Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A whole lot of fizz and pop!

During the road trip, I went with my niece to check out her new place of work.  Typical of the youngish tech work environments, hers too had cafeterias and snacks and coffee and sodas and even alcohol. It was like I had entered an alternate reality.

The alternate reality is not what this post is about.  It is about something far less significant, bordering on the trivial.

I found a "goli-soda" on the refrigerated shelves in one of those common areas.  Non-Indian readers need an explanation, right?

Back in the old country, as a kid, when Coca-Cola was expensive (before it was booted out) an inexpensive carbonated drink that I loved to drink after which I waited for that awesome burp was a "goli-soda."  Carbonated water in a glass bottle, with a marble as the stopper that locked in the fizz.  "Goli" refers to the marble.  Thus, goli-soda is marble-soda.  During one of my recent trips to India, I had this, which was simply refreshing, though I missed the old goli-soda bottle.

Now, back to the story.

I got excited about the soda, which was from Japan. "They have goli-soda in those countries?"  Stupid me, you think.  But, hey, I am a man of limited intelligence and knowledge.  Up until that day, I had no reason to doubt that goli-soda was uniquely Indian.  I grabbed one.

And then came an interesting learning experience of how to use the cap to get the marble out of the way.  I followed the instructions.  Bingo!

The soda tasted great.  It was awesome.

The nerd in me could not wait to get back to the laptop and figure out more about this marble-soda.  It was not Indian, after all?  Or is it? Who invented it?  How do they get the marble in?  Not a day passes without me asking questions and then telling myself, "shut the hell up!" ;)
Ramune is widely known for the distinctive design of its bottle, often called Codd-neck bottles after the inventor, Hiram Codd. They are made of glass and sealed with a marble; the codd head is held in place by the pressure of the carbonation in the drink. To open the bottle, a device to push the marble inward is provided. The marble is pushed inside the neck of the bottle where it rattles around while drinking. Therefore, the drinks are sometimes called "marble soda" outside of Japan
Hiram Codd is no Japanese name.  So, there had to be a lot more about the crazy marble in a soda bottle, right?
The original carbonated soft drinks were created on the spot at soda fountains where carbonated water was mixed with syrups and flavorings. If the customer wished to enjoy the drink later, he or she was out of luck.  But at some point in the mid 1800s, some manufacturers began bottling their ginger ales and fruit drinks in ceramic jugs or glass bottles, using a cork for a stopper tied down with wire like a champagne cork to hold in the carbonation. This worked well enough, unless the cork dried out and lost its seal. Some early bottlers such as Schweppes made their bottles with round bottoms, so that they must be stored on their sides, keeping the cork moist. This is the origin of the classic bowling pin shaped bottle as still used by San Pellegrino.
Aha. So, if the cork drying up was a problem, then?
In 1873 British inventor Hiram Codd came up with this unusual bottle design seen at left. A glass marble is placed inside the bottle when it is cast. The soda is bottled upside down, so that the marble falls against an india rubber O-ring (missing from this bottle) in the neck of the bottle, where the pressure of the carbonated gas inside holds the marble in place. When the consumer wishes to drink, he or she presses down on the marble with a wooden plunger, releasing the pressure with a pronounced POP! When the bottle is tipped, the marble rolls into a narrow trough out of the way so that the liquid can pour out.  These bottles were intended to be returned to the factory to be used again, but no doubt many were broken by children to retrieve the colorful marble inside. With so many contours and narrow corners, this bottle seems as if it would been difficult to wash and re-use.
Apparently, most other countries have moved on to other technologies.
In Japan and India however, these Codd stopper bottles are still used today for cheap local fruit-flavored soft drinks. In Japan they are called ramune, while in India they are known as bante wali botal, or "bottle with a marble".
Aha, the goli-soda lives on!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Holy cow! No eggs for you!

I come from a long line of people who were not all too healthy when young.  I will spare you details about my childhood ;)  Not because my people back then were poor and starving.  On the contrary, for generations, my people have always been among the economic and intellectual elites within their spheres of influence.

My father, for instance, had his own childhood health issues.  So much so that at one point the physicians they consulted told my grandmother to make sure her son ate eggs.  Asking a traditional Tamil Brahmin woman who lived in a village to serve eggs to her son is, for all purposes, like asking an observant Jew to eat bacon.  But, my grandmother did.  My father had eggs; even now he does.  The traditional man that my father is, he says he worries less about the life of the chicken now because these are unfertilized eggs anyway.

The doctor's advise was based on the scientific understanding of nutrition, about the protein in the eggs.
eggs — a superfood that is about 10 percent fat and extremely high in protein — are the most nutritional way to improve the children’s health, more so than a cup of milk or a banana
My traditional and orthodox grandmother who lived in a village was ok eighty years ago with her son eating eggs, almost always the fertilized ones at that, but the old country appears to be regressing in ways that even my grandmother would say "chee-chee":
Earlier this month, the chief minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, struck down a proposed pilot project to introduce eggs in free government nursery schools in districts populated by economically disadvantaged indigenous groups. The proposal came from the state’s own officials, but was dismissed by Mr. Chouhan on the grounds that eggs are a nonvegetarian food. Mr. Chouhan, like many Hindus, is a vegetarian and avoids eggs because they may be fertilized and are seen as a life force.
India's public policies are increasingly getting tied up in knots due to the political threads getting intertwined with fanatical Hindu interpretations.

How are things in Madhya Pradesh?
In Madhya Pradesh, many of the poor communities survive on government-subsidized grain and foraged plants. According to the last National Family Health Survey, indigenous children were the most malnourished of any community in the state. Even across the state, 52 percent of children under 6 — the age up to which they may attend government nurseries — are underweight, says the National Institute of Nutrition. Indeed Madhya Pradesh, the economist Jean Drèze told me, “is far worse than even the Indian average.” It is in the grip of a “nutritional emergency,” he said.
Yep, this is the latest version of let them eat cakes!
Another staple food was taken from the plates of the poor in the neighboring state of Maharashtra, after it banned the possession and sale of beef. It is enforceable with a prison term of up to five years. Hindus consider cows to be sacred, but Hindu nationalists, emboldened by the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have lobbied aggressively on the issue, not out of concern for the animals — which are typically bone-thin and live on garbage — but to force their religious beliefs on non-Hindus. The ban, implemented in March, was a body blow to the poor. Beef, unlike mutton and chicken, is cheap. It is an important source of protein for low-caste Dalits, and for minority communities like Muslims and Christians.
At least eggs can be easily transported to where the demand is.  What will happen to the cows if their owners cannot sell them for the meat?
The Indian Express newspaper reports that farmers don’t know what to do with dying cattle. Since they can neither sell nor butcher them, they are letting the animals loose to fend for themselves. Surely, there is nothing sacred about starving cows.
Fend for themselves by eating plastic bags, I suppose!

So, where is India going?
Privileged politicians are imposing their will on underprivileged people, who do not share their beliefs and also do not have the luxury of rejecting cheap sources of protein. By injecting religion and caste into politics, the B.J.P. is preventing India from moving forward by reinforcing the prejudices that have kept it back.
Oh well, India's undernourished kids ought to be happy that got to do suryanamaskara on International Yoga Day, even if they are all mere skin and bones. :(

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sugar-babies, too, are a part of capitalism :(

In graduate school, I was vaguely acquainted with a student from India, who was also of Tamil Brahmin stock and had come to America for higher education.  That common heritage aside, we had nothing in common other than a few friends.  Once, after a movie, my friend dropped her off first at her apartment before I got dropped off.  She lived in a much better neighborhood, way pricier than mine.  She could afford that because somebody else paid for it.  In exchange, she had to be available for that patron.

I never would have imagined such possibilities.  But, there it was.  She was brilliant, charming, beautiful, yet something offbeat like this.

A year ago, the Atlantic featured such arrangements that were apparently becoming more and more possible thanks the internet and smartphones.
In 2013, Seeking Arrangement announced that approximately 44 percent of its 2.3 million “babies” are in college. This is a trend that the website encourages—if babies register with a .edu email account, they receive a free premium membership (something the guys have to shell out as much as $1,200 for). Seeking Arrangement creates the illusion that the sexual element of these relationships isn’t forced, but organic. No one associated with the website wants to admit that what it’s doing is facilitating sex-for-money exchanges. The large number of college women on the site helps preserve this illusion, for both the daddies and the babies.
That graduate school acquaintance was a sugar-baby; a phrase that perhaps existed even back then.

But, I didn't think much about that Atlantic piece, until now.  Because, the Economist also has something to say about sugar-babies.  As I always comment, if the Economist and the Wall Street Journal report on such social aspects, then it means that it is not any fringe happening.
As the cost of university has risen, so has the number of “sugar babies” who pay for it by selling companionship and sex to wealthy older men. Monthly pay for this is typically about $3,000, though some “sugar daddies” offer much more. According to SeekingArrangement, a firm based in Las Vegas, two-thirds of sugar-baby graduates have no student debt.
Students who post profiles on SeekingArrangement.com know what they want, so “it’s almost like a business partnership”, says Angela Bermudo, a spokesman for the company. The site hosts some 900,000 profiles of sugar babies enrolled in American universities, up from 458,000 two years ago. Their ranks swelled during the recession and are still growing fast, says Brandon Wade, the site’s founder.
I suppose if we live long enough, we will get to witness quite a few strange things in life.
The boom is fuelled by increased acceptance of “sugaring” (dating for money), says Steven Pasternack, the owner of a Miami firm known as Sugardaddie. The company’s site gets more than 5,000 new profile uploads worldwide every day. A quarter are students. Astute marketing helps. Sugardaddie’s pitch notes that it does not “discriminate against people’s desires”. Sugar babies are increasingly advised to negotiate not an “allowance”, but rather a certain “lifestyle” in exchange for dates. These arrangements can remain discreet. New Yorker Keith and the younger woman he met online, seeking a sugar daddy to pay for college, both tell friends that they met in a bar. His weekly $500 deposits into her bank account will cease, he says, if she becomes unavailable.
You are probably thinking, "hey, this is prostitution."  And you run into legal trouble for prostitution.  Right?
Might any of this qualify as prostitution? The websites say no. A sugar daddy doesn’t want his sugar baby to leave, whereas no client of a prostitute “wants the hooker to stick around”, as SeekingArrangement puts it. This argument has prevailed in America’s courts. If a relationship exists, payment can be labelled as compensation for companionship, not sex.
As that Atlantic essay noted:
When we consider what it means to be a high-end prostitute, we generally think about Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman—a desperate young person willing to trade some of her dignity for the chance to avoid working on curbs at two in the morning. A college education seems fundamentally at odds with that image. By actively seeking out college students, and publicizing the high numbers already in its ranks, Seeking Arrangement makes it easier for smart, young women with bright futures to rationalize the decision to join Seeking Arrangement: If so many college women are signing up for the site, it must be something different. It must be more socially acceptable somehow. It can’t really be prostitution.
Sugar-babies are yet another reason why we need to spend time thinking about what it means to be human, what it means to belong to humankind, and what our existence means in this universe that is a mystery; I have quoted the following before and is worth repeating:
we're living at a time when public moral deliberation is rapidly moving away from considerations of ultimate ends, ideals of human flourishing, in favor of a morality of rights that is largely indifferent to what individuals do with their freedom. As long as you refrain from harming others, you are free to pursue happiness however you like, no questions asked.
Politically speaking, this might be the best available strategy for people who disagree about the highest good to live together pluralistically in relative peace. But this doesn't mean that it's possible for individual human beings to forego the question of how to live, to bypass the question of human flourishing — what it consists in, and how to achieve it. In fact, with the retreat of institutions that once proposed compelling comprehensive visions of the good life, the burden of choosing among various ways of life falls more than ever on the shoulders of individuals.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The two-toned man returns

I stopped for coffee at the usual place in Florence.  It was a gorgeous day all along the coast.  People were out and about.  So many people that all the tables in the shade were taken.  I was concerned that I would not be able to handle the direct sun.  Yes, all of the blazing 68 degree sun by the water!

I had no choice but to sit in the open with the sun's rays streaming on me as I sipped the coffee that was far tastier than the Starbucks one I had at Redding.  The lemon bar was a wonderful accompaniment.  No coffee without a snack. Ever. A few months ago, a colleague invited me to have coffee with him while we talked.  I took a few cookies with me.  "You are so European" he remarked.  "They always eat something with coffee, not unlike us Americans."

While drinking coffee, I recalled the Neyveli heat of the childhood years.  The heat and dust of Pattamadai during the summer holidays.  The Madras heat later on.  The Calcutta swelter.  After all those years of experiencing the sun at its deadliest intensity, I now am unable to handle a few minutes of even the 68 degree sunny warmth.

Fortunately, I was done with the lemon bar and the coffee just as I started feeling the wetness of the sweat in my balding head.  I headed to the car, and was off on the final leg of the long road trip.

A few minutes after reaching home, I stepped out to check the mail.  "You are back" yelled out the neighbors from their porch.

As I started walking towards them, I heard her say, "you look tanned."

"Oh, can you tell?  I was born tanned" I joked.

"You do.  And stop making us jealous" she said.

The more I spend time outdoors, and the more I am out and about on sunny days, the more I get tanned. But then, every once in a while, a shirt with the top button off, or a tshirt that has a v-neck reveals a skin that is different.  Which is what happened a few days before I set off on the road trip.  Another neighbor walked over to say hello and noticed the un-tanned skin.  "Sriram, you need to work on your tan" he joked.  The friend immediately chimed in with "yes, he is two-toned."

I hope that I will continue to be two-toned for many more years, until that time comes.  Because, if I start losing my tan, it will mean that I am not out and about, which can only be because of ill-health.  I am already looking forward to more tanning experiences of life, including traveling to, and in, wherever the daughter lives.

Asti अस्ति

I knew I had no choice but to exit and take a look when I read the name of the community: Asti.

What's the big deal about "Asti," you are wondering, right? If you guessed it sounds Italian, you are absolutely right.  But, if you thought that I exited because of that Italian connection, you are dead wrong ;)

My mind played with how the word "asti" sounded and I was reminded of the Sanskrit classes decades back in the old country.  अस्ति means "to be."  It is.  It exists.  Asti.

If only the teachers and the system back then had provided us with a wonderful exposure to the humanities--and to languages, in particular.  Whether it was Sanskrit or Tamil or English or Hindi, the teachers did not teach us how to appreciate the beauty of the language.  Even worse, they failed to convey the rich history that comes with any language.

Instead, all they drilled into us was about learning the mechanics of whatever language they wanted us to learn.  Now, looking back, all I can do is smile at how ironical it was that one of the essays that we read for the English class was Winston Churchill's piece on his learning Latin as a schoolboy.  it is a long tradition of making languages unappealing to students!

Thus, Asti as अस्ति in my mind was why I decided to exit.  I knew there was a story waiting for me.

But then, I suppose stories are never waiting for any of us.  It is up to us to tell stories.  A story is in the eye of the beholder.  Let me tell you what story I saw there.

Asti is named for the Italian town for a reason--this is in California's wine country.  There are vineyards everywhere, and it should surprise nobody that a small community here is named after a place in Italy.  Off the exit ramp, I turned right, and drove slowly admiring the scenery.  A cop car passed me. Otherwise nothing.  It did not seem like there was any story.

I turned around.  I drove past the exit.  There was my story.

I was tempted to park, get down, and take a few photographs.  But, what if I upset them in the process?  Did I really want to mess around with people walking around spraying chemicals that are apparently so powerful that they have to wear Ebola-fighting outfits?  I am, after all, a wuss.  I reached out for my camera, which was lying on the passenger seat, and clicked without even lowering the window.  What they didn't know won't bother them, right?

We seem to do bizarre things in the name of progress, like using chemicals that are so powerful that we need to protect ourselves from them.  While wrapped up  in protective suits, we spray those chemicals on produce that we eventually consume!  We certainly are fucked up. I wonder how I might say "fucked up" in Sanskrit; I wish Pattabhiraman "sir" had taught me that back in the old country! ;)

Driving fast by the graveyard in California

Those were some brutal scenes that I was a witness to.  The dead lay in rows after rows.  Black and dark brown.

Yet, I did not stop to take photos.  I continued to drive in the slow lane as vehicles sped past me as they always do.

The dead, you see, were almond trees.  In California's San Joaquin Valley.

Like in this photograph from the Washington Post:

Usually when I near Coalinga, I prepare myself for the stink from the mega-dairies.  And I was prepared for that.  Acres of dead almond trees was new.  California's drought has dramatically altered its landscape already.  Yet, life goes on in California and elsewhere.

What a contrast to conditions in the old country!

Back when we were kids, watching a movie meant sitting through a government propaganda documentary as well.  Invariably, those documentaries--News Reels, they were called--were about hardships that farmers faced.  Almost always, they seemed to be about Bihar where if it was not floods it was a drought!

Even now, the prospect of a serious monsoon failure in South Asia is a nightmarish scenario--for the countries there and for the rest of the world too.  Because, unlike in California, half the population relies on agriculture for their existence.  Their livelihoods are dependent on a prosperous agriculture sector.  And unlike almonds, which are luxuries, rice and wheat are staples that sustain the hundreds of millions.

The fact that nobody really worries about California's drought is by itself a measure of the affluence in this country.  Of course, almond trees are down.  Lawns are brown.  But, life is otherwise unchanged.  The only noticeable difference is this: water is no longer served at restaurants.  Water is served only if the diner requests it.  To paraphrase Harry Truman's mother who reportedly told him "if that's your biggest problem, Harry, consider yourself lucky," here in the land of affluence if water by request is the biggest problem in California, well, we are lucky beyond our wildest imaginations!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Watch out for the tree!

Way back, in the social studies class in the old country, the textbook had a photograph of a car driving through a huge tree in California.  I bet I am not the only one from my class, from my school, who thought it would be cool to look at the tree in real life.

There are plenty of things we read about, hear about, that pique our curiosity.  But, not always are we able to follow-up on everything.  It is perhaps a good thing that we forget--else, our lives will be filled with disappointment after disappointment.

I never forgot about this tree.  When I came to California decades ago, I learnt that the drive through tree was in Yosemite, but that the tree fell years ago.  But that there were private ones.

Years went by.  I left California.

You see, many things in life require us to make them happen.  Rarely do they automatically happen. This time, on the way back from California, I knew was going to make it to to a drive-through tree.  I knew it because I was going to take the coastal route.

Sure enough, there were signs.  I exited.

"Is it a busy day?" I asked the woman at the counter as I handed her five dollars for the entrance fee.

A busy day it was.

The drive through the tree itself is what America is about.  An entrepreneurial mind cooks up an idea and then sells it.  We suckers fall for it, and give those creative minds our wallets.  "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door" they say; we surely do drive the path to that doorway hollowed out in a tree.

And then there it was.

Soon that excitement was over, and I continued on.

I drove through the Avenue of the Giants.  I could begin to understand why Rockefeller donated the money to save the trees after his visit a century ago.  I stopped every few minutes to take it all in.

When I was parked at one place, I thought my vehicle deserved a thanks as well, inanimate it might be.  A 140-horse chariot that did not exist when I was a kid who read about the drive-through tree in a faraway place called California.

Life is not in the rear-view mirror

It was a much cooler drive over the Siskiyous this time around.  Well, cooler is all relative, I suppose.  But, the ten degree differential compared to the experiences past made all the difference.

However, that was over the mountain stretch.  The flatland of the valley on the southern side was blisteringly hot.

I pulled into a Starbucks at Redding for my caffeine fix.  And, to also give the car a much needed break.  I parked it under a shade that covered my car as much as any outfit covers Kim Kardashian ;)

"It is 99 degrees here in Redding" I texted from within the cool confines of the coffee house, while cursing about the quality of coffee and the cookie.  Cursing in my mind, of course.  There was no way I was going to incur the wrath of the Starbucks-addicts by loudly expressing my dissatisfaction.

When I entered the warm car, there was something amiss.  "What is this dangling?" was my thought before I realized that it was the rear-view mirror hanging.

The older I get, the easier I panic, and the dangling rear-view mirror alarmed me.  I propped it over the passenger side visor.

I got back on the freeway.  With no rear-view mirror, I had to get back to the old lesson from the days when I began to drive in the US--to look over the shoulder before changing lanes.  The rear-view mirror now served only one purpose: to report the temperature outside!

As I continued to drive along, I wondered if not having the rear-view mirror could serve as a metaphor for life itself.  Often, too often, most of us end up looking at the events that happened.  We constantly look at the rear-view mirrors of our lives.  When, in reality, the direction that we go is forward, which is where our attention ought to be.

After a while, I really did not miss the mirror.  Through the crazy Los Angeles traffic, I changed lanes after looking over my shoulders.  I even watched out for crazy drivers by scanning the side view mirrors.

But, I knew that I had to get it fixed.  I narrated the event to my daughter.  The competent woman she is, within minutes she located a shop only a couple of minutes away.  "My father will be there soon" she told them.

I drove the mile to the shop.  A strongly built guy a few years older than me walked up.  His arms had tattoos.  He had a pleasant and welcoming smile.

"My daughter called about the rear-view mirror ..."

"Oh yeah, no problems.  I can get you going."

"I have no idea what happened.  I stopped for coffee in Redding ... I suppose the 99 degree heat was too much."  But, in my mind, I was thinking about the summers when I have driven to Los Angeles in 100-plus degree heat.  Once it was a 108 in the San Fernando Valley.

"These things are notorious ... the glue melts in the heat all the time" he reassured me as he started working on it.

"Did you find the place?" asked the text from the daughter.  My life is overflowing with people caring for me.

Two minutes and he was done.  "Make sure you don't move the mirror for at least ten minutes.  Otherwise, you are all set."

I was relieved and happy that it was done.  So much so that I would have given him a tight hug.  The older I get, the more appreciative I am of people who help me.  Even if for a fee.  "I owe you something" I told him.

"Nothing at all" he said with a smile.

I was all the more ready to hug that tattooed man.

"Thank you so much" I told him as I got into the vehicle.

I reached the daughter's home without looking at the rear-view mirror.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"What a way to fuck up!"


I decided to exit and check out the town.  Not only because of the small town atmosphere where I wanted to get myself a cup of coffee.  There was more.  I wanted to get an idea of why this part of the world was once home to the notorious Jim Jones.

I have hazy recollections of the news report of the cult-suicide in The Hindu, back when I was a teenager curious to understand the world.  I am pretty sure that it was thanks to that cult and the suicide that I came to know about two things: Kool-Aid and Guyana.  Years later, I had a classmate in graduate school who was from Guyana--she was of Indian descent, and I always found it interesting when she introduced herself as an East Indian.  Little did I know about the history behind that usage!

I parked across the courthouse along the main street.  Perhaps because of the background curiosity about Jim Jones, I worried that it was a bad idea.  But, I ventured.  When I saw a building with an interesting cupola, I got excited about the stories that I might discover for myself.  I clicked.

A marker on the side noted that the building is from 1889.  Unlike the long history of the old country, here even a building from 1889 has historic value.  After walking a couple of blocks, I decided to drive around.  Which is when all my troubles began.

A couple of blocks away, a driver reversing the car out of the angled parking space on the street almost rammed into my vehicle.  Phew!

Another couple of blocks later, I came to a stop at the intersection, and then proceeded along.  I heard somebody yelling.  "Hey, asshole!"  Really?  Me an asshole? I merely blog about them ;)

I noticed a man on a bicycle furiously pedaling behind me and yelling at the same time.  I wondered whether I should flee or stop to listen to him.  Stupid me I chose the latter.

I lowered the window.

"You didn't stop at the stop sign, asshole.  You could have hit me or somebody."  He seemed about a decade older than me.

I did stop.  There was another vehicle that came to a stop at the intersection 90 degrees to my right.  I then slowly entered the intersection.  My guess is that this cyclist was hidden from my view by the larger vehicle.

But, I didn't bother explaining all these to him. "Sorry" is all I said as I released my foot off the brake pedal.

"What a way to fuck up" was his parting comment.

Two incidents within a couple of blocks was enough for me.  I decided to leave town before anything really ugly happened.

Maybe Jim Jones' crazy spirit is alive and well in Ukiah!  Make sure you don't drink the Kool-Aid there ;)

This land is my land, this land is your land

Every road trip--heck, even while commuting to campus--I wonder with awe how this country became so rich, whereas the old country continues to struggle along even though it was once the richest country on the planet.

A long road trip gives me plenty of time for such deep thoughts ;)  A man, a car, the road, and his solitude.  This hermit loves it!

Only a few weeks ago, my blog-debate-partner went on his own road trip in the old country.  He wrote about crossing the mighty Brahmaputra river.  The logistics involved in that experience on the other side of the world easily demonstrates the immense material affluence here.

After paying a five-dollar toll for the privilege of using one of my favorite bridges, I exited on the other side to contemplate.

The road trip confirmed, yet again, that this is a phenomenally rich country; a land paved with the metaphorical gold.  Perhaps it is because I am an immigrant here that I appreciate this much more than the typical native-born American does?

I stood for a while looking at the San Rafael Bridge and thinking about life.  I thought about the affluence that came via a huge human toll that was paid for by Native Americans, African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and more.  I thought about the ease of my daily life now that was made possible by the pioneers of generations past.  I owe them all.  I owe them big time.

Later, at the motel, when I stepped out to get some fresh salty air, I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman with a well weathered appearance.  "My wife and I are on a road trip from Tennessee" he said with a drawl and an accent that I thought had disappeared from this country.  I struggled to get some of his words.  "I've already seen people my age die or not able to move around, and I wanted to get a look of this country while I can" he added.

We talked some more about the places he has seen and I have been to.  "There is one part of the country I don't care for" I told him.  I know a honest man when I see one, and I knew I could talk frankly with him.  "The desert of Nevada."

He agreed.  "I don't get Arizona and New Mexico either" he said.

"I too don't care for that high desert."

But, I am glad that even that land is my land.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The hermit pokes his head outside the ashram

"Your summer road trip to visit with me has become an annual tradition" the daughter remarked.

It has.  A wonderful tradition it has indeed become.

Every year I make two trips in particular: one to spend some time with the daughter, and another to spend some time with the parents.  I suppose I am the bridge across the generations.  A link in a chain that goes way back.

The daughter's remark, accidental it might be, reveals a lot about this antisocial hermit--he spends time and precious money to stay connected with his people.  Unlike with my intellectual gobbledygook, here I truly practice what I preach!

Technological tools--phone calls, Skype, emails, Facebook--are all mere proxies that simply cannot compare with the real thing of being together at the same place and time and sharing a meal and stories.  To borrow from a different context,
Because to love or be loved truly is to be able to say, “I have been touched.”
It is easy, far too easy, for most of us to substitute the proxies.  But, then my life is not about my ease--life is more than mere me on this pale blue dot.

I stopped by to break bread with two friends whom I knew almost from when I was fresh off the boat.  One of them wrote in an email after the visit:
Thanks for making the effort to keep in touch with us
People matter.  I am who I am because of the people around me.

"What if next year I am not here, but away in some other place?" the daughter continued.

"I will come see you wherever you are" I replied.

I am sure it was a rhetorical question that she posed,.  I am equally confident that she knew my answer even before I uttered those words.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Phones are newer and smarter ... this user is older and dumber!

I got into the smartphone habit much later than most in my circle.  I simply had no need for it--my old flip-phone worked fine.  My daughter was surprised; she thought I loved such gadgets.  I do.  But, when I evaluated the costs and the benefits, it just didn't seem worth it.

I finally made the switch to a smartphone.  I have now had that phone for a few years.  A couple of more generations of that phone have come and gone, but I am fine with what I have.  

In the US, most of us don't shell out the entire cost of a new smartphone.  Instead, we enter into a contract with a telephone company, which then provides the phone at a low price.  That remarkably low upfront cost makes the upgrades "easier" for customers.

With my contract, I was "eligible" for an upgrade a while ago.  I don't bother with that.  Because, I worry.  Unnecessary it might be; but, I worry.  Worry is all I seem to do, when I don't engage in sophomoric jokes ;)

The experience with the television set was tough enough.  I continued to soldier on with my cathode-ray-tube TV until the cable company's digital transmission started messing up things.  I then became the recipient of the daughter's gift!

I routinely force students to think about where their old smartphones end up when they upgrade to the latest gadget.  I have assigned essays, like this one, which then provide the context for them to pause for a few minutes and think about the resource consumption.  I practice--at least try to--what I teach.  Thus, I have a difficult time getting rid of my old smartphone even when it serves all my purposes. Last December, when I was taking photographs of the high school classmates who had come to the niece's wedding, one friend laughingly said "ever since the first time I reconnected with Sriram, he has been using the same camera."  Yes, it has been the same camera too for a few years now.  Just because it is old I should dump it?  I don't operate that way.  

I would suggest that you, too, think about those issues before you do whatever you do, especially if you are an environmental nutcase like me.  (Yes, shocking to you, eh, given my right-wing politics!)
It takes a lot of energy to use a smartphone. You charge the phone daily, you browse and exchange messages, you create tweets and Instagram posts that are saved on some faraway energy-guzzling server. Yet the biggest way to lessen the environmental impact of your phone doesn't have anything to do with how you use it, according to a new review
I have no idea why they had to do a big review to figure things out.  I have been saying the same stuff for years; oh yeah, nobody cares for what I have to say! ;)
All of that activity pales in comparison to how much energy it takes to extract and refine the dozens of precious metals that go into a smartphone. In other words, abstaining from replacing your smartphone more frequently than need be—and recycling it when you're done with it—may be the best way to make a difference.
"The current business model of mobile contracts encourages consumers to upgrade frequently, regardless of whether their current phone is fit for purpose," University of Surrey physicist James Suckling, one of the review's authors, said in a statement. "This isn't a trend that can continue if we are to have the mobile lifestyle we want, while still ensuring a sustainable future."

So, there!

I way prefer my clear approach to planned obsolescence ;)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Engines were made for men, not men for engines

The end is nigh, as they say.

No, not that end, but the grading.  A few more papers and then I will be done with the term and with the year.

An unlucky number--thirteen--of years at this place.  In my career, this is by far the most number of years I have worked for the same employer, who will perhaps remain my employer until I retire or die.  Almost six years was the other long stint.  The shortest was three weeks.

The three-week job, along with the three-months and the six-months at other two places, clarified for me that I am not here in order to work with machines almost to the point of working for the machines.  I wanted to think for myself--at any cost.

Which is why the quote that I came across today, which is the title of this post, appealed to me, though the "statesman" who uttered it shall ever remain in my books as a white supremacist!

That racist apparently said at the University of Miami in 1946:
Expert knowledge, however indispensable, is no substitute for a generous and comprehending outlook upon the human story with all its sadness and with all its unquenchable hope.
It is that human story that I am after in my own way.  While I might be formally employed to teach in the department of geography, my hope is that I am guiding students towards articulating for themselves what it means to be human, what it means to belong to the humankind, and how we fit into the grander narrative.

At least one student figured it out--a few years ago, in a third course that he was taking with me, he remarked loudly in the classroom, "you teach the same stuff in all your classes."  Guilty as charged!  My courses are not really about geography or economics or cities--those are merely the stories that I use so that students can think about those fundamental questions for themselves.

Why is that thinking for/by themselves about their own place in the grand narrative so important?
we're living at a time when public moral deliberation is rapidly moving away from considerations of ultimate ends, ideals of human flourishing, in favor of a morality of rights that is largely indifferent to what individuals do with their freedom. As long as you refrain from harming others, you are free to pursue happiness however you like, no questions asked.
Politically speaking, this might be the best available strategy for people who disagree about the highest good to live together pluralistically in relative peace. But this doesn't mean that it's possible for individual human beings to forego the question of how to live, to bypass the question of human flourishing — what it consists in, and how to achieve it. In fact, with the retreat of institutions that once proposed compelling comprehensive visions of the good life, the burden of choosing among various ways of life falls more than ever on the shoulders of individuals.
I worry that college education increasingly fails at this. Instead, education is almost always treated as if humans were made for engines of various kinds.  A "mercenary expedition" is how I characterized higher education in a work-related email yesterday!

Oh well; it is a good thing that even that end is not far away.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Distractingly Sexy Despite Being A Woman

Every once in a while, I wonder, simply wonder, whether I might one day sit at my computer not knowing what to blog about.  A complete blank.  Because there's nothing new to report, critique, or think through.

But, the world is a cornucopia, I have come to understand, and overflows with nourishing food for the mind.  This wannabe thinker, thus, has no problems whatsoever on issues and ideas to blog about ;)

A couple of days ago, I posted this on Facebook:

An hour later, a high school friend, who has a wonderful sense of sarcastic humor, replied:
You know #DespiteBeingAWoman was the tag to use.
I didn't know.  So, I then spent a few minutes reading some of the #DespiteBeingAWoman hashtagged posts on Facebook and Twitter and had quite a few laughs.

The day ended.

Another day, another gaffe.

Thankfully, not by Modi this time.  It was by a Nobel-prize winning scientist, Sir Tim Hunt:
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Mr. Hunt said Monday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”
This is a scientist who knows well how to dig really deep holes for himself--in a later interview, while saying sorry, he "clarified" his thoughts:
“It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth,” he said. “Science is about nothing but getting at the truth, and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”
The twitter world was soon trending with #DistractinglySexy.

Modi and Hunt speak for the old days and an older generation. Deep inside them rests the old stereotypes about the "weaker sex."  The good thing is that the old generation is dying, and the youth live in a considerably less unequal world and are growing up with far healthier understanding of girls and women in society--even in countries that are notorious for their awful treatment of girls and women.  Like Pakistan, where the "first female fighter pilot is smashing stereotypes."

Yes, a female fighter pilot in Pakistan, even as Sir Tim Hunt thinks that women can only burst into tears!
Flight Lt. Ayesha Farooq, Pakistan’s only combat-ready female air force pilot, has become both an international celebrity and a symbol of a new Pakistan, where women are breaking barriers and taking on roles traditionally closed to them.
 Yes, "the times they are a changin."
Farooq's mother was completely supportive of her daughter's path. Her extended family, however, didn't approve.
"But Ayesha won them over with her determination," Shah explains. "Today, they ask her for advice on how their daughters can join the air force,” she says. ...
“What we’re seeing is huge change. ... What’s coming out is that all these issues about women are being highlighted when before they were never paid attention to. ... I’m really excited myself to be witnessing this in this day and age,” Shah says.
I, too, am excited to be a witness to all these wonderful changes.  We do live in some interesting times, which include the likes of Modi and Hunt too!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Life on furlough

Today is the last of the final exams for the term.  For the academic year.

Last week, as I walked into the classroom for one last time for the year, I could feel the angst within that it will be a while before I get to interact with students and get them thinking about the kinds of questions that I would like them to think about.

"I feel depressed that this is the final week and this is the last class meeting" I opened.

The problem with having delivered what I thought were funny lines but with my naturally unsmiling face was immediately made obvious.  "You are being sarcastic, right?" said one.

"No, I mean it" I said.

It is not that all the students love me.  Far from it.  There are never any long lines of students waiting outside my office, as is always the case with the popular professors.  But, getting students to look at the world a tad differently from what they are used to is something that I will miss during this forced furlough.

Most of the students are so immensely respectful.  Like the student from another class who emailed me:
My paper is not the quality of work I would have have liked, but it is what time/work allowed right now.  Please don't take this as me not being interested in your class.  I enjoyed the course and found many of the ideas presented to be interesting and enlightening.  Have a great summer and thank you.
The student sounds like one of those whose parents never had problems punishing--because the kid always self-delivered punishments more severe than what the parents would have.

In my books, the student is educated.  After all, there is a lot more to education than mere grades and the diploma.
This point is made succinctly by an apocryphal story about a university president who said this to new freshmen each year: “For those of you who have come here in order to get a degree, congratulations, I have good news for you. I am giving you your degree today and you can go home now. For those who came to get an education, welcome to four great years of learning at this university.”
In such an approach to education, I am never on the search for some prized student, whom I can take on as my protege and create a "mini me."  No, ma'am.  As with the people I meet in the world outside the classroom, it is the genuine, no-pretense, adults I like to see in my classes.  That email from the student is a classic example.  It is always a pleasure to meet such youth, which then reassures me that the future is in safe hands.

Soon, the grading of the papers will be done.  It will then be a long wait until the new year.  Perhaps it is this absence that makes the heart grow fonder.  But, surely there has to be a way to grow fonder without the furlough!

When the new year resumes, rarely will I see many of the students in my classes again.
That is the strange reality of teaching. For a few months, we are front and center in our students’ lives—or so we hope. They are the focus of our courses, our assignments, our examinations, our office hours, our meditations in the car ride home. We encourage them. We try to fill the gaps in their education. In some cases, we try to resolve the unique challenges that they pose to us (as well as to themselves), psychologically as well as academically. We modify our lesson plans and rework our syllabi. We talk about our students with colleagues. We may even consult with an administrator or two for advice, guidance, or suggestions about a lecture, an exam, or a behavior issue.
And then it all comes to an end. Students leave, move on, transfer, graduate, and, quite often, we never see or hear from them again. And we are OK with that.
For us, the process starts over, and we soon find ourselves caught up in new stories, while the previous ones remain largely unresolved. Did Jim, who talked about becoming a therapist, go on to graduate school in psychology? Did Jessica, who argued so passionately in class against the death penalty, make it as a lawyer? We fill in the blanks about them based upon what we know (or think we know), and tell ourselves that their stories ended the way that we hoped.
 I have the furlough time to fill in some of the blanks.  But, first things first--I have final exams to grade!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The best yoga pants for dudes are from ... Lululemon, of course!

I have my own set of excuses for why I don't do yoga.  Now, there is one more reason for me to stay away from one of those yoga classes: Lululemon's yoga pants for men are selling like they are on, ahem, testosterone!

Lululemon yoga pants for men.  Yep!  Lululemon is waiting for you, my friend ;)

Given all the controversy over how those yoga pants fit skin-tight over the females, should I worry that these yoga pants will be like the male ballet dancer's appearance?  But then, apparently not the case, or not many are worried:

On that sales update:
Anyway, it makes some sense that the men’s section is seeing much faster growth than Lululemon as a whole. For starters, it’s just a lot newer. Lululemon didn’t even start talking about having dedicated men’s stores until late in 2013. Since then, though, the company has seized on the young, successful, relatively wealthy male shopper as its biggest business opportunity
The company is targeting yogis and non-yogis:
The men’s business at Lululemon is projected to reach $1 billion in annual sales in the next few years, though men’s clothing and accessories for now accounts for less than a fifth of volume at the company’s stores. The retailer has said that male consumers aren’t just yogis, which was the audience that the retailer initially targeted for women. Instead, Lululemon has made inroads getting male runners, cyclists, and CrossFit athletes to buy the company’s gear.
But, location always matters, when it comes to siting a store for the men's yoga pants:
Lululemon last year opened its first standalone men’s store in the SoHo district of New York City. Executives say the company continues to tinker with how they can address the market, either by opening more standalone stores or by expanding its merchandise assortment in existing locations. Lululemon maintains that those locations would need to be near a women’s store (the New York City store is across the street from a women’s store). That’s because girlfriends and wives are still responsible for introducing a lot of men to the brand.
“Our male guest does have a lot more permission to come into the Lululemon [collection], but she still shops for him,” said Chief Executive Laurent Potdevin
Why is this a big deal?
That’s a bigger deal than it may seem, because getting men to buy clothes once exclusively worn by women is a very tough sell. While pretty much any macho sports or surf brand can slap a logo on a women’s T-shirt and stand a good chance of gaining traction, there are few precedents for a women’s brand being proudly worn by guys — think college guys in Lilly Pulitzer shorts, or ballplayers wearing Victoria’s Secret boxers.
 So, get on with the program. Buy yoga pants and sign up for those classes.  Oh, if you are in India, well, be warned if you are not all pumped up about the International Yoga Day on June 21st:
 Amid protests by minority groups against the reported move to make yoga compulsory in schools, Yogi Adityanath, Gorakhpur MP from the BJP, said here on Monday that those who wanted to avoid yoga could “leave Hindustan”.
He said people opposing “Surya Namaskar” should drown themselves in the sea.
Namaste! ;)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Rohingya genocide, and Aung San Suu Kyi's silence

More than two years ago, back in April 2013, which now feels like it was a long time ago, I blogged about the atrocious treatment of the Muslim minority in Burma, where even the Buddhist monks--yes, the monks--were leading the genocidal attacks on the Muslims.

The situation has been deteriorating for the Rohingya community.  In November 2014, I blogged again when I noticed from the news reports that the situation was spinning out of control.

Here we are in June, and it is a crisis of epic scale.


I am not the only one who has been thinking all through, "where the hell is Aung San Suu Kyi?"

In case you forgot, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her committed opposition to the brutal military regime and for her insistence on non-violence.
"In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize. . . to Aung San Suu Kyi," the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in 1991, it wished "to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means."
Suu Kyi, the Committee added, was "an important symbol in the struggle against oppression."
We would then expect her to make public statements on, and to lead the opposition to, the violence against the Rohingya, right?

She is missing in action.  Big time.  What a shame!

Oops, she is not missing in action; she made a decision not to interfere!
Ms Suu Kyi, 69, has defended her reticence over alleged Rohingya persecution by saying she is a politician and not a human rights defender.
She argues that the problem of thousands of Rohingya migrants who have fled Myanmar - and are now believed to be stranded at sea - was for the government to solve.
What a shame!

Even the Dalai Lama couldn't get her to move on this:
The Dalai Lama has urged fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a main opposition leader in Myanmar, to do more to help protect the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority in her country amid a worsening migration crisis.
Despite thousands of Rohingya fleeing on harrowing boat journeys to Southeast Asia to escape a wave of deadly attacks and discriminatory treatment by the country's Buddhist majority, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to speak out against their plight.
The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader said on Thursday she must voice her opposition to the persecution, adding that he had already appealed twice to her in person since 2012, when deadly sectarian violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state pitted the Rohingya against local Buddhists, to do more on their behalf.
"It's very sad. In the Burmese (Myanmar) case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something," he told The Australian newspaper in an interview in advance of a visit to Australia next week.
What a shame!

From a country with its own terrible experiences, another Nobel Peace Prize recipient chimes in:
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, another winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said in a recorded message aired this week that aid donors, including the European Union, should make their funding for the impoverished country “conditional on the restoration of citizenship, nationality and basic human rights to the Rohingya.”
“A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country,” Archbishop Tutu said in remarks that were broadcast at a conference on the Rohingya in Oslo this week.
He said he agreed with those who say a “slow genocide” was being committed against the Rohingya.
What a shame that Aung San Suu Kyi has stayed silent all these years over the Rohingya genocide!

Oh, I suppose she is too busy traveling around, especially to countries that care not about human rights!

What a shame!

Sunday, June 07, 2015

I say, anyone for tennis?

When I was a newbie at my favorite university in the United States, I found plenty of Americana to be absolutely fascinating, one of which was American football.  Within a matter of days, it seemed like, I was familiar with the rules of the game and was a passionate follower of the college and professional varieties--without ever having even touched a football!  Ah, those were some wonder years of my youth that have faded so rapidly!

The quarterback of the team was Rodney Peete, who had one of the best smiles ever.  A talented multi-sport guy, Peete chose football for good.  He duked it out with the crosstown rival, Troy Aikman and led USC to the Rose Bowl game.  Which is why I didn't understand a fellow graduate student's comment that Peete would not make it to the NFL.  The NFL and the fans, he explained, were racist to think that a black guy wouldn't have the abilities to quarterback.

That understanding of racism in American sports was also a part of the Americana that I have been following since.  This is a very strange country, to say the least!

But then that following January, Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to play in a Super Bowl and he and his team thrashed John Elway and his team with 42 unanswered points.  A black quarterback won the NFL!

Peete went on to the NFL, and had a moderately successful career, although nothing like Aikman's glorious years with Dallas.  Fast forward the years that I have been in the US.  I no longer care for sports.  There is no emotion invested anymore; I scan the news only to know who won and lost.

When I read that Serena Williams had won, again, my first thought was, "isn't she too old to play competitive tennis?"  And the next question was, "'how come she is not celebrated big time?"  Maybe the second question was because that has been analyzed quite a bit.

A year ago, after her victory at the US Open, the New Yorker noted:
Forget tennis for a moment, though: when I say the greatest athlete in a generation, I mean the greatest in any sport. Sorry, LeBron. Sorry, Tiger. Sorry, Derek. For fifteen years, over two generations of tennis, Williams has been a spectacular and constant yet oddly uncherished national treasure. She is wealthy and famous, but it seems that she should be more famous, the most famous. Anyone who likes sports should love Williams’s dazzling combination of talent, persistence, style, unpredictability, poise, and outsized, heart-on-her-sleeve flaws.
But not everyone loves her.
Why?  As Vox put it right in the headline, "Every Serena Williams win comes with a side of disgusting racism and sexism."  At least Peete didn't have to deal with sexism!
In the moments surrounding her win, Williams was compared to an animal, likened to a man, and deemed frightening and horrifyingly unattractive. One Twitter user who wrote that Williams "looks like a gorilla, and sounds like a gorilla when she grunts while hitting the ball. In conclusion, she is a gorilla." And another described her as "so unbelievably dominant...and manly".
 It is a bizarre world in which we live :(
"The racism raining down on Serena's victory parade highlights the nature of white supremacy ... her career has been one marred by the politics of hate, the politics of racism and sexism," Leonard wrote.
The racism that underlies the characterizations of her as hypersexual, aggressive, and animalistic, also means that when she dares to express frustration, she's stamped with the infamous "angry black woman" stereotype.
It's as bogus as the rest of the labels she's endured, but given the slights against her over the years, she has every right to be outraged.
A tweet stated it succinctly:
Actually you see a lot of demands that successful Black people be humble. That's left over from Jim Crow era etiquette.
Of course, things have changed.  The NFL now features plenty of non-White quarterbacks.  But, there is a long, long way to go before we can be free of racism and sexism in sports.

I, for one, am mighty impressed that Serena Williams continues to win even at the ripe old tennis age of nearly 34!  Awesome!

Saturday, June 06, 2015

King coal's final battle will be in ... India?

First, some good news about coal, before we get into bad news ;)
The biggest surprise is the slowdown in consumption in China, which burns half the world’s coal. Last year’s fall in demand no longer looks like a blip. In the first four months of 2015 it fell 8% year-on-year (and imports dropped by a stonking 38%). Environmental worries are spurring China to increase energy efficiency and boost its use of natural gas and renewables, particularly wind power.
Now, before you run out into the street rejoicing that coal is dead, that same report ends with this:
Coal may be unpopular, but it is not doomed. Its share of world primary-energy use is falling from a peak of 30% in 2010, but only to a likely 25% in 2035, according to BP’s annual energy forecast. For poor countries which prize growth over greenery, coal seems indispensable: cheap, abundant and reliable. India in particular is betting heavily on it.
India is betting on coal. Big time.

Ok, you sat up.  Good.

Think about the complex web of industries whose business is to manufacture equipment to use coal. If China is thinking twice about coal, then what would you do?
Just because momentum is shifting away from coal in China does not mean that the country is no longer part of the global coal boom. A glut in coal power equipment among Chinese manufacturers has led to China becoming a leading exporter — buoyed by state-affiliated banks and export-credits — with important implications for India’s power sector portfolio.
Yes, the coal train gets routed to India.
Over 60 per cent of India’s coal power equipment ordered by private developers in the past decade has come from Chinese vendors, commonly with the financial backing of Chinese state banks, amounting to over 100 GW of coal power installed or in the pipeline involving Chinese firms.
 With the world worried about coal, and with even China deeply concerned about using coal, you might wonder why India is betting so much on coal.  It is simple:
People living without electricity don’t just want to see in the dark, they want to live in light as others do.
And how many such people live in India without electricity?  More than the entire population of the United States!  If you want a taste of such a life, go completely off the grid for an entire day: nothing that involves electricity.  Nah, don't try that--I am worried you will go insane.  Instead, try to understand the coal situation in India before you get all high and mighty about banning coal and about divestment--especially when your money comes from selling fossil fuels!

So, back to India ... 
 If the coal power sector overcomes the current procedural and judicial barriers, growth could proceed quickly, aided by inexpensive imports from China. China and India’s coal power sectors are intertwined. How it plays out will have important climate impactions.
The world will increasingly note India's coal consumption.  In the fall, as scientists, reporters, and activists, gear up for the climate conference in Paris, expect to read and hear quite a bit about India's coal consumption.  
To many western environmentalists, who are determined to see a binding global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the UN climate change conference in Paris later this year, India’s rising coal use is anathema. However, across a broad range of Delhi politicians and policymakers there is near unanimity. There is, they say, simply no possibility that at this stage in its development India will agree to any form of emissions cap, let alone a cut.
When 400 million-plus people have no electricity, and when environment-friendly alternatives like solar and wind simply cannot be scaled up to meet that kind of a demand with the current technological capabilities, India will turn to coal a lot more.  Especially when coal prices start plunging, thanks to countries like Australia having placed their bets on China buying coal.   
[Navroz] Dubash, a lead author of the IPCC’s reports, is personally in no doubt as to the need to reduce global emissions. ... In India, he added, the number of people who consume as much energy as anyone deemed to be above the official poverty line in the developed world is, at most, a few tens of millions. Everyone else consumes less. “From a global perspective, you have to give India carbon headroom.”
Which means:
“By 2030, coal use is projected … to be 2.5-three times current levels,” the report says. Even with stringent policy action to increase the deployment of renewables and increase energy efficiency, “coal use is projected by all but one study to be more than two times current levels”.
With the result:
The consequence is that if, as the projections suggest, India’s emissions grow between two and three times by 2030, “India could be the second largest global emitter within the next decade.” Its projected output – between 4bn and 5.7bn tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – will surpass that of the US, which in 2011 was 5.3bn tonnes and falling, and be smaller only than China’s.
This projected emissions from India will be a big reason why there will be a lot of emphasis on the country that by 2028 will have a population that will exceed China's.  India's politicians and analysts are gearing up for the conference:
Nitin Desai is a retired UN diplomat, who organised the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and later represented the UN secretary-general at international climate conferences. He is now a member of a small expert panel advising Modi in the lead-up to Paris. “In a country with blackouts and so many people without access to electricity, can I really manage without developing more coal?” he asked. “Why should we be accountable? The pressure should be on the countries whose per capita emissions are much higher. If you try to force India to adopt emissions targets, you will fail.”
Let's face it--the only way we can avoid the coal train wreck is if the developed, richer, countries--beginning with the US--make developing cheaper and scalable alternatives as important as, if not more important than, the mission to send humans to the moon and bring them back.  If we don't--and it looks like we don't care a shit about the urgency of developing alternatives--then we have to accept dramatic increases in coal consumption, and in GHG emissions, in India--even if it chokes the life out of people there :(

Caption at the source:
Mining overburden in the Singrauli coalfield. Photograph: Greenpeace/Sudhanshu Malhotra 

Friday, June 05, 2015

Drill, baby, drill. Who the frack cares!

One event and so many different headlines!

Who you gonna believe?

I wonder if it always was like this, or whether such contentious interpretations day in and day out are a modern phenomenon.  Even for a junkie like me, this is simply head-spinning.  Perhaps all the more why many simply decide to shut themselves off from this cacophony and instead rely on their favorite news sources.  You know, like the Faux News people!

What was the event that triggered all these headlines? In a weighty tome that can put anybody to sleep, the US EPA found "no signs of “widespread, systemic” drinking water pollution from hydraulic fracturing."

But, we are talking about energy and politics.  Not really science.  Which means:
it’s widely believed the Obama administration is deferential to natural gas fracking companies because the industry is more environmentally friendly than Big Coal but also robust enough to help drive much-needed economic growth. That attitude is shared by other members of the president’s part
Fight coal, but then a wink-wink towards natural gas.

Except, even the fighting coal is not really happening, notes the Pulitzer-winning writer at my favorite magazine:

So, where do all these  leave us?  Do the President and his people have any real energy policy at all? Kolbert writes, "the White House’s energy policies remain a muddle."  Great!  Can anything be done?
the Administration is undermining its own best efforts. But such a muddle is probably the best we can expect until and unless American voters demand something more coherent.
Ah! American voters demanding something coherent?  Good luck on that!

All these mean that after November 2016, we will most likely end up with a President and a Congress that will be a lot more fossil-fuel friendly than the friendly environment that currently exists.  Meanwhile, there is a climate conference coming up in December:

Good luck on that, rest of the world!

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Meditate on this!

She wasn't looking her cheery self at all as I waited in line at the checkout lane.  The former body-builder looked tired.  When she looked at me, past the customer she was serving, her smile seemed forced and her eyes a tad tired.

"How are you?" I asked her as I moved up.  I am old enough to know that asking anybody, especially middle-aged women, why they look tired might not be the best way to start a conversation.

"Tired and sleepy."

"I have not been able to sleep" she added.  "I think I have slept for a long time when I wake up and it turns out that it has been only two hours.  And then I simply lie there thinking, and not being able to go back to sleep."

Scientists haven't quite cracked what functions sleep serves.  All we know for certain is that our physical and mental health is affected when we don't get enough sleep.

"Yes, sleep is extremely important" I replied.

"Do you get enough sleep?" she asked.

I do.  I suppose I am lucky in that.

I heard her ask me "do you medicate?"  I told her that I am on Claritin for the grass seed pollen season.  The puzzled expression on her face made me rethink my response, and then rethink her question.

"Oh, you asked me whether I meditate?  I heard it as medicate!  No wonder you were wondering why I was talking about Claritin ..."

"If you mean whether I shut the lights and sound off and sit quietly for a while, nope.  To me everything that I do is meditation.  The cooking, the cleaning, the reading, the writing ..."

She didn't seem satisfied with that response.  Maybe for once I have let her down with my reply.  But, hey, spend enough time with me and I am bound to offer responses that won't always please you.  My thoughts on atheism might not please some, while others might find my criticisms of Modi to be off-putting.  Or, my intellectual inquiries about shit and sex work.  All these work for me; my blood pressure is normal and I sleep well ;)

Yesterday, when talking with the parents, father updated me on the problems that a few extended family members were dealing with.  "I think I am the only one with problems.  But, everybody has problems, and many of those problems are more troublesome than mine" he said.

I agreed with him.  Problems are in plenty.  Who doesn't have them!  Further, as my daughter advised me years ago, each person's pain is that person's pain and we can't dismiss that by comparison.

"Observing problems makes one a philosopher" father continued.  "That's how Siddhartha became Buddha."

I wanted to add there that the world will be better off if every one of us spent some time every day understanding our own problems, and those that our neighbors or friends or family go through.  But, I didn't.

With the Buddha, at one of the Ajanta caves

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