Sunday, January 31, 2016

Kill those damn suckers!

No, I am not referring to the ISIS. Nor to this evil creature.

No, it is not the union; think again ;)

I want us to kill the most dangerous animal of all, about which I have blogged before.  For years now, I have been dreaming of a world without them.

It is the damn mosquitoes that I want us to wipe out. Forever.  Not all the 3,500 species, but only the "6% of species that draw blood from humans."  Those are the suckers that I want gone.  They have caused nothing but misery for us humans throughout our existence.  The rapidly spreading Zika is the latest misery they have inflicted on us.

I am a man of peace, yes.  But, I have no patience for the blood-thirsty, disease-spreading, mosquitoes.  BTW, did you notice that even among that 6%, it is only the female kind that troubles us?  Now, that is a group of females that I can live without ;)

Daniel Engber is even more enraged than I am:
It’s time to kill all the mosquitoes. It’s time for mass mosquito-cide.
Sign me up for this war!

Engber writes:
Enough of the politeness: The ugly situation on the ground does not call for Integrated Mosquito Management; it demands a program of Total Mosquito Destruction. And here’s the thing: For the first time in human history, that dream could be realized. We have a better way to kill mosquitoes—a nuclear option—but up until this point we’ve been too afraid to use it.
And that option: to release millions of sterile males that would mate with the females.  (Do porn sites offer videos of mosquito sex?  hehehe)
 A PG-rated description of mosquitoes mating would go something like this: The female enters the swarm. A male seeks her out, his wing-beat slowing until it matches hers. Using his large front legs he grabs her back legs and swings under her abdomen. In less than a second the lovers are joined. And then, connected, they fly slowly out of the swarm while making out in mid-air. The entire coupling can take less than 16 seconds.
Understanding this 16 second frenzy, and making sure it doesn't lead to breeding, is the challenge
Now, if it is a sterile male that does the wild thing ... slowly we can wipe out those damn bloodsuckers.

I am sure there will be some pesky people who will complain about the unintended consequences from two issues here: a) that it is wrong to eliminate a species like this, and b) the sterile male comes via genetic modification.  To them, I have only two words as a response: who cares! This is war.  Either you are with us, or against us ;)
Whatever its unintended consequences (and there are always unintended consequences), the elimination of mosquitoes would save billions of human lives and trillions of dollars, in the decades to come. It would end untold suffering among the world’s poorest people.
When we eradicated the Variola virus, which caused smallpox, we rightly celebrated.
Precisely.  What is good for the smallpox and polio viruses is good for the six percent of the mosquitoes that kill and torture us humans.
"We are playing an evolutionary game with mosquitoes," says Hawkes. "Hopefully it's one we can get on top of over the next 10 to 15 years."
The good thing is that the Republican Party will not oppose this; after all, they don't even believe in evolution!  It is the bleeding-heart liberals who will oppose it without realizing that the blood is coming from mosquito bites ;)

Join us in this global war on terror.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A man. A place. A meaning.

A few years ago, the Association of American Geographers recognized Barry Lopez as an "honorary geographer."  It is to recognize "excellence in research, teaching, or writing on geographic topics by non-geographers."  I understand that sentiment--after all, I do not have any formal education, from the undergraduate through the doctorate level, in geography and, yet, have been gainfully employed as a geography instructor for nearly a decade-and-a-half.

Lopez lives in Oregon, not far from my home.  He, too, is a transplant, from across the continent.  A writer of the highest caliber, reflecting on life by observing places, especially the natural environment.  In this recent essay, Lopez writes:
Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world, patterns that are ever present and discernible, and which incorporate the observer, undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or meaningless in it. The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit somewhere.
The themes of existence, the inconsequential lives that we lead, and attempting to create a meaning through experiencing a place, are all regular features of this blog.  Existential loneliness was also very much a part of Anomalisa that I watched last night with the friend.  Which is perhaps why that paragraph appealed to me.

I am convinced that if we paused to think about our existence we would then realize the crisis within.  I suppose we do our best to avoid thinking about it.  Or, we try to lighten that crisis by making meaning via our affiliations with everything from family and friends to football teams and faiths.  When we strip all those affiliations away, the existential loneliness is all that remains.  Of course, to some extent, these are all age-old questions that humans have been grappling with.

Lopez writes:
The determination to know a particular place, in my experience, is consistently rewarded. And every natural place, to my mind, is open to being known. And somewhere in this process a person begins to sense that they themselves are becoming known, so that when they are absent from that place they know that place misses them. And this reciprocity, to know and be known, reinforces a sense that one is necessary in the world.
Indeed.  Whether it is Pattamadai and Sengottai, or Neyveli, or Calcutta, or ... the deep desire to know about them and understand them has been a wonderful blessing in terms of how much they have helped me know about myself.   I even routinely tell students that, without going into autoethnographic details--understanding the world, understanding the peoples, is a wonderful way to understand our own country and our own place in the grand scheme of things.  

Back to Lopez:
Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention. Perhaps the second is to be patient. And perhaps a third is to be attentive to what the body knows.
Yes. To pay attention. To observe the place.  To be patient. To be in the here and the now.  I suppose it is not easy to translate those ideas to everyday life!

Friday, January 29, 2016

A minority of one

"What is your hobby?" asked a student.

For all the autoethnography that I engage in here in this blog, in my newspaper op-eds, and even in conference talks, when students ask me questions about me or my views, I don't open up.

"I like cooking" I told the student who asked about my hobby.  Thankfully, she didn't ask me about my views on cooking and eating animals ;)

In another class too it happened. I had barely walked in to the room when a student shot a question at me: "How come unlike other professors you are not wearing a union tshirt, Dr. Khé?"

I typically do not respond to such questions in the classroom.  It is not because I do not talk about my what I do when not "working" or what I think about the faculty union.  There are plenty of blog-posts on all those and more.  Yet, I try my best to deflect those questions away for one simple reason--we get together in a classroom for a specific reason, which is to learn about the scheduled topic.  To talk about the union or my hobby is nothing but an abuse of the power and privilege that I have in that classroom just because I am the instructor.

"I don't want to take up class time on that" I replied.  "I am old-fashioned that way" I added.

"No, you are not old-fashioned" came a quick retort.  "Other professors have been talking about it in class" jumped in another.

It looked like I had to satisfy the mob ;)  The clock said it was not class time yet--two minutes before the official start time.  I dragged myself to responding to why I wasn't wearing a union tshirt.  But, that opened up more questions.  "Are you against unions?" "Are you the only professor not a union member?" "Do you benefit from not being in the union?" "Are you worried about groupthink?" Important questions that students and taxpayers need to think about, and juicy topics for me.  But, I am old-fashioned!  Perhaps my responses were all way briefer than what they wanted to hear.  But, as the clock indicated it was class time, I began the process of putting them to sleep via my lecturing ;)

I worry that I will become one of the many who do not think twice about using and abusing their power and position.  Right from when I was young, I have found it difficult to work with people with power and authority because almost always they abuse it.  Whether it is the police or the politicians or the World Bank or the union or the religions or  even a lowly Ramamritham, rare is the person who does not abuse the power and the privilege that come with that position.

Over the years, and especially from my own personal experiences, I have also come to understand that it takes a lot of effort to resist the urge.  If a union leader can abuse the position's power and privilege, and if a lowly Ramamritham can, then should we be surprised when a Bill Clinton takes advantage of an intern, or ...?

Thus, I continue to tilt at real and imaginary windmills.  As George Orwell put it so well in 1984:
He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.
It looks like within my small professional world I will forever be a lunatic, and in a minority of one.  That's ok too.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Taxing tampons

An awesome feature of this country, which has been home for this argumentative Indian for nearly thirty years, is this--it is one arguing society.  The arguments challenge the status quo, some more revolutionary than others.

Consider this: most states have sales taxes.  But, almost all the states exempt some goods from sales tax.  While the list of exemptions vary across the states, the general idea is that some fundamental necessities will not be taxed.  No tax on bananas, for instance.

Which is when the debate begins. When does a good become a "necessity"?  

It is not easy answering that question, dear reader.  Which means we set ourselves up for a great deal of argument.  It is a fascinating country!

How about female hygiene products?  You know, sanitary napkins, tampons, ... are they necessities or luxuries?
If you are or know women, you know that menstruation is for most not an optional thing. Yet in the vast majority of states in the US, tampons and pads are subject to sales tax.
"Tampons (and similar products) are tax-exempt in only a handful of states"

So, what might be a problem with freeing tampons from sales tax?
[The average] American spends less than half of his or her income on items subject to sales tax. In California, the sales tax is already narrower than the national average, applying to just 27 percent of state residents’ incomes.
Sales tax bases have shrunk over time partly because states have created new exemptions, partly because untaxed online sales have expanded, but most of all because the economy increasingly consists of services.
And when the economy does not do well?
Sales taxes that exclude necessities and services tend to end up relying heavily on restaurant meals and durables like electronics and furniture, which are categories of spending that consumers cut back on when the economy weakens. This makes sales tax receipts more volatile, worsening the budget crises that arise in recessions.
That's a tad convoluted for most people; in plain-speak, please:
That is, one advantage of keeping the sales tax on tampons is that people will buy them whether the economy is good or bad
What a horrible way to address menstruation!

At least in the US women have access to such hygiene products and at low prices.  In many developing countries, girls attending schools becomes a major problem, and providing them with these products does wonders not only for girls' education but for their self-esteem too.

To me, well, there is no argument here: the sales of tampons and sanitary napkins should not be taxed.  But then who listens to me anyway!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The economic geography in proximity versus proxy

There are a few simple guidelines that I use to understand the world.  Like, I will believe corporations are people the moment that Texas executes a corporation, or, MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) will be the future if and when a majority of Harvard's students graduate after taking a whole bunch of MOOC classes.

Texas will not execute a corporation because, well, no corporation is a human who can be sent to the chair.  Students do not go to Harvard in order to take online classes.

Sure, those are big issues.  How about a "smaller" truthiness that we can think about?

Take business travel.  We are long past the days of the phone alone--we have email, video calling and conferencing, and whatever else is out there.  Yet, the suits travel, even if only for brief meetings.  The day this travel dies out, I will change my mind and agree that proxy beats proximity.  Until then, I refuse to budge from the idea that proximity rules.

Am I talking in the abstract?  You need data and trends to make your own call on this?
a country with a per capita income that is 100% higher than another receives 130% more business travelers and sends 170% more people abroad. This means that business travel tends to grow more than proportionally with the level of development.
Get that?  Despite all the communication technologies at their disposal, richer countries generate and receive way more business travel than the less-affluent countries.  Why so? "why do we need to move the brain, not just the bytes?"  Why do the business people need that proximity when there are all those proxies?
First, the brain has a capacity to absorb information, identify patterns, and solve problems without us being aware of how it does it. That is why we can, for example, infer other people’s goals and intentions from facial expressions, body language, intonation, and other subtle indicators that we gather unconsciously.
Second, the brain is designed to work in parallel with other brains. Many problem-solving tasks require parallel computing with brains that possess different software and information but that can coordinate their thoughts. That is why we have design teams, advisory boards, inter-agency taskforces, and other forms of group interaction.
 So, what do all these mean?
The fact that firms incur the cost of business travel suggests that, for some key tasks, it is easier to move brains than it is to move the relevant information to the brains. Moreover, the fact that business travel is growing faster than the global economy suggests that output is becoming more intensive in know-how and that know-how is diffusing through brain mobility.
Rather than celebrate their thrift, countries that are out of the business travel loop should be worried. They may be missing out on more than frequent flyer miles.  
We are humans.  Without the human-level interaction, it is not easy to get ideas across.  Newer ideas are how we have gotten to where we are from the vast African Savannah.  Businesses are built on ideas, which means that travel becomes a necessary expense.

That human-interaction in order to learn new ideas is also why I enjoy the real-world classes way more than the online ones.  When we humans are together at the same time and in the same room, the diffusion of ideas happens way more and way better than when I merely exchange bytes with students.  But, then I don't get to set the rules.  Hence, I, too, teach online classes, and corporations are the most powerful "people" ever on this planet!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

American solution to an American problem

A few weeks after I came to this country for graduate studies, it was nearing Thanksgiving and the television ad for Alka-Seltzer that I watched then is what I refer to as American solutions to American problems.

What was the ad about?

In this ad, the audio commentary and the pictures presented all the wonderful foods that the viewer ended up eating at Thanksgiving, which then resulted in stomach aches and heartburn. And, presto, Alka-Seltzer to the rescue!

While watching the commercial, my reflexive thought was simple: if the problems came from overeating, then why not simply advise the viewer to eat less?

Of course, as I have come to realize, to consume less is not American.  Instead, the American way is to consume more, and then when problems develop savvy entrepreneurs provide solutions to facilitate further consumption.

Today's exhibit along those lines?  Apparently more and more people have trouble falling asleep in this consumer capital of the world.  No, it is not from food, though certainly contributes its own problems.  This sleep hassle is thanks to the gazillion electronic gadgets that seemingly surround us every minute of the day and on which our eyes are fixated.  From television screens to smartphones, screens of all types.  What's the link?  It is from the blue part of the spectrum:
Blue wavelengths—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night. And the proliferation of electronics with screens, as well as energy-efficient lighting, is increasing our exposure to blue wavelengths, especially after sundown.
You want more detail?
Recent studies have shown that short-wavelength [blue] light has a greater effect on phase shifting the circadian clock and on melatonin suppression. In 2014 my colleagues and I examined the effects of reading on a light-emitting device compared with reading a printed book. Participants who read on light-emitting devices took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep [the phase when we dream] and had higher alertness before bedtime [than those people who read printed books]. We also found that after an eight-hour sleep episode, those who read on the light-emitting device were sleepier and took longer to wake up. In the study all participants had to stop reading and turn off the lights at exactly 10 P.M., even if they did not feel sleepy. At home, I would expect people do not have the motivation to turn off their devices and go to bed, so they would stay up longer and experience even more circadian delay and shorter sleep times. The effects in the real world could actually be even greater.
Got it?  Let's recap.  Light influences our sleep pattern.  Especially the blue light.  As animals, normally we would begin to prepare for sleep after sundown.  But, on top of the lights all around, there is the blue wavelength from the gadgets that end up screwing up our sleep (and the internal clock that influences the working of organs in our bodies.)

The solution would be simple, right?  No gadgets into the night hours.  Especially when there is no ambient lighting, as in looking at the glowing screen in a dark room.  But, nope, it is un-American to propose such solutions and, worse, to implement it.

Hence, an American solution to an American problem:
Along with various other health-focused apps, the new version of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 9.3, will include the Night Shift feature. This app will use the device's clock and geolocation to determine what time the sun sets and will automatically shift the phone's display color to the warmer, or redder, end of the light spectrum until the following morning.
This is merely.the latest in the consumption culture.  Do not even dare to suggest that we put those devices down; to borrow from Charlton "NRA" Heston, people'll give their screens when you pry them from their cold, dead hands ;)

Monday, January 25, 2016

We are but pawns in this cosmos

It was after the move to Madras (Chennai now) that we first got a television set at home.  In the Neyveli phase of my life, there was no television.  The Indian government was slowly launching its state-run Doordharshan in one big city after another, and being in India's fourth largest city meant that we had been promoted to the age of the telly.  A small black and white set, from a company that was owned by India's tennis-playing family.

It was a pain to watch movies on that small screen, and even worse it was to read any text like the subtitles.  But, thanks to that small screen and the state-run television broadcasting, I watched quite a few "art" movies--films that were not the regular, commercial, kind, with the heroes and the heroines running around trees and uttering melodramatic dialogues.  My all-time favorite was Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Elipathayam (The rat trap.)  A close second were Aparna Sen's 36 Chowringhee Lane and Satyajit Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari (The chess players).  

Shatranj ke Khilari is set in the days before India's First War of Independence, which was referred to as the Sepoy Mutiny in the grand British interpretation of history that we learnt in school.  With the backdrop of the British ready to gobble up Awadh--which was Oudh in the British history that was told to us--two nawabs are preoccupied with nothing but playing chess, even as the world around them changes rapidly.  

Chess, which my mother taught us to play when we were kids, was born in the Subcontinent, and then spread via Persia to the Middle East and to Europe.  Shatranj itself is a Persian word.  Thus, two Muslim Nawabs playing chess forgetting everything around them, in a land of Muslim rulers, was, well, nothing out of the ordinary.  "Of course", you thought while sitting back in the chair as you watched the movie.

Which is why it is tragically hilarious to read the news item that Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti "has declared the playing of chess “forbidden,” calling it a waste of time and money that creates hatred between players."  Will be laughable if not for the seriousness with which the Mufti's words are taken by some. 
In a fatwa, or religious decree, issued in response to a question from a caller to a Saudi television show, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh said that the game was “the work of Satan,” like alcohol and gambling, despite its long history in the Middle East.
A fatwa against chess?  Doesn't the Mufti have better things to worry about?  He is not the first religious leader to rule against chess; examples include:
An Italian sage of the 11th century, Saint Peter Damian, scolded the bishop of Florence for his weakness for the game. Chess was initially outlawed by Iranian Revolution which prevailed in 1979; however in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini said it was permissible as long as it is not combined with gambling. However a contemporary Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq, has emphatically forbidden all forms of chess, whether played online or with physical pieces, and regardless of whether betting is involved.
Seriously!  Why?
Then, as now, religious professionals were wary of a game that transcended religious and cultural categories, and stimulated the brain rather than the soul.
But, why?  Because it is "gloriously rebellious," writes this commentator:
[Chess] obsessives, especially the professional players who devote their lives to the game and strive to understand its “truth”, are engaged in a glorious act of rebellion. The “real” world is dull, unjust, unchangeable, so instead they live in an illusory world, like Alice when she goes behind the looking glass and finds “a great huge game of chess that’s being played – all over the world”. Perhaps this is what the mufti really fears: chess players are natural rebels who have rejected the workaday world and all its totems. They want to topple kings – and maybe muftis too.
Of course, one needn't play chess to topple kings--the white supremacists from the northern island played that toppling game really well in the Subcontinent!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The golden handcuffs from a Faustian bargain

If I described the working conditions like this:
people [work] so hard that they will not have time for such mundane things as buying lunch or popping to the dry-cleaners
And, if the workers considered taking a vacation, then the workplace seems to tell them, “take as little as possible, and as much as you dare.”

There is a fair chance that you would think those are not the best of working conditions.   If you are committed to anything left of the political center, you would be ready to launch into a tirade against those damn corporations that suck the life out of their workers--but you would be only half-right.  If you are coming to these issues from the other side of the political spectrum, you would shrug your shoulders and mutter that these are individual's choices and they can quit if they want to--you, too, would be half right ;)

Of course it is those damn corporations.  But, these are not any iron chains holding workers as slaves. Nope, these are "golden handcuffs" that chain tech workers to their desks or futons or whatever else:
Tech firms that offer lavish perks to their staff do not do so out of the goodness of their hearts. They offer them because they expect people to work so hard that they will not have time for such mundane things as buying lunch or popping to the dry-cleaners. As Gerald Ledford of the University of Southern California’s business school puts it, they are “golden handcuffs” to keep people at their desks. Some of the most extravagant perks are illusions: “take as much holiday as you like” may really mean “take as little as possible, and as much as you dare.” Some have vaguely sinister undertones: might the option for women to freeze their eggs end up becoming the expectation?
The only exciting thing for me in that excerpt?  University of Southern California--the university where I earned my graduate degrees ;)  Everything else there is worrisome.

It is not anything new.  I have blogged about this forever, it feels like.  When people are young, they seem to find the work world all too alluring and exciting.  Soon, the reality raises its ugly head:
A survey last year of 5,000 such workers at both tech and non-tech firms, by TINYPulse, a specialist in monitoring employee satisfaction, found that many of them feel alienated, trapped, underappreciated and otherwise discombobulated. Only 19% of tech employees said they were happy in their jobs and only 17% said they felt valued in their work. In many areas they were even more discontented than non-tech workers: 36% of techies felt they had a clear career path compared with 50% of workers in areas such as marketing and finance; 28% of techies said they understand their companies’ vision compared with 43% of non-techies; and 47% of techies said they had good relations with their work colleagues compared with 56% of non-techies.
All the money and the perks don't add up to much, if money and perks are not the most important things one wants out in life.

All that is in some twisted way an ironical mirror image of sorts of the tech factory workers in China, say, at Apple's contractors:
"Reality for workers at Pegatron is working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, forced to do overtime work and unpaid labor, with very short breaks for meals ..."
It is such a strange bargain that we seem to sign off on, while in iron chains or in golden handcuffs.   I am so darn lucky to have lived a life without the iron chains or the golden handcuffs. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Dear Venezuela: I really, really wish I knew how to quit you

Venezuela was the first country that I visited after coming to America.  It has been a long association with that country, which has been nothing but a poster-child for oil as a resource curse.  With the price of oil in a free fall of sorts, I was sure the news about Venezuela would not be pretty; after all, "Venezuela needs oil prices to hit $111 a barrel just to break even" and oil is trading at less than $30!

The Wall Street Journal opens its report with this:
The plunge in the price of oil is causing more investors to bet that Venezuela will default on its $120 billion pile of foreign debt, an event that would trigger a messy battle over the country’s oil shipments and deepen its economic and political crisis.
When pretty much all the oil-export revenue will go to serving the debt obligations, it leaves little for anything else:
The government owes more than $50 billion to private companies that service its economy, ranging from oil contractors and airlines to supermarkets that need dollars to import everything from flour to toilet paper. Major airlines have halted flights to the country and auto manufacturers and others have shut plants after the government was unable to pay for imports of needed parts and materials.
Oil prices are not projected to go up anytime soon.  So, more misery for the people in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s consumer inflation, already the world’s highest, will more than double this year to a level above all estimates from economists surveyed by Bloomberg, the International Monetary Fund said.
Inflation will surge to 720 percent in 2016 from 275 percent last year, according to a note published by the IMF’s Western Hemisphere Director, Alejandro Werner.
720 percent?
Venezuela’s economy will shrink 8 percent this year following a 10 percent contraction last year, according to the IMF. 

When economic conditions worsen, then what happens to stuff that people need?  Remember this post from last April about the shortage of toilet-paper thanks to the screwed up "socialism" of Hugo Chavez and his anointed successor?

The situation has worsened, to say the least, since last April.
It’s also having a serious impact on the sex lives and health of many Venezuelans.
How so, you ask?
Contraceptives, including birth control pills and condoms, are also on the growing list of hard-to-get items. Only one-tenth of the normal volume of contraceptives used by Venezuelans was available last year, El Pais reported earlier this month, citing the head of the country's pharmaceutical federation. 
No milk. No toilet paper. No contraceptives.  Hmmm, can it get any worse?
Experts have been warning of the potentially devastating consequences of the contraceptive shortage in a country that already has one of the highest rates of HIV infection and teenage pregnancy in the region. ...Venezuela's economic crisis could turn into a health disaster.
Oh my!  Add to this the Zika virus too.

How awful!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Stop the presses. Faculty are political!

Students have no idea how they make me feel great via their comments in class or in their papers.  One noted in her paper that she did not care for the ideas when they were expressed by "an extremely conservative" professor but is apparently receptive to those same ideas when she hears them from me.  Another found that in my blog I criticize Obama and Faux News.

These two comments are not anything new.  Years ago, one student wrote in a long letter of appreciation that she really didn't know about my politics even after having known me throughout her undergraduate years.  Which is exactly how it ought to be; my political philosophy ought to be irrelevant and immaterial to students.  Right?

It is one thing when biologists have political preferences; after all, mitochondria are not influenced by political views.  But, in the humanities, the social sciences, business, and a gazillion other things that universities offer, well, it is pretty much all politics.  Rare will be a business faculty with uber-left leanings, and perhaps rarer will be a sociologist with ultra-right political views. Yet, we pretend that our "research" is all objective.  Ha!
In October Russell Roberts, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, tweeted that if told an economist’s view on one issue, he could confidently predict his or her position on any number of other questions.
The people rose in protest with tweets, blog-posts, and position papers!
As Mr Roberts suggested, economists tend to fall into rival camps defined by distinct beliefs. Anthony Randazzo of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank, and Jonathan Haidt of New York University recently asked a group of academic economists both moral questions (is it fairer to divide resources equally, or according to effort?) and questions about economics. They found a high correlation between the economists’ views on ethics and on economics. The correlation was not limited to matters of debate—how much governments should intervene to reduce inequality, say—but also encompassed more empirical questions, such as how fiscal austerity affects economies on the ropes. Another study found that, in supposedly empirical research, right-leaning economists discerned more economically damaging effects from increases in taxes than left-leaning ones.
That is worrying.
Seriously?  They needed to do research on this?  It shows what pretentious lives economists lead believing that their thinking is not political and is only--and nothing but--scientific!
 even if economics is not uniquely ideological, its biases are often more salient than those within chemistry. Economists advise politicians on all manner of important decisions. A reputation for impartiality could improve both perceptions of the field and the quality of economic policy.
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men

Thursday, January 21, 2016

I emote, therefore I am?

I return to one of my favorite topics, because even the blog-following students complained that I have written too much "shit" about this, and the lazy guy on the other side of the planet says he will "die" if I blogged again about this.  I tell ya, it is not easy keeping all the readers happy.
(Editor: When exactly did you start caring about what others thought?  Me: Shhhh ... I don't care a shit; it is all an act on the stage that is the world!)

The favorite topic that I return to is one that should be everybody's favorite as well: What does it mean to be human, especially with all the rapid technological changes that point towards artificial intelligence?

Consider the following:
there is the question of how we see ourselves. Human nature is a baggy, capacious concept, and one that technology has altered and extended throughout history. Digital technologies challenge us once again to ask what place we occupy in the universe: what it means to be creatures of language, self-awareness and rationality. 
As we eagerly chase after the next iPhone, we need to pause and think about how our individual and collective understanding of what it means to be human is changing, seemingly by the minute.  But, we don't pause.  Instead, we rush to buy that iGadget!

The author, Tom Chatfield, is incredibly accomplished for his young age, adds this about the digital machines that we create:
Our creations are effective in part because they are unburdened by most of what makes humans human: the broiling biological pot of emotion, sensation, bias and belief that constitutes the bulk of mental life. We are biased, beautiful creatures. Technology and intellect allow us to externalise our goals; but the ends pursued are those we chose.
Do the incentives our tools tirelessly pursue on our behalf include human thriving, meaningful work, rich and humane interactions? Do we believe these things to be unachievable, unknowable or worthless? If not, when are we going to shift our focus?
The less that we individually and collectively think about these issues, the faster we hurl ourselves into a brave new world, like the one that Michael Shermer writes about in his column in the Scientific American: Can our minds live forever?  Shermer writes about the "attempt to preserve a brain's connectome—the comprehensive diagram of all neural synaptic connections."
Can brains be so preserved? Fahy and his colleague Robert L. McIntyre are now developing techniques that they hope will win the Brain Preservation Technology Prize, the brainchild of neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth (I'm on their advisory board as the advocatus diaboli). As I write this, the prize is currently valued at more than $106,000; the first 25 percent of the award will be for the complete preservation of the synaptic structure of a whole mouse brain, and the other 75 percent will go to the first team “to successfully preserve a whole large animal brain in a manner that could also be adopted for humans in a hospital or hospice setting immediately upon clinical death.”
Of course, brain preservation and thawing the brain to life will not be feasible for a very long time.  But, think about where this research is headed:
“I refuse to accept that the human race will stop technological and scientific progress,” Hayworth told me. “We are destined to eventually replace our biological bodies and minds with optimally designed synthetic ones. And the result will be a far healthier, smarter and happier race of posthumans poised to explore and colonize the universe.”
Chatfield puts it well on why even half-baked pretentious intellectuals like me are interested in all these, and why you should too:
Our creations are certain to grow far beyond our current comprehension: how far and how fast is perhaps our most urgent existential question. Our best hopes of progress, however, remain deceptively familiar: understanding ourselves better; asking what aims may serve not only our survival, but also our thriving; and striving to build systems that serve rather than subvert these.
This is certainly one amazing time to be alive with so much in the horizon and with seemingly so much at stake.  Good thing that I will be gone well before all these creations unfold; so long, suckers! ;)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Oh boy, the world is going bananas!

Decades ago, my rather cantankerous great-uncle decided that he had a great plan to earn quite some money from the fertile lands that had been passed down the generations--he would plant bananas in place of rice.

The family lore is that it looked like like he would really strike it rich.  The plantation was coming along great.  But, disaster struck in the form of sustained high winds and rains.  The field of dreams was wiped out only days before harvest time.  Those were the bad old times before crop insurance, and the man who bet his farm on bananas lost it all.

Trouble lies ahead for banana farmers.  It is of a different kind.  Literally a different kind--a fungus.
Crop pathologists call Fusarium oxysporum, a tiny, asexual soil fungus, the “silent assassin.” It enters plants through their roots and travels through their vascular tissue; by the time it is ready to sporulate, the plant is doomed. The fungus has adapted to human agriculture by differentiating: F. oxysporum f. sp. lycopersici causes tomato wilt; F. oxysporum f. sp. asparagi causes asparagus wilt; and F. oxysporum f. sp. cubense is slowly but surely wiping out the world’s banana supply.
No, "wiping out the world's banana supply" is not an exaggeration.
Specifically, the researchers warn that the strain, which first began wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia some 50 years ago and has more recently spread to other parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia, will eventually make its way to Latin America, where the vast majority of the world's banana exports are still grown. At this point, they say, it's not a question of whether Tropical Race 4 will infiltrate the mothership of global banana production; it's a matter of when.
Apparently this pathogen is an awful killing machine:
Tropical Race 4 is capable of killing at least 80%—though possibly as much as 85%—of the 145 million tonnes (160 million tons) of bananas and plantains produced each year
As with everything else, with this TR4 too the impacts on the poor will be worse:
The developed world prizes bananas as a food of convenience—it’s cheap, portable and reasonably healthy. In poor countries, however, bananas are often a basic source of nourishment for at least 400 million people. The average person in Uganda, Gabon, Ghana and Rwanda relies on bananas and plantains for more than 300 calories each day—around 16% of the UN’s nourishment threshold (and bear in mind that around 20% of the 74 million people living in those four countries are undernourished). Roughly 70% of all bananas consumed locally are vulnerable to Tropical Race 4.
The damn thing has even spread down under, by which I mean Australia:
The discovery of TR4 on the Cassowary Coast – that bountiful stretch of lush green valleys and rainforested ranges south of Cairns – cast a pall over a place that produces eight in every 10 bananas eaten in Australia.
 So, what can possibly be the way to save the Cavendish banana?  Scientists are working on two ideas:
(1) inserting a TR4-resistant gene from a different wild banana species from Malaysia and Indonesia, musa acuminata malaccensis, into the Cavendish to create a fungus-resistant version of the popular variety and (2) turning off a gene in the Cavendish that follows directions from the fungus to kill its own cells
Ahem, GMO banana?  That'll go well, won't it? ;)
Dale's introduction of a different GM experiment in 2014, a vitamin-A-fortified banana meant to help deliver nutrients to impoverished Africans, was met with harsh criticism from the likes of Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, Friends of the Earth Africa, and Food and Water Watch. "There is no consensus that GM crops are safe for human consumption," they wrote in a letter to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Or, we could switch to the gazillion other varieties of bananas, instead of this one:
We could stop relying on Cavendish bananas. If you've ever tasted one of the dozens of small, sweet bananas that grow in regions like Central America and Southeast Asia, you probably aren't terribly impressed with the United States' doughy supermarket varieties. Belgium's Bioversity International estimates that there are at least 500, but possibly twice as many, banana cultivars in the world, and about 75 wild species.
Yes, like one of my favorites--the "malai vazha pazham", which translates to "hill bananas" because that variety is grown in the hilly terrains near Pazhani and Kodaikanal in the old country.  Ah, for some tasty old country bananas!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Other people's problems are so easy to solve!

As I worked through the undergraduate program that I knew would not define my career, I could not understand how we humans could invent airplanes and computers and more but could not get toilets and drinking water to the hundreds of millions in India.  There had to be a better way, I was confident.

I went to graduate school.  I walked about the VKC library.  And then the stacks at Doheny.  I went to classes.  I talked with people from different countries. I read academic journals and magazines that I never knew existed.  Later that summer I went to Venezuela as a part of a student research group.

Within a year of coming to America, I understood that we humans are indeed very good at inventing airplanes and computers and more, but we have not been able to provide toilets and drinking water not only to the hundreds of millions in India but also to the hundreds of millions all over the world.  The problems here on earth were way too complex.

Even as my delusions were getting treated by books and articles and real world experiences, I applied for a prestigious professional opportunity at the Mecca of development thinking--the World Bank.  After surviving successive rounds of elimination, I flew across the country on a cold February week for the interview.  I did not even have to wait for the official notification that came a few days later that I did not make it.  Yet, I was not disappointed but was relieved.  I felt like I had dodged a bullet.  I suffered no more illusions that one man or one agency could do it.  Development had to come from within.

Now, older and wiser, and on the other side from the students, I look at the twenty-year olds who seem so confident that they can change the world for the better.  It must be seductive, intoxicating, to think and believe that they can make it happen in the far corners of the world.

In an essay with an arresting title--"The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems"--the author notes:
There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad. In other words, the young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”
Indeed.  It is an industry out there.

The author notes two important problems with this "reductive seduction":
First, it’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.
Second, the reductive seduction of other people’s problems is dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve avoided. While thousands of the country’s best and brightest flock to far-flung places to ease unfamiliar suffering and tackle foreign dysfunction, we’ve got plenty of domestic need.
An investment banker quitting a Wall Street job in order to "solve" a problem in Kenya, conveniently overlooks the problems right in Manhattan where, perhaps, the problem can really be "solved."

The author ends the essay with this suggestion:
Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on. Or go if you must, but stay long enough, listen hard enough so that “other people” become real people. But, be warned, they may not seem so easy to “save.”
The complexity is far more than what NASA had to deal with in sending men to the moon and bringing them back.  Which is why toilets and drinking water continue to be a problem for hundreds of millions in India and elsewhere, even thirty years after I graduated from the engineering college.

The only good thing is that I no longer suffer from delusions.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Help! My mind has gone to shit.

"Make sure you bring packets of prunes" my mother told me even weeks before my last trip to the old country.  "We get them here, but the quality seems bad" she added.

The older people get, the more they think about prunes and the like.  As my father remarked when I was there, "you don't realize what a nuisance and problem it can be when it does not happen."

The "it" is, of course, "shitting."

We take shitting for granted.  It deserves a lot more respect.

Even a little deviation can mean trouble.  Like, if you are traveling.  As if the body knows that you are not home!  "as many as 40 percent of people experience constipation while they’re away from home."

Why is it difficult to shit when on a vacation?
Traveling throws off one’s routine -- and constipation may be one result, said Dr. Brooke Gurland, a colorectal surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. “We’re creatures of habit,” including when it comes to bowel movements, she said. “People have a time when they do that, and once we throw the schedule off, we can become completely disrupted.”
Off the regular schedule means no "regular" ;)

Perhaps "home, sweet home" was first expressed when the person was ecstatic while shitting in one's own bathroom, after getting back to the "regular" schedule?
“Any time you leave your general habitat, it’s throwing your gut microflora off balance,” says Brooke Alpert, a New York-based registered dietician.
Crap, those damn bacteria in the gut, again! ;)
The experience of a holiday trip—remembering to pack everything, navigating a crowded airport, staying with family for an extended period of time—may be enough to stop the bowels from functioning the way they usually do.
It shouldn't take getting old in order to understand the importance of shitting--daily and regularly.  Heck, even the poets and writers tried to tell us that; thanks to the friend for pointing me to the following by John Updike.

"The Beautiful Bowel Movement" 
by John Updike

Though most of them aren’t much to write about—
mere squibs and nubs, like half-smoked pale cigars,
the tint and stink recalling Tuesday’s meal,
the texture loose and soon dissolved—this one,
struck off in solitude one afternoon
(that prairie stretch before the late light fails)
with no distinct sensation, sweet or pained,
of special inspiration or release,
was yet a masterpiece: a flawless coil,
unbroken, in the bowl, as if a potter
who worked in this most frail, least grateful clay
had set himself to shape a topaz vase.
O spiral perfection, not seashell nor
stardust, how can I keep you? With this poem.

I took this photo in Kawakawa, New Zealand

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Teach your children well. To code. And they'll love you!

My first day at university where I now teach, I met my fellow-newbie faculty colleagues.  One of them was a physicist, with what seemed like an intense New York way of speaking.  When talking with him, I found out that he was the physics department--there was no other physics faculty at the university.  I was shocked, of course, especially when that was my first ever love.

At small universities like ours, physics is not one that we care to educate students about.  As with many aspects of higher education, this too is something that disappoints and depresses me.  In a related context, I recently wrote in an email to a couple of colleagues, "Whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion of exploration of ideas in a liberal education setting?"

We have moved far, far away from exploration.  As this young commentator puts it, "exploration for its own sake is under siege" while writing about the assault on exploration whether it is the arts, or philosophy, or outer space:
The problem is that both space exploration (as well as all other undirected scientific inquiry) and the humanities are in danger, and the conceptual line we draw between them is obscuring the fact that it’s the same danger, and that it comes from the same source: a cleaving to market-determined value and a desire for immediate return on investment.
We could argue about whether that desire is a consequence of the instant-news environment, the Great Recession and the economic pressures of globalization, or the myopia resulting from the need for political wins.
If there seemingly is no answer to "what job can you get with that, and how much will that pay?" then apparently it is not worth for society to fund it?  After all, we could be exploring the universe for ever, and could hunt for extra-terrestrial intelligence until we are all dead, and not being able to monetize the investment within a few years means that those are not worth exploring!  This approach is rapidly filtering down to the high school level where, for instance, even learning a foreign language is now considered to be wasteful compared to learning a programming language!  Should we wonder then that right from when they are kids, there is a push to teach them how to code!

Such a contemporary approach to education and knowing, and the push for specialization in order to "grow the economy," cannot possibly help us in the long-run.    Buckminster Fuller said it best:
Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.
We need to understand how we relate to other humans, to other life forms, to the rocks and the rivers, and to outer space.  But, we cannot expect all these to miraculously happen if we take away exploration from education.  All we will end up with, as a former colleague used to say, is a society of automatons!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Shit ain't good for your gut ;)

This past December, when visiting with the people in the old country, I told my mother that I would not have her tasty fresh vegetable salads because I was worried about pathogens in uncooked vegetables after those catastrophic rains and floods.

It is not that I am a paranoid hypochondriac worried about my health like some of the famous nutcases of the past.  I am just being practical.  Which is why after Chipotle became E-Coli headquarters, it will take quite some time before I swing by that place again.

Here in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do a fantastic job of tracking food-borne illnesses.  However, such monitoring is about the big food corporations and restaurants.  What about those friendly farmers markets that every town in the US seem to have on Saturdays?  Are the food stuff sold there pathogen-free?
As we will report in an updated version of an unpublished working paper released last summer, we found correlations that, in statistical parlance, are too robust to ignore. First, we found a positive correlation between the number of farmers markets per capita in a given state and in a given year and the number of reported outbreaks, regardless of type, of food-borne illness per capita in that state that year. Then, we found a similar positive correlation between farmers markets per capita and reported individual cases of food-borne illness per capita.
More interestingly, we found similar positive correlations between farmers markets per capita and outbreaks per capita of norovirus, a common cause of gastroenteritis. Likewise, we found a similar positive correlation between farmers markets per capita and outbreaks per capita of Campylobacter jejuni, a bacterium typically found in animal feces that is also a common cause of gastroenteritis.
Not that I frequent the local Saturday market; but, you think I will want to go there after reading something like that? ;)
Many consumers frequent these markets because they believe that the foods they purchase there are healthier and safer than the same items sold at supermarkets, posing less risk of food-borne illness.
The authors do underline the point that they have merely found robust correlations.  
it would be a critical mistake to conclude that the foods sold at farmers markets are themselves to blame. That is because most cases of illness are caused by consumers who undercook or fail to wash their food. Indeed, our results may suggest that many people erroneously believe that food bought at farmers markets needn’t be washed because it is “natural.”
In other words, just because it is from a local farmer, it does not mean it will always be healthy.  Just because it is "natural" it does not mean that we can be lax in our food preparation routines.  Shit can happen anywhere.  Oh, sorry, it is the shit that is the reason for most of those pathogens ;)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Your cheatin heart ... is NOxious

It turns out that the "business ethics" of Volkswagen has been educational about yet another oxymoron: "clean diesel."  For that enlightenment, we need to thank the lying, cheating, professionals at the company that Hitler was so excited about ;)

Volkswagen's atrocious business practice might have been merely about selling cars. but that affected way more than customers' wallets alone:
Volkswagen played a leading role in convincing people to accept a technology that in many countries is causing a precipitous decline in air quality for millions of city-dwellers: the diesel engine. Monitoring sites in European cities like London, Stuttgart, Munich, Paris, Milan and Rome have reported high levels of the nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, or soot, that help to create menacing smogs.
You see, diesel is not really "clean"--something we ought to have known on our own!
Diesel exhaust is laden with insidious soot particles, the so-called PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair), which allow carcinogens to penetrate deep into tissues and organs. In other words, a driver who steps on the accelerator of a diesel car may be filling the lungs of nearby pedestrians, cyclists, infants in strollers and other drivers with potentially deadly particulate matter.
The price we are willing to pay for material progress!

It does seem like diesel for cars is now, ahem, exhausted ;)
Diesel trucks and large passenger cars, with their relatively clean exhausts, will doubtless soldier on. But who needs a small diesel? In terms of fuel economy, small turbo-charged petrol engines have all but caught up. The diesel version of the Chevrolet Cruze, for instance, gets 33mpg on the EPA's combined cycle, while the thriftiest petrol version of the same car gets 30mpg—and is a whopping $2,400 cheaper. The small, frugal diesel—upon which Volkswagen placed so much of its hopes for a future of green motoring—looks to have been left for dead by the roadside.
As with everything else, and even though the ethics of customers is no better, a better future depends on we the people:
In the end it may be up to consumers to force change. After all, while climate change caused by carbon dioxide is a somewhat abstract concept, the choking effect of NOx emissions is not just in front of but in their very eyes.
Or, we can always choke ourselves to death, like they do in Delhi even now :(


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Yet another shitty post will be good for your gut

Literature has offered many memorable opening lines. Movies have delivered awesome ending lines. The following, while not anywhere in the league as those lines, will at least make you smile first:
If you pass small stools, you have big hospitals.
And then you perhaps wonder what the connection is between hospitals and stools, which we regular people simply refer to as shit.

The connection is this: the value of fiber (promotes Bristol-quality stools) and the consequences of avoiding it (big hospitals.)

But, of course, it is more than merely about your stools: it is about the "microbes in our guts"
Fiber is a broad term that includes many kinds of plant carbohydrates that we cannot digest. Our microbes can, though, and they break fiber into chemicals that nourish our cells and reduce inflammation. But no single microbe can tackle every kind of fiber. They specialize, just as every antelope in the African savannah munches on its own favored type of grass or shoot. This means that a fiber-rich diet can nourish a wide variety of gut microbes and, conversely, that a low-fiber diet can only sustain a narrower community.
You can already see where this is headed--you take care of the gut microbes, and they take care of your wallet that will otherwise be drained out at big hospitals.

A team of microbiologists worked on mice by feeding successive generations low-fiber diet, which then drastically wiped out their microbiome environment, which has implications for our modern urban existence:
Many studies have now shown that the gut microbiomes of Western city-dwellers are less diverse than those of rural villagers and hunter-gatherers, who eat more plants and thus more fiber. The Stanford researchers’ experiment hints (but doesn't confirm) that this low diversity could be a lasting legacy of industrialization, in which successive generations of low-fiber meals have led to the loss of old bacterial companions. “The data we present also hint that further deterioration of the Western microbiota is possible,” the team writes.
What happens to humans on low-fiber lifestyles?
First, without fiber, starving microbes often turn their attention to similar molecules, including those in the mucus layer that covers the gut. If they erode this layer sufficiently, they might be able to enter the lining of the gut itself, triggering immune reactions that lead to chronic inflammation.
Second, there’s evidence that a diverse microbiome can better resist invasive species like Salmonella or Clostridium difficile, while low diversity is a common feature of obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, and other conditions.
Big hospitals!

You remember an earlier post in which I blogged about how the good microbes can be re-introduced into the gut?  What you forgot already?

Here's to hoping that you are healthy enough not to need a fiber hill of beans ;)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Going down. Price of oil, that is!

A year ago, I blogged about the collapsing oil prices, in which I quoted from a Project Syndicate op-ed:
economics and history suggest that today’s price should be viewed as a probable ceiling for a much lower trading range, which may stretch all the way down toward $20. 
Apparently we are getting closer to the $20 floor-price!
AAA and GasBuddy, two organizations that follow gasoline prices, say that gasoline prices below $2 will not be unusual in most of the United States. As oil prices fall, and refinery capacity stays strong, the price of gas could reach $1 a gallon in some areas, a level last reached in 1999. As a matter of fact, the entire states of Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Caroline have gas prices that average at or below $1.75.
The dollar at the pump seems overly optimistic.  But, I get the point--prices will fall some more before refineries are forced to shift to a different mixture in the spring.

Less than two dollars a gallon.  Oh my!  I wonder what all those left-environmentalists who complained that oil corporations were conspiring to keep the prices high are now talking about; damn, if only I hadn't pissed off the faculty colleagues, I could have asked them ;)

The eternal optimists at Reason are, rightfully, dancing with I-told-you-so moves:
In fact, it is very likely that the world is now experiencing the downward sloping side of latest commodity super-cycle. Generally speaking, as each succeeding super-cycle unfolds resource prices eventually reach levels even lower than the nadir of the previous cycle. In any case, depletionist innovation-deniers need to be publicly shamed.
And oil prices are dropping because?
Oil is priced in dollars, so a stronger dollar makes oil relatively more expensive for all consumers using currencies other than the dollar. Morgan Stanley says that while the oil glut is responsible for oil prices falling from triple digits down below $60 per barrel, the fall from $55 to around $35 largely comes from the strong performance of the U.S. dollar over the past year.
So, what should I tell students about the future price of oil?
Last fall, Goldman Sachs even suggested that the current oil price slump mirrors what happened when oil prices collapsed in the 1980s and remained low throughout the 1990s. In other words, humanity may enjoy low oil prices for perhaps another 15 years.

How good are those oil price predictions?  We need to keep in mind a quote that Reason offered a year ago:
When contemplating the future of oil prices, one should always keep in mind U.S. foreign service officer James Akins’ observation, “Oil experts, economists, and government officials who have attempted in recent years to predict the future demand and the prices of oil have had only marginally better success than those who foretell the advent of earthquakes or the second coming of the Messiah.” Akins wrote that in 1973.
As Yogi Berra famously said, making predictions is difficult--especially about the future ;)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Neither higher nor education

The more years I teach, the more I wonder and worry about the fragmentation of knowledge at the undergraduate level.  To an overwhelming majority of college students, the undergraduate degree will mark the completion of formal schooling.  Very few will go on to graduate school, and even fewer will go on to do research in that fragment.

Yet, the system practically forces students to identify themselves with a fragment.  "I am a basketweaving major."  It then becomes hard for me to resist the urge to knock some sense into that young person; I want to tell them that the world does not need more basketweaving majors, but needs more educated people. I feel compelled to explain to them that focusing on basketweaving is not the same as getting educated and that it is a hindrance to education.

But ... I don't even attempt to make students think differently about this identification with their majors because it is not really their fault.  It is the damn faculty who created this fine mess and are actively cultivating it.

Philosophers have a great deal of experience with this mess, after going down the horrible path of creating their own "discipline":
“Real” or “serious” philosophers had to be identified, trained and credentialed. Disciplinary philosophy became the reigning standard for what would count as proper philosophy.
This was the act of purification that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today. As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns.
Faculty then needed students who would identify themselves as "philosophy majors."  It was, and is, the same story with every field of inquiry.  At the university where I teach, my esteemed colleagues have introduced so many new academic majors and minors that one would erroneously conclude that there is a great deal of knowledge being produced here--ha!

The irony is that we faculty love to talk about the Socratic approach, and about Socrates himself!
Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were “serious” thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.
Well, I know what happens to "the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly" ;)

So, where are we then at the end of it all?
Having become specialists, we have lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.
While the essay was about philosophy, that bottom-line is equally applicable to everything that we do at the undergraduate level--we have lost sight of the whole.  If only students understood this, sooner than later!

Monday, January 11, 2016

The ugly unethical consumer

The sign said that if I bought one I could buy another of that same for free.  Two for the price of one.

I stood there looking at the colorful packets, for what seemed like an eternity.  I then walked away.

After picking up a few things, I passed by the the same display.  It was too damn tempting.  It has been years since I ate them.  Even now, I can feel the saliva gathering in my mouth as I think about that taste.

I picked up a packet.

And then I did something that killed it all.  I looked at the nutrition label.

I put the packet down.  I checked out.

I reached home and ate a banana instead!

Being a mindful consumer is no fun.

I have blogged in plenty about this mindfulness.  Whether it is about my personal health, or about killing spiders at home, or about recycling or about flying ... the list is endless.  It is tiring, I admit, to always consciously choose something that is "better" than something else that is "worse."  Apparently this is not a typical consumer behavior:
No one wants to knowingly buy products made with child labor or that harm the environment.
But a new study shows that we also don’t want to work too hard to find out whether our favorite products were made ethically. And we really don’t like those good people who make the effort to seek out ethically made goods when we choose not to.
The friend passed along the news item about the research to me.  I wonder if I am supposed to read between the lines there and be less mindful and just live a little! ;)
Researchers have found that a) we’re lazy when it comes to investigating the ethics of our purchases, and b) we resent those who do take the time to research the social and environmental impacts of, say, a six-dollar T-shirt made in Bangladesh, and then opt for a more ethical alternative.
I suppose "ethical consumer" is as much an oxymoron as is "military intelligence" or "social science" ;)

We prefer to be ignorant.  Willfully, intentionally, ignorant.  We work hard to avoid knowing how the sausage is made.

The research findings are shocking statements one after another:
In fact, we denigrate consumers who act more ethically than we do, seeing them as less fashionable and more boring.
Worst of all, seeing others act ethically when we don’t undermines our commitment to pro-social values.
“You choose not to find out if a product is made ethically. Then you harshly judge people who do consider ethical values when buying products. Then that makes you less ethical in the future.”
Seriously? :(

What if the packages had information similar to the nutrition information on the Fritos bag that I put back?
Companies that use ethical practices in producing their products can help by making that information very prominent, right on the packages if possible. People are not going to go to your website to find out your company’s good deeds.
Yeah, right, like that will happen--after all, "business ethics" is an oxymoron!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Peace is War. Slavery is Freedom. Strength is Ignorance.

The Nobel Peace Prize has never been without controversies.  Take the case of Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, for instance:
Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before he was murdered in January 1948.
Gandhi was not recognized for the phenomenally peaceful methods he preached and practiced.
Up to 1960, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded almost exclusively to Europeans and Americans. In retrospect, the horizon of the Norwegian Nobel Committee may seem too narrow.
"In retrospect" the Committee ought to feel awful about handing the prize to Barack Obama too, as I have often blogged about!

A few months ago, I blogged about another Nobel Peace Prize recipient behaving in ways that were anything but about peace.  "What a shame!" I commented about Aung San Suu Kyi's silence over the systematic campaign against the country's Rohingya.  She intentionally even shut off the strong advice from two other Peace Prize honorees: the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

In his column, Nicholas Kristof writes about the wily politician that Aung San Suu Kyi is:
She is now a politician, and oppressing a minority like the Rohingya is popular with mostly Buddhist voters.
Oh, wow, what a surprise!  How awful a politician is she?
Aung San Suu Kyi avoids even saying “Rohingya.”
Kristof writes:
Aung San Suu Kyi is also inheriting the worst ethnic cleansing you’ve never heard of, Myanmar’s destruction of a Muslim minority called the Rohingya.
A recent Yale study suggested that the abuse of the more than one million Rohingya may amount to genocide; at the least, a confidential United Nations report to the Security Council says it may constitute “crimes against humanity under international criminal law.”
Yet Aung San Suu Kyi seems to plan to continue this Myanmar version of apartheid.
Of course, I agree with Kristof when he concludes:
Defenders of Myanmar and of Aung San Suu Kyi note that the country has many problems; they see the Rohingya as one misfortune in a nation with a vast swath of misfortunes. The priorities, as they see them, are economic development, democracy and an end to the country’s many local conflicts, and they protest that it’s myopic to focus on the problems of one ethnic group in a nation so full of challenges.
Yet to me, there is something particularly horrifying about a government deliberately targeting an ethnic group for destruction, locking its members in concentration camps and denying them livelihood, education and health care. When kids are dying in concentration camps, after being confined there because of their ethnicity, that’s not just one more problem of global poverty. It’s a crime against humanity, and addressing it is the responsibility of all humanity.
Strip her of the Nobel, I say.

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