Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Did the Buddha really say "son of a bitch"?

"All we have to do is live and enjoy life" he said.

Perhaps you are even nodding in agreement.  So easy is that bottom-line, right?

The irony is this: only the other day, another person referred to him as "a mean son of a bitch, who always wanted to do things only his way and nobody liked him."

So now, with this added information, do you agree with the notion that "all we have to do is live and enjoy life" even if that came from a "mean son of a bitch"?

Life is complicated.  It never is easy.  If it were easy, well, we won't have any problems at all.  This earth will be a paradise.  It is not a paradise because enjoying life ain't easy.

Apparently one guy's enjoyment means he is a mean SOB to another.

That got me thinking: I have no idea what people say about me.  Do students think I am a mean SOB?  How do I know what my neighbors really think about me?  Could I come across as a nice guy to one but as a mean guy to another even when my behavior is the same in the interactions with both?  In that case, is the "mean SOB" dependent on the beholder?  Does it then mean that I have no control over what others might think about me?  Should I not care then about what others think?  But then isn't that how that guy perhaps earned the distinction of being a mean SOB?

Sometimes I wonder how life will be if everybody spoke only their true feelings all the time with everybody.  Even a "how are you?" will become a difficult one to deal with.  Imagine then the plight of advertisers, lawyers, and politicians, whose daily life is about not saying the truth!

Perhaps that's why the Buddha cautioned against speaking itself.  He suggested that we ask ourselves whether what we want to say is true, necessary, and kind.

Most of what we say is far from true, necessary, and kind to others.  Rarely ever do we hit that trifecta.  Imagine checking ourselves all the time before we opened our big fat mouths!

But then we can't not speak in the real world.  So, we then end up speaking.  Every once in a while what we say might be true.  It might be true that some of my esteemed colleagues are idiots, but did I have to write that in the post yesterday?  And perhaps more frequently than we desire, we speak without being kind to the other person and to humans--we behave like that "mean son of a bitch."

We cannot be like the Buddha and retreat from this material world either.  Which means, we are stuck with mean SOBs all around us, and with us being mean SOBs to others?

Crap, life ain't easy!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ackamarackus! It is time we talked bullshit

As much as I love the political theatre for the entertainment it provides, there is a reason why I prefer to view that as entertainment: if I am not able to laugh at the idiots who want to govern my life, then I will be left with intense pain and emotions.  I way prefer to be at ease than to be walking around stressed.  It is no different from how I am work, too, with my esteemed colleagues ;)

In the process of laughing at the idiots, I came across the word of the day: Ackamarackus.  I had no idea such a word existed. When I read that, I was initially convinced that the writer had made up the word, like how my old neighbor had created that wonderful word, exhaustipated.  However, it turns out that ackamarackus is for real; who knew!

The writer notes in the context of Marco Rubio's bullshit that it was not BS but ackamarackus:
Ackamarackus is a type of BS that’s big and showy and distracting: it’s a five-star circus of bamboozlement.
The Wiki dictionary notes about ackamarackus:
activity engaged in just for show; deceptive nonsense
Which means, hmmm, Donald Trump in his entirety is ackamarackus.  The guy is a deceptive and distracting nonsense, indeed.  But, it is shocking how he and other nonsensical sideshows are considered eligible enough to become the next commander-in-chief!

Four years ago, back in November 2011, Dan Drezner had this to say about the GOP presidential candidates then:
Americans have elected foreign policy neophytes in the past. Some have worked out quite well in advancing US interests (Harry S. Truman) while others have not (George W. Bush). What these presidents had in common, however, was a genuine belief that foreign affairs were intrinsically important. Truman read widely on international affairs, and Bush convened a team of seasoned foreign policy advisers to tutor him on the issues two years before taking office. They understood that decisions to spend money or send troops overseas would determine how they were remembered, and affect the national security of the United States. More recent presidents have grasped the concept that economic trouble in Europe means trouble for the United States as well. Compared with past commanders-in-chief, the motto of the current Republican candidates is simple: don’t know, don’t care.  
Looks like he doesn't have to edit a single word there and can run with the same commentary yet again, right?

I brought that to Drezner's attention, via a tweet.  It didn't take him long to respond:
This time around, the GOP's leading candidates as of now are all neophytes, running on the "logic" that their absolute lack of knowledge and experience is their greatest asset, which makes Sarah Palin seem like a theoretical physicist par excellence!

You see why enjoying this as farcical theatre is the best option; "all that’s missing is a tiger (or elephant?) jumping through a flaming hoop."  Ackamarackus! ;)

Monday, September 28, 2015

I think I can. I think so ...

Lucky coincidences.  They happen.

I need to take a long road to get to the point though.

Two years ago, during my final full day in Costa Rica, I met Roberto while on a one-day package tour.  We traded email addresses and later became Facebook friends too.

Every once in a while, I check to see what Roberto is up to, and am always happy to read that he is progressing along in his medical residency, attending conferences, and--this is key--traveling.  For the young man he was, Roberto had profound, heartfelt, philosophical observations, like this one that I had blogged about too:
"When you are lying nearing your death, you cannot take your car or house or clothes.  You have only your memories with you when dying" Roberto said.  El sentido de la vida es vivirla was what Roberto had later noted in his Facebook post.
After we returned to our respective routines, our interactions quickly reduced to nothing.  Every once in a while I check his Facebook page, which almost always has posts only in Spanish.  Sometimes I click "like" too.

Today, I happened to visit his page after a long time.  And that is where the coincidence part kicks in.

With the lack of institutional reward at work--even if it is merely my perception that is not the reality--I was concerned that I might begin to coast along without investing any energy or emotion.  Given my game plan to work for a long time before I exit this pale blue dot, I had been thinking about how to dangle a carrot in front of myself.

I happened to visit Roberto's Facebook page, where he had a lengthy post in Spanish with a final line that was "Rudyard Kipling."  I figured he had posted a poem by Kipling and was curious.  I clicked on translate.  I liked the poem, but there was something bothering me about it.  I am no specialist in poems, but I had a feeling that it was not Kipling's.

I then googled for the first line of the poem, and the results were that the author was Walter D. Wintle.

I now re-read the poem without that nagging feeling.  You can see why it was a lucky coincidence, and why I am posting the poem below.

The man who thinks he can
By Walter D. Wintle

If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don't.
If you'd like to win, but you think you can't,
It is almost a cinch that you won't.

If you think you'll lose, you're lost;
For out of the world we find
Success begins with a fellow's will
It's all in the state of mind.

If you think you're outclassed, you are;
You've got to think high to rise.
You've got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win the prize.

Life's battles don't always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the one who thinks he can!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Miracles on a pale blue dot

Over the years, after reading some of my blog-posts that I have packaged into collections, my father has understood that I have wandered far, far away from the religious reservation.  He also knows that I am not one of those atheists who goes around dissing religions for the sake of dissing them.

I stay silent when he talks about one of his beliefs--miracles.  I remember all too well how as a faithful young boy everyday I waited for miracles to happen.  The older I got, and the more I understood science, I figured that there are plenty of things wrong in interpreting the happenings via miracles.

As the polymath physicist Alan Lightman writes in this essay,
Miracles, by definition, lie outside science. Miracles are incompatible with a rational picture of the physical world. Nevertheless, even in our highly scientific and technological society, with most of us profiting enormously from cell phones and automobiles and other products of science—indeed depending on the consistent workings of science—a large fraction of the public believes in miracles. Most of us do not ponder that contradiction. One of my aunts was certain that her dead father visited her house and spoke to her every few months, and she got a tape recorder—a device of science—to document his voice. (Thereupon, the ghostly visits ceased.)
Miracles come from the world of imagination, of dreams, of desire; science from the world of practicality, of logic, of orderly control. I’ve always been fascinated by our ability to live simultaneously in these two apparently opposing worlds. Each in its own way, they reflect something deep and essential inside of us.
That excerpt gives away why I was drawn to that essay.  Through a number of posts in this blog, I have been trying to understand the simultaneous existence of people in "two apparently opposing worlds."  For a number of years now, I have asked quite a few science-educated people, including one who has a doctorate in astronomy--about their "faith" and how they reconcile the two.

I have also come to understand via this maniacal inquiry that people believe in their gods because it gives them that concise narrative of why we are here.  Without that clear narrative, we will be forced to think about questions like: who am I? What does life mean? What happens to this "life" after death?  Why is there death?  How did all these come about?  Those are all troubling questions.  Religious narratives, whether it is Buddhism or Catholicism or Scientology, provide answers to those questions.

And that is exactly what Alan Lightman also says:
Belief in a spiritual universe, I would suggest, arises to a large extent from a human desire for meaning, meaning both in our individual lives and in the cosmos as a whole. While science provides the psychological comfort of order, rationality, and control, it does not provide meaning. Such deep philosophical questions as “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of my life?” “What is the meaning of this strange cosmos I find myself in?”, and such moral questions as “Is it right to kill an enemy soldier in time of war?” “Is it right to steal in order to feed my family?”, cannot be answered by science. Yet these questions are vital to our mental and emotional lives. We turn for answers to the spiritual universe, the realm that contains eternal truths and guidance, the realm that has some kind of permanent existence, in contrast to the fleeting moment of our mortal lives. In such a realm, logic, rationality, and regularity are not even part of the vocabulary.
It is like when we play a sport like football or cricket.  There is internal logic to how that is played, of course, but if you are not a "believer" then you find that the rules are irrational, bizarre, and comical.  We make fun of off-side and ineligible receiver and more.  But, to those who are passionate about the sport, well, there is nothing funny about those rules.  It, therefore, does not surprise me one bit that atheists are rarely found in the sporting world--way rarer than in society, I think!

I believe that father has also understood my profound appreciation for this universe that is awesome, beautiful, and mysterious. Which is why sometimes he even says things like "you refer to that as the cosmos."  To me, a wonderfully sunny day in fall is a miracle. So is the sparkling river, a rainbow, the blue waters of Sahalie Falls, the loving lick of a playful puppy, the unadulterated laughter of a two-year old,  ... Which is why I so easily agree with Lightman's concluding comments:
My wife and I spend summers on a small island in Maine, far from any town. At night, the skies are quite dark. Sometimes, when there is no wind blowing and the tidal flow is small and the ocean is very still, I can see the reflection of the stars in the water near our dock. At such moments, the water looks like a dark carpet with a million tiny sparkles of light, which gently bob and ripple with each passing wave. Even though I know all the science, I am totally mesmerized and awed. For me, that is miracle enough.
Have yourself a miraculous Sunday!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Just say NO, dammit!

Yesterday's lunch included garlic flavored Freedom fries French fries at what turned out to be a great food place.  After that, I kept burping garlicy fumes the rest of the afternoon.  As I walked by the river, I worried that the birds would drop dead from my exhalation ;)

Fried and greasy foods appeal to us humans.  Sweets also do; I should know that well, after finishing the Haagen-Dazs mango sorbet that was in the freezer. There are "forces out of your control" argues this essay and, therefore:
Even the most disciplined consumers are not fully in control of what they eat.
I can understand that. If I, who leads a regular and orderly life to the point of being boring, can succumb to the garlicy French fries and mango sorbet, then not even the alleged gods out there can help most of the seven billion!
Studies have shown that decisions such as when, what and how much to eat are often shaped by subtle forces outside of our awareness or direct control. These environmental forces can cause us to overeat by taking advantage of biological, psychological, and social and economic vulnerabilities. This helps explain why two billion people worldwide are overweight or obese, and why no country has yet been able to reverse their obesity epidemic.
I suppose we need our own nutritional Ulysses Pacts, so that we can avoid the call of the sirens from the ice cream freezers, the bakery, and garlicy French fries, ...
People eat more when served larger portions, regardless of how hungry they are. ... for food, out of sight often means out of mind
You need an example, eh!
Google provides free snack foods for employees, and found that employees were eating too many M&Ms. So they placed the M&Ms in opaque containers and made healthier snacks more visible.
Simply placing M&Ms out of sight from the 2,000 employees in the New York office meant they consumed 3.1 million fewer calories in just seven weeks.
Of course, one could ask why Google is providing all those snacks in the first place, especially when it is concerned that its people are junking out on them.  The answer is simple--Google, like all the tech companies, would like the employees to be at work for as long as possible.  They are similar to how the Chinese employees at Foxconn factories work and live in the huge compound.  Anyway, that is for another day's post.  I need to focus on food and health here ;)
Unhealthy foods are often inexpensive, making them especially appealing to those on a tight budget.
This is the one that drives me crazy.  It is the reason that students often give--healthy options are more expensive.  The other day I bought two Cara Cara oranges.  They were more than a dollar apiece.  For the nearly $2.25 that I spent on those two awesomely tasty and healthy oranges, I could have had two bean burritos at Taco Bell, which would have been the best bang for the buck in terms of calories/money.

Unprocessed and natural foods has its own complications as well.  Why?  Consider this:
Full-fat milk sounds a lot more natural to people than 2 percent or skim milk. Cows don’t produce skim milk. You have to process it to take out the fat.
Heh, when we were kids, the milkman delivered the milk right after milking the cow or the water-buffalo, and boy the milk was without fat.  For that matter, it was without milk too, thanks to all the water he always added but claimed that the animal had too much water to drink ;)

So, what is apparently the trend now here in these United States?
The new report, which was published last week by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, found that sales of butter in the United States rose 14 percent last year and climbed another 6 percent in the first three months of 2015. Sales of whole milk rose 11 percent in the first half of this year, while skim milk purchases fell 14 percent. The report also predicted that consumption of red meat and eggs would climb in the coming years.
The trends reflect what appears to be a shift away from processed foods and toward those that are considered more wholesome, even when they contain saturated fat and other macronutrients that were once vilified as unhealthy
We live such strange and twisted unhealthy lives!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fauxwagen: A Tamil brings down a German giant

In graduate school, a classmate who was Jewish joked about how his family seemed to always watch out for "one of us" in the news.  The examples he gave were hilarious, like how his family was not into sports, yet they knew everything about Sandy Koufax because, well, he was Jewish.  He laughed heartily at the thought of a Jewish basketball superstar and what that would do to his family.

I admit that there is that kind of a streak in me too.  Replace "Jewish" with "Tamil" and that is me.  I always delight at the Tamil angle to news--of fame, not of notoriety.

Thus, when Sundar Pichai was presented as the new boss at Google, I immediately noticed his Tamil name.  I felt all the more excited.

It was a similar moment with the recent Fauxwagen scandal.  Yes, there is a Tamil connection on the fame side.
Volkswagen was recently brought to its knees when scientists discovered the company had installed a device in its diesel-powered cars to fool emissions tests. Its stock price tanked, its reputation has been damaged and its CEO resigned on Wednesday.
So who made the discovery that sent the German car giant into a tailspin? A group of scientists at West Virginia University.
WVU research assistant professor Arvind Thiruvengadam and his colleagues test and experiment on cars and engines. He admits his is not the sexiest lab on campus, but he says he got superexcited when they won a grant in 2012 to test a few diesel cars.
Thiruvengadam?  Hey, that's from my part of the world in the old country?

So, of course, I used Sundar Pichai's search engine.  It led me to this site at West Virginia University, where Thiruvengadam is an assistant professor.  His academic credentials start with an undergraduate degree from ... yep:
B.E. Mechanical Engineering, University of Madras, India, 2004
His full name is Arvind Thiruvengadam Padmavathy.  Try saying that twice that with a couple of marbles in your mouth ;)

How did This Tamil guy get into this project?
[On] the campus of West Virginia University, a group of emissions researchers who mainly dealt with heavy trucks noticed an unusual posting by the transportation council, which was looking for a partner to test diesel-powered cars.
“No one had done that before in the U.S.,” said Arvind Thiruvengadam, a professor at the university. “It sounded very interesting, to test light-duty diesel vehicles in real-world conditions. We looked around at each other said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
The university’s team bid on the project and got the contract. Mr. Thiruvengadam and his colleagues never envisioned where it would lead. “We certainly didn’t have an aim of catching a manufacturer cheating,” he said. “It didn’t even cross our minds.”
The study also did not target Volkswagen specifically. It was something of a fluke, he said, that two out of three diesel vehicles bought for the testing were VWs.
I suspect that he used the word "fluke" because that's often used in the old country.  "Fluke" is not a word that is often used here in the US; chances are high that most Americans wouldn't even know what that word means ;)

Now, a Tamil version of a Michael Jordan will complete the mosaic! 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Awesome is the word!

It is a brand new season according to the sun, which will now begin to slowly fade away from these northern latitudes.

Decades ago,  when I was in elementary school, I knew about the four seasons only because the textbook described it so.  After all, back then, the seasons I knew were summer--when it was extremely hot--rainy season, and then the rest.  Autumn? Winter? We learnt that Himalayas meant the abode of snow; but, I had no idea what snow felt like.  Leaves changed colors only when they were dead.  Such was life in the near-equatorial conditions.

Now, my daily life is in sync with the changing seasons.  The sun's apparent movements between the tropics determine my work and my downtime.  Summer means being furloughed from work,, and it is months of doing nothing, as the posts over the three months have shown ;)  Well, according to my neighbors, I don't work any season!  The fall term at school begins after the autumnal equinox; the winter term begins after the shortest day of the year; and the spring term begins as the sun begins to spend time in the northern hemisphere.  Thus, I am like the farmers in the old days whose lives were determined by the seasons.

It was a sunny, pleasant day, today as I stepped out for the walk by the river.  "Can't complain on a day like this" I told the neighbor who was out doing yard work.  The kind of work that I have no clue about.

"The only hassle is that in the morning it is cold, and you have to wear long-sleeves.  Then as the day progresses you have to start taking layers off because it is warm" he said.

"Yep, that is our biggest hassle now.  Which means we really have nothing to complain about" I said.

I laughed. We all laughed. On days like this, it is difficult to be morose and maudlin.

"I am off for the only physical activity that I engage in" I said as I kept walking.

Walking is an exercise.  It is also time for contemplation.  To think about things.  Sometimes to even forget what I have been thinking about--a blissful nothingness that arises from thinking.

I was in that state of nothingness when I was awakened by a woman on a bicycle who said "what a beautiful day" as she passed me.

"Oh, an awesome day" I responded.

She turned her head towards me, slowed down just a tad, and said, "you are right.  It is awesome!"

Awesome is such an American word.  I smiled at the thought.

I was back to my blissful nothingness.

Those damn teachers and their stratospheric salaries!

When it comes to school teachers, over the years, society has managed to make sure that the probability of the smart students choosing that career will be ultra-low.  As I noted in this post more than three years ago, we faculty might whisper about this behind closed doors but never openly and honestly discuss it.  We do not have to wonder where the smart ones are headed.

Society, whether it is here or in the old country, "respects" only those who earn high incomes, which teaching does not offer.  The smart and hardworking students make the rational choice to then head towards Wall Street, the Silicon Valley, and other geographic areas where the roads are paved with the metaphorical gold.

On top of that is the prevailing wisdom that teachers are overpaid anyway.   That always shocks me.  I have always been puzzled at how poorly societies pay teachers. Nonetheless, my fellow citizens have clearly stated that they would rather pay for, say, entertainment than for teachers; the very ones who are shaping the lives of their most valuables ever--their children.

So, over the decades, we nickel-and-dimed teachers.  And we also made sure we made so many negative remarks that there is very little of a feeling of respect and being wanted.  Which is why, as I noted in this post a couple of months ago, teachers were fleeing from Arizona and Kansas, among other places.

Teacher shortage is now a serious problem in many states, and I am not surprised at all.  Those who have never taught have no idea how challenging and stressful the profession is, and how the burnout drives teachers away.
Clark County [Nevada,] like a growing number of school districts across the country—including Providence, Rhode Island; San Francisco; and Los Angeles—does indeed have a severe teacher shortage. Even with the marketing campaign, which recruited slightly more than 1,700 teachers to Clark County, the school district still started the school year short about 800 teachers.
Yawn!  No surprise here.
“Well-paying jobs with good conditions don’t have to have gimmicks to attract quality people,” says Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher demographics and retention. “You have to put your money where your mouth is ..."
Of course, more money does not automatically mean better teachers.  But, guess what? Less money means no teachers.  Less money means we begin to scrape from that proverbial bottom of the barrel.  If that's what people want, hey, I have no problems with that, especially when I don't have a kid in the education pipeline!
It’s not just the salaries. It’s also the conditions in Clark County classrooms that drive teachers to leave.
Samantha Jones left Clark County in June after teaching there for eight years. She says she no longer felt respected as a professional.
Yawn!  No surprise here.

My neighbor's granddaughter is an elementary school teacher, into the third year of her young career.  Her class apparently has 45 students.  That is like how it was when I was a student back in the old country.  I am always shocked that society's priorities in this richest country on the planet are so screwed up that the class size here has grown to what we expect to see in resource-constrained developing countries.  And then there is this report:
Teachers always come and go, but in recent years there are some new reasons for the turnover. Polls show that public school teachers today are more disillusioned about their jobs than they have been in many years. One 2013 poll found that teacher satisfaction had declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62 percent to 39 percent very satisfied, the lowest level in 25 years. Fifty-one percent of teachers reported feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 percentage points reporting that level in 1985.
Good job by the ideologues!  But then, hey, when did ideology ever bother with the facts on the ground, right?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The flawless virtual world is only a few years away?

Could we one day find that when we dip our fingers in virtual water, it actually feels wet?
Maybe I am merely experiencing the old adage that the world we see is the world that we want to see.  And maybe that is why I am coming across one too many essays and news reports on the rapidly advancing technologies and, therefore, the implications for the future.  But then, maybe it is not my bias--it is all for real, which means that you too should be worried.

That quote is from this piece in the Atlantic, on how virtual reality is getting real.  Touching virtual water and feeling our fingers getting wet is apparently one of the examples "known as the haptics problem, to be the holy grail of virtual reality."  Smell, sensations in the skin, taste, are all in this category.
But that doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable. “I’m confident we’ll do it within our lifetimes,” Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, told me. “There are no fundamental physical laws that prevent us from building something that’s almost perfect.” Laidlaw is less optimistic—he thinks that creating lifelike haptics will take 100 years—but he agrees that a virtual world may one day be a nearly perfect simulacrum of the real one.
Oculus is the virtual reality technology leader, for now:
the much-anticipated Oculus Rift headset is expected to arrive in stores in early 2016, followed closely by several other devices.
This is only the beginning, of course.
“Right now, it’s like when you first had cellphones,” Richard Marks, one of the lead engineers working on Project Morpheus, Sony’s virtual-reality headset, told me. “A lot of focus is still on the most-basic things.”
You remember those early mobile phones?  Huge and bulky and awkward?  And how rapidly it "evolved," right?

Apparently all the publications I subscribe to are conspiring to feed me VR stories. Yes, it is all about me! ;)  The New Yorker reports about the latest from "Howard Rose, the soft-spoken C.E.O. of a company that designs virtual-reality environments"
Rose also helped create SnowWorld, in which snowballs, snowmen, and flying fish distracted burn patients during painful wound dressings and stretching procedures.
After asking for a swivel chair and more ice, Rose introduced Cool!, a successor to SnowWorld. A player of Cool! drifts down the path of a river, Rose explained. “It’s a kind of Jungian thing. Nobody asks, ‘Why am I on a river?’ It’s, ‘Oh, I’m going down a river.’ And there are otters: we use otters because otters are endearing—pretty nonthreatening.”
 How powerful is VR?  Rose has a human put her right hand in a real bucket of ice.  
The idea, he explained, was to see how long she could stand it, and then see how long she could stand it while lost in Cool!. Ice ache was standing in for more violent pain.
Get it?  You can already see where this is going.  In the real world versus when being completely drawn into VR.  
For fifty-two seconds, nobody spoke; there was the roar of air-conditioning and, faintly, in the D.C. café, a shrieking toddler. Gummer took her reddened hand out of the ice. Rose warmed it under a heat lamp. He then helped her put on a virtual-reality headset and headphones. ...
After two and a half minutes, Gummer took her hand out of the ice again. Rose said that such a result—three times the resilience—is fairly common in both informal and more rigorous tests.
Such technologies can be put to good use, of course, as in treating patients with intense pain and phobias and PTSD and more, where fooling the brain is a good therapeutic strategy.  But, we know enough from experience that technological advancements are not merely for constructive uses.  Siri to Samantha to Ava are the kinds of examples that I have already discussed in this blog.  Add Oculus Rift and "haptics" to all that.  We will rapidly redefine what it means to be human--the question that I often raise in this blog.
in 50 or 100 years we might develop a brain-machine interface that taps directly into the nervous system.
Perhaps then we’ll find that rather than jacking in for a while and calling it quits, we can, like Alice, move wholly into a Wonderland where the laws of the prosaic world (gravity, aging) no longer apply. Virtual reality could then become akin to the Singularity, a concept described by Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and Google engineer, among others: a way for our minds to separate from our bodies and, uploaded into a digital realm, live on even as our physical selves grow old and die.
A brave new world, indeed!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What for a regular and orderly life?

I struggle hard whenever I ask myself when it was that I first subscribed to the New Yorker.  For that matter, I don't even recall how I came to know about the magazine.  After all, it was not as if I grew up with my parents as New Yorker fans.  The good thing is that I became a New Yorker fan. A groupie. ;)

During those lean budget years immediately post-divorce,  it felt like I had become my own enemy when I decided to forego the subscription and, instead, relied on the university library for the issues.  As I settled into the life of a divorcé, the lack of money weighed less and less against the missing magazine in the mailbox.  I paid up.  It felt like the fog of life had lifted. Flowers had started blooming.  My intellectual life started perking up again.

The latest issue has a lengthy profile feature on Julianne Moore.  The people profiled there, or the way it is written, always have interesting things to offer.  Here, the brainy Moore notes this, which fascinates me:
Moore is fond of quoting Flaubert’s dictum “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” And she insists on that regularity. “I’m incredibly bourgeois,” she said. “And I don’t care. I’m not wild. There’s nothing outrageous about me. I’m really a pretty nice person. I am not erratic in my behavior. You know the kind of people who are really irregular—they keep people off balance that way. I’m not that kind of person.”
That is an example of why the magazine draws me week after week, as it has for years now.  Until I read that essay, I had no idea about Gustav Flaubert's awesome advice to "be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."  I will add this to the other Flaubert advice, which was apparently his practice.  If the sentences that he had crafted did not sound right when he read them out as he walked the streets of Paris, Flaubert decided that he had to rework them.  Ever since I read about that nearly two decades ago, I have always read aloud the op-ed essays before I sent them off to the editors.  I even recommend that approach to students--but then, when did students ever listen to what I have to say! ;)

I don't think Flaubert meant "violent" as in punching the daylights out of a human.  It is to be bold in one's work and not worry about rocking the boat.  Or, maybe I am interpreting Flaubert because it suits my existence?  I lead a boringly regular and orderly life.  Weekday or weekend, I go to bed about the same time and wake up about the same time.  The waking hours in between, well, it is no James Bond life!  A boringly regular and orderly life that seemingly prepares me for the exciting intellectual life of truth-seeking that I so cherish living.

Painted Hills: one of the many natural wonders here in Oregon
I went there and clicked this photo in my regularly and ordered life ;)

Monday, September 21, 2015

A blush, a typo, and a smile. It's everyday life!

The coffee shop had just about opened the doors when we walked in to get our morning elixir.  The young male barista, with a trim beard and a shirt that looked like it had been well ironed, took our orders with a smile.

"You look like a former student of mine" I told him.  "Are you related to Dustin, who is from here?"

"No.  Unless he was also a good looking guy like me" he laughed.

"Yes, he is.  And so are you" I told him.  The part of his face that was not covered with hair immediately revealed the faint red of self-consciousness.  He was familiar with the small talk at the counter, but was unprepared for a compliment that he was a good looking guy?

Later that afternoon, we stopped for brunch at a small town.  It was an eatery run by young people it seemed--two bearded young men were working in the open kitchen along with a heavily tattooed young woman.  Two young women waited at the tables.  The waitress at our table seemed to be new at the job.  The other one, who was a little older, pulled up a ladder and erased a black board that was high above the kitchen window.  She carefully chose from the bin that had colored chalk and started writing on the board.

Koren Braised Pork.

It made me curious.  Could it be that it was the chef's specialty, and the chef's name was Koren?  Was her name Koren?

She started writing underneath that line.  Kimchi.  And more.  

It was a simple spelling mistake!  

I wanted to tell her about the error.  But then, would pointing that out make me a condescending SOB?  With a face that doesn't convey the smile, would I be coming across as humorless ethnic?  Or, worse, would I end up reinforcing the stereotype of Indian-Americans as Spelling Bee champions?  Did any of the other patrons there notice it, or will any of the yet-to-arrive patrons care?  Am I becoming obsessive-compulsive?  

It stayed Koren.

Back on the terra firma of the familiar grocery store, I smiled at the clerk as she started scanning the purchases.  "Hey, I thought the cheese was $4.99, not $5.99 ... one dollar off" I told her.  She picked up the phone and requested a price-check.

"So ... as we are waiting for the price-check ..."

"... yes, let's talk about your weekend" she chimed in with a smile.  Her eyebrows seemed artificially jet-black and matched her hair.

"Now's your time for stand-up comedy.  Keep me entertained."

"I am funny.  But, this is pressure."  She didn't miss a beat.  "I think I am funny.  I don't care if others think otherwise" she added.

The intercom beeped.  I was correct.  She deleted that incorrect entry and added a new $4.99 line.

"Hey, if you make an error and ring up a wrong amount, then the rule is that I get that item for free" I suggested to her.

"You are funny.  Aren't you the stand-up comedian!"  She is funny.

Trigger warning: I always prefer more speech, not enforced silence

A few days ago, a tweet from the Chronicle of Higher Education included a quote:
Obama's comments included issues like this one that I have blogged about.  He added:
Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say. That’s not the way we learn, either.
Of course, it generated constructive comments and also brought out the trolls.  Thanks to one of those comments, I looked up the paragraph in an opinion by Justice Brandeis, who was the first Jewish member of the US Supreme Court:
 To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
That Supreme Court opinion was in 1927!  Almost 90 years ago!!!

Rest assured that this not yet another post on the maniacs who have messed up what could have been an even more enjoyable career in higher education.  This post is about how the higher education "establishment"--especially the student life bureaucracy--is leading students down the path of enforced silence, which is what Obama's comment is about.

Glenn Reynolds has more to say in the context of Obama's comments:
College isn’t supposed to be about having our prejudices reinforced. It’s supposed to be about learning how to think about ideas, and even to change one’s mind in the face of new arguments and evidence.
It’s also about learning to address ideas one doesn’t agree with. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” You can’t do that if you’re not willing even to hear unacceptable thoughts.
I suppose such a perspective to engage in discussion of ideas is not always welcomed.  Yet, I continue to seek that kind of an engagement, even in professional matters.  A recent email that I sent to the provost of the university, included the following lines:
 I don't see any evidence out there to convince me otherwise.  To borrow from John Maynard Keynes, I will change my opinion if the facts change.
I am not holding my breath; I know all too well that the provost will not reply.

I am really, really, tempted to include the following in the syllabi for my courses:
Trigger Warning: This course will force you to think!
Oh well!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

I am a Luddite ... and it is ok

I often blog here worrying about technological changes, even though I make use of various modern technological offerings.  Yet, at work--when it comes to teaching--I am one of those who even complain that most faculty continue to operate as if we are in some dark ages before the internet.  If you have paid attention to my posts, then you would have understood that I am not opposed to technology itself.  My worry is about how we are not pausing to take stock of how technology and our eager embrace of all things new is rapidly changing the understanding of what it means to be human.

Threading that proverbial needle is difficult.  Most people can't quite seem to understand why I would constantly harp on this issue.  I do that not because of the technology worries but because most people do not seem to consider what it is to be human and how the changes are affecting that understanding.

Today, I get more support for my position in this essay:
Humanity has had such a particular and privileged conception of itself for so long that altering it, as technology must inevitably do, will indeed change the very nature of who we are.
My point, right?

That essay provides a quote that I had no idea about; a quote from an old hero of mine, Leon Trotsky, (whom I ditched a long, long time ago:
To produce a new, “improved version” of man—that is the future task of Communism. Man must see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: “At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.”
Humans as "raw material" is why I hate the modern usage of "Human Resources" in any corporate structure.  I way prefer the old usage of "Personnel."  We humans are not a resource, dammit.  (Though, I did like the way Julian Simon used it when he referred to humans as the Ultimate Resource.)
While contemporary Luddism fixates on the evils of technology, it’s not driven by the threat of technology supplanting or replacing humanity. Rather, Trotsky’s quote reminds us of the possibility that we will come to see ourselves as no different from machines. Technology doesn’t dehumanize us; it’s the knowledge behind it that does. Fighting the machine, then, is fighting a vision of the future in which the human is the machine.
Exactly.  This is what I, too, have been writing about for a long time.
Luddism is not nostalgia for the past.
Again, exactly what I write here and tell students too.  There was a lot more bad than good in the so-called good old days.
For the thinking Luddite, technology becomes a serious threat only to the extent that it threatens to collapse the boundary between human and machine. I think it very unlikely that this boundary will collapse in practice any time soon, despite the predictions of the transhumanists who cheer on the Singularity. These Luddite fears, however, are going to inform every step that we take toward “improving” the human.
 You see why I am all the more at ease in worrying about how technology is altering our understanding of what it means to be human, and how the pace of technological changes might not even give us enough time to process the changes?

Friday, September 18, 2015

The pope is coming. The pope is coming.

There is always some media event or the other here in America.  I can easily imagine t-shirts and baseball caps sold to memorialize the trip.  Money will be made--of course, not by me!  BTW, let me tell you a little bit about me, ok?  Me is a pronoun used by a speaker to refer to himself or herself as the object of a verb or preposition!  A horrible groaner, eh?  Hahaha!

Everybody loves Pope Francis, Public Radio reported when I was driving back from campus.  Yep, the commute to campus has begun.  Anyway, enough about me; back to the pope:
Roman Catholics — who make up about 20 percent of the US population — are jazzed about Francis coming, which is hardly surprising. After all, the pope is their representative of Jesus Christ on earth.
But plenty of people from other faith traditions are singing the praises of Francis. And that goes for non-believers too.
“Some of Pope Francis’s actions are really praiseworthy,” says Greg Epstein, who works as the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Epstein is an atheist.
As I listened to it, I forgot about the pope.  It was like, "hold it right there; the university has a humanist chaplain and he is an atheist?"  Damn, no wonder Harvard is Harvard, and then there is Western Oregon University ;)

So, the atheist chaplain loves the pope?
 But Epstein says he refuses to lionize a world leader with beliefs that are so out of step with a large chunk of the American public.
“Pope Francis is still out there advocating for a view of human sexuality that is really damaging to a lot of people. He’s giving temporary, partial absolution to some women who’ve had abortions this year. It’s a good step, but it’s not a solution,” Espstein says.
Esptein hopes people will be open to what Pope Francis has to say on his trip to the US, but also that they listen with a critical ear.
I am not sure that we have enough people who listen to anybody with a critical ear.  Most people seemed to have stopped listening.  And among those that do listen not many do that "critical thinking."

But, apparently there is a good chance that Francis might make political leaders here a tad uncomfortable:
America’s political leaders should expect some discomforting talk when the pope addresses Congress. He will likely praise the founding ideals of the United States — but point out the ways in which its leaders fall short. He’ll be equally blunt when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on issues ranging from climate change to poverty to war and refugees.
If that will be his agenda, then it seems like the Democrats will applaud him all the time, while the Republicans might begin to wonder if the pope really is a Latin American Marxist communist!  The NY Times has even setup  an opinion debate on "How Radical is Pope Francis?"
The Republican leaders of the House and Senate may squirm a bit, though, when he addresses a joint session of Congress. After decades of a conservative papal vision, the pope’s call to fight inequality and climate change has inspired many progressives, but infuriated conservatives. Is he focusing on issues at the center of Catholic teaching, or has he abandoned core Catholic beliefs to promote a liberal agenda? 
The Economist has a different kind of observation:
In the course of his travels the pontiff, who has shown real eloquence in condemning the excesses of the capitalist north, can still expect some hard questions about his attitude to excesses of another kind. Will he denounce left-wing authoritarianism as much as he has denounced the right-wing variety?
Francis won't let himself be dragged into that kind of a mess.  He seems to be charmingly diplomatic, especially after his predecessor's rottweiler image.  A diplomat is tactful.
Francis is a grandmaster of messaging. Religion writer Michael O’Loughlin has named him, “The Tweetable Pope.” 
Of course, a Tweetable Pope:
Bishops are getting crash courses on tweeting and live streaming, and organizers are pushing the official papal hashtags: #PopeInUS and, for Spanish speakers, #PapaEnUSA.
It seems to me that our political theatre will get that much more exciting to watch.  I tell ya, never a dull media moment in these United States of America! ;)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

What if the sound that you hear is the death-rattle?

Answer this question, especially if you are not a healthcare professional: how many deaths were you witness to?  As in you were there watching a dearly loved one of yours die?

Even though we know really, really well that death comes to every one of us humans, few among us bear witness to the very process of dying.  Right?  To watch a person die in your presence is perhaps one of the most humbling moments ever.  I believe that the dying that I witnessed has made me respect death, and respect living even more.  I consider myself immensely privileged that they died in my presence.  Prized learning moments.

I don't understand why death happens behind sometimes a literal curtain, often with the ICU as the magical separator, when in this modern world we have such a sophisticated understanding of various aspects of life.  Isn't death a part of life itself that we want to understand?  If giving birth is now an event that is even recorded for posterity (whose, I wonder!) why this collective wanton ignorance about dying?
Most people in western societies die in hospital or in institutional care. Keeping death out of sight and out of mind in this way means that most people have little real experience of death and dying.
Which is also why practically every medical student witnesses the first ever deaths only when they are well into their twenties.  Our daily lives are like what the prince Siddhārtha lived--a life of comfort, and well protected from ailments and death.  But then all of us cannot transform into the Buddha, I suppose ;)

The ones who have witnessed the dying know all too well that it can be messy.  It can be uncomfortable.  It can be traumatic--to the observer!
As the end nears, it’s not uncommon for the breathing pattern to change, involving repeated cycles of breathing stopping (for what seems like ages) only to start up again. This restarted breathing is often quite rapid and deep. It then slows and stops again, and this cycle repeats over and over. ...
For family this can be difficult for each time the breathing stops it seems death has finally come, but no. Death seems to toy with them.
On top of this, breathing often becomes noisy. This is the so-called “death rattle”. During dying, swallowing becomes impaired and secretions, which would normally be swallowed or would provoke a brisk cough, sit at the back of the throat. With each breath, air bubbles through this fluid, and the resulting guttural noise often causes concern and distress to onlookers.
You watch that happen and you know you cannot do a damn thing.  You can be the richest person around, the most powerful ever, but the most one can do is to speed up the process of dying and make it less traumatic.
A recent letter I received from a grief stricken lady who sat with her husband for many hours through a long and difficult death, reported how he coughed, choked and wheezed, breathed erratically and gasped sporadically. He kept appearing to have died, only to start breathing again. This poor woman was completely traumatised, sitting through a night and day with her much-loved husband.
“It was a complete nightmare, like something out of a horror movie,” she wrote “… I just wanted the it to end, but it went on interminably. I will never forget it and I so wish it could have been made more dignified.”
In the old days, people took turns at the death-watch.  Not only because it might be unbearable for a single person, but also because there is no way to know beforehand if the end is five minutes away or after five days of deathly struggle.
Maybe it is time to question the belief that it is wrong to treat a dying patient in order to minimise the distress that their dying may cause their closest relatives. After all, few of us would desire our own deaths to be viewed as “something from a horror movie” and would support actions that might help our family at this difficult time.
Exactly.  I don't want my death to be "something from a horror movie," especially when I have had such a wonderful life.  I am prepared; are you?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Even death cannot liberate them?

Over in the country of Africa, Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket.
Zimbabwe, one of southern Africa's most prosperous countries, held great promise. Its Victoria Falls was one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Its gushing Zambezi River boasted wildlife and pulsing rapids. Its lush soil was the envy of a continent. And, though landlocked, the country had modernized sensibly: it had a network of paved roads, four airports [and] a rigorous and inclusive education system.
The year was 1980.  Things started well with Robert Mugabe as the free country's president.  And then he apparently decided to kill the country!  Zimbabwe soon went from being the breadbasket to a basket-case.

As hard is it to believe and imagine, Mugabe continues to lead the country even at a ripe old age of 91.  But, he can't deceive his body and brain. A while ago, he fell.  And yesterday he read the wrong speech:
He gave the same one during his state-of-the-nation address on 25 August, when he was heckled by opposition MPs.
His spokesman told the state-run Herald paper the error was because of a mix-up in the president's secretarial office.
The guy is 91 years old.  Ninety-one!  I wonder whether he is the world's oldest dictator ever.

While Mugabe might be the oldest, he is not the only old fool in power:
There are 55 authoritarian leaders in power throughout the world. Eleven of these leaders are 69 years old or older, and they are in varying stages of declining health. Most of these aging dictators, such as Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos (73 years old), Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev (75 years old), and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (91 years old), have been in power for decades.
You are perhaps thinking, "all right, this means that when these old men die, finally those countries will experience democracy."  Well ...
Not only is it exceedingly rare for an autocrat’s death in office to result in democracy, but it also does not improve a country’s longer-term prospects for liberalization.
Now that you have read that sentence, you have perhaps already guessed the reason.
Leaders who come to power following the death of an autocrat and who seek to deviate from the status quo are likely to provoke resistance from the “old guard” — elements of the regime who maintain control over the levers of power and find it in their interest to limit changes in the new system.
So, what can we look forward to?
In its 2015 “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House reported that the risk of a widespread democratic decline is higher now than at any time in the last 25 years. Unfortunately, our results show that the advanced age of 11 of the world’s autocrats offers little hope for reversing this trend. Instead of creating space for change, the deaths of these long-standing leaders will most likely leave in place the resilient autocratic systems they’ve created. Though most leadership transitions generate opportunities for political transformation in dictatorships, death in office is not among them. Death in office, it turns out, is a remarkably unremarkable event.
But, like I quoted in a previous post, stability is not a static phenomenon.  I suppose these dictators are a problem when they are alive and after they are dead!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Let them eat cakes!

It appears that Kim Davis has exhausted her fifteen Andy Warhol minutes.  She might be gone from our news radars, but the struggle between faith-based personal values versus the larger collective, social policies will continue on for a very long time.

Here in the US, we might struggle through the issues, yes.  As that cigar-chomping English racist remarked, Americans will always do the right thing, only after we have tried everything else.  Makes me wonder why we always have to take the long, long, long road to do the right thing.

But, at least here we end up doing the right thing.  I increasingly worry that the trend in the old country is one of doing the wrong things.  Today's exhibit:  vegetarianism.

Of course, this is not the first time that I am blogging about the vegetarian existence.  But, here is an important distinction to keep in mind: I don't make an "ism" out of a preferred way of life.  The moment an "ism" is framed, it immediately leads to an us-versus-them, which is what is rapidly unfolding in India.
The problem is that when vegetarianism—and what you eat in general—is associated with morality, it serves to strengthen distinctions, marking class, education and other indicators of status.
Any holier-than-thou approach, especially in the political space, is bound to be disastrous.
In a national landscape moving towards a narrow definition of what it means to be Indian—specifically, Hindu and high caste, and specifically not Muslim—such distinctions have potentially serious consequences.
Ah, yes, the caste issue comes up again.  The religion issue comes up again.  And you thought food is an easy topic, eh!
We can already see its effects in cities such as Mumbai, where the discourse of purity and pollution around what you eat is so powerful that certain groups are denied access to the housing market on account of their dietary choices. If you belong to the “non-vegetarian” groups—including anyone from Muslims to Christians to Maharashtrians to Dalits—it can be difficult to purchase or rent an apartment. Potential buyers are turned away, presumably, because smells from their kitchen might pollute a neighbour’s flat. With vegetarianism used as a distinguisher between “us” and “them”, Mumbai is becoming an increasingly hostile place for religious minorities.
The struggle will not be resolved anytime soon in the old country.  Nor here in the US.  When individuals claim that their "faith" prevents them from supporting a commercial transaction, societies will have quite a struggle trying to resolve the incompatibility between a secular political democracy with those faith-based practices.  Here in the US, chances are high that the food fight will end up in the Supreme Court.  Remember the bakery here in Oregon that refused service to a same-sex couple?  The baker in Colorado?

The ACLU (yes, I am a card-carrying member) argues:
There’s a growing body of court decisions saying that while religion is central to what makes America America, religion can’t be used as an excuse to discriminate
The other side argues:
Government has a duty to protect people’s freedom to follow their beliefs personally and professionally rather than force them to adopt the government’s views
Here it is cakes.  There it is meat.  All I know is this: we Americans will always do the right thing, only after we have tried everything else.  I can't say that about the old country, however.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Stability is not a static phenomenon

Over the years, and many times in this blog, I have expressed my deepest commitment to free thinking and my distaste for politics--whether at my campus or in China--that does not allow free expression.

It is one thing for me to write about those ideals.  But, I am not that much a fool into believing that my ideal world is already here.  As even the neighborhood and campus politics suggest, the world is a far too messy place to allow for free thinking, unfortunately.

As I look across the global geopolitics, it seems like there is a growing attraction for a Singapore/China model of politics and governance in which individuals operate within well-defined limits to expression.  India's society and politics don't seem to want more freedom.  Russia and the Central Asian "Stans" resemble the old Soviet Union more than the relatively freer Eastern European countries.

What happened?
With the collapse of Communism, “what we may be witnessing,” Mr. Fukuyama wrote hopefully in 1989, “is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
But couple the tightening of Chinese authoritarianism with Russia’s turn toward revanchism and dictatorship, and then add the rise of radical Islam, and the grand victory of Western liberalism can seem hollow, its values under threat even within its own societies.
In September 2000, I would never have imagined the world that it is today.  I would have described a world of freer people, and would have been emphatic about the coming future with less interference from government and religion.  Yet, here we are in September 2015 and the world is anything but that.

China fascinates me for the very reason that is articulated in that NY Times essay:
China is often cited as a counterexample to the universality of democracy and human rights. But what distinguishes China is its disinterest in spreading its model to the rest of the world.
Western universalism was real, if rivalrous. The Soviet Union tried to spread revolution and Communism, France had its “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and the United States its self-image as “the city upon a hill.” But China engages with the world in its own interest, divorced from moral aims, with little desire to proselytize.
The Chinese vision is not universalist but mercantilist, and Beijing is interested less in remaking the world than in protecting itself from vulnerabilities of globalization, including the chaotic freedoms of the Internet. China, like Russia now, pushes back against Western aspirations and efforts to reshape the world in its own image.
The China described here is the "new" China, in contrast to the old China of Mao that was certainly interested in influencing similar peasant revolutions in its neighboring countries, including India.  

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker featured a marvelous essay by Peter Hessler, who also described China and its entrepreneurs as dispassionate producers and sellers of goods.  The context for Hessler's essay was the strange juxtaposition of Chinese merchants selling lingerie to uber-conservative and traditional Muslim women in the smaller cities of Upper Egypt.  
Upper Egypt is the most conservative part of the country. Virtually all Muslim women there wear the head scarf, and it’s not uncommon for them to dress in the niqab, the black garment that covers everything but the eyes. In most towns, there’s no tourism to speak of, and very little industry; Asyut is the poorest governorate in Egypt. Apart from small groups of Syrians who occasionally pass through in travelling market fairs, it’s all but unimaginable for a foreigner to do business there. And yet I found Chinese lingerie dealers scattered throughout the region.
Hessler's essay is a beauty; I won't be surprised if it ends up a serious contender for awards that recognize nonfiction.  He writes there:
All told, along a three-hundred-mile stretch, I found twenty-six Chinese lingerie dealers: four in Sohag, twelve in Asyut, two in Mallawi, six in Minya, and two in Beni Suef. It was like mapping the territory of large predator cats: in the Nile Valley, clusters of Chinese lingerie dealers tend to appear at intervals of thirty to fifty miles, and the size of each cluster varies according to the local population. Cairo is big enough to support dozens. Dong Weiping, a businessman who owns a lingerie factory in the capital, told me that he has more than forty relatives in Egypt, all of them selling his products. Other Chinese people supply the countless underwear shops that are run by Egyptians. For the Chinese dealers, this is their window into Egypt, and they live on lingerie time. Days start late, and nights run long; they ignore the Spring Festival and sell briskly after sundown during Ramadan. Winter is better than summer. Mother’s Day is made for lingerie. But nothing compares with Valentine’s Day,
Hessler, too, notices how it is all about business:
I've never met Chinese people in Egypt who express an interest in changing the country. They often talk about what they perceive to be weaknesses—a lack of work ethic among the people, a lack of system in the government—but the tone is different from that of many Westerners. There’s little frustration; the Chinese seem to accept that this is simply the way things are. There’s also no guilt, because China has no colonial history in the region, and its government engages with both Israel and Palestine. Chinese entrepreneurs often speak fondly of the friendliness of Egyptians and their willingness to help strangers, two qualities that the Chinese believe to be rare in their own country. They almost never seem disappointed by the Egyptian revolution. This is not because they believe that the Arab Spring has turned out well but because they had no faith in it in the first place.
So, whither democracy and the rights of the individual?  Is America not the beacon on the hill?  Back to that NY Times piece:
“Our own preachiness and lecturing tendencies sometimes get in the way, but there is a core to more open democratic systems that has an enduring appeal,” he said. That core is “the broad notion of human rights, that people have the right to participate in political and economic decisions that matter to them, and the rule of law to institutionalize those rights.”
The result “doesn’t have to look like Washington, which may be for the good,” Mr. Burns said. “But a respect for law and pluralism creates more flexible societies, because otherwise it’s hard to hold together multiethnic, multireligious societies.”
But, China seems to hold together, right?
[Democracies] in whatever form seem more capable of coping with shifting pressures than authoritarian governments. History does not move laterally but in many different directions at once, Mr. Burns said. “Stability is not a static phenomenon.”
I am not sure if I can handle any more instability than what I see out there.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The crazy orgies in Hollywood!

The Scientific American has an interesting short opinion piece on why there will never be another Einstein.

Before I give away the author's response, or before you go read it, what response do you have to that question?  
Do you think there will be another Einstein-like genius?  
There can never be one again?  
We have plenty even now?

I liked quite a bit of what what the author had to say there.  But, I had a nagging thought as I read that piece.  I was, therefore, happy that the author took care of my concern via an addendum, where he quotes the string theory guy Brian Greene:
 “If one means another über genius who will powerfully push science forward, then the answer is surely yes. In the past half a century since Einstein’s death, there have indeed been such scientists. But if one means an über genius to whom the world will look not because of accomplishments in sports or entertainment but as a thrilling example of what the human mind can accomplish, well, that question speaks to us—to what we as a civilization will deem precious.”
Brian Greene being a sharp guy himself, well, he has carefully constructed those sentences with a bunch of clauses.  If you are like me, then re-reading Greene's response helps to figure out what Greene is saying there.  If that too fails, the author interprets it with simple words:
Note Greene's implication: If science doesn't produce another Einstein, it's nonscientists' fault.
I agree with Greene.  Unlike in Einstein's time, we people are now obsessed with "accomplishments in sports or entertainment" and those accomplishments have become measures of what humans can achieve.  We have golfing geniuses and cricket geniuses who seem to have satisfied our appetite for the next Einstein!

Chances are pretty high that kids and adults here can rattle of names of ball players or singers or actors and be stumped when it comes to naming scientists.  As a society, we do not seem to care about science and scientific accomplishments anymore.  On the other hand, we keenly follow with utmost fascination the work and personal lives of the superstars in golf, cricket, soccer, Hollywood, Bollywood, Nashville, ... the list is endless, it seems.   In India, cricket players and movie actors are even worshiped as gods!

Brian Greene is the one with the dark sweater and with his hands folded
I took this photo ... in 2004, I think
A few years ago, Brian Greene visited our campus.  Hardly a handful of students showed up to listen to him and to ask him questions.  I am sure it would have been a standing-room-only situation if the university had instead brought to campus even a third-tier entertainment personality.  "we as a civilization" have apparently decided that entertainers are immensely precious to us.

I doubt whether even an Einstein can be an Einstein in this contemporary world!

So, why the strange title for this post? Sex and Hollywood sell, baby, not science!

Love means never having to say you're sorry

Events in India, or essays that I read, often compel me to spend time thinking about India's atrocious caste system.  Because I don't spend enough time thinking about this, I approach this topic with a great deal of hesitation.  A worry lingers that I could end up writing something that can be easily misinterpreted only because I have not thought through the topic.  Yet, I venture--like in this post from a while ago, for instance.

There is so much of who I am that is a result of the caste into which I was born.  It has been a conscious struggle sifting through the baggage that was hoisted on my shoulders from the very minute of my birth, looking to see if there is anything that I should retain before I throw out the proverbial bathwater.  It was an awful realization early on that even the Carnatic music that was so adored by the family and which I naturally took to was structurally not merely religious but awfully caste-based too--issues that the musician TM Krishna discusses in detail in his polemical A Southern Music.  

Sometimes, the weight of the baggage is simply unbearable.  So much so that I want to convey my most sincere apologies.  But then, to whom should I apologize for the system that, according to B.R. Ambedkar, was (is?) worse than the slavery in America?  What good will my apology be?  

I referred to Ambedkar because reading an essay that is a review of a new annotated edition of his Annihilation of Caste was the trigger this time.  

The book-review essay is by one of my favorite contemporary intellectuals--Martha Nussbaum.  Now, she is an academic.  She is a thinker.  It is a shame that the world grants idiots like me also an academic status!  Nussbaum notes that Ambedkar--a "remarkable human being" and one of the "distinguished founders" of modern India--needs an introduction to people outside India.  I suspect that even a vast majority in India need an introduction to Ambedkar; people there might have heard of the name, but nothing beyond that:
The palm of unjustified obscurity, however, goes to a man who was very likely the greatest intellect of all the Founders, and one of the most impressive legal minds of the twentieth or any other century, B. R. (Bhimrao Ramji) Ambedkar (1891-1956), who, as Nehru’s Law Minister, became the primary architect of the Indian Constitution. 
Nussbaum then gives a quick intro that starts with "B. R. Ambedkar was born in 1891 into the untouchable Mahar caste, traditionally sweepers."  (emphasis mine.)  What did it mean to be an untouchable?  How about this:
He was forced to sit on a piece of gunny sack that no other child would touch, and he was forbidden to drink from the common tap.  ...  If the school servant was present, that servant could pour the water down to him from a height.  If the servant was absent, as he often was, then no water. 
My grandfathers, who were only a few years younger than Ambedkar, did not have to suffer through those tortures in school.  After all, they were brahmins!  At least Ambedkar was allowed to go to school; most untouchable kids during my grandfathers' school going years were never even taught to read and write and they died as illiterates.  The fact that my grandfathers went to school, and then to college, made it easy for me to work my way to the United States.  Had my ancestors been untouchables ... ?

Bob Dylan commented a couple of years ago that "This country is just too fucked up about color."  If that is the case here in the US, then one can easily imagine how fucked up life is in the old country where, according to Ambedkar, "slavery was not as bad as untouchability."

Sometimes I wish that I had the ability to slip into denial and not even acknowledge my own brahminical origins.  But then a life of introspection and the pursuit of truth means that there is no place for denial.  I can't wait for the day that the baggage will be lifted off.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

What we've got here is failure to communicate

If you have ever watched America's Funniest Home Videos, you know that towards the end the studio audience votes for the top three by using the clickers they have been handed.  Those clickers made their way into higher education, too.  Of course!  I did not ever want to use them in my classes.  It is a wonderful tool, no doubt, but it depended on the sincerity of students to use that in order to advance their own learning.  I was afraid that without that sincere interest in learning, well, the disaster that education is will become a catastrophe.

Clickers and bubble-in answer sheets are machine-friendly, unlike oral and written communication. Can you imagine the complexity if a machine has to read essays that students turn in, provide comments, and finally determine letter-grades?

Hey, what if we could do away with the complexity of communication itself?  Nicholas Carr writes that a few weeks ago "Mark Zuckerberg offered a peek into the future of interpersonal communication":
One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.
This is where you need to pause and think whether Zuckerberg's future is what we really want.

Did you think about it?

Carr then provides this interpretation:
But there is another, less frequently articulated reason why Silicon Valley wants to replace speech. One characteristic of verbal languages is that nobody can own them. Meanwhile, emoji characters are copyrighted, and software can be patented. The machinic capacity to measure emotions via the face or tone of voice is in the possession of businesses, and currently being rapidly capitalized by private-equity investment. Industrial capitalism privatized the means of production. Digital capitalism seeks to privatize the means of communication.
Do you see where this argument is going?  You need to pause and think.

Did you think about it?

Let me bring in Carr:
The best solution, if you have a need to get computers to “understand” human communication, may to be avoid the problem altogether. Instead of figuring out how to get computers to understand natural language, you get people to speak artificial language, the language of computers. A good way to start is to encourage people to express themselves not through messy assemblages of fuzzily defined words but through neat, formal symbols — emoticons or emoji, for instance.
 Now do you see what the worry is?  No?  Come on, already!
When we speak with emoji, we’re speaking a language that machines can understand.
People like Mark Zuckerberg have always been uncomfortable with natural language. Now, they can do something about it.
Of course, using emojis today will not literally change the world tomorrow.  But, what we need to recognize here is this: we are slowly changing our daily behavior in order to make them increasingly computer-friendly.  We change our behaviors in ways that make it easier for algorithms to understand what we do, what we say, where we go, what we eat, ... Meanwhile, we willingly feed those machines continuous data on our walking, breathing, blood pressure, pulse, thumb-print, ... Remember this from a while ago:
 Apple is building a world in which there is a computer in your every interaction, waking and sleeping. A computer in your pocket. A computer on your body. A computer paying for all your purchases. A computer opening your hotel room door. A computer monitoring your movements as you walk though the mall. A computer watching you sleep. A computer controlling the devices in your home. A computer that tells you where you parked. A computer taking your pulse, telling you how many steps you took, how high you climbed and how many calories you burned—and sharing it all with your friends…. THIS IS THE NEW APPLE ECOSYSTEM. APPLE HAS TURNED OUR WORLD INTO ONE BIG UBIQUITOUS COMPUTER.
Have a good weekend ;)

Most read this past month