youth to get worked up about malevolent causes.  
Defenders of democracy must now determine not only how to create jobs and ensure material prosperity for today’s young people, but also how to feed their souls on the way. If they fail, as we have seen, others will fill the void, potentially with a call for mayhem in the name of messianic futurity.
Interesting, right?  Especially when he writes about feeding their souls?  Deep down, we humans crave for that something that no amount of material comfort can provide us.  A secular, liberal, democracy is failing to address this.  The void that the youth feel is being addressed by those who are devoutly passionate about their causes.  The causes could be as varied as the "secular" fight to save the polar bear, the "religious" fight to save the unborn, or the jihad to defend the honor of a prophet. 

All these do not mean that I am going to change my approach in the classroom, or with my faculty colleagues.  But, I now know all the more that I have set myself up to fail in any popularity contest.

Oh well ... I will comfort my soul by listening to BB King, who died yesterday.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Assholes Bullshit

Biologically speaking, those two go together, right?  

But, that is not what this post is about.

Years ago, I came across a write-up about a book that was coming out and I didn't need anything more than that write-up to order myself a copy.  One reading and I knew I had to use that as a required text for an Honors course.  That book?  On Bullshit.  

If you have been paying attention, then you would have come across a number of posts where I refer to the book and its author, Harry Frankfurt, who is an Ivy League philosopher.  (Like in this set of posts.)  One student withdrew from Honors because of that book as a requirement, and most students enjoyed it--especially the video interview with Frankfurt.

Who wouldn't love it!  Even the few sentences that Frankfurt writes to begin the essay will make you want to read more:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. 
DrB, who is one of the closest colleagues at work, was so fascinated by my constant talking about Bullshit that she invited me to talk with her class.  A music class!  I did.  Students loved it.  Since then, I have also been re-invited, more than a couple of times.  Was it last term, or the one before, that I talked to DrB's students, after which one of them came to my office to borrow my copy of Bullshit; he said he would return it.  Maybe he loves Bullshit way too much! ;)

A few months ago, DrB told me that she had picked up a book for her travels and that as a Bullshit fan I would love this book also.  The book?  Yes, you guessed it by now what the first half of the title of this post is.  

I told her it was an old book.  Turns out that she was not referring to The No Asshole Rule, which was a few years old, but to a different one: Assholes.  

Earlier today, she emailed me: "I will bring you Assholes, A Theory by Dr. Aaron James, PhD in Philosophy from Harvard..."

Isn't it wonderful to have a colleague who thinks only about me when she thinks about Bullshit and Assholes? ;)

What is James's book about?
What does it mean for someone to be an asshole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often personally stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name. Try as we might to avoid them, assholes are found everywhere—at work, at home, on the road, and in the public sphere. Encountering one causes great difficulty and personal strain, especially because we often cannot understand why exactly someone should be acting like that.
Asshole management begins with asshole understanding. Much as Machiavelli illuminated political strategy for princes, this book finally gives us the concepts to think or say why assholes disturb us so, and explains why such people seem part of the human social condition, especially in an age of raging narcissism and unbridled capitalism. These concepts are also practically useful, as understanding the asshole we are stuck with helps us think constructively about how to handle problems he (and they are mostly all men) presents. We get a better sense of when the asshole is best resisted, and when he is best ignored—a better sense of what is, and what is not, worth fighting for.
I am now thinking this: wouldn't it be interesting--I mean, interesting--to have the authors of Bullshit  and Assholes in the same room for a philosophy parlor?  Imagine a drinking game in that setting: a shot every single time the word "bullshit" or the word "asshole" is uttered. 

Ah, such is my life of Bullshit and Assholes. In more ways than one, of course! ;)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On the road for the brown and the bearded

"I rarely ever take the interstate when I drive to campus" I told the three students who were hanging around chatting with me in my office.

"I take the I-5 and then set the cruise control to 80" one student jumped in.  "Once, a guy passed me and I swear he must have been doing like a 100" he added.

"I can't afford to drive over the speed limit" I said. "I have a brown skin."

We all laughed.

As I was driving back home, I recalled the only two occasions when I was ticketed for speeding in all these years of driving.

The first one, more than twenty years ago, was during my early California years, but when traveling in Arizona.  

I was merely one of the many drivers on I-10 who were driving a little over the speed limit.  I wasn't even in the lead, but somewhere in the middle of the pack.  I saw the flashing lights in the rear, behind a few cars. I moved over the slow lane.  

The lights passed the cars in between.  
My heart started racing.  
The cop car shifted to the slow lane. 
Behind me. 
I slowed down and pulled over on the shoulder.

It took me quite a few hours to get over the fact that I had been ticketed for speeding.  When all other cars got away.

My personality is such that I don't even race.  Every once in a while, I might keep up with the freeway traffic speeds, but am mostly content to be the slowpoke.  

The second, which was also my last, ticket happened a few months into my Oregon life.  On the surface streets in a small town on the way to campus.

Later when I recounted the incident to a colleague, she said, "brown skin and no wedding band."  Apparently the "logic" is that married men are more responsible than the single guys and, hence, a cop is more sympathetic when there is a wedding ring.  The irony was that I was married then--it just so happened that I never cared for symbols like a ring!

Could a brown skin make that much of a difference?

A couple of years ago, I had invited two graduating students for dinner at my place.  As they got out of the car, "S" was all giggles and asked "T" to describe what happened during the drive.

Turns out that the two of them were so engrossed in the chat and listening to music that neither "T" nor "S" realized that they were well over the speed limit, until the cop's car was behind them.   But, the cop let him off with a verbal warning.  Could the pale skin of the young make that much of a difference?

I will never know if my skin color mattered to the cops.  On top of the brown skin, I sport a beard, have a funny name, and speak with a strange accent.  I just cannot afford to drive at 100, even if my personality liked speed.