Sunday, February 28, 2016

You say publications, I say intellectual onanism

I am beginning to doubt Herb Stein's law that "if something cannot go on forever, it will stop,"  After all, the "publications" by higher education faculty shows no sign of stopping any time!

Well-meaning faculty have attempted to show to the world that publications, especially in the vast humanities and the social sciences, is a case of the emperor with no clothes.  But, apparently it is such a well-known fact that nobody raises an eyebrow and faculty continue to publish crap.  Peter Dreier, who "teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College" writes that most publications are academic drivel.  Of course; what's new!  Dreier writes about his own experiment with generating garbage with highfalutin phrases, in a manner that resembles Alan Sokal awesome work exposing the bizarro world of academic publications.  Dreier notes:
I am more than willing to admit that just because I don’t understand something doesn’t mean it isn’t well reasoned or accurate. But the proportion of things published in academic journals has become less and less accessible to anyone who isn’t a specialist in that field. We live in an era of increasing academic specialization. As academia becomes more and more fragmented and balkanized into more narrow niches, an increasing proportion of what academics produce is unnecessarily obscure and obtuse, and, not surprisingly, poorly written. Graduate students read this drivel written by their academic elders, and then seek to emulate it, perpetuating the rule of pompous prose.
In the 39 years since I finished graduate school, specialization has become more and more narrow, so that even people in different subfields of the same discipline—say, Japanese history and colonial American history, or Renaissance literature and Southern poetry—aren’t expected to understand, or at least judge the quality of, others’ work.

But then he and I are fellow-travelers:
I am a professor with a Ph.D. in sociology who now teaches in a political science department and chairs a department of urban and environmental policy. In other words, I do not have strong disciplinary loyalties and think that the boundaries between many academic fields are pretty blurry. I believe that most social scientists—sociologists, historians, economists, anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists—should be able to read and understand most of what their fellow social scientists write, if only they would write in relatively clear prose. Although I’m not formally trained in English literature, or art history, or other humanities subjects, I can grasp the basic points, if not the nuances, of most articles published by scholars in these fields, if they are written to be understood rather than to impress and intimidate.
I did my graduate work in urban planning, then taught in the department of economics, and then in the geography department.  As much as I love being in the all-embracing geography, my identity is not tied to, nor dependent on, geography.

The other day, I was grading papers in my office with the door open. I heard a student ask a colleague across the hallway, "can you tell me about the sociology classes so that I can plan for the next term?"  A sensible question, right?  The response was so telling of the bizarre fragmentation of higher education and the related turf issues.  "I am a historian" was the reply before showing the student the office of a "sociologist."  Why the reflexive need to defend oneself with "I am a historian" is something I can never, ever, understand.

More from Dreier:
The problem of academic jargon is not confined to a single political or ideological wing, but it certainly dominates much of the writing by leftists in the social sciences and humanities. I consider myself a person of the left, and my research and writing—focusing on American politics, urban policy, social movements, and labor studies— generally explores issues of social justice and democracy. But I have little patience for much of what passes for left-wing academic writing in the social sciences and humanities, which emphasizes criticism (often called “deconstructing” or “problematizing” by academics) of conservative and liberal ideas and social institutions, but makes little or no attempt to figure out what to do to make things better.
I also have little patience for the kind of embarrassingly obtuse writing style preferred by many postmodern and allegedly leftist academics that obscures more than it enlightens and is often a clever mask for being intellectually lightweight. 
In case you, dear reader, are an outsider and have no idea how to "desconstruct" and "problematize", well, check with the youth in college and they will have plenty of stories to tell you while you will have to remind yourself to close your wide open mouth! ;)

What is even more depressing is this: there are plenty of real world problems and issues that need to be understood and solved.  From lead in Flint's water to the mayhem in South Sudan to the Hindutva tilt in India to ... and the real world with really curious and interested people will read what the "expert" faculty have to say--if only those who protect themselves "with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees" will look beyond their orgasmic intellectual onanism!

(Full disclosure: A few years ago, I was denied promotion to full professor because I refuse to engage in academic drivel and, therefore, will be stuck at the "Associate" level until it is time.)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

When sweat smells like perfume

"It's a good thing that the rain they talked abut doesn't seem to be happening" she said.

Yep, I was back in the grocery store and--yet again--engaging in small-talk with the checkout clerk.  The difference is that I have rarely ever been at her counter.

"Oh, is that the forecast?" I asked.

"Oh yeah."  She oozed with confidence about that.

"You know, this time of the year, the rain is no surprise.  No big deal.  So, I don't pay much attention to it, unless I want to walk about" I said.

I don't understand why people seem to get all worked up about the usual winter snow in the Dakotas or rains in Oregon or the summer heat in Arizona or, heck, even faculty being pompous and delusional!  Only the proverbial man bites dog should make the news!

"That's a good attitude to have.  It is not stressful then" she agreed.

Of course it is not stressful--my blood pressure readings are consistently normal ;)

I suppose we are humans and we whine.  We complain about the heat, the rain, the snow, the cold, the sweat, the whatever.  It will be heaven on earth if we simply stopped whining about this and that.

Back when I was a kid, I loved hanging out with my father's uncle. He was no role model for a human ideal and he had more than the average share of human failings.  Even while fully aware of his shortcomings, I liked him because of his sharp intellect and wit.  Once, during the peak summer days in Madras (as the city was known then) when he was visiting, my brother complained about the humidity and how stinky the sweat was.  The uncle did not miss a beat.  "Tell me when the sweat smells like a perfume and I will collect a bottle of it."  We all laughed.

Laugh away your stress.

Friday, February 26, 2016

What's the secret number for success in life?

Every once in a while, people seem to wake up and realize that geography matters. And then they make a big deal out of it, while some of us--especially those who teach and think economic geography--wonder, ahem, if only you would listen to us!

I have blogged many times, like here, that the best thing one can do for a high probability of economic success is to choose the parents well.  But, of course, that is not a choice that is in our control.  It is not the parents as in the genes within us, but in terms of where we are born and raised.  A good chunk of one's life trajectory is decided right there.

Today, the media reports on yet another research that the geography matters, when it comes to economic success and failures.  In this case, it was about "the geography of economic well-being and distress" after the Great Recession:
We found some really startling results. First and foremost, we're looking at the recovery years here. This dataset starts in 2010 - so after the recession is over. And what we find is that not only does the recovery not lift distressed communities, it actually bypasses them altogether
What does that look like?
You see double-digit loss in employment. You see significant loss in business establishments - again, double digits. This just does not mirror what's happening in the rest of the country. So those that were most vulnerable before the recession are worse off after those early years of the peak recovery.
And if one compares the elite zip codes and the distressed ones?
If you look at the topmost prosperous and the bottommost distressed, it really is like looking at two different countries. In the most-prosperous ZIP codes, you're unlikely to run into somebody who hasn't graduated from high school. You're unlikely to see a vacant home. Your're unlikely to run into somebody who lives below the poverty rate. All of those factors are inverted in the bottom decile, where you have the vast majority of adults out of work. You have establishments eroding very quickly.
Ok, what about when we look at the communities in between the two extremes?
Communities between these two extremes have managed only to tread water in recent years, the study found. Employment in communities in the median ZIP codes increased only slightly and the number of businesses did not grow at all.
The really, really awful part is this:
once a downward spiral begins, it is very difficult for residents or local political leaders to reverse the slide. “When businesses close and there is no investment, the tax base erodes,” Mr. Lettieri said. “Local governments can’t invest their way out.”
Many students in my classes know this all too well from their personal experiences.

So, can you give us a bottom-line?
Where you start has an enormous impact on where you end up in life.
Aha!  Yet another piece of research about the same conclusion. One can then easily imagine the implications for "equality of opportunity" for kids born in the "wrong" zip codes, right?

I will stay away from discussing this with the students in my economic geography class.  I provide them with enough depressing news already!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"He must be stopped." But, how? By whom?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this post is equivalent to a weighty tome ;)

Think of this post as a graphic-novel approach (of course, the graphics are not my creations.  The cartoons are via the Statesman Journal, and the cover image is, ahem, from the Economist.)

Finally, in case the video that I have embedded below does not work, then follow the link from here for Lewis Black's awesome prediction of Trump as a much needed, and well qualified, third world dictator for the US--a prediction from 2011 ;)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Get ready ... for a lot of bullshit!

Ah, yes, after this topic, which is about the certainty that we all face, perhaps bullshit is one of my favorite topics.  After all, it takes a bullshitter to love bullshit ;)

People talk about the past golden age, like the golden age of cinema, or the golden age of cricket (no, not the bugs!).  We now live in a golden age, and of an interesting kind:
We are currently in a golden age of bullshit. The internet is awash with unchecked claims.
Well, I read that on the internet.  So, is that bullshit or the truth?  Isn't everything in the internet true anyway ;)

So, of course, curious people want to know who are the people who are most likely to believe the bullshit.  What is an individual’s propensity to believe in bullshit?  Develop "a Bullshit Receptivity scale (BSR)" then.  What does the research show?
Summarizing the results, Pennycook, et al., write that “[people] more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to … conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
If you believed that, you probably rank way high in the scale ;)

Seriously, that makes sense, right?  So, what can be done to make sure people will be lower in the SBR scale?
Basically, the goal here should be to get people to slow down and more carefully examine the information being presented to them. To scan it, in other words, for bullshit.
To be engaged and to examine the information is nothing but the rational, critical approach that science employs.  The scientific method.  
if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.
The unfortunate aspect is that the very scientific method of questioning anything leads the people with high BSR to believe that scientific research is all bogus.  Science, on the other hand, sniffs out bullshit.  But, sometimes the scientific method cannot be enough to tackle bullshit.  Why?
“The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”
You want a real example?  Think about anything that Donald Trump says at any of his rallies.  They are all bullshit.  Now, think about all the work that has to go into refuting the errors.  A huge magnitude of energy will be needed to refute his bullshit.  You will be barely into the process when a new day dawns and Trump would have generated more bullshit.

If it is the golden age of bullshit, then Trump is certainly the man of the hour.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Can we please eliminate the damn liberal arts? Right now?

As one can imagine, I have been thinking a lot more about education and the miserable state of affairs that contemporary higher education has become.  And then I read this in the New York Times that a growing number of elected officials want to nudge students toward more job-friendly subjects like electrical engineering.  Ah, yes, if only I had known that the world needed electrical engineers and not ditch-diggers!

In my case, misery does not mean drowning in alcohol, though I wonder if that might help!  Instead of carrying my water bottle to class, maybe I should take with me something clear and water-like gin or vodka ;)  Oh well, all I know is to drink coffee and to then read essays that really smart people have authored.

As comforting as this exercise is, well, it is equally depressing that the issues that I worry about now were the same set of issues that were talked and written about even a few years ago, and the situation has only worsened.  For instance, in this essay from almost sixteen years ago!  Jackson Lears writes:
The contemporary academic crisis is not about job security any more than it is about how many classes are online or which departments get the most resources. It is about the attitudes we take to our most important audience, a non-academic audience. Professors are constantly berating themselves and being berated for withdrawing into the insular  world of scholarship, for not connecting with the real world. The real world is right in front of us, in the classroom; it is composed of students, 99 percent of whom have no intention of entering the academy themselves. They are a non-academic audience; they require us, however implicitly and imperfectly, to become public intellectuals.
The attitude towards students and their learning is appalling, to put it mildly.  Increasingly, colleges see students as nothing more than warm bodies who bring in monies, which they can use to build Taj Mahals and create more "student-services" administrative positions.  Faculty, too, are only happy to be active participants in fashioning revenue-maximizing strategies.  Thus, the higher education industry keeps charging ahead at full speed, consuming the monies students, taxpayers, and philanthropists keep throwing its way.  Are we surprised then at all with the following sentences from Jackson Lears?
Prussian productivism melded with American vocationalism and anti-intellectualism–the love of the practical, the demand for cash value now. The result was the accentuation of a fundamental conflict in the university’s mission, between furthering the pursuit of truth and serving the needs of established power. The modern American university was to continue to preserve a place for the free play of ideas, but also to provide technical expertise for government and business elites. 
In that same issue of the Hedgehog Review, Russell Jacoby writes:
Driven by academic discontent and boredom, professors might want to reinvent themselves as public writers. ... 
But, simultaneously recognizes the challenge when we have:
institutional imperatives that reward technical rather than public contributions.Will they be successful? It is not clear.
It is a lot clearer now, sixteen years later, that only technical contributions matter, even if they are less than third-rate.  Public contributions, well, who cares!

Jacoby worried then about specialization, well before the introduction of gerontology as a major in a small time public university where I teach!  Jacoby wrote:
it should be possible to raise the issue of insular specialization without pledging fealty to progress and industrial society. The incarceration of specialists and a return to bloodletting or phrenology is hardly the goal; nor is the point to foster anti-intellectual populism or half-educated generalists. Specialization inheres in industrial society. We need specialists. No one wants to hear a cheery announcement that today your airline pilot will be a family therapist. Nevertheless this truth does not justify every micro-field or subdiscipline or new jargon. Specialization can also be obscurantism, turf building, careerism, and regression, as well as a simple waste of talent and resources.
So much has been said in the years past by intellectuals that there is very little for this pseudo-intellectual to contribute, it seems like!  May I have a martini, please?  On second thoughts, make that a double-shot cappuccino ;)

Monday, February 22, 2016

When worlds collide: The real meets the virtual

I often comment in my classes that the way humans will live in advanced economies towards the end of this century will be practically unrecognizable to those who lived and died in the early twentieth century.  "It will be a sci-fi life to somebody from a mere hundred years ago" I tell them.

Even now it is a sci-fi world in which we live.  We mutter into the air (into our cellphones) and we get an echo from somebody who is somewhere else on this planet.  We are even able to see them.  This will be way freakier an experience to a time traveler from 1816 than was the cliched cigarette lighter to the remote tribes in Hollywood movies.

The cellphone conversation and image is virtual.  Our lives are increasingly virtual.  And these virtual and real worlds are going to merge even more, which is what all the big companies are betting on.
Mark Zuckerberg, who made a surprise appearance Sunday at Samsung's Mobile World Congress press conference to promote VR, believes virtual reality is the next major computing platform after mobile devices to bring together family and friends on the other side of the country or the world.
Zuckerberg wants to capture and share his daughter's first steps using virtual reality.
“Pretty soon we’re going to live in a world where everyone has the power to share and experience whole scenes as if you’re just there, right there in person,” Zuckerberg said Sunday.
Even now, we live so much of our lives "as if you’re just there, right there in person."  Television boasts about how you get to experience entertainment events "as if you’re just there, right there in person."  Skype is no different. The examples are endless. So, hey, the logical step in this for VR--Virtual Reality.
"They put on headset. You put on a headset. And you can be teleported anywhere you want in the world. It can be fishing. It can be at the zoo. It can be at the museum. It can be in your living room," Facebook's chief technology officer Michael Schroepfer told USA TODAY last year. "After about a minute, it really does feel like that person is there even though they are 1,000 miles away."
The next logical step in the ongoing battle of proxy over proximity, which is one of the themes that I have often explored here.  Proxy is winning big time.

It is bizarre, however, when life is completely redefined in ways that words begin to mean something else altogether.  Consider this, for instance:
“What people care about,” Zuckerberg says, sitting just down the hall from Facebook’s VR room, “is interacting with another person.”
Seriously?  People care to interact with another person so much that they prefer to do that not in the real world with people in flesh and blood but in the virtual world?

Of course, Facebook is not the only one rushing towards this brave new virtual world:
In October 2014, Google led a $500 million investment in the augmented-reality startup Magic Leap, a cousin of Oculus-style virtual reality. The following January, Microsoft unveiled its own augmented reality headset, the Hololens. All the while, Google was building its own VR effort from scratch, not only offering a cardboard headset that could deliver VR via your smartphone, but secretly building more advanced hardware. And now, it seems, Apple is doing much the same.
Brendan Iribe, who is the CEO of Oculus, is confident about the direction:
if you look back at the history of most new big technology breakthroughs, there is some element of controversy around what impact is it going to have. Whether it was books or computers or mobile devices. Now it’s virtual reality. I’m really confident that it’s part of the natural concern around new technology, and that VR will become a very big part of everybody’s life in the future.
I can't wait to get the hell out of here before VR completely redefines what it means to be human and what it means to belong to humanity;)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

On the coming end of small talk :(

There was only one person working the sales register at the store, and she was experiencing technical problems.  The two young women ahead of me in the line were getting antsy--not anything unusual in a contemporary world of everything right now, right away. One of them took out her smartphone and checked something; maybe some earth-shattering post on Snapchat!

"I'll be with you women soon.  Thanks for waiting" the sales clerk at the register said.

I suppose I did not matter.  Well, she joined a long line of people who ignore me ;)

Finally, it was my turn.

"I'm sorry for the wait" she said.  She did not sound sorry at all.  She couldn't care, really.

"Hey, you can make up for it by giving me 25 percent off" I joked.

"A charm discount, eh."

"Oh no. In my case it will be a charm tax then. One look at me and people want to charge more" I replied.

As I walked to the car, I wondered whether the days of talking with a sales checkout clerk are numbered.  With all the online shopping, and self checkout at stores, this human interaction will become a part of history.

I was reminded of the discussions in a class a few days ago.  Most of the students were clear in their preference for less human interaction in commercial transactions.  "I don't like to make eye contact" said one.  And when I said I love small-talk, one shook her head expressing vehement negation.  It was clear that an old-fashioned humanist like me will become even more of a misfit!  A hermit I might be, but I love humanity.

It was a day to run errands.  I headed to another store. The winds made the raindrops come from the sides and not from above.  I parked and hurried into the store.  A crew of young employees was busily restocking the shelves.

A few minutes in the store and I was done.  No lines at the checkout.

"Your day going well?" asked the young woman.

"Yes, indeed."  And then added, "you are not missing anything by staying inside. The weather outside is crappy."

"I'm happy that this is is not my day off" she replied.

"That'll be a bummer, right?  To work when the days are gorgeous, and then when you get off work it is all horrible weather?"

She smiled.

Apparently the days of such small-talk are numbered.  Thankfully, so is my existence!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

If only students would listen to me!

The older I get, the more I am temped to respond with a "doh!" when I read stuff that I have been saying/writing forever.  But then other than the few losers, er, readers here, who cares about what I have to say, right? ;)

In this essay on the importance of innovation, I read the following sentence:
GPA was associated with innovation, but maybe not in the direction you’d think.
Why the "doh!" you wonder, eh ... let me tell you that first before I report on the innovation essay.

For starters, I have this post from December 2012, with the title "Education does not equal pursuing the GPA" in which I quoted a better known person:
The pursuit of the perfect GPA is a distraction that leads too many students away from the challenges they should be facing in their undergraduate years.
You can already see the connection, right?  In the American system (with which I am most familiar) students can follow a number of strategies in order to pursue the GPA.  They can, for instance, avoid the sciences if they think they are not quite strong in that field--even if they are genuinely interested in science.  They can bypass learning a foreign language if that is not their best suit.  Or, even within these, they can avoid mean old professors like sriram who have may earned a reputation for being intense.  Very rational, if the goal is the GPA.  But, the un-challenged mind is not good at creativity and innovation!

As I wrote in this post from March 2013:
Thus, we end up graduating students with high GPAs, making sure that all students being above-average is not merely the case in a fictional Lake Wobegon!  Commencement ceremonies now routinely have magna- and summa-cum-laudes by the dozens--of course, very, very few of them from math and science, and nobody seems to even acknowledge that!  Once, when I participated in the university's deliberations on choosing the outstanding graduates, I made a mistake of commenting that it would not be fair to compare GPAs of students who were in different majors; I was surprised that there was no discussion on that point. Keep ignoring and eventually people like me will go away, I suppose!  It worked--it has been years since I participated in those discussions.
 Have I established by now that I have always been railing against the GPA?  If only students understand that.  No, correct that.  If only faculty understood that and passed along to students that an easy A or an easy C or easy whatever is not going to help them at all.  It is no longer a world in which every college graduate can immediately transition to that successful middle class life.

Back to the innovation essay then:
From our findings, we speculate that this relationship may have to do with what innovators prioritize in their college environment: taking on new challenges, developing strategies in response to new opportunities and brainstorming new ideas with classmates.
Time spent in these areas might really benefit innovation, but not necessarily GPA.
Additionally, findings elsewhere strongly suggest that innovators tend to be intrinsically motivated – that is, they are interested in engaging pursuits that are personally meaningful, but might not be immediately rewarded by others.
We see this work as confirmation of our findings – grades, by their very nature, tend to reflect the abilities of individuals motivated by receiving external validation for the quality of their efforts.
Perhaps, for these reasons, the head of people operations at Google has noted:
GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring.
If only students understood that! :(

And, the essay presents everything that I tell every one of my classes.  Like this:
Classroom practices make a difference: students who indicated that their college assessments encouraged problem-solving and argument development were more likely to want to innovate. Such an assessment frequently involves evaluating students in their abilities to create and answer their own questions; to develop case studies based on readings as opposed to responding to hypothetical cases; and/or to make and defend arguments.
Any student who has been in any of my classes, even if that student slept through, knows well that my courses are structured exactly along those lines.  I emphasize over and over the importance of the ability "to create and answer their own questions."  Of course, I have posted about that too:
Higher education is then about understanding concepts enough to be able to ask questions.  In the format that most of higher education is, students rarely are taught how to ask questions.  And if they never figure this out after four years of university education, then all the access that Google provides will be of zero value.
Despite the "doh!" it does feel good to know that I am not alone in this cosmos ;)

If only students would listen to me though--for their own good!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Holding steady in Orygun

It was time.

I had to get it done.

I could not put it off anymore.

I walked into the store that liberals love to hate.  All because of that one thing.

I walked without even casually looking around at anything there.  I was a man on a mission.

I reached.  I stopped.  It was all mine.

I sat down on the seat at the blood pressure measuring machine.  I erased the display and slid my left arm into the designated slot.

I looked up as I hit the "start" button.  Waiting for the pharmacist was a white guy, about 45 or 50 years old.  He had a camo-colored baseball cap that had the letters "NRA" in bold and uppercase.  On his side, was a gun in a holster.

A white guy with a gun in a store.

The machine whirred and whizzed and the tightness on my arm eased.  I shifted my attention to the display, wondering whether the sight of the gun would have caused a spike in the numbers.

Steady Eddie, despite the gun!

I don't care whether or not liberals or conservatives love that store; I am not going there anymore.  This pacifist does not want to witness people parading their guns in public spaces.

If the stereotype holds good, then the gun-carrying white guys won't come to shop at the places where I get edamame and paneer, and I will gladly restrict myself to those stores alone ;)

It is so bizarre that people--almost always white guys--publicly walking around with guns is apparently acceptable, but the sight of a woman wearing a hijab makes this country go ballistic!

America, what a country!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

College is to prepare for a world of unscripted problems

I have sent a slightly edited version of this to the newspaper editor .. maybe it will be published, maybe not ;)

The price of crude oil and of gasoline at the pump have been tumbling down to levels that most of us would not have thought possible. Eight years ago, a barrel of petroleum was selling in the global marketplace at $147 and experts predicted that soon it would reach a stratospheric $200 per barrel. Yet, since the new year dawned, it has been a story of how low can you go, with experts wondering whether it might even get closer to $20, and when it eventually goes up if $50 might become the ceiling price.

A belief that oil prices would only climb forever also propelled large enrollment increases in petroleum engineering. The near-guarantee of well-paying jobs lured young people to the discipline. But, over the past few months, the news reports have been less than encouraging. “Petroleum engineering degrees seen going from boom to bust” was CNBC’s report. The Wall Street Journal asked, “Who Will Hire a Petroleum Engineer Now?” The trade publication, Oil and Gas Investor, discussed enrollment declines in US petroleum engineering degree programs.

Of course, this is not new, but is a repetition. The oil price crash of the 1980s led to significant enrollment declines in those degree programs. By the end of the 1980s, only about 1,400 students were majoring in petroleum engineering programs across the country. As oil price rose, and as it stayed in the hundred-dollar range, enrollment soared to more than 11,000. But, with the recent oil price collapse, “petroleum engineering degrees will lose attractiveness in the years to come" said Penn State University’s Turgay Ertekin, according to Oil and Gas Investor.

There is an important lesson here, above and beyond oil price and enrollment in petroleum engineering. We live in a world where economic activities cannot be predicted with any sense of accuracy. As Yogi Berra said, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. What might be the price of oil a few months from now, leave alone a few years from now, is unknown. It is not merely about the resource. We need to think about the technological changes that the future will bring, the geopolitical issues, the overall health of the global economy, and more, which make predictions highly suspect.

Students pursuing any field of study, including petroleum engineering, need to understand that the economic conditions of today and, therefore, the implications for jobs, is not the best indicator to prepare for the economic conditions and jobs for a few years down the road. Even four years make a huge difference—the freshman students who started on petroleum engineering four years ago face a reality now that is very different, a reality where perhaps half of them might not find jobs in the oil and natural gas industry.

Students and universities betting on “employable” majors based on current characteristics of the economy are betting against the only thing that we know for sure—the future will not be the same as today. The bets get riskier as we head into the future years. From steel workers to office secretaries and engineers, the experience of the past years has been that jobs can disappear in a hurry, leaving them worrying about their futures.

What can the young do then, and what should the universities do for the young? As the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) wonderfully put it, the challenge is “Educating for a World of Unscripted Problems.” Unscripted because we do not know what the future holds. But, we do have a sense of how we might be able to reasonably prepare for that future, by developing skills that will help people to constructively engage with the unscripted problems.

Yet, contemporary public policy discussions on higher education and workforce preparation rarely ever go into serious and sustained thinking about the “world of unscripted problems.” When, for instance, a semiconductor manufacturing company comes to town, we incorrectly believe we need more engineers and material scientists, only to realize a few years later—as was the case with Hynix—that the entire factory could close down. We seem to only consider the latest fad, without preparing for the longer-term uncertain future.

It is not that the petroleum engineering graduates will be jobless and unemployable. If their universities have educated them well for a “world of unscripted problems,” then those students will have skill sets that they will be able to apply but in industries completely different from what they had originally aimed for. If only we can use this example to understand that higher education is more than about a major and is, instead, about preparing for a “world of unscripted problems.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

It is not war. It is dirty, rotten politics!

I have blogged enough about the anti-GMO people who are invariably climate change activists.  About how some of the liberals are also passionate anti-vaccination folks.  Even though the scientific  community's confidence in GMO is no different from its confidence in the climate change issues which is no different from the scientific confidence in the power of vaccination.

Which means, the opposition is not really against the science.

We quickly jump to thinking that they are anti-science, and that it is a war on science.  Right?
When anti-vaxxers mount massive protests against immunization laws, as they did recently in California, it’s an easy out to characterize their motives as a lack of intelligence or a generalized hostility toward science. 
But, it is not that way, says Mark Largent, a professor at Michigan State University and the author of Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America.
On average, immunization opponents are relatively well-educated, upper middle class, Protestant, and married. Protests and public opposition tend to be led by mothers, rather than fathers. And they’re often relatively older parents—those over 40 tend to be particularly concerned about the possible effects of vaccines, according to Largent.
It comes down to a simple question of 'who you gonna trust?'
research, along with rhetoric from recent political fights, suggests some parents may feel uncertain about vaccines partly because they’re skeptical of pharmaceutical companies, whose profit motives mix with their vaccine-promotion campaigns. And while state governments can mandate immunization, this may end up pushing parents away from the public-school system if they feel that regulations are forcing them to make certain decisions about their children’s health.
So, if that's the case with the anti-vax crowd, why should the dynamics be any different with the anti-GMO crowd, for instance?  The anti-vax people think that the pharma companies are up to something, and the GMO folks believe that Monsanto is up to something.
The disagreement can come in the interpretation of the significance of specific findings, events or risk statements. In other cases, people opposed to a scientifically sound position might feel unheard, and inviting them to air their grievances can defuse a pitched battle. “You can’t just throw more data and information at people,” Millstein said. “It doesn’t work. You’re not addressing people where they are. There’s a disconnect.”
Millstein as in "science historian and philosopher Roberta Millstein of the University of California, Davis."

Which means, it is useless to throw scientific logic and evidence at the opposition.  It has to be treated as a political fight--not a scientific argument.  Politics is not always about logic and evidence--Al Gore knows that really, really well.  Any suggestions here, Professor Largent?
Scientists and policy-makers in general should seek workable compromises, he advised. “Stop with the hubris and stop with the bold confidence that everything you say and do is right,” he said. That just acts to polarize disagreement. Drawing perhaps on the words of Martin Luther King, Largent added, “politics is the work of the possible.”
But, politicking to win the hearts and minds of people does not come naturally to scientists.  I doubt whether even Neil deGrasse Tyson can take up this political responsibility!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Fifty shades of brown ... but one gets targeted all the time

It was one of those rarest of rare days.  I guest-lectured, on campus.  Really.  There is at least one faculty colleague/friend who thinks I am worth her class time. The talk/discussions were about the caste system in India, in the context of Carnatic music, about which one can go on and all I had was fifty minutes!

India is a strange (sub)continent with all kinds of discriminatory practices.  The poor engage in it and so do the rich.  The educated and the illiterate alike are avid practitioners.  And, of course, they extend this "courtesy" to visitors too, especially if they are darker skinned--yes, from sub-Saharan Africa.  The latest happened in Bangalore, which is the hometown of the long-time commenter/debater:
An African woman was reportedly brutally assaulted by an angry mob in India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru
What happened?
A 21-YEAR-OLD Tanzanian student has lodged a police complaint accusing a mob of stripping her and forcing her to walk “without her top” on the street in Bengaluru on the night of January 31.
The alleged incident took place following a road accident earlier in the day, when a car driven by a Sudanese medical student hit a local resident, 35-year-old Sabeen Taj, who died in the accident, while her husband Sanuallah sustained injuries.
According to the woman’s complaint, a mob gathered that night and set on fire the Sudanese student’s car, as well as a car in which the Tanzanian student was travelling.
Perhaps you are thinking, hey, a mob might treat anybody that way--the crazy mob didn't care to be racist.  The mob "pummelled a chivalrous Indian man who’d given the woman his own shirt to cover herself."
The two were targeted for their race: by the mob’s logic, an African had killed someone so Africans should pay the price. Officers of the Bangalore police stood by as the mob thrashed the Africans, and passengers ejected the victims from a passing bus they’d attempted to board to save themselves. Later, police refused to register the Tanzanian’s complaint until she produced the hit-and-run driver. (A cop told her, “You all look alike.”)
 Racism (and racist violence) is only one of many forms of intolerance in which India specialises. But it’s the most modern of India’s evils. Particularly sickening is the casual racism shown by Indians toward Africans in their midst.
I just don't get it!  How awful!!!

Wait, there's more:
On the morning of Feb. 06, a few hundred African students gathered on the steps of Bengaluru’s Town Hall ... It was a heartfelt outcry over violence against Africans that is becoming all too commonplace in India. But there was also a strange air of amusement and bewilderment at the protest site. The policemen sniggered, speaking among themselves. Some passersby openly laughed, entertained by the sight of a group of agitating African students.
But, it is not merely the accident and the mob.  According to one student, Janeth:
Her experience with fellow students was problematic, and she did face racism, especially from the general public. “They think Africans are into fraud and prostitution,” she said.
Even landlords, who sometimes speak with potential tenants on phone, often deny apartments on realising that they were speaking to an African. “I don’t want Africans,” the typical landlord would say, Janeth recalled. 
It is just bizarre :(


Monday, February 15, 2016

God hates menstruating women?

This recent post was about the pathological relationship that some have with women, and most of that pathology having to deal with religion.  Another post from three weeks ago was on a public policy issue relating to women--taxing tampons.  Put them together as a Venn diagram of sorts and you can see the possibility of religious institutions having practices that restrict menstruating women, right?

I have been trying to understand this issue for a long time.  It is a strange world that I had to understand as a young boy when my mother could not attend a wedding in the family.  She traveled with us all the way and then had to exclude herself from mixing with people.  It was the introduction to women's issues that were never talked about but were always there.  If not for the biology class that described the ovary, Fallopian tubes, and the uterus, and why bleeding happens, the whole thing would have been a bloody mystery to me.  (Yes, the horrible pun intended; hehehe!)  It is darn stupid to exclude girls and women from regular life just because they menstruate.

Now consider a temple setting.  A Hindu temple, like any place of religious worship, is not a place for reason.  It is about faith, and like all religious faiths, well, it is irrational.  In such a faith context, bleeding women are typically not allowed to go anywhere near the pooja (worship) room at homes and, of course, the temples too.

I have no quarrels over how people want to practice their faiths.  It is up to the believers to think about how awful their faith-based everyday life can be, like with banning menstruating believing women from the zone.

So, if some of the faithful think it is not kosher to ban the menstruating women from temples, what options do they have to correct the injustice as they perceive it?

In India, that's what apparently led a few to approach the court--in the context of the Sabarimala temple ban on females between 10 and 50 years of age.  Why the court, you might wonder.  Because,  unlike here in the US, India's temples have government oversight.
The ban was enforced under Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 (women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship).
So, if the government oversees the functioning of temples, then, of course, the judicial arm of the government has a say in whether menstruating women should be barred from entering temples.
A Special Bench led by Justice Dipak Misra, which is hearing the Sabarimala temple entry issue, will consider the intervention application. The students want the apex court to address and decide on whether modern society should continue to bear with “menstrual discrimination” when the Indian Constitution mandates right to equality and health of women to achieve gender justice.
As you read this, perhaps you think, "wait a second, this is bizarre."  But, bizarre is in the eye of the faithful.  Barring menstruating women from temples is not bizarre to many believers (including women), just as wrapping up women in burqas is not bizarre to another group of the faithful.  Many churches in old Europe do not allow female tourists in skirts or without a scarf over their heads--bizarre faith-based practice.  What is bizarre to one is apparently holy to another!

Why only the Sabarimala temple?  The "Happy to Bleed" campaign began after this:
"A time will come when people will ask if all women should be disallowed from entering the temple throughout the year," Prayar Gopalakrishnan, who recently took charge of the hilltop temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, told reporters earlier this month.
"These days there are machines that can scan bodies and check for weapons. There will be a day when a machine is invented to scan if it is the 'right time' for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside," he added. 
Ah yes, surely science and technology can deliver such a gadget--there are plenty of smart Indians, women too, who can work on it ;)

Back to the high court in India:
At a preliminary hearing on Friday, Justice Misra had asked whether the Vedas, Upanishads and scriptures discriminate between men and women. “Is spirituality solely within the domain of men? Are you saying that women are incapable of attaining spirituality within the domain of religion? Can you deprive a mother?” Justice Misra had asked.
Now, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to, therefore, conjecture that women cannot be priests at temples, right?  That controversy will be for another day! All this atheist can do is observe such happenings and comment on this mad, mad, mad religious world ;)


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Srikanth "Sri" Srinivasan as Antonin Scalia's replacement?

With Justice Scalia's sudden demise, there is intense speculation on the replacement.  A name that seems to pop up in most commentators' list: Srikanth "Sri" Srinivasan

Nearly three years ago, when Srinivasan was in the news, I authored an op-ed in the Register Guard; am re-posting it here:

Srikanth "Sri" Srinivasan received an overwhelming Senate confirmation as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and was sworn in on June 18th.  The Senate confirmed his appointment with a 97-0 vote.  Yes, this same current Senate, where bills routinely go to die, found his credentials to be so compelling that apparently they had nothing but congratulatory remarks.  Who would not want to be loved thus?

Srinivasan is the first Indian-American, and the first South-Asian too, to have reached that stratified judicial atmosphere.  Further, with the commentary on the DC Circuit Court as a springboard for nominations to the Supreme Court, and with all the uniformly lavish praise for Srinivasan, there is a distinct possibility that he could very well become the first Indian-American justice at the highest court of the land.  Is it any surprise at all, therefore, that Srinivasan’s ascent did not go unnoticed not only by Indian-Americans like me, but even in my old country?  It was a judicial appointment that echoed all the way on the other side of the planet.

Many of the biographic sketches that accompanied the reports on his nomination included the name of the village in southern India where his family roots are--Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram.  Try that for a tongue-twister!  When I learnt from a Google search that this village could be located very near the village where my father grew up, I called him up right away.  Indeed, the two villages are not that far apart and are located along the banks of the same river, Thamirabarani.  

The Thamirabarani at Srivaikuntam

Father added that there was extensive coverage of the nomination in the newspapers and on television.  He joked that we were not related to the Srinivasan family, but it seemed that father was a tad disappointed over that!

Srinivasan was born and raised far from this small village, in the northern part of India where his father, T.P. Srinivasan, was on the faculty of the University of Punjab.  Sri Srinivasan was four years old when the family immigrated to the United States as a result of his father taking up an academic position initially at Berkeley, before moving to Kansas.  I would imagine that an immigrant Indian family in Kansas in the early 1970s would have been quite an exotic addition.

My excitement about Srinivasan is not at all about identity-politics.  The intention is not to categorize and count the population by the respective hyphenations and demand any proportional representation.  Instead, it is a profound appreciation for this adopted country of mine where it matters very little anymore where we came from.  My excitement about Srinivasan is to celebrate the fact that one can come to the United States from any corner of the world and potentially become a Supreme Court judge.  

In a country where even only a couple of decades ago life was not easy for those who were not White Anglo Saxon Protestant, it is simply fascinating how different the contemporary landscape is.  In the current Supreme Court, three justices are Jewish and the rest, including the Chief Justice, are Catholic.  While we might have our own disagreements with the court’s opinions, we attribute those differences to legal interpretations of the Constitution that might be colored by politics.  The religious backgrounds of the justices do not matter to us. What a remarkably healthy change this is over the years past.   

If Srinivasan were to join the Supreme Court to fill a vacancy created by the retirement or demise of a current justice, he would then become the first who was raised in a religious background outside of the Judeo-Christian beliefs.  It is almost impossible to believe that a mere ninety years ago, a Supreme Court justice refused to speak with Louis Brandieis and sit with him for the court’s official portrait because Brandies was Jewish, and now it is entirely possible for one of Hindu origin to join that very court!  To borrow the comedian Yakov Smirnoff’s line, “America, what a country!

With Srinivasan, we have yet another evidence that the Indian-American group is more than Spelling Bee champions, and math and science nerds.  There are Indian-Americans in movies and television shows, in the literary and corporate worlds, and even as animated fictional characters like Apu in “The Simpsons.”  If only there were a Cy Young award-winning Indian-American pitcher--and a southpaw at that--to complete the all-American composite image!

The best Valentine's Day gift is ...

"How are you?" she asked with her smile.  A genuine smile.

"I wish I knew" I replied.  It is one of those evasive non-answers replies that I sometimes use in small-talk.  "How you doing?"

She knocked her knuckles on the wood and said, "I am thankful I am healthy."

As we get older, we realize that being healthy is one wonderful gift that is beyond compare.  When young, we might utter the phrase of health being the greatest wealth, but it takes life experience to truly understand that.

"Although ..." she continued as she scanned the items.  I am always amazed that people can multitask like that.  I can either talk or work.  Not both at the same time.  "My birthday is towards the end of the month ... and it is almost always rainy and cloudy ... on days like that, when it is a birthday, it is depressing that I am getting older ..." she sighed.

There is only one thing we can do about getting older--accept it.  Fighting it is a waste of one's energy and is an added layer of stress.  Even when they think that I am a senior-citizen!

I nodded my head.

"You know, when talking about such things, we say "depressing" to refer to how we feel ... the other day, a student was talking to be about some serious depression he is in ..." I commented.  "Old or young, health is so important, and to be able to get out of bed and get going with the day ..."

She knocked on the counter again.

However, small-talk is not about being serious.

"But then, I get out of bed and look at myself in the mirror ... and it is like 'holy crap, I am getting old!'"

I suppose she didn't expect me to switch gear from serious to funny.  She laughed heartily.

Laughter is the best medicine.  May you live a healthy life!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

When a man sees a woman ...

As I look back at my angst-filled teenage years from the comfortable distance of my middle age, I can see that sex was one of the greatest sources of angst.  Sex seemed to be everywhere, and yet there were structures in place to make sure that there would be no outlet for those basic instincts.  I would think that even in contemporary India a typical young male (I can only speak for my heterosexual kind) can relate to all that, and even to this essay on "The Sexual Misery of the Arab World":
Today sex is a great paradox in many countries of the Arab world: One acts as though it doesn’t exist, and yet it determines everything that’s unspoken. Denied, it weighs on the mind by its very concealment.
That paradox generates a great deal of tensions, within the body and out in society.  The following that the writer has to say about the Arab World could easily describe India too:
Desire has no outlet, no outcome; the couple is no longer a space of intimacy, but a concern of the whole group. The sexual misery that results can descend into absurdity and hysteria. Here, too, one hopes to experience love, but the mechanisms of love — encounters, seduction, flirting — are prevented
A few years ago, when visiting Chennai, I was shocked to read news reports about the police arresting young people holding hands and attempting to kiss at one of the public parks.  Seriously, the cops had nothing better to do?

A white woman friend and her white husband (I am intentionally stressing on the "white") from this town are big time Indophiles and, over the years, have visited India seven or eight times, spending three to four months during each visit.  The woman is more than a decade older than me.  She once joked that in India, the young men hit on her too.  Well, there is a reason.

In trying to understand the reason, consider what happened in Cologne, Germany on New Year's Eve:
That night, gangs of young men, mainly asylum-seekers, formed rings around women outside Cologne station and then robbed and sexually assaulted them. More than 600 women reported to the police that they had been victimised.
Young men, from the Arab world.
Migrants are no more likely to commit crimes than natives. But it would be otherworldly to pretend that there is no tension between the attitudes of some and their hosts. European women cherish their rights to wear what they like, go where they like and have sex or not have sex with whom they please. No one should be allowed to infringe these freedoms.
Cologne did not simply happen, nor was the local white woman friend accidentally hit on.  How do we begin to explain that?
with the latest influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, the pathological relationship that some Arab countries have with women is bursting onto the scene in Europe.
A pathological relationship with the female kind!

I have a difficult time in a class on diversity that I teach every year--I have to make sure that students think about issues from multiple perspectives without giving away my own opinions on such matters.  Thus, of course, in the class my task is only to force them to think about how they would begin to understand the differences across the culture--even when I know well that I believe it is not kosher to treat women as property, which is the case in the traditional societies be they Islamic or Hindu.  Unless that pathological issue is addressed,"The path to orgasm runs through death, not love."

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Majority rule and liberal democracy

Consider this: In the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump cornered 35.3 percent of the Republican votes and 11.7% went to Ted Cruz.  Together, that is just short of a majority of the GOP votes in the primary.  In the Iowa caucus, Cruz won with 27.6% and Trump was second with 24.3%, which together is more than a simple majority.

A majority of the GOP votes thus far has been for the Trump/Cruz ticket!

I point to these two because of the sheer number of atrocious and bigoted statements from them regarding war, religions and ethnic minorities, and more.  But, the duo has half of the GOP voters thus far backing them!

Against this background, Professor Ian Buruma writes about an "unhinged democracy in America"--yes, while thinking about Alexis de Tocqueville.

Buruma writes:
De Tocqueville identified another source of restraint in the US system: the power of religion. Human greed, as well as the temptation of going to extremes, was tempered by the moderating influence of a shared Christian faith. Liberty, in the US, was inextricably entwined with religious belief.
The spectacle of American politics today would seem to cast doubt on de Tocqueville’s observation. Or, rather, the rhetoric of many Republicans aspiring to be President sounds like a perversion of what he saw in 1831. Religion and liberty are still mentioned in one breath, but often to promote extreme views. Religious minorities are denounced. Apocalyptic fears are stoked. Intolerance is promoted. All in the name of God.
Atrocious statements and demagoguery in the name of god!

Buruma continues:
What is steadily falling away is not democracy, but the restraints that de Tocqueville thought were essential to make liberal politics work. More and more, populist leaders regard their election by the majority of voters as a license to crush all political and cultural dissent.
De Tocqueville’s nightmare is not yet the reality in the US, but it is close to what we see in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and perhaps Poland. Even Israel, which, despite its many obvious problems, has always had a robust democracy, is moving in this direction, with government ministers demanding proof of “state loyalty” from writers, artists, and journalists.
 Indeed.  Democracy is alive, but it is the "liberal democracy" that is under assault.  That absence of a focus on liberty/liberal has always been my problem with India's democracy too, increasingly so under the Narendra Modi-led federal government.

From across the continent, Stanford's Professor Josiah Ober writes:
Democracy and liberalism both contain much of value, but they’re not the same thing. They can be conjoined in a successful political order, but their marriage is not inevitable.
After reviewing the Athenian history of democracy, and after sorting out the role of liberalism, Ober concludes:
Both democracy and liberalism offer laudable features for a modern society. But we must not underestimate how hard it is to sustain collective self-governance by citizens while protecting and advancing liberal rights. That difficulty is manifest in the 21st-century US, as the country struggles with global and domestic terrorism, political polarisation, new and old forms of discrimination and group identity, and growing economic inequality. The prospects of both democracy and liberalism, at home and abroad, will be much improved if people understand the difference between them. 
It is democracy--people power and a majority backing--that has yielded the Trump/Cruz duo, who both threaten the "liberal" part of the liberal democracy.  It will be intellectually interesting, and emotionally taxing, to see what arises from this unhinged democracy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Why do Republican candidates always say Allahu Akbar?

Last week, after the show ended at the Iowa political theatre, I watched, thanks to my favorite television channel, Marco Rubio's "victory" speech after he came third.  Towards the end of that speech, Rubio said:
I thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ, I thank God for allowing me the opportunity to come this far with each of you
I find "God bless America" and "In god we trust" difficult to handle, and Rubio went far above and beyond those.

Which is when I got to thinking, what Rubio says so publicly is no different from saying "Allahu Akbar" when all that phrase means is "god is great."  If at all, Allahu Akbar is a lot more succinct than the lengthy manner in which Rubio phrased it.

The winner of the Iowa circus, Ted Cruz, opened his speech with, "Let me first of all say, to God be the glory."  There, isn't that also nothing but his version of "Allahu Akbar"?

Why is it ok for the GOP presidential contenders to walk around saying god is great, but then they want to hassle Muslims who want to come here as refugees fleeing dictators and chaos, and the Muslims who are here, only because they say "god is great" but in Arabic?

Can't we all agree to keep god out of the public square and refer to whatever gods in private spaces?  I am with Susan Jacoby when she writes about being Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America':
our political campaigns are still conducted as if all potential voters were among the faithful. The presumption is that candidates have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing their obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion and ignoring the growing population of those who make up a more secular America.
How significant is the secular population?
Americans who say religion is not important in their lives and who do not belong to a religious group, according to the Pew Research Center, have risen in numbers from an estimated 21 million in 2008 to more than 36 million now.
Which means
At 22.8 percent, according to Pew, the unchurched make up a larger group than Catholics, any single Protestant denomination and small minorities of Jews, Muslims and Hindus.
The god (or the son of god) references by politicians means that "“religious freedom is in danger of becoming code for accepting public money while imposing faith-based values on others."

Jacoby ends with this:
Just once in my life, I would like the chance to vote for a presidential candidate who ends his or her appeals with Thomas Paine’s observation that “the most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason.”
We can dream, right?

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Hopelessly addicted to you ...

It was class meeting unlike any other day.  No, I didn't receive any award.  No, the students did not sing my praises.

Why was that class meeting special?  Students were talking, and talking loudly with each other during the break.  It was noisy, in contrast to the quiet time that the breaks are when students work their smartphones.

Of course, I made sure I remarked about that as we resumed the discussions.

A hermit I am, but I worry a lot that we are rapidly moving away from face-to-face real-time conversations.  I worry about this not because I am a neo-Luddite;  but because my instincts tell me that the more we move away from face-to-face conversations, the more we lose whatever ability that we might have to empathize with fellow humans.  To me, erosion of empathy is a serious threat to what it means to be human.

In a rich review essay, Jacob Weisberg explores that empathy angle:
Why might too much digital participation be corroding empathy, whether online or offline?
It is complicated to summarize here; read the essay.

Digital technology and the internet are also messing us up in ways that we tend to not think about.  Remember the following quote from a few months ago?
“The Net,” Carr writes, “is by design an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention. Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”
Or as the economist and Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon put it even more presciently in 1971, “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
That itself is not as worrisome as this: apps are designed to cause these interruptions and to get your time and attention.
Nir Eyal, offers a practical guide in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. A former game designer and professor of “applied consumer psychology” at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Eyal explains why applications like Facebook are so effective. A successful app, he writes, creates a “persistent routine” or behavioral loop. The app both triggers a need and provides the momentary solution to it. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” he writes. “Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.”
The financial value of an app is largely determined by how much time consumers spend using it, on the assumption that usage translates into advertising revenue.
 The Attention Economy, as Tristan Harris refers to it.
If product design has a conscience at the moment, it may be Tristan Harris, a former B.J. Fogg student at Stanford who worked until recently as an engineer at Google. In several lectures available on YouTube, Harris argues that an “attention economy” is pushing us all to spend time in ways we recognize as unproductive and unsatisfying, but that we have limited capacity to control. Tech companies are engaged in “a race to the bottom of the brain stem,” in which rewards go not to those that help us spend our time wisely, but to those that keep us mindlessly pulling the lever at the casino.
Harris wants us think about this way: we are like the casino gambling addicts at the slot machines.  The longer the casinos can retain the gamblers at the machines, the more money the house makes. Note here that the gamblers are not playing with hundred dollar bills--it is mostly coins they bet every time.  Nickels and dimes and quarters.  But, the longer they stay in the casino, those coins add up.  The more we get hooked onto to those time-consuming apps, the more "they" earn and the more we lose.

Weisberg ends the essay on a depressing note:
Aspirations for humanistic digital design have been overwhelmed so far by the imperatives of the startup economy. As long as software engineers are able to deliver free, addictive products directly to children, parents who are themselves compulsive users have little hope of asserting control. We can’t defend ourselves ...
The software guys (almost always guys!) are making sure the house will always win! :(