Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Here comes the Sun

Unlike this post from a couple of days ago, this post is about good news.  And perhaps a constructive follow-up to this one?

What news do I bring to you?
The installed price of solar energy has declined significantly in recent years as policy and market forces have driven more and more solar installations.
You see, I wasn't kidding about the good news and cheer that even General Malaise can occasionally bring ;)

Notice something in the chart below?

To me, the key there is the sharply reducing cost of utility-scale solar power.  We can do bits and pieces with solar panels on our roof tops, but if the utilities are able to get into the act, then that will be a game-changer.  Which is where the best news of all is:
Perhaps the most interesting piece of data to come out in the latest Lawrence Berkeley National Lab reports is the trend in the price of solar power purchase agreements or PPAs. These prices reflect the price paid for long-term contracts for the bulk purchase of solar electricity. The latest data show that the 2015 solar PPA price fell below $50 per megawatt-hour (or 5 cents per kilowatt-hour) in 4 of the 5 regions analyzed. In the power industry, the rule of thumb for the average market price of electricity is about $30 to $40 per megawatt-hour—so solar is poised to match the price of conventional power generation if prices continue to decline.
The market is reacting already and "will certainly be interesting to see what kind of market dynamic develops as solar approaches the tipping point."

That tipping point is also news from Chile:
Solar power just sold for the lowest price ever, in Chile.
The Spanish developer Solarpack Corp. Tecnologica won contracts to sell power from a 120-megawatt solar plant for $29.10 a megawatt-hour at an energy auction this week.
That’s the lowest price on record for electricity from sunshine, surpassing a deal in Dubai in May. It’s the cheapest to date for any kind of renewable energy, and was almost half the price of coal power sold in the same event. According to Solarpack General Director Inigo Malo de Molina, it’s one of the lowest rates ever for any kind of electricity, anywhere.
Again, note that this is the market that is responding.

Now, about the "bits and pieces with solar panels on our roof tops" that I mentioned earlier in the post, the economies of scale might be different with solar:
somewhat counterintuitively, there are no clear economies of scale in utility-scale solar. Bigger plants, represented by bigger circles in the chart, don’t seem to be producing cheaper power. The authors speculate that this is in part due to the increased regulatory and land-use hassles that come with plants over a certain size, which cancel out any savings. (Interestingly, there are economies of scale on the small-solar side. It seems solar power gets cheaper up to the 5 MW to 20 MW range, and then levels out.
Of course, we have a long way to go.  But, it seems like we are on the right path.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Man up. Be a man.

"Anything you can do, I can do better" is rapidly redefining what it means to be a man, and men simply do not know what they are supposed to do about it.

Now, as a man who has never been a macho-man, I have no problems here.  So, do not jump all over me thinking that I am going to engage in griping sad stories.  No woe-is-me here.  I am doing fine, thank you.  But, as I have been blogging for years, and talking about this for even longer time, we live in a world where the old formula for masculinity is being thrown out--which is an awesome thing--but without a replacement formula for what it means to be a man.  This is especially troublesome for young men of today, and for middle-aged and older men who are used to operating in the old ways.

I completely agree with President Obama's bottom-line on twenty-first century feminism: "the idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free."  But, ...

This is leaving muddled what it means to be a man in the twenty-first century.
Pandering political rhetoric aside, there is a genuine question here: What is masculinity today? Is it flexing steel pecs and biceps? Is it bringing home the bacon? Is it possessing testicles and a functional urinary tube? Or is it merely the possession of a Y-chromosome in an era when the value of muscles plummets before a digital economy?
I am glad I am not a young man, at least for this reason.  I have had my own share of angst right from my teens, thank you.

It is also getting reflected in the crazy political soap opera theatre:
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are tapping into what I’m calling a “Lean Out” generation of young, discouraged and angry men—men who are feeling abandoned by the thousands of years of history that defined what it meant to be a real man: to be strong; to be a provider; to be in authority; to be the ultimate decision maker; and to be economically, educationally, physically and politically dominant. A growing percentage of young men are being out-earned by young women, as women capture 60% of the higher education degrees required for success in today’s economy.
Maybe you want to counter argue that the Trump and Sanders supporters were/are mainly those who are struggling for what used to be a guaranteed American Middle Class life.  But, ahem, dig deeper and the economic issue is mostly a male problem.

So, any words of wisdom here?
Today’s chorus of angry men might want to revisit Benjamin Franklin. Drawing on the Latin word vir, or virtue, he characterized manliness as tranquillity, resolution and orderliness

Hey, young men, listen up: It looks like good ol' Uncle Ben was talking about me after all! I am delighted to be highly masculine, by Franklin's definition.  And I have a manly beard too! ;)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Ducking climate change

(Have sent a version of this to the editor)

An old high school friend, who is a practicing pathologist in India, visited with me in mid-August, just as the temperature started its sharp climb during the dog days of summer. I joked that she brought with her the Indian conditions. Talk about the weather soon morphed into discussing climate change.

My friend, like many hundreds of millions in India, is intensely familiar with the recent unusual meteorological happenings there. Last December, for instance, the city of Chennai--home to both our parents--received rainfall amounts that vastly exceeded all kinds of records and the city was flooded. (I addressed this in a column that was published on January 6, 2016.)

In late spring, more than a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion population struggled with drought and water shortage. The conditions worsened in the summer, when the country recorded unbearably hot temperatures, and the heatwave turned out to be a killer as much as the heatwave of 2015 was. Then, when the monsoon arrived after all the heat and dust, it poured and flooded. In Kaziranga National Park in India’s northeast, more than twenty rhinos, which had been making quite a recovery after near extinction, were killed in the monsoon floods.

Most scientists and lay people alike in India are in agreement that these extreme weather episodes, year after year, are a result of climatic conditions that are getting weirder and not predictable as they might have been in the past.

Here in the US too, it is not a mere accident that record-setting rain fell in Louisiana, for instance. Only months before, we witnessed Houston deluged by rains. When records are being shattered in places across the world, across different parameters of heat, rain, drought, and cold, then surely these are not isolated events but a part of a larger story.

When it comes to that larger story of global climate change, it is not a case of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Instead, the cumulative effects of Vegas and everywhere else means that all of us anywhere on the planet are feeling the effects. The more extreme the resulting weather events, the more will be the destruction of life and property as well.

My friend and I got to talking about what can be done. “Look at all the lights here” she remarked. Homes were aglow in my neighborhood from the light inside and from the street lamps. Artificial light is so much in abundance in the US that we are worried about light pollution that prevents most Americans from sighting even our own home galaxy—the Milky Way. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” is an abstract idea for many urban kids who rarely see get to see stars in the sky during their everyday lives.

It is quite a contrast in her country. "In India, a large population doesn’t even have electricity in their homes. Turning the lights off won’t help fight climate change" she said.

Developing countries like India have an immense problem to solve. When 300 million people in India lack basic electric light, leave alone air conditioners and refrigerators, the magnitude of the problem is easy to imagine. Even among those who are connected to the electricity grid, the power consumption per person is barely a fifth of the global average. The fulfillment of the dreams of the people will require a whole lot of energy. However, the use of coal and other carbon sources will further accelerate the climate weirding.

While India’s emissions are very low on a per-capita basis—about a tenth of US per capita emissions—it is already the third largest total emitter of carbon dioxide. As India’s economic engines rev up, if it follows the same fossil-fuel path that was traveled most recently by China, and by the developed countries including the US earlier on, then the explosive growth of carbon use will mean “game over”, and we might as well party like there will be no tomorrow.

Thus, as we move into the future, it is India—more than any other developed or developing country—that will practically determine our collective global fates with its decisions on clean and carbon-free energy sources.

It was an unbearably warm evening the day before my friend left. We walked up to the Willamette River and soaked our feet in the cool waters. About thirty young and old ducks floated and quacked all around us. Climate change could prevent future generations from enjoying such blissful nature. Here is to hoping that the natural world of tomorrow will be as good as, or even better than, the wonderful world that we inherited.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena

As a kid, I believed everything my parents said and taught.  My understanding of god and religion came from them.  And then there was school.   Science.  It was awesome.  The scientific explanations were a lot more convincing and beautiful and were, ahem, divine.  The tensions grew within between science and god.  There were plenty of moments when I kept going back and forth,, until I finally broke away from god and religion.  The truth shall set you free, indeed!

Over the decades, I find myself more and more convinced about the vastness of this universe with Carl Sagan's point on there being more stars out there than there are grains of sands on all the beaches on this pale blue dot.  In fact, it boggles my mind even more now than ever before that there could be so many stars out there.  It is way beyond my imagination, it seems like.  Could earth be so unique, so special, that we are the only ones with life, out of a gazillion bodies floating around in this universe that has billions and billions of stars?  It does not appeal to me one bit.  There has to be life elsewhere.

Back when the internet was in its infancy, I naturally signed up my computer's time also to help with the search for extra-terrestrial life.  Remember that project on distributed computing?  Recall Jodie Foster's Contact, adapted from Sagan's novel?

You can, therefore, sense my excitement with the news about a home next door:
A potentially habitable planet about the size of Earth is orbiting the star that is nearest our solar system, according to scientists who describe the find Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The newly discovered planet orbits Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star that's just 4.25 light-years from Earth — about 25 trillion miles away.
Yes, it does not mean anything for our life today and tomorrow.  But, it is yet another step towards understanding who we are and what life is all about.  The greatest mystery ever that haunts us: Where did all these come from?  To those of us who couldn't care about the mumbo-jumbo creation stories that religions offer, this is one awesome mystery to solve.
Were we to go – and were there to be life – there is so much this newly discovered world could potentially tell us about ourselves.
We do not know how life began on Earth. We do not know if life has to be based on DNA. We do not know whether life can only exist in a narrow range of conditions or is resilient to a wide range of extreme environments. If – and it is still a big if – there is even the simplest microbial life on Proxima Centauri b, it would be a real chance to look for these answers.
The next few years are going to see an intense period of activity using ground-based telescopes to learn more about Proxima Centauri b.
Science will not be able to solve the mystery within the two decades that I have left on this pale blue dot.  But, then stranger things have happened in very short periods of time.  We couldn't even predict the Berlin Wall coming down! Heck, a year ago we couldn't even imagine this guy as a presidential candidate! ;)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Good news for a change. Nah, I am kidding!

One of my favorite ideas that I try to convey to students in the introductory class is this: Everything economic that we can think of is a mere 200 year story, which means that we humans are not mentally ready for the kinds of changes that keep coming our way.  We are not biologically wired for such a pace.

I suppose it might be difficult for a 20-year old to really, really appreciate what I tell them.  If I were a 20-year old, I might not even taken classes that I offer ;)

Consider the simple aspect of having children.  Even a hundred years ago, people did not give much thought to having children.  People had kids, was a simple fact.  If they didn't, it was either because they were biologically incapable--and cultures had lots of awful words to ridicule them--or they had opted for a life without sex.  But, life has changed, and changed rapidly.  Now people choose to have no kids, or only one child, or maybe two.  

The pace of such dramatic changes leads us to being completely unprepared as "the largest youth population in human history is coming of age in a steady, unstoppable wave."
societies across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia are experiencing youth booms of staggering proportions: More than half of Egypt’s labor force is younger than age 30. Half of Nigeria’s population of 167 million is between the ages of 15 and 34. In Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, East Timor, Niger, Somalia, and Uganda, more than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25.
How well these young people transition to adulthood — and how well their governments integrate them economically, politically, and socially — will influence whether their countries thrive or implode. Surging populations of young people will have the power to drive political and social norms, influence what modes of governance will be adopted and the role women will play in society, and embrace or discredit extremist idesituatiologies.
Idle young men, in particular, filled with testosterone, can easily slip into various kinds of anti-social and destructive activities--more so if they do not have war or sex as outlets for the testosterone.  
As we ponder our path forward, we should consider that the developing world’s youth boom coincides with four interrelated global trends: an information revolution, the largest movement of refugees and displaced people in recorded history, growing urbanization that will concentrate youth in cities, and a rise in terrorism and extremist ideologies. Together these trends will spread not just people but, more importantly, their ideas at an unprecedented rate. They will raise and dash expectations pushing and pulling young people toward and away from their hometowns and homelands, toward and away from their desired futures. They will make young people around the globe aware of how others are living, the divisions within their societies, and how those they identify with are treated by governments, security forces, and other groups. This knowledge can inspire or anger. It can commit people to elevating their families and communities — or make them lash out against them.
I tell ya, Major Buzzkill General Malaise is always ready to brighten your day ;)

This situation sets up the probability for more migration:
As poor countries prosper and their young become more educated, they are more likely to migrate. It explains in part why India has the largest diaspora in the world: In 2015, 16 million Indians were living outside India, double the number in 2000.
The youth will be highly motivated to move if employment prospects are dim in their home countries:

"Given the bleak future faced by many, it is little surprise that 40% of 15-29-year-olds in Africa, eastern Europe and Latin America would countenance a permanent move abroad."
I hope the political leaders are paying attention.  Oh, wait, of course they don't pay attention.  Which means, I get yet another opportunity to utter a favorite phrase of mine: we are screwed! ;)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Writing the next volume in life

I put together a collection of a few posts that I had tagged as "life"--like in this post too--and formatted them into a book, with a bunch of photographs.  After extensive editing, I got it printed in color, had it bound, and mailed it to my parents.  It is one expensive gift from me to them--the cost of printing/binding and then airmailing it is nothing compared to the time that I spend on it.  But, it is always worth the effort.

"This is the ninth volume" my father said after he received it.  I have lost track of the volumes that I have sent them.  Of course I cannot cite this in my annual self-evaluation at work--these volumes are not peer-reviewed ;)

"This is the one that made me think the most because it was philosophical and it involved plenty of old family stories. In fact, it even upset me" he added.

Understandable.  After all, my autoethnography is his as well.

Towards the end of the hour-long conversation, I told him the feedback was awesome to me.  "As writer and as a teacher, I want my audience to think about the ideas, especially in terms of their own lives.  So, if this volume made you think so much, then this is a huge success."

I hope that my writing anywhere, and yakking in the classroom, makes a difference at least to a few.  I am always keen on finding out how I am doing.  The unsolicited feedback makes me happy and excited.  Like earlier today.

I placed the basket of grocery items and waited for the cashier to start scanning them.  He looked about forty.  And, boy did he have a head full of wild and unruly hair.  I used to have such hair a long time ago.  Now, that image of me is a distant memory.

He started scanning the barcodes.  He looked up at me.  "You write editorials, right?"

At that very moment, I felt like I was as famous as George Clooney and JK Rowling combined.  Usain Bolt can kiss my ass ;)

Soon, I will be in the familiar setting of the classroom.  Most students will perhaps ignore me as best as they can.  There will always be a couple of them in every class who will later let me know that I am doing alright.
If nobody does, well, I have my father's certificate that I am doing really well.  May he and I live long enough for a few more volumes.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Obama's guaranteed legacy: Droning the shit out of brown people

Consider this:
Our Peace Prize president has now been at war longer than any other American president, and has overseen the use of military force in seven countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. In the latter four countries, virtually all the force has come in the form of unmanned drones executing suspected terrorists said to be linked to al-Qaeda or its “associated forces.”
That an antiwar president has found the drone so tempting ought to be a warning sign.
Here is the scariest aspect of this war legacy--neither major party candidate will scale this back!

The killing of people in other countries--sometimes even US citizens--without the politically hot "putting boots on the ground" is one awful, awful direction in which Obama has led as the commander-in-chief.

I have blogged about this plenty of times before (like here and here) and other than the peace-loving greenies in the Democratic coalition, most of the Democrats don't seem to care.

Further, this is not a legacy that Obama leaves behind merely for his successor.
Other countries are unlikely to be reticent about resort to unmanned aerial warfare to “solve” problems beyond their borders. Already, Israel, the United Kingdom, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Pakistan have joined the US in deploying armed drones. China is selling them at a list price of only $1 million. In short order, most of the developed world will have them. And when other nations look for precedents, Obama’s record will be Exhibit A.
What an atrocity!

Of course, when it comes to drone-killings, there is practically a bipartisan unanimity.  On the other hand, try talking to the esteemed politicians about potentially helping the homeless and they will throw you out!
The question for President Obama is whether he wants to be remembered as the leader who ushered in the era of permanent, low-level drone warfare. His actions will be looked to for justification by those that follow, here and abroad. As Daniel Reisner, former head of the Israel Defense Forces legal department, has said, “If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it…. International law progresses through violations.”
I suppose we have reached a point of no return as far as war and killings are concerned.    Obama's legacy "will be as the Nobel Peace Prize winner who pioneered a dramatically dangerous and ethically dubious form of warfare."

Meanwhile, a lengthy essay in the Atlantic, "Is America any safer?" the author concludes:
As Trump’s hard-line rhetoric about the president being weak on terrorism demonstrates, Obama and anyone who follows him and tries to continue on that path will be an easy target for opponents who will claim that transforming homeland security from the fantasy of never-again prevention to a combination of prevention and mitigation and recovery is throwing in the towel.
That this is still a debate in an election season 15 years after the 9/11 attacks is evidence that although we’ve made progress, we’re still a long way from adjusting—politically and psychically—to this new normal, where, unlike during the Cold War, there is no relying on deterrence for protection.
The droner-in-chief is labeled "weak" on terrorism!  Which only further confirms George Carlin satirical comment that we like war :(

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

These are the best of times ... but also the worst of times?

With all the women's liberation and advances in feminism, could it be possible that young girls of today feel the pressure of their gender as much as--or perhaps even more than--young girls of the bad old days?

I have been thinking about this for a long time.  On the one hand, boys and young men are falling behind so rapidly that I have been blogging about "save the males."  On the other hand, I have also been blogging about how heterosexuality, which is the overwhelming sexual identity and behavior, then translates into even the loser guys having an easier time in contrast to young women--who have to now fiercely compete for their man.

Girl power seems to be increasingly measured in terms of sexuality.
American girls may appear to be “among the most privileged and successful girls in the world,” she writes, but thanks to the many hours they spend each day in an online culture that treats them—and teaches them to treat themselves—as sexual objects, they are no more, and perhaps rather less, “empowered” in their personal lives than their mothers were thirty years ago.
This has been my worry too.  Even on campuses and in public social spaces, young women seem to be hypersexualized than ever before.  The weather warms up and the skimpiest of hotpants are de rigueur, it seems.

Even in the Olympics, which I did not watch--of course--I did notice in the sports pages that while male track and field athletes wear shorts and vests that are tight and long covering most of their bodies that we relate to sexuality, many of the female athletes are covered with gear that is only a little more than a two-piece bikini.  Apparently the female beach volleyball team even voted to wear only the skimpiest minimum--even though the bikini is not a requirement!

If everywhere we turn it is the sexualized image of women, then?
The unsparing gaze that social media train on girls’ sexuality—the supreme value that they place on being sexually appealing—engenders a widespread female anxiety about physical appearance that is highly conducive to “self-objectification,” Sales claims. All of her interview subjects agree that on sites like Instagram and Facebook, female popularity (as quantified by the number of “likes” a girl’s photos receive) depends on being deemed “hot.” “You have to have a perfect body and big butt,” a fifteen-year-old from the Bronx observes grimly. “For a girl, you have to be that certain way to get the boys’ attention.”
Teenage biology points to the direction of sex.  In this, I am not sure whether young women today are better off than those in the past:
Some of the misery of teenage girls’ sexual experiences is attributable, Orenstein contends, to the “hookup culture” in which sex, “rather than being a product of intimacy…has become its precursor, or sometimes its replacement.” (Rates of female orgasm are much lower for casual encounters, she notes, than for sex that takes place within committed relationships.) Another contributing factor, she suggests, is the part that pornography now plays in determining normative standards of teenage sexual behavior.
The pressure that girls and young women must feel to look good 24x7, day after day means that they are continuing to respond to the male-defined world even though boys and young men are rapidly falling behind when it comes to successful schooling and other responsibilities of that age?  Will the young women really feel confident to say no when the situation warrants it, or will they say yes only because of the intensity of the pressure and the competition?

In such a context, it does not help when the presidential candidate of the "family values" party loudly says things that are outrightly misogynistic but which get him loud applause and cheers from his adoring millions of supporters.  After all, if the overwhelming majority do not think for themselves, then they will only imitate the behavior and thinking of "leaders," right?

I suppose I should be relieved that I do not have a young girl to raise and worry about!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Meet General Malaise

The days away from the computer, the internet, Twitter, news, and even the New York Times, turned out to be a wonderful digital detox for Major Buzzkill.  However, rest and recreation does not mean that "thinking" is sidelined.

When "thinking" continues, well, Major Buzzkill always shows up for duty in full gear.

I am so much used to "thinking" that the reality that vast numbers do not engage in thinking amazes me.  I vaguely recall GBS (?) noting that thinking is so much absent in society that if one thinks for even five minutes every day then he is considered to be a philosopher.

Perhaps the fact that we humans have to learn to think is understandable.  After all, we are animals--whatever be the fantastic stories of creation that religions might offer, with stories contradicting each other; try reconciling the Vedic commentary on creation with the narrative from the Old Testament, for instance, and you, too, will begin to transition towards atheism! ;)

As animals, we are more used to reflex and doing what others in our species do, than to act after thinking for ourselves.   Imprinting is how we learn to survive:
Imprinting is a crucial stage of development in many young mammals and birds. Among avians, the process is particularly important for species that are precocial, a.k.a mobile and self-feeding soon after hatching, says Sunny Bettley, wildlife rehabilitation and outreach specialist at Sharon Audubon. Through observation, ducklings must learn to forage and swim in order to survive, Bettley explains. They need to know whom to follow, both in terms of imitating behavior and, more literally, to avoid getting lost. For this reason, wildlife rescuers must be careful about how they approach newborn ducks, she says. “Imprinted wildlife can’t be released into the wild as they won’t know how to properly or effectively find food, be aware of natural predators, or communicate with others of their species. They will not being able to reproduce.” 
Thinking requires us to go above and beyond the animal instincts.  In one of the essays that we were assigned in high school, Isaac Asimov reminded me that thinking and reasoning are new for us humans.  Maybe thirty years after reading that essay I am expecting way too much when I want my fellow humans to be thinking beings?

Over light-hearted discussions on some serious issues during the "time off," I did a full disclosure as a preface to my views: "My alter ego's name is Major Buzzkill, who brings to discussions a clear bottom-line of 'you are screwed.'"

Without even pausing, he chimed in a response.  "You have been promoted.  You are now General Malaise."

I imagine going to a meeting of Thinking Anonymous.  When it is my turn, I stand up.  "Hello, my name is General Malaise."  The others flee from the meeting ;)

BTW, given that thinking is my chosen profession, my work, if I think even when vacationing, does it mean that the past few days were a working vacation? ;)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

This, too, shall pass. Unfortunately!

As we were enjoying the tastiest Morrocan sweets and the freshest strawberries, I paused.  "I know I say this a lot, but I want to remind ourselves about the awesome life that we have. With such food in plenty. On a great summer evening."

I am immensely thankful for the life that I have.  If ever I forget how lucky I am, all it takes is one visit to any of my favorite news sites to re-calibrate.

Contrast my life to the life of the kid in this photo:

Even without knowing any backstory, any normal human being with a little empathy would feel terrible for that kid.  A kid with a name and a tragic backstory:
The boy, identified by medical workers as Omran Daqneesh, 5, was pulled from a damaged building after a Syrian government or Russian airstrike in the northern city of Aleppo.
How awful!
Maybe it was his haircut, long and floppy up top; or his rumpled T-shirt showing the Nickelodeon cartoon character CatDog; or his tentative, confused movements in a widely circulated video — gestures familiar to anyone who has loved a child. Or the instant and inescapable question of whether a parent was left alive to give him a hug.
In any event, by Thursday morning, Omran’s image had been broadcast and published around the world
We might share the image and the news. I blog about it. We talk about the kid and the war.  But, the killings continue.  A civil war that has dragged on for years.  Not only have we been witness to the horrors, we do not even want to help those who are fleeing from this hell.

Here in the US, we even have a presidential candidate who proudly vows that his America will not help the refugees--and there are tens of millions of my fellow citizens who even more proudly cheer him and his rhetoric!  We cannot expect any sympathy from that wannabe leader of the free world--after all, he couldn't even stand a crying kid at his rally!

Normal decent humans, unlike that candidate and his followers, will relate to this Syrian kid.
Omran, as he is carried from a damaged building in the dark, could be Everychild. He looks around in confusion, his chubby forearm draped trustingly across the reflective stripe on his rescuer’s back, before he is plopped into the chair at the back of ambulance, lit blindingly white.
He settles into a thousand-yard stare, apparently too stunned to cry. Then he puts a hand to his bloody brow, looks at his palm in surprise, and tries to wipe it on the chair. Then he glances around, as if trying to understand where he is. 
But, it is not as if photographs of kids catalyzed us into humanitarian efforts.  Remember this?

Our lives will continue.  We will have good food. Spend evenings with friends and family.  Go on vacations. Complain about the choppy cellphone signal.  Cry over the sports team that lost.

Meanwhile, adults and kids will continue to die in the brutal civil war:
Cases like Omran’s are a daily sight in eastern Aleppo, several doctors said, but he was lucky in that he made it to a hospital that was still open. ...
A boy lay on the floor, his legs missing. A woman in black put her hand to her mouth in anguish.
Another boy lay on a gurney, soaked in blood, as a clinician worked on him. A few minutes later came another text message: The boy had died. His name was Ibrahim Hadiri, and there was a new photograph of his face, eyes closed. It is not likely to go viral.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Up Yours

It was a charming sight of a father with his two young boys with closely cropped blond hair.  The older one looked about 8 or 9, and his brother looked two years his junior.  Interestingly enough, the older one was crying as the three walked towards me and then past me.

The father was wearing cargo shorts, which reminded me of this WSJ piece, and sported a well-trimmed beard.  He looked like he, too, might have been blond when young but the hair had turned a light shade of brown with age.

As they passed me, I noticed that the father's tshirt had in big, bold, uppercase:
A father wearing that tshirt while walking with his sons in a public space.  I imagined his sons asking him: "Dad, what does 'up yours' mean?"  Does that father want his young boys to learn such phrases?  I suppose the father responds to their questions with "shut your f-king mouth!"

Or, imagine a young girl holding her father's hand spotting this tshirt and then asking her father what "up yours" means.  I feel sorry for that father who has to figure out how to dodge that question.

We live in strange times.  But then, a presidential candidate has said and done so many awful things that the latest count here is at 183 reasons why he is unfit to be president.  Between the father and this candidate, the two boys are getting quite some lessons on how to grow up to be horrible adults :(

It is not that swear words are new, or that they are not uttered.  I imagine every language has a colorful vocabulary of swear words.  However:
If we keep the obscenity stream going at our current levels, we may possibly wear the sheen right off what have been sturdy favourites for a long time, from centuries to well-nigh forever. And that would be mind-boggling. 
Makes sense, right?  If swear words are used all the time, then where in lies its power to shock us?
“Profanity is socially useful because it is socially risky,” says Adams. We need linguistic boundaries to transgress in order to register objection, pain and social solidarity, and it’s precisely the transgression, not the words, that matters. Consider five words for sexual intercourse: “copulate,” “f–k,” “screw,” “swive,” “boink.” Only one is partially blanked out because only one is socially agreed to be profanity. On the flip side, “f–k off” has no sexual meaning at all.
No f–king way! ;)

Why is "f–k" so attractive to use?
its combination of explosive consonantal start, short vowel and hard ending—all coloured by the emotional flavour of a sexual term—made it just right for an expletive. When you spill coffee on your new white shirt, yelling “swive!” doesn’t cut it. From expletive to intensifer—“you f–king idiot!”—to literally every other syntactical niche, “f–k” took over.
It is f–king crazy that there are people who do research on these topics! ;)
A name as old and common as Tom and Harry, “dick” went the way of “cock” by 1900—but only in an underground fashion at first, and right up to the 1960s hundreds of newborn Americans annually were given the name. An early election ad for Richard Nixon, “Tricky Dick” himself, reads, astonishingly to contemporary eyes: “They can’t lick our Dick.”
Holy shit; they had such an ad?

Academics, and wannabe-intellectuals like me, write such things because of the importance of understanding even these aspects of life; after all, our lives are not always sugar and spice and everything nice.  But, I would not want that father lecturing his sons about how "up yours" is an awesome f-king swear.  I would like to, however, tell that father that he is one f-king asshole of an example of humanity!      

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Tyrannosaurus Elderex

It is not unusual for young people coming from traditional Asian and African countries to remark that here in the US we shunt away the old, unlike the importance of elders in their communities.  Pseudo-anthropologists rave about how in traditional societies the elders are asked to weigh in on important issues.

Are you nodding your head in agreement?  If so, well, by now you know that this blogger will have something to upset your stomach, right?

Let us follow up on the post from two days ago.  The presidential candidates are of Medicare-age.  Like I mentioned in that post, one-quarter of the US Senate is at least 70 years old.

That's two out of the three branches of government, right?   You want to start counting the number of old people in the Supreme Court?  The Notorious RBG is 83!  The decider--Kennedy--is 80.  Breyer is 78.  Thomas and Alito are 68 and 66.  Scalia died at 79, else he will be still be there.

On the financial scene, the gazillionaire Warren Buffett is 85, and he continues to make investing decisions as if he has another sixty years left on this planet.

In higher education, too, we often suffer from the tyranny of the senior-citizen faculty.  If old soldiers never die but only fade away, old professors seem to haunt the hallways forever.

Tell me again how we as a society do not listen to our elders?

It is one hell of a tyranny of the old.  It feels like they have a choke-hold on the rest of us.  Here, the elders rule, unfortunately!

"Unfortunate" because I worry that as we tend to become more conservative with age, councils of elders will turn out to be uber-conservative.  Progressive social change requires a lot of people with idealism in their heart.
Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.
That is a quote you have heard/read before, right?
This maxim – variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli and Victor Hugo, among others – neatly captures the common notion that to be on the left of the political spectrum is to be young and idealistic, while to be on the right is to be older and more pragmatic.
But then at the ballot box of democracy, the sheer numbers matter, and can't the idealistic young outvote the old?  "All throat and no vote":
Because Generation Y is the largest generation in American history, it’s a big deal if it remains one of the most liberal generations ever. But there’s a huge, inescapable problem with the viability of Millennial politics today: Young people just don’t vote. Between 1964 and 2012, youth voter turnout in presidential elections has fallen below 50 percent, and Baby Boomers now outvote their children's generation by a stunning 30 percentage points.
So ... unless the young take charge of their government, the rapidly aging societies will mean that the conservative elders will continue to make conservative decisions.  Brexit and Trump are, thus, no surprises.

Monday, August 15, 2016

On the 15th of August

(A re-post from three years ago)

August 15th is India's Independence Day.

In marking the transition from the British rule to freedom, India's first prime minister referred to the moment as "tryst with destiny."  Salman Rushdie provided a magical realism treatment of this midnight hour with a literary gem that won the "Booker of Bookers."

I, too, have my own stories to tell of the 15th of August.

In Sanskrit, the word
dvi|ja, twice born, could mean a Brahmin, for he is born, and then born again when he is initiated into the rites of his caste; it could mean ‘a bird’, for it is born once when it is conceived and then again from an egg; but it could also mean ‘a tooth’, for teeth, it was plain to see, had two lives too.
It has been more two more rebirths for me, both on August 15th.

August 15th marks the anniversary of my own "tryst with destiny."  Make it two different anniversaries.

In 1987, the Singapore Airlines flight that I was on took off from Madras (as Chennai was known then) a little before the midnight that made made the transition from the 14th to the 15th--similar to India's birth at midnight.

As the US immigration stamp from that old passport shows, I landed in Los Angeles on August 15th, 1987 and since then have only been a tourist in the old country where I had my wonderful formative years.

Though it took me a decade-plus to formally become an American, there was no doubt in my mind that when I left India on the night of that August 14th, I was leaving to make myself a new home. I looked forward to the new identity that would result.

Coming to the US took a whole lot of planning--from thinking about what I wanted to study to where I wanted to study.  Los Angeles was, thus, no simple accidental happening.

But, of course, as much as we plan, well, life unfolds in its own cosmic way.  The unpredictability of life that makes it exciting and depressing, depending on the events.

A few years into my citizenship, I made a trip to India. In the summer, which surprised people there, given my inability anymore to deal with the heat and humidity. I planned the trip, yes, but it was to announce yet another re-birth: to begin the transition to the divorced life.

It was a brutal summer.

A few days prior to my departure from Chennai, I got an email from the airlines in which I was booked to fly back home. Home in the US of A.  Because of scheduling issues, I had been automatically re-booked with a new departure date of, yes, August 15th!

When we watch such coincidences unfold in the movies, we dismiss them as melodrama that could have been avoided.  But, I suppose there is no better fiction and melodrama than real life!

So, there I was, re-enacting the whole August 15th rebirth.  Once again leaving India for the United States. To lead a life that would be very different all over again.  It has been one hell of a tryst with destiny!

A note to the cosmos: enough with the melodrama already! :)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ninety years of (In)Fidel

The two major party presidential contenders are no spring chicken.  Senators who ought to have retired long ago continue to run and, even more bizarre is how they get re-elected; there are 25 current senators in DC who are at least 70 years old!  A quarter of the Senate!  I hope this guy, who has become highly unprincipled, is booted out even now--well before he becomes the next Strom Thurmond!

And then there is that one guy chomping away at his cigar:
Fidel Castro used the occasion of his 90th birthday to lash out once more against President Obama.
Wait a second.  Shouldn't he thank Obama for normalizing US relations with Cuba?  And how come thugs like Castro and Mugabe live such long lives?

What was Castro's gripe anyway?
"I believe that the United States' president's speech lacked stature when he visited Japan,” Castro wrote, “and it lacked an apology for the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima, in spite of the fact that they knew the effects of the bomb. The attack on Nagasaki was equally criminal, a city that the powerful chose at random. It's for that reason that I must hammer on the necessity of preserving peace, and that no power has the right to kill millions of human beings."
Wait a second.  How many people were killed by Castro and his people?  I tell ya, we live in a world in which the likes of Castro and Putin and Trump can say anything that pleases them.  As my grandmother used to say, "கேக்கறத்துக்கு ஆள் இல்லை" (roughly translating to "nobody to question")

Meanwhile, the post-modernist extraordinaire marked the occasion:
Castro received a congratulatory call from Russian President Vladimir Putin on his birthday, according to the Russian leader's office.
Of course!

So, is it senility, or ideological rigidity, that made Castro rant against Obama?  A Cuba specialist, Ted , thinks it is a lot more basic than those:
To Henken, Castro's aversion to Obama is transparent. "He doesn't like Obama because Obama has stolen his charismatic thunder," he said.
Obama has certainly stolen the charismatic thunder from quite a few people around the world.  I am going to miss him, even though I have had plenty of problems with many of his political decisions--especially about war and peace.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Facts and truthiness

As I have mentioned often here, in graduate school, I had to familiarize myself with many new ideas and concepts that were far removed from electrical engineering.  It was a wild time.  I bet that in those initial couple of terms I might have even come across as an idiot, and perhaps more than one even wondered how I had gotten to graduate school.

One of those concepts was post-modernism.  If only I had known the phrase "WTF!" back then ;)

Post-modernism simultaneously interested me, and made me suspect the whole academic enterprise.  It interested me because it made me think hard about what "truth" meant.  For instance, I hadn't even remotely considered that truth could be negotiated and that truth could be a result of power play.  It was considered the truth a few hundred years ago that earth was the center of the universe and anybody challenging that truth was engaging in systematic misinformation campaign and could be sentenced to death, after years of torture. One could provide an endless list of examples.

So, yes, post-modernism made me think about truth in ways that I hadn't ever imagined.  What is "truth"?

But, the challenge to truth leading to the conclusion that "anything goes" as truth and that any interpretation is as good as another, was way freaky for me. If every interpretation is on equal footing, then what?

Recent political developments have made it abundantly clear that anything goes.  Climate deniers get equal treatment along with climate scientists.  Faux News is considered to be a news channel as the BBC is.  In fact, the very crowd that would normally be suspicious of post-modernist "anything goes"--the far right of the political spectrum--seems to be the ones who are practicing post-modernism even as they denounce the humanities and the social sciences as worthless.  This is one insanely post-modernist condition!
 ‘When we act, we create our own reality’, a senior Bush advisor, thought to be Karl Rove, told the New York Times in a quote Ferraris zeroes in on, ‘and while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities’.
Truth and reality were created out of power and they kept inventing new realities.  Trump has taken it into a level never seen before.
Donald Trump plays a similar game when he invokes wild rumors as reasonable, alternative opinions, couching stories that Obama is a Muslim, or that rival Ted Cruz carries a secret Canadian passport, with the caveat: ‘A lot of people are saying . . .’
Not that Trump or Rove would ever call themselves post-modernists!
When reality caught up – the audience caught on to the illusion in Moscow and the stories about Iraq broke down and the stock market crashed – one reaction has been to double down, to deny that facts matter at all, to make a fetish out of not caring about them. This has many benefits for rulers – and is a relief for voters. Putin doesn’t need to have a more convincing story, he just has to make it clear that everybody lies, undermine the moral superiority of his enemies and convince his people there is no alternative to him. ‘When Putin lies brazenly he wants the West to point out that he lies’ says the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, ‘so he can point back and say, “but you lie too”’. And if everyone is lying then anything goes, whether it’s in your personal life or in invading foreign countries.
This is a (dark) joy. All the madness you feel, you can now let it out and it’s okay. The very point of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense. And an audience which has already spent a decade living without facts can now indulge in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence.
It is surreal that we now live a life where facts simply do not matter.  Academic post-modernists, who detest Trump and Putin, find that Trump and Putin are successfully practicing post-modernism where anything goes!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Instant gratification is expensive

When my parents sat down and updated the family's cash flow accounts, which they did every few days, we kids were assigned tasks as well--from recalling the expenses to adding up the rupees and paise.  Thus, I grew up with no illusions of money stashed somewhere.  Knowing how my parents were cautious about every paisa, I knew that I had to be reasonable with my wishes.  I had to find happiness within those constraints, even though once in a while I did wonder what it would be like to travel to Delhi and Kashmir.

Even now, my parents sit down and do their accounting.  They no longer worry about the missing ten paisa though, unlike the old days.  It is not because they have lost any respect for the paisa, but I think it is because they are too old and tired to worry about the missing paisa.

In this age of instant gratification, I assume that most people do not think much about where their money comes from.  Further, when kids see parents using a small plastic card that gets them everything, I wonder how they might even learn about the age old idea of living within one's means.

At some point, the spending catches up with the reality.
Overall, U.S. households have $12.3 trillion in debt, according to another New York Fed report, released this week.
People who are worried about the federal debt, which is currently at $14 trillion (or $19 trillion, in another accounting) ought to be way more worried about the level of household debt.

When the accounting is done the honest way that my parents did, then it turns out that "one in seven Americans ends up in the red":
Even people with good jobs can owe so much on credit cards, student loans, or mortgages that, on paper, they’re worth less than zero.
In the old days, there was no concept of credit cards or mortgages.  Credit, in instant gratification, is perhaps like drugs to addicts.

We might be tempted to conclude that people like me, who have taken on too much of a mortgage loan, are the problem.  Nope.
Mortgages are a minor factor, the New York Fed found. Only 19 percent of people with negative net worth are homeowners, compared with 75 percent of those with positive net worth.
We might also be tempted to think that it is largely the uneducated who can't seem to understand cash flow.  Nope.
People with negative worth are a diverse group that defies stereotypes of the poor. One in eight has a graduate degree, and 43 percent have a college degree, only a few points lower than those with positive wealth.
Last June, one of the students I worked with graduated--with zero debt.  I strongly urged her, more than once, to write a commentary in the newspaper about how she achieved that.  She didn't buy fancy clothes, didn't own a car, didn't care to party hard, bought secondhand clothes, didn't travel abroad, focused on her school work, worked part-time, applied for scholarships, and yet had loads of fun and was my partner-in-crime with horrible groaners.  But then she, too, didn't listen to me--she didn't want to write about these.

I suppose it is not fashionable these days to live modest lives within one's means. Maybe I should go to the store and buy myself the latest gizmo and charge it to my card!  Nah; after all, I am Major Buzzkill ;)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Know your onions

The onion slipped from her hand and headed towards the floor.  Gravity.

But, I didn't hear the thud of the onion landing.  She reached down to the space under the counter and near her knees and extracted the onion.

"Nice save there" I smiled.

"No problems even if it had fallen down.  I feel like it is one of those days when things just don't go smoothly, you know?" she replied.

"At least it didn't fall on your toes."  I meant it because I had picked up a big sized tear-jerker.

"If it had, I would probably go home early" she laughed.

"These are nothing" she added.  And described about somebody who had to undergo a complex spine surgery.

"Oh my god!" I stood with my mouth open.

She nodded her head.  "There are much bigger things to worry about. Who cares about the onion falling."

If only we can all appropriately frame our problems against a proper perspective, and if only we can do that all the time.  But, we don't.

There are plenty of bigger problems that others are worried about.

Think about it this way: We often joke that it is ok to have a drink because it is five o'clock somewhere.  Right?  But, we rarely ever pause to say, for instance, right this second somebody died and that person's family is devastated.  The reality that we seem to overlook is that every second is a case of YOLO.

I went for a walk by the river.  A couple walking with their kid in the stroller greeted me.  People were jogging, biking, walking.  We were all implicitly acknowledging YOLO.

But then, there it was.  From a couple of days ago.  The Nazi swastika, and more.  It had yet to be erased.  Apparently there are also people who believe that they need to do these because, well, you only live once and they have made their mark?


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Water, water everywhere ...and it is all good?

Everyday something or the other completely amazes me.  It could be nature, my own stupidity, or an impressive achievement.  No, the achievement is not an Olympic gold medal--after all, you know well what I think about that expensive mass entertainment ;)

A human achievement that amazed me?
Israel now gets 55 percent of its domestic water from desalination, and that has helped to turn one of the world’s driest countries into the unlikeliest of water giants.
In the old days, we used to joke that with enough money, water will run uphill.  Without money and water running uphill, Southern California will be one heck of a desert by now.  Instead of being bone dry, it now gets water from all directions, with water running uphill at many places thanks to the power of electricity and pumping, which cannot happen without money.

Now, money and ingenuity turns salty sea water into a potable variety.
Just a few years ago, in the depths of its worst drought in at least 900 years, Israel was running out of water. Now it has a surplus. That remarkable turnaround was accomplished through national campaigns to conserve and reuse Israel’s meager water resources, but the biggest impact came from a new wave of desalination plants.
Boggles my mind!  Aren't you also impressed?  What a turnaround in a decade!
In 2008, Israel teetered on the edge of catastrophe. A decade-long drought had scorched the Fertile Crescent, and Israel’s largest source of freshwater, the Sea of Galilee, had dropped to within inches of the “black line” at which irreversible salt infiltration would flood the lake and ruin it forever. Water restrictions were imposed, and many farmers lost a year’s crops.
It was the same drought that catalyzed the instability in Syria.
 “The drought lasted for years, and no one said anything against the government. Then, in 2011, we had had enough. There was a revolution.” That February the Arab Spring uprisings swept the Middle East. In Syria, protests grew, crackdowns escalated and the country erupted with 40 years of pent-up fury.
Israel managed its meager resources well.
The turnaround started in 2007, when low-flow toilets and showerheads were installed nationwide and the national water authority built innovative water treatment systems that recapture 86 percent of the water that goes down the drain and use it for irrigation — vastly more than the second-most-efficient country in the world, Spain, which recycles 19 percent.
Pause for a second and re-read that.  Israel recaptures about 86 percent of the water that goes down the drain, and the next best effort comes from Spain, which recycles 19 percent.  It is one hell of a gap between 19 and 86, right?  Think about India and China and everywhere else, and about all the water that is wasted.

If all that does not impress you enough, consider this:
Water produced by desalination costs just a third of what it did in the 1990s. ... Israeli households pay about US$30 a month for their water — similar to households in most U.S. cities, and far less than Las Vegas (US$47) or Los Angeles (US$58).
As the article notes, this level of a sophisticated desalination technology is a game changer.  If only our collective efforts would be directed towards such important aspects of life, instead of on Olympics and Facebook and ...

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Public "servants"

My father (and this guy's father, too) was among the many from his generation of public sector employees who missed out on pensions--they were not offered those benefits back then.  Thus, there were a few years when my brother and I regularly sent our parents money in order to help with the cash flow after father's retirement.  True to my parents' honest life, they have maintained a detailed accounting of the total remittances from their sons!

A couple of years ago, when my father came to know that my faculty salary is nowhere near the stratospheric earnings of the young and the old in the IT industry where every other Indian-American is, he insisted that they return my remittances, now that my parents do not have the cash crunch, but I managed to convince him that I am not in any financial hole.

The logic behind public sector pensions was simple: To reward those opting for public service, where the compensation is far less than what comparably talented people could earn in the private sector. For instance, when I was new to the country, a friend took me along when he visited with a cousin of his, who was a worker in an automobile assembly plant in California.  I would never have guessed that the palatial home with shiny cars in the driveway belonged to an auto factory worker who did not have a college degree.  Such were the economic possibilities even a couple of decades ago.

The global economic geography has changed.  And has changed fast.  The well-paying middle class jobs are rapidly vanishing from the American scene.  Well, vanishing from the private sector, that is.  Meanwhile, the public sector unions became stronger and stronger, and successfully increased the compensation levels.  So much so that public sector pensions have now become a nightmare for governments that have to balance their books.

As with many aspects of life, California is a leader in this as well, with its California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS:
The pension fund is more than $139 billion in the red and just reported another awful year of investment returns. The East Bay Times reported last week that CalPERS' retirement debt "averages out to $11,000 for every California household which is relevant because taxpayers, not government workers, must make up the shortfall."
That update from Reason--a libertarian outfit, which has been a part of my daily news feed for years now--notes that "Most state pension funds are deep in debt, but CalPERS is among the worst in the nation."

Public sector pension in Oregon was a big story in our local paper too:
Anemic investment returns in recent years have also contributed to the troubles for the system, which now has an unfunded liability of more than $20 billion. When investment returns don’t meet the system’s assumed 7.5 percent annual rate of return, public employers must make up the difference in their budgets. The need to feed ever-greater amounts into PERS is one factor that forces many local Oregon public agencies to trim services or seek tax increases.
Now, I don't want you to think that we faculty are draining the state coffers:
 Dr. Johnny Delashaw, a former neurosurgeon at Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University, has supplanted former University of Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti as the state’s top public pension recipient.
Delashaw receives an annual benefit of $663,354 a year — $55,279.53 a month — from the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System, the agency’s latest data show. That’s 24 percent higher than Bellotti’s annual benefit of $536,995.
Bellotti had been Oregon’s top PERS beneficiary since the retirement agency first started releasing data in late 2011
Yep, a football coach used to be most highly paid retiree!  Says a lot about what people really, really, want, right?

Meanwhile, back in India, the unions learnt their lessons from the unions here, but the government did not learn from the experiences here--public sector pension schemes have skyrocketed in India.  My father, too, has a tough time understanding how such things are possible.

Full disclosures: In California and in Oregon, my jobs included pension schemes.  But, it was never the money that drew me to the teaching profession in the first place; if money were important to me, I would never have quit engineering! And, oh, I have never been a member of a union.

Monday, August 08, 2016

There is migration ... and then there is diaspora

Early on, I  realized that I had a limited vocabulary.  One classmate knew words that I could not even find in the primitive dictionary that we had at home.  As I have noted many times here, my best friend from high school often stumped me with words.  One high school student included a word in her personal statement that was well outside my word list: Sesquipedalian.  It is no surprise to me that she is now wrapping up her doctoral dissertation at Yale!

Maybe that is all the more why Hemingway's works (like here) have always appealed to me, with his short sentences and words that are rarely outside my comfort zone.  William Faulkner may have insulted Hemingway with "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary" but I don't care; hey, I have never read Faulkner ;)  Seriously, I had planned on reading a Faulkner work five summers ago, but gave up after only a few pages.

In graduate school, I was encountering new words and ideas every single day.  One of those is a word that I now use as if I had known it even from my days at the kindergarten with Mrs. Higgins!


In our daily lives, we don't think much about "diaspora."  But, if we paused to think about it, then in no time we are mighty impressed with the importance of that word and its meaning in the contemporary world.  One can immediately understand why we would want to understand various aspects related to "diaspora."

This essay reminds us that we will be hearing a lot more about "diaspora" given the large-scale movement of people in the recent past couple of years.  However, "while human migration is always part of a diaspora, not all migrations equal a diaspora."  But, of  course, we--including me--use the word "diaspora" a lot more loosely than it ought to be.

There are two weighty ones in human history: the Jewish and African diaspora.  Even a mere mentioning of the Jewish or African diaspora conveys to us that mere movement of people does not make a diaspora.  Right?
Perhaps contemporary Western societies’ misuse of the term “diaspora” to describe any national groups’ geographic migration is changing the meaning of the word. Or, maybe we haven’t done a good job of educating our citizens about distinctions of important universal concepts. Or, maybe we need a new term for many of today’s populations forced to migrate from their homelands. This will be exceptionally true if, unlike groups in the African diaspora, new groups of migrants are socially included in their new locations.
Here is to hoping that we will see more natural assimilation as people move, and not the creation of more tragic diaspora stories.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

We have met the enemy. It is us!

A few weeks ago, I wrote here--yet again!--about how reworking the social contract years ago could have helped in many ways. It is darn frustrating that something that has been so obvious was never the majority view, and continues to be marginalized. All I can do is keep talking/writing about it by pointing out that there are others with real influence--unlike my irrelevant status at work in life.

Enough about me.  Let us get to the issues, right?

Joseph Stiglitz, who is a recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics and whose heart has always been in the correct place, writes:
Under the assumption of perfect markets (which underlies most neoliberal economic analyses) free trade equalizes the wages of unskilled workers around the world. Trade in goods is a substitute for the movement of people. Importing goods from China – goods that require a lot of unskilled workers to produce – reduces the demand for unskilled workers in Europe and the US.
This force is so strong that if there were no transportation costs, and if the US and Europe had no other source of competitive advantage, such as in technology, eventually it would be as if Chinese workers continued to migrate to the US and Europe until wage differences had been eliminated entirely. Not surprisingly, the neoliberals never advertised this consequence of trade liberalization, as they claimed – one could say lied – that all would benefit.
Way back in graduate school, which is when I was getting introduced to various political economic thoughts that I had to quickly understand after years spent in science and technology,  And that was also when I got to understand some of the discussions on fairness and social contract.  I have loved that idea of "social contract" since then.  Stiglitz writes about the social contract:
But they can’t have it both ways: if globalization is to benefit most members of society, strong social-protection measures must be in place. The Scandinavians figured this out long ago; it was part of the social contract that maintained an open society – open to globalization and changes in technology. Neoliberals elsewhere have not – and now, in elections in the US and Europe, they are having their comeuppance.
Globalization is, of course, only one part of what is going on; technological innovation is another part. But all of this openness and disruption were supposed to make us richer, and the advanced countries could have introduced policies to ensure that the gains were widely shared.
Instead, they pushed for policies that restructured markets in ways that increased inequality and undermined overall economic performance
If I--a nobody--am pissed off that nobody listened to me, think about Stiglitz who has been very much a part of the domestic and international political institutions and, yet, has not been able to bend the political will on this.  I wonder how angry he is!

Stiglitz writes that "the problem was not globalization, but how the process was being managed."  And that is also the point in this NY Times editorial.

Trade and globalization have been miraculous for hundreds of millions all around the world.  Without that economic dynamic, we would not have had the flourishing middle class populations in China and India, for instance.  When talking with my parents yesterday, my father remarked that a couple of decades ago, he could not afford to even pay for the autorickshaws and, instead, he and my mother used the public transport buses if they wanted to visit with people,  which they loved doing.  Two decades of trade later, there are now Chinese and Indian tourists traveling all over the world--the kind of travel that not too long ago was almost exclusively an American possibility because only Americans were rich enough for that.  

If only we would recognize that the world is much better off now.  The problem is not globalization but our collective failure to understand the urgency, the importance, of rewriting the social contract in which those who are losing out will be compensated.  

Saturday, August 06, 2016

On knowing others

A few weeks ago, the friend and I, while traveling around in this gorgeous part of the world, visited with a student of mine at the family farm where he has been working pretty much right from the day after the academic year ended.  A wonderful guy he is--both as a student and as a person--and is perhaps even more committed to his religious beliefs than are the frequent commenters here.

In addition to say hi to him, I love visiting such places because it gives me a real feel for the kinds of communities that has shaped the students with whom I get to interact in the classroom and, very rarely, outside the classroom too.  I have blogged about such things before--this here is one of my favorites. Once, a graduating student (and her boyfriend) invited me to the party that their family was hosting to celebrate her success.  I went there; it was a community of ranch homes with cattle in the back, and horses and saddles--very much unlike anything in my daily life.  Talking with her grandfather and answering his questions about India was one of the best experiences I have had as an ambassador for 1.3 billion people.

As much as I look different, and speak differently, and while I might live in my head, I love humanity and the everyday lives of people.  And, more importantly, getting to know their hometowns and backgrounds guides me in the way I end up presenting them with new ideas in the classroom. Over the years, I have come to understand that I need to go to where the student is and then try to have them look at the world differently, and not expect them to see it just because I said so.

Not connecting with the real people and their real problems is one atrocious mistake that intellectuals make.
The fact that we members of the intellectual professions are quite atypical of the societies in which we live tends to distort our judgment, when we forget that we belong to a tiny and rather bizarre minority. This is not a problem with the hard sciences.  But in the social sciences, intellectuals — be they professors, pundits, or policy wonks — tend to be both biased and unaware of their own bias.
Yes, most are blissfully unaware of how disconnected they are from their students and, of course, society itself.
The social isolation of intellectuals, I think, is worsened by their concentration in a few big metro areas close to individual and institutional donors like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. (where I live) or in equally atypical college towns. ... it is possible for people to go from upper middle class suburbs to selective schools to big-city bohemias or campuses with only the vaguest idea of how the 70 percent of their fellow citizens whose education ends with high school actually live.
Exactly!  And then with their snooty attitudes complain all the time that they are not paid enough!

Even when I travel, I love connecting with the local cab drivers (like here) because I want to know how the vast majority live and think, and how they make meaning out of their lives.  I am sure all these also feed into my loud opinions that college education is highly overrated, and vocational education is highly marginalized.

I will end this anti-intellectual post with verse by Auden, which I have quoted before:
To the man-in-the-street, who, I'm sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word 'Intellectual' suggests right away
A man who's untrue to his wife
Now, Auden was an intellectual who knew real people!

Friday, August 05, 2016

Pssst, want an Anthrax vaccine?

The dog days of summer, and the dog days of the presidential election season have coincided.  One party does not care about the daily warmth nor the long-term climate change:
The platform approved by a voice vote yesterday evening doesn’t explicitly question the science behind climate change. But it calls for reduced funding for renewable energy and international adaptation programs, and it seeks an end to the global agreement reached in Paris late year to cut greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
“We oppose any carbon tax,”
Only the GOP could adopt such a platform!

Meanwhile, "based on the findings of 450 scientists from 62 countries" the "new “State of the Climate” report by the American Meteorological Society and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information" informs us that::
Last year officially surpassed 2014 as the warmest year ever noted on record.
Rising oceans, accumulating atmospheric greenhouse gasses, and escalating temperatures on both sea and land all reached new record highs in 2015 — surpassing landmarks set a year prior.
I am sure the GOP and its loyal members merely let out a collective yawn over this latest hoax!

The record warmth, month after month, and year after year, is apparently making true what were mere theoretical scenarios.  Like how pathogens buried in the cold, cold permafrost might find it to be a hospitable place for them:
The ongoing anthrax outbreak in Siberia is offering us a preview: What was once considered a future theoretical possibility — a re-animated deadly bacterium emerging from the permafrost — is now a reality.
"Ongoing"??? And I thought I keep up with the news!  Let me tell you first about that:
Eight people are confirmed as infected with anthrax, a rare but deadly bacterial disease. It is believed to have spread from reindeer.
More than 2,300 reindeer have died in the outbreak, in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Siberia. Reindeer-herding families have been moved out.
A heatwave has fuelled the disease.
Temperatures in the danger zone - now under quarantine - have soared to 35C.
Russia has sent troops trained for biological warfare to help deal with the emergency.
Anthrax?  The first time I ever heard about it was in the days after 9/11.  Until then, I had no idea about something called Anthrax.  And now, they are coming up from the deep freeze?
Officials believe that the heat melted permafrost and exposed an infected reindeer carcass in the Siberian tundra, AFP news agency reports.
The last outbreak in the region was in 1941.

So, back to the climate scientists and their theoretical scenarios.
Scientists have been warning for years that melting permafrost might release ancient pathogens, frozen for millennia or longer in northern soils. Over the last decade or so, bacteria have been discovered alive in Alaskan permafrost at temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees Celsius, and in permafrost layers as old as three million years in Siberia. Although the vast majority of known bacteria are harmless, we don’t yet know what’s buried up there, or how dangerous it might be to humans.
And it’s clear that, for now, weather conditions in Siberia are far outside their normal range. Last month, parts of Siberia near where the anthrax outbreak is occurring were as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) warmer than normal, averaged over the entire month. That’s like New York City suddenly adopting the climate of Tucson, Arizona, for the whole month of July. To say the Arctic climate is off the charts this year is an understatement.
What the what?

So, if we continue to set records for warmest month and warmest year, then ...?
“This is uncharted territory in the human experience, and especially the ecosystem is likely to respond in abrupt ways”
Anything else?
Permafrost-borne diseases are only one threat of climate change, and scientists warn that further abrupt changes are possible (if not likely) unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly reduced. At this point, humanity has a decision to make — which is good news in the sense that a different course is still possible. But as with this week’s anthrax outbreak, if we continue to lock in future warming, we won’t be able to say we weren’t warned of the consequences.
Hey, thanks, Obama thanks, GOP, for reassuring us that Earth is cooling!

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