Sunday, July 31, 2016

Go to college and ... lose your thinking skills?

I justify playing bridge online with an argument that it helps my thinking skills!  Ahem, one needs to be able to think to even offer such arguments, right?  I have blogged in plenty, like here, on how my teaching is really all about helping students think.

One of the many problems that I had with the undergraduate program in India was that it was quite a bit about preparing for exams in ways that did not have to deal with thinking skills.  It was more about turning out technicians, it seemed like, than about graduating thinking professionals.  A recent study notes that contemporary China is no better:
A new study, though, suggests that China is producing students with some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world.
But the new study, by researchers at Stanford University, also found that Chinese students lose their advantage in critical thinking in college. 
The system turns sharp thinking teenagers into boring exam-takers!
The findings are preliminary, but the weakness in China’s higher education system is especially striking because Chinese leaders are pressing universities to train a new generation of highly skilled workers and produce innovations in science and technology to serve as an antidote to slowing economic growth.
But many universities, mired in bureaucracy and lax academic standards, have struggled. Students say the energetic and demanding teaching they are accustomed to in primary and secondary schools all but disappears when they reach college.
All over the world, apparently universities favor research over teaching! In China too:
The Stanford researchers suspect the poor quality of teaching at many Chinese universities is one of the most important factors in the results. Chinese universities tend to reward professors for achievements in research, not their teaching abilities. In addition, almost all students graduate within four years, according to official statistics, reducing the incentive to work hard.
How terrible :(

An essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sub. req.) argues that such a sorry state of affairs is consistent with"the triumph of the graduate-school model of teaching and research."

Oh well ...

BTW, I looked up the bio of the author of the Stanford study. His name was the reason: Prashant Loyalka.  The first name is from India.  But then the stereotypical immigrant from India does not do research about education, and is a computer science faculty, right?  I wondered whether the author was born and raised here in the US--which then frees up the mind from the narrow prescribed paths in the old country.

Guess what?  His undergraduate degree is in economics, from Stanford, which is one solid piece of evidence that Loyalka was born here.  Even more fascinating is this in his CV:  He is fluent in English and Mandarin but only conversational in Hindi.

I tell ya, I think about everything--even an author's background ;)

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Those damn Chinese and Indians! Vietnamese and Bangladeshis too?

Evan Osnos--remember him?--writes about tagging along with Zhang Yuanan, who had been sent to the GOP convention by Caixin Media, a Chinese news organization, in order to understand Trump and his blame-China rhetoric.  Osnos writes:
Zhang stopped at a table of T-shirts that spelled out “TRUMP” in rhinestones. The seller was wearing an American-flag cowboy hat and an American-flag shirt with the sleeves torn off. Zhang asked, “Do you know where they are made?” The seller said the rhinestones came from Korea, but he wasn’t sure about the shirts. “O.K., thank you,” she said, and studied the tags. Made in Haiti.
Of course, very few trinkets carry the Made in America tags.
She mused, “Why do you think Americans want those low-end manufacturing jobs to come back here?” In China people don’t exactly love their jobs making peppermint tins. “China wants to upgrade its manufacturing chain,” she said. ...
“It’s true—a lot of manufacturing jobs are now in China.” What mystified her was Trump’s promise to bring the jobs back. “If it’s not China, it’s still not going to be the U.S. It’s going to be in Vietnam and other countries.”
As I have blogged often, like here, if only the Trump and Bernie people would have understood that!

If the dynamics of economic geography are so basic, then why are the millions of Trump and Bernie people angry at China and India for stealing "our" jobs?

Greg Mankiw tackles that in his column at the NY Times.
According to a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted last month, only 35 percent of registered voters thought the United States gained from globalization, while 55 percent thought it lost.
Even as we enjoy the low, low price of everything, on top of the free email, Faccebook, and everything else, only a third think the US gained from the integration with the global economy?  What gives?
As Mr. Mansfield and Ms. Mutz put it, “trade preferences are driven less by economic considerations and more by an individual’s psychological worldview.”
It is not about the evidence--like a tshirt for $4.99--but the "feelings" that drive this anger.  But, Trump's base is mostly angry white men, right?  How come the lower middle class blacks and Latino voters aren't that angry then?  And how do we understand the Democratic Party's vote-base?  Reihan Salam notes:
Native-born black men, in contrast, might compare their circumstances favorably with those of their own fathers, who often faced intense racial discrimination. Similarly, Latino immigrants of modest means generally believe themselves to be better off than they would have been in their native countries. That’s no small thing. In this sense, at least, upwardly mobile working-class blacks and Latinos have more in common with upwardly mobile college-educated whites than they do with working-class whites. And in this sense, at least, the fact that the Democratic Party is now an alliance of college-educated whites and working-class minority voters makes a certain kind of sense.
So, any ray of sunshine in all these?  Back to Mankiw:
The more years of schooling people have, the more likely they are to reject anti-globalization attitudes.
Oh, ok.  But, then he also adds this:
In the long run, therefore, there is reason for optimism. As society slowly becomes more educated from generation to generation, the general public’s attitudes toward globalization should move toward the experts’.
The short run in which we find ourselves now, however, is another story.
Oh yeah. Of course!  It is consistent with the wonderful line in economic thinking: In the long run, we are all dead! ;)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Music to my ears

I listen to the radio.
I play music CDs.
I play the old cassette tapes and listen to the music, especially the mixtapes.
I play the even older LPs and wonder at the gorgeous music from decades past.
I stream music on Pandora, where depending on the mood I might click on any of the genres I have created for myself there.
I turn to YouTube for the old Tamil and Hindi film songs.

I live in an abundance of music, too.  And it seems like I can pull up at any time any song that I have ever known.  The awareness of the rich culture of music across the cultures sometimes even creates an anxiety within me that I might be missing out on something profound and moving.  What a contrast to the old days, anywhere in the world and not merely in the old country!

When we knoew there are a gazillion songs out there, which can be download right away, how to make sense of it?
[Ben] Ratliff noticed some people were expressing unease rather than joy at the prospect of millions of tracks at their beck and call. “Whenever people talked about the great abundance of music out there, they talked about it with a sense of anxiety. People described themselves as overwhelmed, as something negative.
“I don’t know if it is that bad and I think it’s actually really, really exciting. The task is not to bitch about how overwhelmed we all are, but to figure out what’s in there. I think of it as a physical library, and you have to figure out what’s in those stacks and invent reasons to explore further than we normally would.”
We humans are some special animals, I think, when it comes to creating and listening to music.  Listening to music that appeals to us is a function of culture, not biology; "One man’s music really is another man’s noise."  Why music, in the first place?
The genesis of music, Leonardo might agree, is a creative urge to find patterns in noise. It’s an act of rhythm, in tune with the body’s beating heart. From the earliest days on the savanna, humans scream, they shout, they hiss. They clap their hands, they stomp feet. They create noises to chase away adversaries—threatening intruders and imaginary spirits alike.
Music has those primal roots.  
Ultimately, music challenges us to face ambiguity, seek solutions and, in the absence of resolution, turn confusion into a positive emotion by reveling in its ambiguity and vagueness. Looking back, noise has been integral to music as long as music has existed, incorporating imitations of birdcalls, animal sounds, and the cries of street vendors. It sounds ironic to say that indulging in noise is how we manage it. But apparently that is how humans shake, rattle, and roll. The visceral, disorienting response of sound’s interaction with the body is what—quite literally—moves us.
May the music that you like move you towards peace and happiness.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

That's Entertainment!

Back when I was a kid, my parents dragged us to religious discourses where pundits interpreted the holy texts for us nincompoop believers.  Pulavar Keeran and Kirubanandha Variyar were the kind of people who helped me understand the role of religion and about India's rich literary history as well.  The good student that I was, I loved their interpretations of the fine points.  As one who has always enjoyed humor, I particularly relished the jokes the speakers employed.

My late great-uncle, who could easily lecture about many of the texts, often sarcastically remarked that most people who went to those lectures went there only for entertainment--for the stories and the jokes.  If the attendees were asked about what those lecturers said, they would merely respond with "they spoke well," the great-uncle joked with intensity.

Over the decades, it seems like every aspect of life has become more and more about entertainment.  Even a memorial service to remember the departed has to be entertaining.  Churches use PowerPoint slides with cartoon images and emojis.  With a reality show entertainer as the presidential candidate, we have rendered politics the ultimate theatre of tragicomedy.

When such is the external environment, is it any surprise that students expect teachers to be entertainers in the classroom?  Of course, I take my awful sense of humor to my classes, and pun away, triggering groans, even while making sure that I help students understand the world.

But, the final day of the class last term, I decided that I needed to speak the truth.  After the initial few minutes of making sure everything about the final exam was discussed, I calmly and steadily launched into the message.

"After the first day of introductions, many of you commented that you felt like I was doing a stand-up comedy routine" I said.  Students, not knowing what was coming, smiled and nodded perhaps thinking that I had prepared an entertaining spiel for them.

"My humor is a facade.  In reality, I am an insanely serious guy.  If not for the sense of humor, I would have died at least twenty years ago."

I had the students' attention.  In a steady voice, I continued.

"It is with that humor that I often joked about students who skip class meetings.  I made snide remarks about how students do not care."

There was no more joking around.

"All those funny remarks were because it really, really bothers me that students skip meetings.  It really, really bothers me students attend class but then are texting, Facebooking, Instagramming, or even sleeping."

The students were listening.

"I share with friends and neighbors what goes on in a university like this, about students and faculty.  Most of my neighbors hate paying taxes.  And they hate even more that their tax money is being wasted like this."

"More than anything else, your behavior affects the learning environment in the classroom.  I might come prepared with an activity in mind, but that goes kaput because there aren't enough students, or because students have not come prepared."

I laid out my case.  And then wrapped it up with, "based on the last few weeks, I have no confidence that the rest of the class time will be productive.  So, we are done.  Thank you all."

Slowly most students filed out through the door that was away from me.  A couple of students walked up to me. One said, "I wish you had said this like in week five."  I shrugged my shoulders.  "I know what you mean.  But, like I have always told students, I treat them as adults, and adults have responsibilities.  Thanks for your comment."

I have started working on the syllabi for the upcoming year, even though there are a few weeks of the summer break left.  I am sure that I will take with me the sense of humor that has kept me alive for the last twenty years, and which will keep me here for a few more.  But, I am acutely aware that in a world in which people are so eager to hand over their money to entertainers, even a Variyar will have to fight hard in order to get people to listen.

Nobody cares a shit!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lend me your ear

Back in India, when we were kids, towards the end of one school year, a puppy wandered into our compound and made himself home there.  We kids loved the sight of a puppy, of course.  The traditional, and orthodox, household we were, the puppy had to remain outside.  Mother gave him food and he was happy.  Once, when she gave him something to eat, the fellow--as small as he was--scratched the dirt and tried to bury the food for later, which amused me to no extent.

A few days later, it was time for us kids to head to grandma's village for the summer break.  We packed the bags into the car, which my parents sold soon after the oil shock of the early 1970s.  The car started rolling out of the compound on to the road.  The puppy darted after. The car picked up speed, and the puppy tried to keep up but could not.  It was an emotional moment.

When we returned to get back to school, there was no puppy.  The gut-wrenching emotion is why I remember that even after all these years.

Much later in life, here in America, life was with dogs at home.  There was no doubt about which of the two was the awesomely lovable fellow--he seemed to lack even one mean muscle in his small body.  As awesome as he was, I always regretted that the owners of his mother had docked his tail even when he was a mere few weeks old pup.

I do not understand the fascination with docking dogs' tails or cropping their ears.  How awful!  Dog breeders and owners continue with this cruelty because, well, there is no real law against it, even though the animal health professionals oppose these practices:
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) oppose these procedures, with the AVMA stating that these procedures "are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient," and "these procedures cause pain and distress, and, as with all surgical procedures, are accompanied by inherent risks of anesthesia, blood loss, and infection."  
At least some countries are sensible enough: "cosmetic tail-docking is banned throughout Australia and in numerous parts of Europe."  Here in the US?
As of 2014, only two states, Maryland and Pennsylvania, have any restrictions on tail-docking, focusing on the dog’s age at the time of surgery and the use of anesthesia. Only nine states regulate ear cropping. 
You don't even had to have enjoyed the company of a dog for you to visualize a happy dog wagging its tail, right?  But, when its tail is docked?
Numerous studies find that tails are (gasp) useful and meaningful in dog-dog communication (more formally known as intraspecific communication, or communication between members of the same species). Even Charles Darwin recognized that tail up has a different meaning than tail down, and dogs attend to long tails better than short ones. The side of the body that a tail wags can even be informative to another dog: a dog seen wagging more to his right-side would be perceived more positively than a dog wagging more to his left. A stump is less informative. 
Imagine doing anything similar to a fellow human!  Animal rights is not merely about killing them for food or for sport.  Animal rights extend to such aspects too.
Since 2008, the American Veterinary Medical Association has encouraged “the elimination of ear cropping and tail docking from breed standards.” Who is going to stand with them?
It is a mad, mad, mad, world!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

No protest vote this time around

I do not know how people outside the US deal with the electoral college aspect of the presidential election.  I started explaining that to my father when he hurriedly moved on to another topic.  Or, maybe it was because of my long-winded way of explaining anything that puts students to sleep ;)

The electoral college is also why I have not been worried in the past about casting my vote as a protest against the major party candidates.  Thus, for instance, in the historic 2000 elections, when I was in the blue, blue state of California, I voted for Ralph Nader.

If there were no fascist candidate in this upcoming election, then my protest vote would be for the libertarian, Gary Johnson.  But, I won't vote for Johnson.  Why?  Because of the fear of the racist winning in Oregon.

Back in 2000, Al Gore had a huge lead over junior Bush, and I was confident that a few people like me voting for Nader would not help the Republican.  But, Oregon in 2000 was decided by a difference of less than 7,000 votes--thanks to a huge support for Nader.  In 2000, there weren't even that many disgruntled Democrats and yet Gore barely squeaked past.

This time, there are disgruntled Democrats wherever I turn.  The Bernie or Bust people might really hold their votes back, whereas even the principled Republicans are apparently ready to vote for the xenophobe.  The last thing I want to do is help the misogynist by voting for Johnson.

Gary Johnson has picked a strong running mate in William Weld.  As the New Yorker notes,
Together, Johnson and Weld represent the first Presidential ticket with two governors since 1948, when the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey, of New York, and Earl Warren, of California.
Consider the following that Johnson says:
The unintended consequence of when you put boots on the ground, when you drop bombs, when you fly drones and kill thousands of innocent people—this is resulting in a world less safe, not more safe
Or this:
Johnson isn’t reflexively against all government. He supports the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that policing polluters is a proper function of the government. As governor of New Mexico, he aggressively used the power of the state to force Molycorp, a large mining corporation, to clean up a contaminated site. He eventually allowed the E.P.A. to declare the area a Superfund site, turning the issue over to the federal government, which had more resources to go after the company. “The government exists to protect us from harm, and that pollution is harm,” Johnson said. “Libertarians would say, ‘You and I have the ability to sue Molycorp. We can bring them to bear from a private standpoint.’ But the reality? You can’t.”
Of course, there are the usual extreme libertarian positions that are worrisome.

I decided to check in with the website that the New Yorker piece referred to,, in order to check how much I agree with the presidential candidates.

Ahem, I am surprised at how much I am aligned with Clinton's positions:

And what a relief that on "no major issues" do I side with the fascist!  I tell ya, I am not the right wing nutcase that my faculty colleagues think that I am ;)

BTW, it turns out that I am even more anti-Trump than the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, is--she sides with Trump on economic issues!

Here is to hoping that the Berniacs and the Greenies do not mess things up for the country and the world.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Is it hot in here or is it just me?

"Global temperatures are on course for another record this year" screamed the New York Times headlines.  We have measurements that summers are really hotter than we experienced in the past, and it is not our minds playing tricks on us as we get older.

Combine the real heat with population that is getting older, and you have people like my father complaining about the temperature in the part of the old country where the only seasons are hot, hotter, and hottest.  In a post five hot summers ago, I wrote about how in the past we survived all that without the modern air conditioning.  Even I played outside under the blazing sun, and I never gave it a second thought back when I was a kid.

In addition to the hotter conditions and an older population, we also have another dimension: People are getting richer.  As the US started becoming rich, and as the air-conditioning technology developed, "the South became suddenly more comfortable to live and work in."  Even the cat on the hot tin roof preferred to be inside the cooler conditions.  Similarly, we can expect people all around the world to start air conditioning their homes and offices because they are now able to, right?  What will that mean?
As incomes rise around the world and global temperatures go up, people are buying air conditioners at alarming rates. In China, for example, sales of air conditioners have nearly doubled over the last five years. Each year now more than 60 million air conditioners are sold in China, more than eight times as many as are sold annually in the United States.
Think about that number for a second: 60 million AC units in one year.  And that is only one country.  Think about India. Nigeria. Tanzania. You think that people will willingly live in oppressive conditions if they can afford air conditioning?  We can expect to see a lot more climate controlled built environments around the world.

But, those AC units need electricity. And lots of it.
A typical room air conditioner, for example, uses 10-20 times as much electricity as a ceiling fan.
Meeting this increased demand for electricity will require billions of dollars of infrastructure investments and result in billions of tons of increased carbon dioxide emissions. A new study by Lawrence Berkeley Lab also points out that more ACs means more refrigerants that are potent greenhouse gases.
I suppose one solution here is to simply deny climate change and call global warming a hoax;)

But, not all of us are irrational and crazy.  Thankfully.  However, even the rational folks need to be convinced that we need to pay for the carbon that we use:
Our homes and businesses tend to be very energy-intensive. In part, this reflects the fact that carbon emissions are free. Energy would be more expensive with a price on carbon, so more attention would go to building design. Natural shade, orientation, building materials, insulation and other considerations can have a big impact on energy consumption. We need efficient markets if we are going to stay cool without heating up the planet.     
For this to happen, we need responsible politicians and governments.  Which means, ahem, we are screwed!  So, crank up that AC and party like there is not going to be a tomorrow!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Throwing cold water on those who threw cold water

Recall the ice-bucket challenge?  I do.  I declined the challenge. And blogged (here, here, for instance) about why those stunts of feel-goodism are distractions.

Now, James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker that people like me are mistaken.

But, I am not discouraged that I might be wrong.  This, too, is an example of what I love about the honest intellectual life--we constantly evaluate our own convictions with logic and evidence.  And then we let the proverbial chips fall where they may.  Btw, do not confuse this approach with the demagoguery behind changing one's position depending on the political fortunes.

Surowiecki writes:
Critics fretted that the exercise amplified people’s tendency to donate for emotional reasons, rather than after careful evaluation of where money can do the most good. Some argued that it would divert donations from diseases that afflict many more people than the six thousand who receive a diagnosis of A.L.S. every year. People even attacked ice-bucketeers for wasting water.
Yes, I was one of them.  Well, except that I did not complain about wasting water.

So, two years after the summer of people posting videos of pouring ice-cold water on themselves, Surowiecki reminds people like me:
All these critiques had the same underlying theme: the faddishness of the challenge undermined its value. This makes intuitive sense, but is it true? Actually, no. Silly though the Ice Bucket Challenge may seem now, it had far-reaching effects. 
Really?  I understand if money was raised in plenty for ALS research and other activities.  But, it didn't decrease contributions to other causes?
If the success of the challenge had come at the expense of other charities, ambivalence might be justified. But there’s almost no evidence that this was the case. According to Giving U.S.A., individual donations in the U.S. rose almost six per cent in 2014, which doesn’t suggest any cannibalization effect. Indeed, it’s likely that the very nature of the challenge, which belongs to a category known to anthropologists as “extreme ritual,” made people more openhanded. 
So, other giving continued on unaffected? Hey, I am relieved and excited.  One of the ways in which this human attribute was understood will interest Indian readers more than the rest, I would think:
Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who has studied the effects of such rituals, ran a fascinating experiment with people who were undergoing kavadi—a Hindu ritual that commonly involves piercing the skin with sharp objects and then making a long procession while carrying heavy objects. Xygalatas found that people who did kavadi, and even people who just joined in the procession, donated more to charity than people in a control group. And those who gave the most painful descriptions of the experience donated the most. As a result, Xygalatas has suggested that the Ice Bucket Challenge, far from stealing from other charities, almost certainly increased the total size of the pie.
Imagine that!

If the ice-bucket challenge was successful in making people open-fisted, then how come we have not more such efforts towards charitable giving?
The campaign’s critics implied that, had people not been dumping freezing water over their heads, they would have been working to end malaria instead. But it’s far more likely that they would have been watching cat videos or, now, playing Pokémon Go. The problem isn’t that the Ice Bucket Challenge was a charity fad. It’s that it was a charity fad that no one has figured out how to duplicate.
Hmmm ... so, does it mean that we humans would be a lot more giving if it were not for wasteful distractions like Pokémon Go and cat videos?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

How rooted are you in this footloose world?

Switching over from electrical engineering to graduate school in an alien field meant that every single day I was encountering ideas and arguments that I had never ever come across in my life in India.  I suppose to some, this is the worst approach because the more one keeps going after new ideas, the less one specializes.  Well, unless one is talented and able like this person, for instance, and I ain't! ;)

"Footloose" was one of those new ideas that made an impression on me.  No, not that footloose. All these years later, it turns out that neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders has had that concept explained to them!  If they looked it up on Wiki, they would have understood this about footloose industries: "an industry that can be placed and located at any location without effect from factors such as resources or transport."

Note the key idea there--located anywhere.

That "anywhere" was China, for most manufactured goods.  Honest academics have known about this footloose nature for a long time.  But, we academics are mere buzzkills and we have no idea how to energize people like how demagogues can.  One of these days I should assume the name of Major Buzzkill, which describes me really well ;)

So, we now have a strange spectacle of Trumpeters from the right and Berniacs from the left yelling and screaming about China.  Meanwhile, China is also beginning to understand footloose:
In today’s China, however, workers face a more troubled outlook than Mr. Trump suggests. They are losing their jobs because of a slowing domestic economy, rising costs and stiffer foreign competition — including from the United States.
Presidential candidates “are screaming about yesterday’s problems,” said Jim McGregor, chairman of the consulting firm APCO Worldwide’s Greater China operations. “Manufacturing for export is getting harder and harder” in China.
Yep, they “are screaming about yesterday’s problems.”  But, you think you can explain these things to Trump and his maniacal supporters?
 Labor costs in China are now significantly higher than in many other emerging economies. Factory workers in Vietnam earn less than half the salary of a Chinese worker, while those in Bangladesh get paid under a quarter as much.
Gooooooooood Morning, Vietnam!  Or, even India, like in this case:
Taiwan’s Foxconn, best known for making Apple iPhones in Chinese factories, is planning to build as many as 12 new assembly plants in India, creating around one million new jobs there. A pilot operation in the western Indian state of Maharashtra will start churning out mobile phones later this year.
Now, it does not mean that the industry will always move only to lower labor cost countries.  My favorite way to explain this to students is this: If it were truly about the cost of labor alone, then every manufacturer would be based in countries like Ethiopia or Tanzania.  But then students, too, do not listen to me.  I write op-eds about the footloose economy and, well, nobody cares.  Story of my life! ;)

Anyway, back to China:
Rising costs have also significantly altered China’s competitive position compared with the United States.
In a 2015 study, the Boston Consulting Group said the costs of manufacturing in China’s major export-producing zone were now almost the same as in the United States, after taking into account wages, worker productivity, energy costs and other factors.
Oh, but don't jump up and celebrate thinking that this will bring in a gazillion jobs to the US.  Most manufacturing is and will be highly automated--machines can be awesomely cheap workers, if the technology is there.

BTW, you can now see why economic geography is such a fascinating intellectual field.  The intersection of economics and geography when viewed through how it affects the human condition, and what the policy implications can be is not only brain fodder but with immense real world implications.  If only our "leaders" had taken an introductory course in economic geography!    

Friday, July 22, 2016

I have not worked for many years now

I have officially become a part of the "old" generation.  I now have become old enough that the children of my undergraduate classmates are writing to me seeking my advice.  And I thought I am still the dashing young man with a whole lot of hair on my head! ;)

Of course, as always, I never did advise them on what they should do.  Whether it is students at my college who make the mistake of coming to me for advice, or the youth from the other side of the planet, my approach is no different: "What do you want to do, if there were no restrictions?" is what I typically ask them.

Almost always, it is a confused, stunned silence as an initial response.  Because, most never think about that.  You--yes, dear reader, you--too perhaps did not think about that when you were young.  When you were 17, or even 22, did you think long and hard about what you wanted to do in life, if there were no restrictions and constraints?  Did you use that as a starting point in order to attempt to define the rest of your life?  Chances are that most people do not.

In the email, after giving one a bunch of ideas on how to proceed, I wrote at the end:
I want to assure you that you will be on the right track as long as you keep thinking.  
It is a long life.  And life is not easy.  For the most part, life gets harder in many ways as we grow out of our childhood.  In that challenging context, imagine doing something that you really, really, really do not want to do, and having to do that day in and day out.  It will be a miserably long life, I would think.

A Cornell University economics professor writes about such matters and more in this piece, where he has a clear bottom-line:
Resist the soul-crushing job’s promise of extra money and savor the more satisfying conditions you’ll find in one that pays a little less.
Before reaching that bottom-line, he writes:
The happiness literature has identified one of the most deeply satisfying human psychological states to be one called “flow.” It occurs when you are so immersed in an activity that you lose track of the passage of time. If you can land a job that enables you to experience substantial periods of flow, you will be among the most fortunate people on the planet.
Have I told you enough times that I am one of the most fortunate people in this regard?  I often comment to students that I would do what I do even if I don't get paid and, thankfully, I get paid as well.  I get paid to read, think, write, and--most importantly--help young people understand the world.  How fantastic, right?  "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life" is true--if we can find that job.

I am behind on a few bills though; wanna help me? ;)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

El Pollo Local?

Among people walking around with smartphones that were made in China, wearing clothes that were made in Bangladesh, and planning their dream vacations abroad, there are plenty who seem to be uber-maniacal about eating food that is locally produced.  As if everything else foreign is ok, but the cucumber shall not be from more than a few miles away!  An illogical and unrealistic fixation on "local":
While local food has emerged as an alternative to industrial food, many people have simply transferred their expectations from the grocery store to the farmers’ market. Consumers still expect a global array of products, despite natural restrictions in season or geography. Additionally, emotional expectations surrounding food have increased. People want to imagine chickens free-ranging in a pasture without knowing anything about their deaths. They want their farmers to be simple, iconic food heroes.
It is all emotional. Indeed.  Thinking, as opposed to merely going with emotions, is hard work:
Consumers should be dogged in insisting that food be represented accurately. This includes asking questions and requesting labelling programmes at farmers’ markets. It also helps to know about crop seasonality in your region. Watermelons appearing at winter farmer’s markets were not likely grown anywhere in North America, much less locally.
It’s up to consumers to advocate for policies that allow farmers to succeed. If you care about artisan cheese wheels, you should care about dairy prices.
When it comes to smartphones, we do not care about how the phones are made, and the conditions in which the labor works in order to get us those phones.  This disconnect then helps us not even think about the harsh impacts on the environment in those countries where the manufacturing happens, or about the terrible working conditions.  If we did, then we would want to act on it,  But then the smartphones will be more expensive, and the tshirts won't be available for $5.99.

With the "local" food, while we might prefer the connection between us and the growers, we rarely ever look into the realities of the local food.  With romantic notions, we developed the idea of CSA--community-supported agriculture.  
It was a private transaction in which all the money went directly to the farmer. It did not rely on distributors or brick-and-mortar stores, and it gave farmers a crucial infusion of cash for the winter, used to buy seeds, repair equipment and expand into new growing methods.
The goal was for C.S.A. farmers and members to build a mutually supportive long-term relationship. Members would get straight-from-the-farm produce from a farmer they knew and trusted, and farmers would get financial stability.
But then strange things happen:
Now, online hubs are using sophisticated distribution technology to snap into the food chain, often using “C.S.A.” to describe what they deliver.
The term is not regulated in most states, so companies can define it as they wish. Peapod, the online shopping service owned by the international grocery giant Ahold, delivers farm-sourced boxes throughout the Northeast; FreshDirect offers a variety of C.S.A. options in and around New York City.
In case you thought that this somehow helps out the farmers:
Depending on how and where these new businesses buy their produce, consumers can receive all the benefits of C.S.A. membership, while the farmers get only a fraction. Some farmers say that after years of steady growth, their C.S.A. memberships have dropped since the arrival of services like Local Roots or Farmigo.
As I often remind students, it takes a lot of work to be an engaged consumer and an engaged citizen.  That means a whole lot of critical thinking day in and day out.  
Taking the time to tease out whether buying granola made in Brooklyn qualifies as supporting local agriculture can test the patience of consumers
A "patient consumer" is an oxymoron in this world of instant gratification.  I read a sarcastic comment the other day that instant gratification takes too long!   Oh well, maybe we humans were always impatient and unthinking and it is I who have been living with an unrealistic fixation on a world of critically thinking consumers and citizens.  It is a good thing that I am also on my way to extinction ;)

Flash. Honk. Yell. Chase. Compete. Life.

A driver flashed his pickup truck's headlights while tailing me, clearly conveying his irritation than I was not letting him go faster.

A driver honked at me because I slowed down on the city's narrow surface streets.

The driver of a truck hauling a boat while struggling with the hilly terrain managed to catch up with my vehicle during one of the down-slopes, and maniacally kept tailgating while wildly gesticulating as if to urge me to speed up, till he fell way behind during the climb up.

The driver of a newish Fiat, almost side-swiped the vehicle that I was driving as she nosed out of the lane where the traffic moved slower, and then stuck behind me on the faster lane, causing me to worry about her and forcing me to change lanes so that I would be out of her maniacal path.

A lot of angry and impatient drivers on the road.

And that was not even in California, but right here in Oregon!

Maybe the world was always full of angry and impatient drivers.  Or, maybe I notice them more the older I get.  Maybe I was also an angry and impatient driver when young.  Whatever.  This world ain't made for us slowpokes.

But then we slowpokes are able to stand and stare, as the world rushes by.
We observe.
We ponder.
We question.
We know well that we are all headed the same way anyway.
We are in no hurry; as Rumi said:
Inside the Great Mystery that is,
we don't really own anything.
What is this competition we feel then,
before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

History is just one damned thing after another

The seventh and eighth centuries were the years were when the Pallava Empire in the southern peninsular India was at its peak.  (Click here for my favorite post after visiting an old Pallava temple.)  About that time, the concept of zero in mathematics was a breakthrough invention in a different part of India. The Hindu-Arabic number system, along with zero, then spread to Europe, as interactions between Muslims and Europeans escalated after the first conquest in of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 by the invading Muslims.  Thus, as Bertrand Russell is supposed to have remarked to Jawaharlal Nehru, India gave "nothing" to the world.

While the mathematician-philosopher Russell was punning about the "nothing," there are quite a few white supremacists who passionately believe, out of their arrogance and ignorance, that nothing good ever came from any part of the world that was not European and Christian.  The GOP's Steve King spoke for them all:
"I'd ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you're talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?"
How conveniently we forget history, and how easily do we spin stories that do not have to resemble truth in any form!  King went on to talk about the glories of Western Civilization and Christianity, before the host of the show effectively cut him off.

Oh well ... The world seems to have forgotten about the long and rich history of Islam in Europe.  A year ago, Robert Kaplan argued in his short essay that Europe's identity itself was nothing but a response to Islam:
Europe was essentially defined by Islam. And Islam is redefining it now. ... the swift advance of Islam across North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries virtually extinguished Christianity there, thus severing the Mediterranean region into two civilizational halves, with the “Middle Sea” a hard border between them rather than a unifying force. Since then, as the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset observed, “all European history has been a great emigration toward the North.”
The Crusades, and then the colonial empires.
Europe’s very identity, in other words, was built in significant measure on a sense of superiority to the Muslim Arab world on its periphery. Imperialism proved the ultimate expression of this evolution: Early modern Europe, starting with Napoleon, conquered the Middle East, then dispatched scholars and diplomats to study Islamic civilization, classifying it as something beautiful, fascinating, and—most crucial—inferior.
That "inferior" is what now King and his fellow white supremacists in the GOP talk about!

The colonial era of the recent times brings us to Nice, which "was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia":
It was not until 1860 that Nice would become a permanent part of France, thirty years after France invaded and occupied Algeria. In the Second World War the region was occupied by Italy, and Nice became a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution in Vichy France, allied with Nazi Germany. When the Germans seized the city in 1943, they deported thousands of Jews to be murdered in occupied Poland.
When France’s 132 year colonial history in North Africa came to an end in 1962, more than a million people left Algeria, and others left Tunisia and Morocco to “return” to a France that was not their home.
Among them were Europeans of different origins, many North African Jews, and Muslims who had fought for the French in Africa. 
All that complicated history, along with the recent economic migration, is why at least 30 of the dead in the attack in Nice were local and visiting Muslims.  Including children.
Oucine Jamouli, 62, the head of a Moroccan association, attributed the heavy Muslim turnout at least partly to the fact that there is less drinking at the Bastille Day festival than at other big events in Nice because it is a family-oriented celebration.
It is also less religious than Nice’s other major festivals: a Christmas market, the Carnival festival at Mardi Gras and the fireworks for Aug. 15, which marks the Catholic feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to heaven.  
Nice is, thus, more than the mere French Riviera, and is a city that is increasingly divided by religion and ethnicity, and the political leaders who want to deepen this divide;
Muslim and non-Muslim, lived alongside each other in relative peace for generations, but that has begun to change along with the rise of France’s far-right National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen. Nice is governed by the center-right, which includes the Republicans, but some say its leaders increasingly play the politics of division.
I suppose getting along will become increasingly difficult in such a political climate.  But then, history is one damned story of people not getting along! :(

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Make America Again

e.e. cummings said it best for, and on behalf of, people like me::

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

And "Let America be America Again" by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!                          

Saturday, July 16, 2016

This wasted land, Kashmir

For a while now, I have not blogged anything that is focused on India.  Of course, I refer to my experiences in the old country because of the autoethnographic approach in my way of understanding the world.  But, it has been a long, long, while since I commented on anything that is going on in India.

All because--and this will not agree well with Indians, and with Ramesh in particular--I have given up on India :(

Like how a family simply gives up after years of riding the roller coaster of emotions as the relative continues to go down a destructive path, I decided a few months ago that for my own sanity I needed to disengage from the internal happenings in the old country that is so dear to me.

But then, it is not as if we can completely shut ourselves off.  We might get updates about the relative through the grapevine.  An occasional sighting somewhere.  Or the news of something that happened.  It is an unfortunate development that compels me to blog about the old country.  The news reports from Kashmir.

One image, among many, brought me to tears.  Literally. I paused to clear my eyes before I continued to read on.  It was this photograph:


That is an x-ray of a boy who was one of the many Kashmiris who were pummeled by India's military with pellet guns.  The sparkling rhinestones in the x-ray are the tiny iron balls, the ball bearings, that got lodged in him.  Count them! 

The tiny iron balls have also blinded--yes, blinded--so many that eye surgeons have been rushed to Kashmir to treat them, most of whom will not get their eyesight back. (The number of reports of people--including kids pelleted--is why I am convinced that the x-ray image is real.)  Those with the tiny iron balls in their eyes include this Kashmiri:


When a democratic government uses such cruel violence against its own people, pacifists like me lose all hope.

I found it particularly awful to look at the following photograph of India's military shooting at Kashmiris, after aiming at the target--humans:


It reminded me of a notably violent incident from the decades of the white supremacists' political control of the Subcontinent: The afternoon at Jallianwalla Bagh a hundred years ago, when civilians who had gathered at the park for a political rally were mercilessly gunned down, was one of the darkest of the darkest of the many dark moments of the British Raj, 

The Indian government behaves as if it is a nineteenth century European colonizer, controlling the natives.  The Indian government in New Delhi has merely replaced the Queen's Viceroy!  If the natives rebel, they shall be put down with brute force.

If only a referendum had been held decades ago, soon after the departure of the white supremacists.  Instead, we have witnessed India's occupation of Kashmir and the wars with Pakistan, we bear witness to the violence that continues on, and Kashmir is the most militarized region in the world.

The government violence in Kashmir, and the lone-wolf violence in Nice have crushed me inside.   I will return to blogging after a couple of days.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Who is laughing now?

As much as I enjoyed the sarcastic humor in the Daily Show and the Colber Report, as the years went on, I stopped watching them.  For one and only one reason: I worried that instead of getting enraged, we were merely laughing things off.

If you were to go back and watch some of those clips, I bet you will agree with me.  Those were some serious, serious issues that the mostly liberal audience was laughing away--of course, for catharsis, more than anything else.   But, laughter has never overhauled society.  In fact, while we laughed and laughed till we cried, the others whom we were laughing at were loudly and openly gaining strength.

I provide you the following Colbert clip from six years ago as a piece of evidence.  Where was the outrage at Rush Limbaugh's and Steve King's atrocious statements?  I bet you also see how much of the fascist's rhetoric is along the same vein, right?

Or, how about this one from five years ago?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Women on top

Democrats are notorious for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, which is one important reason why I would not rule out the don, er, the Donald, painting the White House gold next January.  Despite all her scandals, and despite her husband's gaffes, if Hillary Clinton manages to win, three of the world's influential countries will have women in their highest elected offices: Angela Merkel in Germany; Theresa May in the UK; and Clinton in the US.

May, Merkel, and Clinton. Sounds like one of those law firms with testicular fortitude that few men can match!

What a unique moment in the history of humans that the Germans, the Brits, and the Americans will be led by women!

The head of the International Monetary Fund is a woman--Christine Lagarde.  There is intense pressure on the world to elect a woman as the next chief of the United Nations.  I would gladly vote for Hillary Clinton just for the opportunity of a global summit where all these women will pose together.  In contrast to them, the male leaders will look so bland and timid, which will force Vladimir Putin to become more Tarzan like--I can already imagine the bare-chested, horse-riding Vlad to take it to another level and swing from vines dressed only in a speedo ;)

In my introductory course, I tell students that even economic history can be easily retold as history of women because of the wonderful correlation--for all kinds of reasons--between economic progress and the rights of women.  As societies transform from the old rural, agricultural economies, it turns out that men will not be able to confine women to the stereotypical barefoot and pregnant role.  Yet another reason to get rid of poverty, right?

For those of us who grew up in India--heck, in South Asia, for that matter--women leaders are not new.  Throughout my early childhood years, it was a woman, Indira Gandhi, who led the country.  Neighboring Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, have all had female heads of government.  In the old country, women head governments in many states, including the part of the country where I come from.

It has taken the "developed" countries this long to let women into the world of politics and governance.   About time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The advantage of being boring? No hyperarousal ever!

I love sleeping.

Even during those long flights to India, and even if I don't get a free upgrade to business class!  I typically start a movie, wear the awful headset that the airlines distributes, and then a few minutes into the movie I am fast asleep.  Once, I slept through the meal they served and was ticked off.  Having learnt that lesson, these days I either place the sticker to remind them to wake me for food--if they have such a sticker--or I even tell the attendant that I wish to be woken up for food.  I don't care if the food is not that tasty--but, dammit, as long as I live, I shall not go hungry ;)

Here on terra firma, I love the deep sleep from which when I get up I can't really place where I am or what day of the week it is.  It takes a few seconds for me to reconstruct my life before I can even sit up on the bed.  The older I get, the rarer such deep sleep.  My daughter has quite a few stories of how she had to struggle to wake me up.  One of these days, it will be a deep sleep from which I will never, ever wake up ;)

Science has nothing definitive about sleep.  All we know is that we need sleep.  We need to spend about a quarter to a third of our lives sleeping.  Beyond that, scientists have no clue as to why we need it, how much of sleep we need, when we need it ... The scientific community has nothing but a bunch of educated guesses.

All I know about sleep is very simple: go to bed about the same time, and wake up about the same time,  Weekday or weekend. America or India.  There is also one more important aspect of sleep that I have come to understand: I need to prepare my mind and body to invite the sleep.  As much as one needs to be in the mood for food, or movies, or sex, one needs to be in the mood for sleep too.  I enjoyed the fact that my intuitive understanding is no different from what "a psychologist specialising in sleep and dream medicine, and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine" writes:
Invoking sleep helps us fall in love with the act.
It makes perfect sense to me.  There is preparatory work in everything that we do, right?  Why should it be any different for sleep?  To invite sleep requires physical and mental preparation, which is increasingly difficult for people in this age of hyperarousal:
It refers to a turbocharged pace of life that is not modulated by adequate rest.
Strongly endorsed by popular culture, hyperarousal is a socially contagious condition rooted in an arrogant disregard for natural rhythms. It’s a cheap high, a kind of synthetic passion that is not without serious side effects.Characterised by racing brainwaves and a rapid heartrate, hyperarousal is linked to an overheated body and mind. By tethering us to the heights of waking, hyperarousal not only interferes with our nightly descent into sleep, it also masks our daytime sleepiness.
I suppose hyperarousal is not something that boring people like me worry about!
Hyperarousal leaves us sick and ‘t’wired’: simultaneously tired and wired. Being t’wired is the psychological equivalent of being on the rack.
The problems we humans bring upon ourselves!  If only we would stare into nothing and get bored.  Instead, we constantly check our smartphones, while a movie or a game is on the flat screen.  The blue light engages our brains even as we continue to sip coffee or alcohol, and it is already eleven at night.  Then we wonder why we can't sleep at night!  Hyperarousal is an understatement, methinks.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Are you not entertained?

Re-arranging my belongings at home provided me with an opportunity to re-read some of my newspaper commentaries from years past.  I am pretty darn impressed with myself, I tell ya.  For one, even in my earliest commentaries, it is clear that I quickly learnt how to write, after a disastrous start in graduate school.  More importantly, I am pleased with myself for the consistency with which I have argued many of my positions.

In one of those commentaries, I argued that the local government should not be in the entertainment business.  I wrote this in the context of Bakersfield's plan to spend gazillions on an arena.  My point was that we do not have governments in order to entertain us, and that sports and arenas should be left to the market.  Of course, given how much people love, love being entertained--no wonder Trump made it to the top with his reality entertainment--and given how much I am always on the losing side, well, ...

This is not a new position since graduate school.  I was even more opposed to governments investing in entertainment back when I was a commie sympathizer.  I was an undergraduate student when India hosted the Asian Games.  Television was a new thing in our lives at that time; yet, I decided that I would boycott it.  I did not watch even one minute of those games on TV.  I could not, and still cannot, understand why the government would waste all that money on entertainment when there were far more urgent human problems everywhere in India.  The only difference is that back then I did not articulate an argument that entertainment should come out of private spending.

Next month, it will be the mother of all sports entertainment--the Olympics.  As I have done with the past events, I will boycott this too.

Those with money, who want to be entertained, have somehow managed to convince those without any money--who also like to be entertained--that investing gazillions of public money on all things sports is an economic investment with huge returns.  One awesome bullshit that happens over and over again only because the unthinking people like to be entertained 24x7!

Any unbiased observer will tell you the same thing: You may as well dig huge holes, fill them with all the money you have, and pour concrete over them!
Economists are notorious for being unable to agree on anything. So it's striking that on the finances of the Olympics, they almost all agree.
"Investing in the Olympics is not worth the investment," says Andy Zimbalist of Smith College.
"You build all these facilities that are perfect for the Olympics, that are not really as desirable once the circus leaves town," says Allen Sanderson of the University of Chicago.
"You end up with a very indebted city or host nation long after the confetti is cleaned up; someone has to pay the bills for it," says Bob von Rekowsky of Fidelity Investments.
We have known from the Roman days that the best way to continue to screw the country is by distracting the people with mass entertainment.  It is entertainment, not religion, that is the opium of the masses!

I sometimes want to scream that people are idiots.  Oops, did I say that? ;)  Spending is simply not worth it to the taxpayers:
Spending lavishly on a short-lived event is, economically speaking, a dubious long-term strategy. Stadiums, which cost a lot and produce minimal economic benefits, are a particularly lousy line of business. (This is why they are usually built by taxpayers rather than by corporations.)
Not difficult to understand.  Corporations would have spent the money if they knew they were going to make more money than what they invested.  They know a loser when they see stadiums, and they also see losers when they see taxpayers.  They, therefore, get the loser taxpayers to build those loser stadiums!

And then there are reports like this:
There’s just a month to go before the Summer Olympics begin in Rio de Janeiro. And the bad news keeps coming.
Or, this:
One Month Before The Olympic Games in Rio, Everything Is A Disaster
So, hey, enjoy this latest installment of taxpayer-funded debauchery, which will be from August 5th; I will be busy with my summer reading ;)


Monday, July 11, 2016

Race in America

In making the transition from electrical engineering, I spent quite some months thinking about what exactly it was that I wanted to study in graduate school, which would define the rest of my life. Which is how I finally settled on urban planning programs--cities were the physical settings where all the issues that interested me, worried me, came together.

In one of the courses in my first year, the assigned readings included a lengthy essay on the "underclass" here in America.  To quite some extent, that essay was also how I first came to know about a literary world in America that was immensely more than the Time and Newsweek and Readers Digest, which were the only ones that I had seen and read in India.

I was reminded of that essay when reading this book-review article in the New Yorker.  Yet again I am left wondering why a book-review essay in the New Yorker is so much more enjoyable to read, while book-reviews in academic publications are incredibly boring and painful!

The essay from the graduate school days introduced me to the spatial aspects of injustice here in America.  The setting of the university where I was a student further drove home the reality that America was a land of milk and honey, but not to everybody.  The university was surrounded by visible signs of poverty, in which the people's skins were in various shades of brown--to the south, it was a dark brown that we refer to as black, and to the north and east was the lighter brown of the Hispanics.

The New Yorker notes:
By some estimates, African-Americans are more isolated now than they were half a century ago. 
The President and his wife are more the exception than the norm.

The essay is about gentrification, which here in America is closely correlated with race issues as well.
The story of gentrification was, curiously, the story of neighborhoods destroyed by desirability. As the term spread through academic journals and then the popular press, “gentrification,” like “ghetto,” became harder to define. At first, it referred to instances of new arrivals who were buying up (and bidding up) old housing stock, but then there was “new-build gentrification.” Especially in America, gentrification often suggested white arrivals who were displacing nonwhite residents and taking over a ghetto
However, there is also a distinct pattern about where the gentrification happens:
A recent study found that Chicago neighborhoods that were forty per cent or more African-American were the least likely to experience gentrification. This statistic was cited by the journalist Natalie Y. Moore in her new book about her city, “The South Side.” She recounts the pride she felt when she bought a condo in a seemingly up-and-coming South Side neighborhood: she paid a hundred and seventy-two thousand dollars, and she was shocked when, five years later, an assessor told her that its value had depreciated to fifty-five thousand. She writes about herself as a “so-called gentrifier,” adding, ruefully, that “black Chicago neighborhoods don’t gentrify.”
Gentrification bypasses neighborhoods that are "too black"?

The more things change, the more they stay the same :(

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Work Without Hope

Despite an empirical understanding of how I am in the economic elite of the world, I often wonder whether the forks in the road that I took are worth the mere pennies that I count and recount in the twilight of a mediocre career,

I was led down that path of thought when the old friend, who has moved to the other end of the neighborhood, yet again stated his understanding of the world of education and money: "If college won't help earn more money, then why go to college?" he flatly stated even as I sat across from him sipping the rich and wonderful coffee that he had brewed for me with a fancy machine that only money can buy.

"I am the perfect example of how more college does not lead to more money" I remarked.  I was reminded of the daughter's comment that I am the only one that she knows of who always decides in favor of less money, and she did not mean that as a compliment.

I recalled having read, some time, which was possible only because I always took the road leading to less money, the lines that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written about his feelings of having been a failure.  Google helped me track it down: “And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,/ Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.”

If Coleridge, who is remembered well after his death nearly two centuries ago, thought that he was a failure, then what hope is there for lesser mortals like me?  Upon my passing, as John Updike wrote, the world will simply shrug away my death with "The wide response will be, I know, "I thought he died a while ago."

Yet, I and the rest plod along, hoping that the decisions of today will lead us to happier tomorrow--even if the happiness will be tightly circumscribed by dollars and cents.

Here is the sonnet by Coleridge:
Work without Hope
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair--
The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing--
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet, well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

SOS: The message in a bottle advises against phubbing!

"I ve tried adding ur contacts to my phone and I couldn't find you on WhatsApp" wrote one in her email to me.  And a few days ago, an old high school friend asked me via Facebook, "Do you use Whatsapp?"

It disappointed them that I do not use WhatsApp.  I don't because of a simple  reason: I already suffer from a messaging overload:
Three functional email addresses
My Iphone
This blog, of course.
If people cannot reach me via any of these, not to speak of the good old snail-mail, then maybe the message is not that important to begin with!

Of course, I am not the only one who suffers from this "tyranny of messaging":
These days, messages come at me from so many directions that it’s incredibly distracting and even harder to deal with. Friends, co-workers, business acquaintances and strangers contact me on multiple siloed services, which can signal subtle shades of immediacy or weight.
Exactly.  It will only get worse:
And this weird, mixed-up communications structure is about to get more complex, because U.S. tech companies — following a strong trend in Asia — are turning messaging from a service into a platform, with supposedly intelligent bots and assistants and apps built into them. Apple is beefing up iMessage. Facebook is beefing up Messenger. Google, which has been behind in messaging, is launching two new platforms: Allo for text and images and emojis, and Duo for videos.
Maybe these bots and assistants and apps will be a means to controlling and focusing your messaging and communications, but that would be a hard, tricky job. More likely, I fear, they will just spew more messages and notifications they think — wrongly — you care about.
Stop, stop, stop!

I systematically refuse to use any of the new messaging platforms for the same reason that I have intentionally scaled back my Facebook presence, where I have pruned my friends list to a manageable number (I'm sure there are "friends" who wonder why I am no longer their "friend"!):
The rabbit holes are everywhere, and it’s too easy to fall down them.
Every one of these messaging platforms is one major attention-sucker and, before I know it, I would have wasted hours with nothing but trivia, which is what I want to avoid!

In any of those platforms that I already use, I have always made sure that nothing is ever "pushed" across to me--I have to physically act to pull down the latest messages if I really cared.  I cannot imagine how people function if they are constantly pinged by the latest message on the gazillion platforms that they use.  I shudder to think about the constant interruptions; no wonder that people are all the more stressed out now.

One of the reasons that people sign up for every messaging platform: The fear of missing out, or FOMO as it is often referred to.  FOMO apparently is so overwhelming that people feel the urge to reach for their smartphones even when they are socializing in the real world with fellow humans:
According to a new study in Computers in Human Behavior, “phubbing” — snubbing someone in a social setting in favor of a phone — has evolved from a psychological habit and sign of technological maladjustment to an acceptable social norm.
FOMO leads to phubbing, of course.  

I suppose I should be happy if you read all the way till this sentence without being distracted by the notifications on your smartphone.  Hello, you there? ;)

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