Friday, September 30, 2016

The war criminals

When history is written a few years from now, you and I will be found guilty as well--for having merely stood by and watched as Syria collapsed into a brutal civil war; for having done nothing when civilians were slaughtered; for having turned away those who were fleeing from the chaos and destruction.

I never imagined that something like Syria would unfold in real time, and that we would do nothing other than talk tough about imposing sanctions!

Throughout all these, while ill-informed pundits and politicians have said and written a lot, how many commentaries have you read that were authored by philosophers?  If ever we needed somebody to tell us what is right and wrong, and what the moral imperative is, I can't think of a better and more urgent example than Syria and--yet--practically nothing from philosophers in the public space.

The lack of public engagement by philosophers is atrocious.  But, easy to understand; After all, philosophers decided that they, too, needed to have their own academic discipline and talk only amongst themselves and by using arcane words that only they would understand.  Unlike Socrates, these modern philosophers have essentially told the public to go f*k themselves!
This institutionalization of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy.
So, how was philosophy before the philosophers were institutionalized?
Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university.
And what happened after the philosophers were institutionalized?
Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.
Philosophy, then, as the French thinker Bruno Latour would have it, was “purified” — separated from society in the process of modernization.
What a tragic irony, right, that thanks to such "purification" philosophers have pretty much nothing to contribute to the discussions on one of the most urgent humanitarian crisis of our times!

I am not sure if I am supposed to laugh or cry that we are not discussing such matters.

Meanwhile, even as Rome burns, the Republican Party's Nero esteemed candidate has a three a.m. wake up moment and tweets about the sex tape of a former beauty contest winner.  To which a GOP Congresswoman responds with "That's the kind of president we need."  I have no idea how there could be even two people to vote for this candidate!

Shame on all of us!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Jumbo shrimp is not an oxymoron?

"I am on a sea food diet" offers a wonderful pun on sea and see.  It was funny the first time I heard it years ago, and I still find it funny.

For billions of people, other than a few like Ramesh and me, sea food is not any punch line at all; they love sea food.  The only thing that usually keeps them away from the sea food?  The cost of it.

But, as people get more affluent, they then begin to consume more sea food. Where will all those marine critters come from?

Before you think about that, consider chicken or beef.  Wasn't it the same story?  As people got richer, they started eating more beef and chicken.  Or pigs and mutton.  Whatever. The point is that the demand for animal protein picks up with affluence, right?

How did we manage to meet the demand for chicken? Big time factory production and processing, yes?  Similarly, large pig farms.  So, what is good for the chicken and the pigs is good for lobsters and shrimp?

It looks like that is already underway, "to build the largest shrimp farm in the developed world" but with an interesting twist:
Project Sea Dragon’s viability rests on creating in a laboratory in a few years what centuries of natural evolution hasn’t achieved. Scientists are attempting to unlock the genome of the Black Tiger prawn to make a super invertebrate that will grow faster, fight disease more effectively and taste better than its free-roaming brethren.
“It’s super-charging natural selection,” said Dean Jerry, the professor at James Cook University in Townsville, north Queensland, who leads a team working on the project with funds from Seafarms and the Australian government. “What we’re really trying to breed for ultimately is a prawn which grows as fast as it can.”
Evolution on steroids?
A female Black Tiger prawn produces as many as 400,000 offspring in a single spawn, giving picky scientists a wide range of candidates to advance to the next generation. ... [Seafarms director Chris] Mitchell's goal is to breed such hardy and tasty prawns that the project will never have to catch wild ones again.
Frankly, eating cockroaches of the sea creeps me out.  I find it funny that most of the same people who love to eat bugs from the salty waters are aghast at the idea of eating bugs from land!  Oh well, humans don't always have to be rational, eh!
The first offspring from the project could be ready for sale at the end of 2018, and the site is targeting full output of 162,000 tons of prawns a year. That’s more than four times Australia’s current annual prawn consumption.
The prawns will grow on a 10,000 hectare (25,000 acre) slice of the Legune cattle ranch, near the border of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. There’s also a hatchery near Darwin, and more than 2,000 kilometers to the west, a quarantine station for the founding families.
Now, before you go ballistic and start criticizing such industrial, factory, production of food, ahem, you may want to check with this op-ed on "Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment."  Blame it all on our affluence, if you prefer--because, the richer we are, we apparently demand more and better food.

As the author notes:
There are no easy answers, but innovation, entrepreneurship and technology have important roles to play.
 There is another option: Eat like how people ate 200 hundred years ago! ;)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The 400-plus club!

There are those who believe that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese government, and their fearless leader wants to be the leader of the free world.

We live in strange times where facts are for losers!  We started going down that road when a previous leader of the free world trusted nothing but his instincts, not realizing that he was like "a blind man in a room full of deaf people,"

Those folks will gloss over this fact:
2016 will be the year that carbon dioxide officially passed the symbolic 400 ppm mark, never to return below it in our lifetimes, according to scientists.
Perhaps never to return below 400 in our lifetimes.  I am sure it is a hoax being propagated by the Chinese government that works hand in glove with climate scientists all around the world.

So, how do we know about this 400 ppm?
September is usually the month when carbon dioxide is at its lowest after a summer of plants growing and sucking it up in the northern hemisphere. As fall wears on, those plants lose their leaves, which in turn decompose, releasing the stored carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. At Mauna Loa Observatory, the world’s marquee site for monitoring carbon dioxide, there are signs that the process has begun but levels have remained above 400 ppm.
Visit your favorite glaciers that you have listed in your bucket-list, thanks to the gorgeous photos that you have seen, before the Chinese government starts melting them away!

In the deep blue state that is north of us, the November election will include a ballot measure to address global warming:
Washington voters will decide in November whether to introduce a carbon tax on fossil fuels and electricity from coal and natural gas, with the goal of slowing global warming while reducing taxes on sales and manufacturing and keeping total tax revenue flat overall.
A deep blue state. Environmentally conscientious--even fanatical--electorate. So, the measure has big time support and will win easily, right?

Wrong!

Here, for instance, is the Sierra Club:
Sierra Club has adopted a Do Not Support position concerning Initiative 732, rather than Support, Neutral, or Oppose. 
How about that?  It is not a stand of "Support, Neutral, or Oppose" but "Do Not Support."  Talk about linguistic jiu-jitsu.  And you thought Bill Clinton's dancing around the word "is" was unique?

So, what's going on?  Why aren't the environmentalists embracing this initiative?
The ​resistance comes not just from the usual opponents on the right, but even more strikingly from the left. The reason: Many environmentalists see climate change as an opportunity to remake the economic order. They want to use carbon taxes to fund renewable energy and green technology and bolster the incomes of workers and communities they say are most hurt by climate change. Whatever the merits of these goals, the effect is to equate climate policy with bigger government, which makes it harder to achieve broad-based support.
Seriously?  Environmentalists oppose it because of their larger social engineering agenda?
But the main reason is that I-732 sends its revenue back to taxpayers, whereas environmentalists would like the revenue for other priorities. The Washington Environmental Council, which doesn’t support I-732, says revenue from any climate initiative should be plowed into the “clean energy economy…infrastructure for clean, abundant water and healthy forests” and assistance for “the most vulnerable workers and communities.”
So, party on, folks!  Make sure your party is on high ground so that you don't have to deal with the rising water levels.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Do y'all hear my Tanglish?

As a kid, I did what other kids and adults did--I made fun of others.  Laughter at the expense of others was considered normal. It extended well into the undergraduate years as well.  After all, nobody ever told me anything otherwise.

But then, slowly wisdom dawned.  I can not ever understand why the damn wisdom should show up much later in life!

These days, most jokes that I make are about me.  I love it--nobody gets hurt, and I get a wonderful outlet for my bizarre sense of humor, which is also an outlet for all my angst anyway.  It is a win-win all around, except for those who have to suffer my humor--especially the captive audience in the classroom ;)

One of the earliest realizations was about the way we speak.  The accents. The choice of words.  The idioms. In the early phase of my life, those were the low hanging fruit for the crude humor.  Visiting grandmothers' places meant exposure to the way of speaking in that part of the old country, and it was so easy to make fun of it.

Now, as I get older, I find the jokes on accents to be awful.  In the old country, people do that a lot even now.

I find the different accents, the unusual phrasings, to be charming. They add color to the otherwise monotonous same-old, same-old.  It is so Soviet-like if everybody talked the same way.

Further, the ultimate understanding of all: it is about communication and human interactions.  After all, we "hear" those differences only in the real world of human interactions, right?  As an old New Yorker cartoon put it, in the internet nobody knows you are a dog!  I would rather hear somebody's accented voice in a discussion than yet another "like" on Facebook.

An old anthropologist friend of mine used to tell his students that everybody has an accent.  It just depends on the context.  Of course, that didn't stop him from making fun of my accent ;)

A few years ago, when I went to the deep, deep South for the first time, I was all set to listen to the charming southern accent. The drawl. The y'all. I was so disappointed.  In the public space, the number of people who spoke "like a Southerner" was way less than what I had imagined would be the case.

The nasty jokes and condescending attitudes towards some accents and way of speaking, while lauding others, is "back door to discrimination."  We forget that "the so-called standard is simply an invention of a given society."
"We talk a lot about racial discrimination," explains Ms. Lawson, who is now a junior. "We talk about judging people based on their socioeconomic status" and on other, more visibly identifiable factors. But people rarely talk about language, even though it is socially stratified in the United States, as in most countries.
"When I came to college," Ms. Lawson says, "people kept telling me how strong my accent was." She thought, "Wow, y’all need to come home with me and hear how other people sound." She was doing what linguists call code-switching — toning down her accent in favor of a standardized English considered to be more acceptable.
Exactly!

I wish somebody had told me all these at least when I was twenty years old! Heck, even when I was thirty!  Oh well, wisdom better late than never, eh.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Buck Naked

We live in strange times.  People have plenty of "friends" but perhaps feel way more alone than ever.  It is, but one measure, of how rapidly our lives are being transformed.  In the process--and more importantly--we are completely redefining what it means to be human, with human emotions.

Sex is one of those human emotions, which is also being rapidly redefined.  "Making sense of modern pornography" is what this New Yorker essay is about.  The following sentence there makes me think about how much even our "regular" vocabulary and approach to life has changed:
It has permeated everyday life, to the point where we talk easily of food porn, disaster porn, war porn, real-estate porn—not because culture has been sexualized, or sex pornified, but because porn’s patterns of excess, fantasy, desire, and shame are so familiar.
I know what the author is referring to; even in this blog, I have used phrases like 'poverty porn' when, for instance, critiquing Slumdog Millionaire.  The word "porn" has pretty much become a part of our daily vocabulary.

Porn is everywhere.  And at zero cost.  One small typo when entering a URL can easily send one to a porn site.  Years ago, back when the web was young, I wrote an op-ed about this, during my California years, in which I noted that life as a teenager has become immensely more complicated and how amazed I was that the kids were managing this quite successfully.  In the years since, the life of a young person has become even more challenging with porn so easy to access right from the smartphone, and with sexting becoming a part of the daily vocabulary.  I am so glad that I am not a stressed out teenager with hormones rushing through every possible vein.  Phew!
Despite porn’s ubiquity, the Internet has also made it more private, and its effects less knowable. The consequences of seeing sex before having it are as unclear as those of Facebook’s colonization of our leisure time. Pornography isn’t hermetically sealed from the rest of culture, and today it sits on a continuum with other problems of technology that we don’t yet know how to address.
I love how the author has summed it up: "it sits on a continuum with other problems of technology that we don’t yet know how to address."  We have no freaking idea.

Meanwhile, technology is apparently flooding the market with sex toys that are so beyond my wildest imaginations, like these:
Then there are smart toys and machines such as the Bluetooth WorldVibe vibrator, with shareable vibration patterns and an app that controls the device, and the Limon, which uses ‘squeeze technology’ that allows one partner to squeeze the toy, programming it to a personalised rhythm and pressure the other can enjoy. There’s also Vibease, the ‘world’s first wearable smart vibrator’, which is controlled by an app on either iPhone or Android. One partner can wear the vibrator inside her underwear and the other, regardless of where she or he is, can control it.
There are toys for men too, although unlike toys for women, which straddle solo and partner play, heterosexual men’s toys are largely masturbatory devices.
Am I the only one who finds it creepy with such intersections of technology and sex?  More than the creepiness factor, what worries me more is the one with which the author ends the essay: "we risk alienating ourselves from each other all over again."  

The scenarios presented by Hollywood in Her and Ex Machina do not seem that far away. All the more to look forward to turning 75.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunny side up

It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon in the valley.  Yes, in case you forgot, it is a brand new season now.  The trees knew that even before Google doodled the change.

Despite the wonderfully sunny day, there were very few people out on the bike path.

Perhaps it was because of the football game.  I cannot understand how people can be this addicted to entertainment.  I was, therefore, all the more delighted that the local team lost ;)

Of the people out and about, it was mostly women. Women of all ages.  Perhaps many of them are football widows.  Though, of course, some women are even more fanatical about the pigskin than even men can be, and their yells and shrieks during the game could make one wonder whether the ballgame is perhaps orgasmic like the other ball-game!

I passed a family resting against their bikes.  Papa, mama, son, son, and daughter.  I nodded a hello.

I could not understand why not many were outside.  A few weeks down, when they complain about the overcast November sky, I wish I could be next to them to shake them by their sweatshirts and yell, "what the hell were you doing wasting away the sunny September Saturday?"  In fact, that is how life should be.  When we suffer the consequences of our bad decisions and, yet, complain about the awful life, somebody ought to whack us on our head and remind us that we wasted our lives with our own wrong decisions.  (Crap, I just felt a whack on my head!)

The family passed me.  The father was the last one to pass me.  I suppose there is some unwritten code in the family manual that the father should bring up the rear.  However, apparently the same family manual also says that when tandem biking, the man should be in front with the woman in the rear seat.  In all my years of walking by the river, I am yet to see a tandem bike with a woman in front.

Am I the only one who observes people like this and makes snide remarks on life?  What's wrong with me?  I can't even blame it all on my parents, thanks to the wonderful people they are!  I suppose I am responsible for my own bizarre approach to life.  (Wait, why was I whacked for that? Not fair.)

On the bridge over the river, the family had stopped and were all enjoying snacks.  Energy bars and candies.  I wanted to tell them that with all the sugar and fat, energy bars are not any better than candy bars.  But, I didn't.  Let them also get whacked later for the wrong decisions they make ;)

After a while, they passed me again.  As the mother evened with me, she slowed down enough to ask me, "how many miles do you walk every day?"

I laughed.  I assumed it was mere small-talk and not a real inquiry.

She kept looking at me for an answer.  She meant business.

I had to make a quick decision.  Do I tell her that I don't walk every single day?  What frequency should I report then?  I decided to make it easy for all of us.  (Why I am whacked now?)

"Oh, about five miles."

"Wow. ... wow" she said as she continued on.

The daughter, who was the youngest, and looking perhaps six years old, collided with her brother.  "What's your problem?" she yelled out.

I guess she is the darling of the family. She collides with her brother and then yells at him.  Maybe she is a politician in the making.

The father, who was bringing up the rear, responded in an even voice, "you ran into your brother. It is your problem."

I headed home after all the sun that I had soaked up over the five miles.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

May Peace Be With You

I have sent this across to the editor

The United Nations marks October 2nd as the “International Day of Non-Violence” for a very good reason--it is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi, who was born in 1869, led the independence movement that, in 1947, resulted in the creation of two new countries of India and Pakistan and, with that the end of the British Raj as well. The struggle for freedom, in which Gandhi passionately urged his followers to observe non-violence even against the colonizer’s brutal force, inspired many others, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

Life is full of tragic ironies--Gandhi and King, the champions of peace and nonviolence, fell to bullets that were aimed at them. Unlike Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948, King had not lived long enough to live in the promised land of freedom.

Albert Einstein summed it up best for all of us when he wrote about Gandhi that “generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” On Gandhi’s birthday, it certainly will help us all to be reminded of, as the UN puts it, the human desire for "a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence."

In the contemporary United States, any talk in the public space about peace and nonviolence is rare anymore. Politicians of all stripes want to prove how much they are tougher than the other, out of a fear of being labeled a wimp otherwise. This has been especially the case since the fateful events on September 11, 2001. At the national level, the “tough” ones smell blood when an opponent does not talk war. At this rate, even those running for the office of a local dog catcher will have to prove their toughness.

Of course, violence is more than merely about engaging in war. The political rhetoric over the past year seems to have been anything but peaceful and nonviolent. A new day begins with attacks on yet another person or group of people, based on whatever cultural trait is deemed to be the “wrong” one for the moment. So much so that even I, as insignificant as one can be in the political landscape, have been a target for those who are seemingly at ease with offensive words and rhetoric!

While words, unlike sticks and stones, do not break bones, the violence conveyed through words causes plenty of harm. In the noise and confusion of the violent rhetoric that surrounds us in the real and cyber worlds, we seem to have lost a fundamental understanding of what it means to be human,. One of Gandhi’s favorite prayers says it all about being human--it is to “feel the pain of others, help those who are in misery.” However, and unfortunately, the overall rhetoric and practice these days is far from that interpretation of humanity.

When it comes to the terrible humanitarian crises, like the situation in Aleppo, in Syria, it is depressingly shocking how quickly we closed ourselves from the “pain of others” and how easily we refuse to “help those who are in misery.” We have refused to budge even when the screens all around us flashed the images of Aylan Kurdi--the toddler who was dead, face down, on a beach--or the five-year old Omran Daqneesh, whose dust and blood covered face looked dazed and confused.

Meanwhile, all around the world, the number of people displaced from their homes continues to increase. The United Nations estimates that by the end of 2015, the number of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes numbered 65.3 million. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, noted that “at sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.”

As I write this column, peace and nonviolence seem to be evaporating even in Gandhi’s old lands of India and Pakistan. Tension between the two countries is at such high levels that international media and commentators wonder, and worry, whether the neighbors are getting ready for yet another war. As often is the case with these sibling countries, this time too the fight is over Kashmir, but with plenty of nuclear bombs on both sides of the border.

We shall certainly overcome, in the long run. In the meanwhile, on the “International Day of Non-Violence,” like the stereotypical beauty pageant contestant, I too will wish for world peace.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Join me in saying thanks

There is one page in the Economist that I always check out first.  It is the last page.

When you have been reading a magazine long enough, you check out your favorite sections first.  I start with the last page of the Economist.  What's there?  An obit essay.

Yep. About somebody who died.  Almost always, the person who died would have done something wonderfully constructive.  Sometimes, the obit is to be thankful that an awful person is no more. It is in this latter category that I hope to read about Mugabe really, really soon.

When it is about a constructive contribution, often the person is one who is not really a household name. Which is all the more that I love that last page.  Like this time.  It was about Donald Ainslie (“D.A.”) Henderson.  Up until I read this, I had no idea about this Henderson!

As a teenager, Henderson became obsessed with smallpox after the virus re-visited New York City, which panicked the residents. 
He wanted to study the causes, spread and suppression of epidemics. Rather than serve in the army he joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Communicable Disease Centre in Atlanta, for what he called “firefighter” training. As soon as a disease broke out anywhere in the world, he would dash to tackle it—becoming a proper “shoe-leather” epidemiologist, as opposed to a “shiny-pants” desk-bound sort. When he was hauled away from his anti-smallpox work in west Africa and sent to Geneva for the WHO in 1967, at 38, he wasn’t thrilled. But if they wanted the world rid of the virus in ten years, he would give it his best shot.
From the stories I have heard from my father and grandmothers, smallpox was one mighty enemy that people feared.  A cousin of my father's was a typical survivor, with scars on his face as evidence of the battle.  By the time we kids came along, the worry was only about chickenpox.  We owe it all to Dr. Henderson and his “surveillance-containment” towards "Target Zero":
Problems rose up constantly. In Ethiopia, rebels attacked the vaccinators. Afghanistan brought deep snow and no maps. In Bangladesh trucks could not cross the bamboo bridges; in India mourners had to be stopped from floating smallpox corpses down the Ganges. He experienced most of this himself, frequently decamping from cramped Geneva armed with “Scottish wine” (his favourite medicine) to urge on the troops. Out in the trenches he also faced the full horror of what he was fighting. At a hospital in Dhaka the stench of leaking pus, the pustule-covered hands stretched towards him, the flies clustering on dying eyes, convinced him anew that he had to win this war.
The last recorded case was in 1977.  A decade after he was appointed to the job, Henderson did rid of the world of this monster.

To borrow from Einstein, we are standing on the shoulders of giants who made our lives so easy.  

Thanks, Dr. Henderson.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Where have all the young men gone?

I went to listen to the president give his annual state-of-the-college address.  He, like most educators these days, talked about how student enrollment growth is critical for the fiscal future of the university.  He used phrases that one would hear from a factory owner: production, products, pipeline, and--of course--how more students mean more money.  There was no detailed presentation, however, on how well the products (graduates) are selling!

Despite repeating the flat--or even a negative growth--enrollment scenario, the president talked in plenty about the new building construction that has been completed, and another that will soon begin.  How is it that people with PhDs do not see the contradiction in massively increasing capacity even when knowing well that the demand won't be there?  Was there a KoolAid drink that I missed sipping?

Was I also the only one who thought it was yet another profound evidence when the president said that female students accounted for 65 percent of the incoming freshman class?  From 55-45, to 60-40, we have now reached 65-35.  Amazing.  Simply astounding.  What is this evidence for?  It adds more to the 'save the males" that I have been talking and writing about for almost two decades now.

Teenage boys and young men are simply not understanding that the world has changed rapidly in the past two decades.
For low-skilled men in their 20s, employment rates have fallen by about 10 percentage points over the last 15 years—from 82 percent in 2000 to only 72 percent in 2015. This decline is staggering. You might think it’s matched by a rise in school attendance for this age group. That is not the case.
The following may be the most shocking number I give you today: in 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months. Think about that for a second.
Yes, think about all that data. Take more than a second.  Take ten minutes.  In fact, you should ponder those data for a long, long time.  One in five young men between the ages of 21 and 30 had not worked (for wages) over the 12 months.  One in five!

If you are a thinker--and you are; after all, you are here reading this--your immediate question is: "If they are not working, where do these young, low-skilled men live?"

You have an answer, right?  And you are correct about that:
In 2014, 70 percent of lower-skilled men in their 20s without a job lived with a parent or close relative.
Are you now beginning to have a little bit of an anxiety? Perhaps a tinge of panic?  If so, hold on to something, and get a brown-bag if you are beginning to hyperventilate.
If they are not working, how do these young men eat? We—the parents and relatives—feed them. When they are in our basements, they come up for food from time to time and raid our refrigerators. I have no information on whether or not they are showering.
Are these young, nonworking, lower-skilled men who are living in their parents’ basements married? You may be surprised to hear this: they are not. The age of marriage is increasing for this group. In summary, these younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives.
There is an interesting twist to all this.  You ready for that?
If we go to surveys that track subjective well-being—surveys that ask people to assess their overall level of happiness—lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s. This increase in happiness is despite their employment rate falling by 10 percentage points and the increased propensity to be living in their parents’ basement.
Those young men are happy.  The parents and close relatives hosting these young men might not be happy, but that is another story!

They are happy now. Yes. But, how about life after 30?
There is some evidence that these young, lower-skilled men who are happy in their 20s become much less happy in their 30s and 40s. They haven’t accumulated on-the-job skills because they spent their 20s idle. Many eventually get married and have kids. When this happens, living in their parents’ basements is no longer a viable option. Playing video games does not put food on their tables. It’s a bad combination: low labor demand plus the accumulated effects of low labor supply makes economic conditions for these aging workers pretty bleak.
These labor-market outcomes affect many facets of society. They affect the take-up rates of government transfer programs. They may explain voting patterns for certain candidates in recent periods. There is rising evidence that lower-skilled workers in their 30s and 40s are increasing their drug use. We have also seen increased suicide rates for lower-skilled workers in middle age. The effects of changing technology on the labor markets of lower-skilled workers will likely have repercussions within the US economy for years to come.
When I yell about the urgency to re-write the social contract, to find alternative outlets for testosterone, to figure out ways in which we can help people be productive if they don't want to, or are not suited for, college, well, all those are not random independent issues.  Nope.  These are all inter-related issues that require a great deal of our time and energy.  Our time and energy as in all of us.  And for that, in a democracy, we need leaders who understand these nuances, help shape the conversations, and work out strategies for collective action.  Ain't gonna happen in the democracy that we have and the one that we will wake up to on November 9th :(

Oh, btw, if you thought all the quotes were excerpted from some left-wing nutcase's rants, ahem, it is from as academically rigorous right-wing economics as you can possibly get--Erik Hurst is an economics professor at the University of Chicago.  So, when a U. of Chicago economics/business professor says all those, well, you ought to be scared shitless by now.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The young and the rested

I rarely see the usual people anymore.  Some of them have retired and gone away.  No Tyrannosaurus Elderex to be seen in this light of work, I suppose.  It was, thus, a young woman at the checkout counter.  Is it a good thing that she is working here? Is this her job or a career itself?

All those thoughts at the same time.  It is a wonder that I have not gone insane!

"How has your day been?" she asked as I placed the groceries on the belt.

"I'm tired" I said.

"Me too" she said almost right away.

"We go to work. We get tired. We get food. We go home to sleep" I replied.

"And we wake up to do that all over again" she immediately jumped in.  Nice repartee.  My kind of a small talk person.

"It is like in the movie Groundhog Day" I smiled.




She nodded her head.

"Have you seen the movie?"

"Oh yeah" she answered as she totaled up the amount.

I paid up. She handed me the receipt.

"We will do this again tomorrow" I said as I pointed a finger at her to remind her about the theme.

"Tomorrow's another day."  Damn, she is up to speed on movies and is quick on the draw.

This young woman is neatly replacing the older ones who have retired.  It is the story of life as we get old and yield to the younger ones.  It is a story that repeats--over, and over, and over, and ...


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What have the corporations ever done for us?

I am absolutely pro-labor union.  Yep.

I thought I should make that very clear to my rabid right-wing debaters, if they have not figured it out already ;)

At this point, you perhaps are thinking that this is a set up for something else.  Yep.

I am pro union, if the labor belongs to a category that truly can be screwed over by the short-term profit seeking greedy firms and bosses.  If, for instance, Walmart employees want to organize, I am all for it.  If Foxconn workers wants to join hands in solidarity, I say "go for it."  

But, any public sector employees forming a union, well, that's a different story.  I don't care if the employees are police officers or sanitation workers or university faculty.  The logic is this: Who is "the man" that the union wants to stick it to?  "The man" being considered the oppressor is the taxpayer.  Not some greedy capitalist.  So, the union wants to stick it to the taxpayer?

Of course, the public sector union's leaders will argue that they are really after the greedy capitalist who wants to hoard it all.

Consider this: Here in the dark blue state of Oregon, the public sector unions, "led by teachers," are enthusiastically pushing a ballot measure:
If approved by the voters here in November, Measure 97 would create the biggest tide of new tax revenue in any state in the nation this year as a percentage of the budget, economists said — and one of the biggest anywhere in recent history. Oregon’s general fund would grow by almost a third, or about $3 billion a year, through a 2.5 percent tax on corporate gross receipts.
How would that money be raised?
If the ballot measure passes, not every company will be affected. Out-of-state corporations and those with $25 million or more in revenue would pay the new tax. Smaller businesses would not. That disparity has cut like a knife through the business community.
If only it were that simple to make corporations pay taxes.  I wonder if the unions have heard of gazillion-dollar earning tax lawyers and accountants, like the ones Apple has on its side to keep the taxes far, far away.  The public sector unions create and live in their own alternate universe!

The editorial chief at the newspaper from the state's capital had some awesome lines:
What gets me is proponents’ assumption that corporations simply will accept lower profits in order to pay the tax. At the Salem City Club recently, one advocate went as far as saying companies would transfer their revenue from other states to pay their Oregon taxes.
That’s not the way corporations work, especially ones that are publicly traded on the stock market.
Meanwhile, the state's Legislative Revenue Office ran the numbers because, well, they have to.  It is their job.  What did they find?  Much to the displeasure of the Measure's backers, the office concluded that it would harm the state's economy:
among other effects, Measure 97 would slow private sector job growth and boost the average per-person tax bill by $600 via price increases, with the burden falling mostly on low- and middle-income Oregonians.
Really?  I was going to bet that businesses love paying taxes and will never pass the costs down to consumers.  Oh, how could I have been that stupid! I need to sign up with the comrades the first thing tomorrow ;)


Monday, September 19, 2016

Rewards-r-us

Could that really be the case?  Could my eyes be deceiving me?

I got closer. It really was what I thought I saw.

It was a thirtyish guy, with a neatly trimmed beard, reading a hardcover book while seated on the bench by the river, with his bicycle leaning against the bench.

A sight to behold!

"That is a rare sighting" I said.

He looked up, perhaps wondering what bird has such a strange accent.

"You are reading a book!!!" I hoped he got the multiple exclamations in my voice.  These are the situations when we really need Victor Borge's punctuation guide.  But then, we cannot be haphazard with exclamation points ;)

He smiled.  "Yeah, everybody has tablets."

"Oh, they may" I replied as I walked up to him.  "But, they are playing Pokemon, not reading."

"I think you are right" he said.

I wished him a good day and continued with my walk.

We live in strange times.  It could get even stranger.  We even have a presidential candidate, whose first name might as well be Adolf, who boasts that he does not read books.

As I have often lamented, reading books is seemingly rarely ever done anymore in the old country.  Movies and cricket, and now Facebook and WhatsApp, seem to have taken over people's down times.

A couple of years ago, when discussing market mechanisms and incentives, I briefed students about the "experiment" to reward students with a dollar for every book a student read.  They were almost unanimously against it.  The students argued that kids should not think that they would do something only if there is a reward.  "If this class were not required for your graduation, then you won't be here, right? Doesn't that mean you, too, are doing it only for the reward?" I asked them, and hastily chuckled to lighten it up.  

A recent gift that I gave was a book.  In the book, I inserted a twenty-dollar bill as well.  That was more than four months ago.  I suppose a few years down the road that book might even be dropped off at some used bookstore.  And then somebody else buys that for a quarter.  This new owner of the book keeps reading and all of a sudden a twenty-dollar bill falls out.  I would like to be there when that happens ;)

Reading books is how I got to be here.  Life itself has been a wonderful reward.  I am sure the bearded bicyclist has been collecting his rewards as well.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Columbus discovered America

A decade or so ago, I met my cousin's son for the first time.

He might have been about eight or nine years old back then.  He hesitantly walked up to me and asked, in English, "you live in America?"

"Yes. I have been there for a long, long time now."

The kid was now feeling a tad more confident. "We learnt in school that Columbus discovered America."

I could not let go off the teacher within me.  "Oh, really! Terrific!" And then I added, "so, Columbus discovered America?"

"Yes. That is what the teacher told us."

That's how I, too, was told when I was a school kid his age.

"So, before Columbus discovered America, there were no people there? He was the first person to go to America?" I asked him.

"No. Our teacher said there were people there."

"So, if there were people there already, then it means that somebody discovered America before Columbus did, right?"

The kid was stunned. He hadn't thought about it.  Here he was trying to impress his uncle, and little did he know that I am Major Buzzkill ;)

Thanks to Columbus, who originally set sail to India, we have ended up referring to as Indians a whole bunch of different peoples with different cultures and traditions in an entirely different part of the world! I joke with students that "I am an Indian from India, and not an Indian from here" whenever I want to highlight this insane historical accident.

Columbus Day is a federal holiday and in some of the states.  No holiday for us here in Oregon.  (We memorialize Columbus Day in our own strange ways!)

Seriously, why are we celebrating Columbus?  I don't have anything against Columbus per se.  He was merely an explorer, who was a product of the times.  But, it is not as if he accomplished something spectacular.  Magellan or Vasco da Gama were far better explorers.  And then the baggage related to Columbus.  So, why honor him with a special day?

I like how some of the progressive cities mark that day as Indigenous People's Day.  Perhaps can be observed in many, many countries around the world.  India, Australia, New Zealand, all the countries in North and South America, ... it is a long list of countries where the original inhabitants have been pushed aside--to say the least--to make space for the newcomers.

Turns out that I am way late to the party; Wikipedia says that it is old news.
In 1994, the United Nations declared an International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, but, concerned about upsetting some member nations, chose August 9 instead of the traditional Columbus Day.
WTF! A few countries "upset" about this?  Oh yeah, history is always from the perspective of the rich and the powerful :(

Saturday, September 17, 2016

May we please work on a new social contract?

In the old, old days, I would wander in the library and read whatever interested me.  The key word is "interested"--because there were plenty of occasions when I was interested in what I read but had no idea what the author was writing about.  It is like watching an avant garde movie, La Sapienza for instance, and then later reading up to understand the subtext.

These days, I don't aimlessly walk around in libraries.  I browse from home.  Saves me a whole lot of walking, but my fingers ache! ;)

It is through browsing that I came across this interview in the Harvard Business Review.  I got excited because it features everything that I talk and write about: Globalization, labor, robots, footloose corporations, welfare safety net, gig economy, college education, ... Aren't you, too, impressed with what the interview covers?

HBR's editor interviews some guy who was the head of some firm that I had never heard about.  Let's be honest here; I can't know it all! ;)  The guy is Jeffrey Joerres who apparently " led ManpowerGroup for 15 years before stepping down in 2015."  I had to check with Wikipedia (more achy fingers) to find out how big a firm that is.

I want to focus on a couple of observations that Joerres offers in that interview:
Companies are doing more “micro footprinting,” and that takes a nomadic mentality: You’re ready to pick up and move when required. Large footprinting, on the other hand, means you’re committed to a community for better or worse. More and more, companies will need to take a dual approach, establishing large locations and more-temporary, smaller operations at the same time.
Did you also catch that sentence? "Large footprinting, on the other hand, means you’re committed to a community for better or worse."  In the old days, companies were committed to the communities that were their home.  GM in Flint, Michigan, was that classic model.  But, those days ended almost all of a sudden.  Gone.  Which means that local governments and people can/should never, never, never, assume that a corporation will come to stay for the long haul.

Elsewhere, Joerres says:
In many ways, what we have now in the U.S. is similar to the early 19th century, when the Luddites first worried that machines were going to steal their jobs. We must deal with the reality that when full-scale robotics and AI arrive in a broad-based, affordable, easily justifiable way, we’ll see enormous waves of workers put out of work and ill prepared to take on very different jobs. This is going to create challenges that our institutions are not ready for.
It is one thing for a semi-baked nutcase like me to keep saying that.  As my old grad school professor made sure we understood, it is not what you say but who you are when you say that.  In this case, plenty will/should listen to what Joerres says.

We are not ready for the changes that are coming.  Not only are we far from ready, the existing system is terribly broken:
Our institutions are inadequate. Look at unemployment compensation, welfare, Social Security—these were all put in place in the middle of the past century. And they were based on certain assumptions: that when you lost your job, you would go through a process and on the other side find a job that you’d then have for a long time. Today that’s not going to happen. Look at the gig economy, look at parsed work—all these models just allow us to move faster. My dad had a second job. He went to a gas station after he got home from his first job, and he ate his dinner in between. Well, second jobs look different now. Uber is a second job. So what do you do when someone is collecting unemployment and takes a job with Uber to moonlight while he’s in training for a new full-time job? Should he lose food stamps or health care because he’s earning a little extra money to get by? Our systems look broken because they’re trying to fit things into the way the labor markets worked in the past.
Ahem, how long have I been saying this by yelling all the time about the need for an updated social contract?

Ok, are universities the panacea?
The same goes for broad-access universities. They’re built on the old labor models. They’re not turning out graduates with the skills companies need. So we have to refashion these institutions that are so important to our society.
In case you are wondering what a "broad-access university" is, well, those are the overwhelming majority that are not the elite research universities and liberal arts colleges.  The "broad-access university" description includes the university where I teach.  Again, in how many different op-eds and blog-posts have I been complaining about the old-fashioned higher education structure?

I love a solution that Joerres offers:
I think we need an iterative model. Why does it have to be all in or all out? Why can’t someone be on partial welfare? Or on partial unemployment compensation? If a worker loses her job that paid $50,000 a year but can only find a new job for $40,000, her unemployment compensation goes away, but she has lost $10,000. Why don’t we make up the difference for her for another six months because she had what it took to go out and find a job? Some people might see that as a giveaway. It’s not. It’s a small price to pay to encourage that worker to get back into the market. I’d rather pay someone to be in the market than out of the market.
Exactly!  If only we could talk about such important issues, instead of the wasted time and energy on crap!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Thus spake the market!

Think about this: Most kids and adults like to be entertained.  Most kids and adults alike do not care to invest time and energy into reading and thinking.  Are those fair enough generalizations?

Thus, if we had money to spend along with the time, then most of us would shell out our time and money on entertainment.  And what better entertainment than sports, right?

If we leave everything to the market, then that is the kind of an outcome we can expect.  Which is also what we see increasingly happening in higher education, where students spend their time and money.  And with plenty of help from taxpayers, sports rule.  The flashier and more exciting the sport is, the more is the money spent on it.

Which is why it is no surprise that this op-ed (in the NY Times!!!) author has taken it to the logical extreme: He (of course it is always a "he" when it comes to such nutcases!) says it is high time universities offered majors in football and basketball and ...: He cites how the market has already spoken in favor of this:
Last weekend, nearly 157,000 people packed Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee to see the University of Tennessee battle Virginia Tech, the largest crowd ever to turn out for a football game, college or professional.
With popularity comes money, and lots of it. In April, the N.C.A.A. signed a deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting for an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension of their March Madness basketball TV contract to 2032, while the college football bowl series brings in more than $500 million annually.
Exactly.  When was the last time a philosophy match brought in such money?

The author offers more:
Athletic budgets have swelled as a result. Texas A&M is on the verge of becoming the first campus to bring in more than $200 million a year from athletics. The University of Iowa just announced a 10-year, $45 million contract extension for its football coach. In 40 states the highest paid public employee is a college coach.
Oh, I get it now; the high salaries of coaches at colleges is to be lauded as the market speaking loudly.  What was I thinking!
 The $6.9 million annual salary of Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama, is equal to the combined average salary for nearly 100 assistant professors at the school, according to the most recent data available.
Get rid of those faculty in geography and pay the football coach some more, I say.

Oh, wait, except that coaches earning gazillions, and the NCAA being an awesome cash machine, are not the results of the free market.  Click here, and in the table sort it out by the final column on "% Subsidy" if you want to puke all over the screen!

And, oh, while the coaches get paid gazillions, the worker-bees, also known as students, do not get paid.  Surely that is how the market works.  It does not?
It's wrong that taxpayers are forced to subsidize professional sports teams via stadium deals and the like. It's equally wrong that taxpayers and students see their bills jacked up to fund college sports teams, no matter how enjoyable the spectacle. I suspect that if and when the actual payouts to athletic departments for sports programs become better known, this worm will turn.
Nope, in this entertainment obsessed world, no worm will turn anywhere.  Who cares if 30-year old Johnny can't read and lives in mom's basement as long as he gets screens full of entertainment!


Thursday, September 15, 2016

F*k College!

I have emailed the newspaper editor the following ...

In a presidential campaign season that has mostly been a farcical political theatre at best, and one that seems to be on track for a terribly tragic ending on November 8th, serious discussions of policies have been sorely lacking. Every once in a while, policy statements are uttered, but they are never engagingly discussed and debated by the wannabes nor their surrogates.

One of those statements was this: “College is crucial, but a four-year degree should not be the only path to a good job.”

If only we had at least talked about that!

Over the past few years, the country’s political leaders and educators alike have been manically promoting—practically mandating—four years of college, for free, for everybody. But why this college conscription?

For productive employment, a four-year college is certainly not the only pathway. As my neighbors often like to remind me, their successful small business is not a product of any four-year degree. Among the owners and the employees, only one has a four-year degree. And, most employees earn more than what many recent college diploma holders can only dream of.

Perhaps the spectacular entertainment provided by NCAA football and basketball is what draws most to college. If the taxpayer-subsidized NCAA sports did not exist, most teens would flee from college, and from courses like the ones I teach, and towards the trades.

Even the very notion of a four-year college is an anachronism. More than ever before, the young will have to be lifelong learners if they want to succeed in the world of employment. They might have to regularly reinvent themselves in new careers, some of which are yet to be created. They will have to keep up with new ideas and technology—if they cannot do it on their own, then they will need formal training. This is applicable to those going to the trades as well.

The unhealthy fixation on four years of college triggers even more unhealthy policy approaches. We actively encourage high school students to begin to earn college credits even as they are worrying about their first pimples. We convey to students a horribly distorted idea that they need to be done with education at the earliest so that they can move on to the “real world.” We develop measures on how successful colleges are in moving students along in the pipeline—we critically examine the rates at which students graduate within four, five, or six years and longer.

I would rather have colleges and universities emphasizing to students the importance of lifelong learning. Taking six or seven years should be lauded, as long as students are simultaneously gaining valuable real world experiences. Perhaps we ought to even encourage the less interested students to take a break after a year or two in college, in order to experience the world—whether it is as baristas or as legal-aides or as farm workers—and then return to learn more, which will be an example of the continuous lifelong education that will characterize their lives.

We need to talk about this, instead of merely keeping up with the latest dramatic act in the political theatre.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Beauty is not skin deep ... for a man?

While waiting for tune-up on the old 250 horses that get me around, I read this wonderfully funny short story in my favorite magazine.  I literally--and I mean the literal--laughed out when I read "bringing an embarrassed flush to all four of her cheeks."

Those in a hurry and multitasking through their lives might completely miss such phrases when reading; oh, I forgot that most people have stopped reading such stuff anyway!

The guys--yes, the mechanics were all men--weren't done with the oil change, but I was done with the short story that ended with a "standing ovation."  I paid attention to the television that had been blaring all through those minutes that I was reading the fiction piece.  

It was a terrible sight on TV that I saw.  Sheer horror.  I could not believe that they would show such graphics on day time television.  What has the world come to!

Ok, calm down. Chill. I am exaggerating.  But there is a grain of truth there.  I saw Meg Ryan on TV. 

The Meg Ryan who was gorgeous as America's sweetheart not too long ago, and who aced that memorable scene, looked grotesque.  Cosmetic surgery gone awry for certain.  Maybe she went to some cheap joint in India ;)

Tom Hanks, with whom she made one of their notable movies, continues to go strong with his acting career and without any visible sign of any kind of a cosmetic surgery--and he is six years her senior.  He continues to heroically fly planes, and solve unsolvable mysteries, with his age being a non-issue.

Meg Ryan, meanwhile, walks around like a wax figurine that was placed a tad too close to the fireplace. 

I suppose this is what happens in a cultural context in which women have to look eternally young, while a man is allowed to gracefully age.  Now, as a man, I have no problems with how my baldness and grey hair supposedly add to my non-existent personality.  But, come on, what the bloody hell is wrong with us when we think that even a Meg Ryan should not age?

Of course, it is not merely the female celebrities.  We hoi polloi model our lives after the rich and the famous.  So, if a Meg Ryan cannot look like she has a few pounds on her, and with a few wrinkles on her face, then down on the ground floor you think Plain Jane is not feeling the pressure?
Each new year, women are encouraged to reduce — to measure out our lives in 55-minute barre classes and four-ounce servings of chicken breast, to adhere to the diet that we’re sure is going to work this time, even if none of the other diets worked any of the other times. Plastic surgeons run ads for injectable fillers, body contouring and laser skin resurfacing to stave off the inevitable.
It shouldn't be any surprise that the pressure on young women these days can be devastating.  With Facebook and Instagram and whatever else where they have to get their peers to approve their looks ... 
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.”
It is a mad, mad, mad world out there.  Maybe it will be better if I stopped looking at television screens at public places


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The rampant professional malpractice in colleges

A new academic year and I once again start worrying whether students will gain anything from my classes.  It is not merely the subject matter that I am concerned about.  In fact, I have often told students that the subject that I teach is merely a vehicle for something way more important, which in our university we have defined as undergraduate learning outcomes.  A college degree is not merely about the degree.

If this was a challenge in the past, it is becoming even more of a problem now, thanks to the ubiquitous technology that lies on the palms and laps of students, to which they are attracted like moths to a light.  Two essays at two different places both address this same issue: Can students who are constantly on their devices actually learn? asks one, and the other essay's author has a simple bottom-line to students: Welcome, freshmen. Look at me when I talk to you.

The two authors are no Luddites--they even teach classes with and about technology.  I too--with all my use of technology in my personal and professional life--am no Luddite.  From what we see in the classroom, we fear the impact of technology on student learning.
The problem is their use of technology in general. Technology demands a significant amount of time and attention and has conditioned them to not question it. It takes up more and more of their bandwidth, and the net effect is lobotomising.
Consumed by technology that they cannot bear to disable or ignore, my students lose awareness of what’s going on around them. They don’t know what they’ve missed – often, they don’t know that they’ve missed anything. They’re still accountable for it, but such mindlessness has become an epidemic
Even in the old days, we faced a challenge in making sure that students understood concepts and picked up skills that they would build on from one class to another.  Now, it is worse.  Because, most of the time, students think they are getting a lot done by juggling one too many things at the same time--multitasking--when the evidence is otherwise.
An even bigger problem is the way that technology damages critical-thinking skills.
Critical thinking does not come naturally to an overwhelming majority of us.  We have to work on gaining that skill, which we do in many different ways.  Googling ad nauseam ain't a substitute; focused attention is needed, but that's exactly what is missing too.

This blog by itself is an example of digital technology providing immense opportunities for learning, but "they also present dangers, which we should explain when digital natives arrive on campus."  Most educators do not discuss these dangers with students.  New student orientation is all about alcohol, drugs, safe space, trigger warnings, sex, free condoms, how to wipe one's butt, ... everything except the very reason why the freshmen are there in the first place: Learning!
Some frightening data suggests that habitual computer activity, especially on social media, hampers our social and emotional development, particularly our ability to empathize with others. Clifford Nass saw this firsthand while serving as a dorm adviser at Stanford, where he urged students to turn off their devices and converse directly with one another.
"We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred," Nass told a Stanford audience in 2013, a few months before he died, "and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time and now never hear: ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’ "
It’s hard to know why our colleges have been so slow to share this information with our students.
As I have often blogged about, empathy is one of the most valuable and important aspects of what it means to be human.  Empathy can't be Googled.  Online, one can be anonymous and easily be the least empathetic low-life douchebag ever.  Harshness and bullying are de rigueur in the cyberworld!

Empathy has to be experienced and learnt in the real life, by engaging with real people.  But, higher education increasingly fails at this.
Our students won’t learn much of that by sitting in front of their screens.
And they won’t learn nearly as much in college — from one another or from us — if they’re living online. That’s not an opinion; it’s a fact. Hiding it from our students is worse than embarrassing, to our profession and ourselves. It’s malpractice.
And thus I begin another academic year.  Maybe even more students (and faculty and administrators too) will get highly irritated with me for not going with the flow and asking for more money.  But, I need to continue with my approach that keeps my blood pressure low and lets me sleep well--so that I can exit healthily ;)


Monday, September 12, 2016

Leftover women on bare branches

One of the ideas that I get across to students when discussing the two-hundred year transformation is this: We may equally think of the transformation as a history of women.  The past two hundred years has changed, almost overnight, women's roles for the better, and many of the global challenges of today relate to societies (read men!) that are unable to come to terms with this new woman.

Nowhere has the transformation been anywhere as rapid as have been the changes in China.  Not too long ago, we were reading about foot-binding practices in China, and seemingly with a snap of a finger, women have become independent and powerful.  The "traditional" idea of the barefoot and pregnant woman in the kitchen has given way to educated women who are challenging the old ways.  One of the most traditional institutions--marriage--and, therefore, having children, is rapidly falling apart there:
Fewer Chinese people are getting married, a shift with profound implications for China’s economic and social life. The decline in marriages means a decline in the number of babies, and potentially less spending on homes, appliances and other family-related purchases — the kind of spending China needs to drive economic growth.
"Fewer Chinese people are getting married" masks the real story, which should be told as "fewer Chinese women are getting married"
Specialists in economics, demography and sociology say some of those women are delaying marriage to build careers and establish financial footing, resulting in a more empowered female population that no longer views marriage as the only route to security.
“Because they are highly educated, they hold well-paid jobs, they lose the financial incentive to get married,” says Zhang Xiaobo, a professor of economics at Peking University’s National School of Development.
Ever since graduate school, I have understood that education is one heck of a contraceptive.  Typically, the more educated a woman is, the fewer children she has; the fertility story is the same whether it is the First Lady in the White House or women in SmallTown, India.

The higher the percentage of educated women in society, then one of my favorite topics kicks in as well: save the males.  Increasingly men come across as “not mature or irresponsible.”
China still faces yawning gaps in wages and employment between men and women, according to surveys. But women made up more than half of undergraduate students in 2014, compared with about 46 percent a decade earlier, and accounted for nearly half of graduate students, government figures show.
Cheng Guping, a 30-year-old from Hangzhou in eastern China who works at a start-up and is pursuing a doctorate in economics, is one of those women. She cited her professional and educational obligations as the reason she and a recent boyfriend broke up. “I felt that our level of affection wasn’t enough yet,” she said. “I want to see how far I can go on my own.”
Of course, parents who grew up with the older ideas are having a tough time with the new woman; unmarried women referred to as ‘sheng nu’--leftover women.
By government definition, a "leftover woman" refers to any unmarried female above the age of 27.
There is a government definition for this? Yuk!
"Marriage in China is extremely patriarchal and women need to see that being single is something to be celebrated, not to be ashamed of," she says.
"But I believe that this trend of women who choose to be single and independent is going to increase and this is the beginning."
This is the beginning, yes.  The beginnings of the end of men, if they continue to be “not mature or irresponsible."  Good for women, I say!


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Too full already is the grave

A tourist postcard I had picked up from the visit in 2000


Oh stay at home, my lad, and plough
By A.E. Housman

Oh stay at home, my lad, and plough  
     The land and not the sea,
And leave the soldiers at their drill,
And all about the idle hill  
     Shepherd your sheep with me.

Oh stay with company and mirth  
     And daylight and the air;
Too full already is the grave
Of fellows that were good and brave  
     And died because they were.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

This post has been outsourced

No, not to China or India ;)

Remember this post from a few days ago?  That was published in the newspaper this past Tuesday.

I got a lovely email in response from a retired physician, who is mighty impressed.  And he wants me to have lunch with him.

But, that was not the only response.  Read, if you want, the comments at the end of my op-ed.  Not constructive a discussion though.

Today's paper includes two letters.  I have reproduced them here verbatim; this is the outsourcing that the title of this post refers to.

Here is letter #1:
I read Sriram KhĂ©’s Sept. 6 column regarding climate change with a mixture of admiration and wonderment. Admiration for the obvious reason — he is a brilliant man — and wonderment that not only he, but anyone else these days, hardly mentions the 800-pound gorilla in dealing with climate change: overpopulation.
As I said before, Isaac Asimov said it best 50 years ago: “Either decrease the birth rate, or increase the death rate. Take your pick.” That was before the evidence regarding climate change was established. Given what we now know about climate change, the word now is must.
Despite the best attempts by two to engage with logic and evidence, the rest of the comments are like how the internet discussions are :(

Letter #2 is even  more interesting.
I cannot understand why The Register-Guard continues to print articles on its op-ed page that only point out our mistakes and do not offer solutions. In particular, I refer to “Keep your eye on India...,” published Sept. 6.
The author, Sriram Khe, was born in Chennai, India. His family obviously was wealthy enough to give him an education which allowed him to attend college in the United States. Does he go back to India, which is greatly in need? Instead he takes a position which can be filled by any number of the Oregonians who also applied for his teaching position at Western Oregon University in Monmouth. Khe is needed in India. India is the country to which he owes his loyalty and success.
If only the letter writer understood that I am a citizen of the US, and that my loyalty is to these United States!  Even more, as that pathologist friend once commented, I love Oregon way more than even native Oregonians do ;)

There's an awesome response that has been posted there:
This is one example of why I like the ability to make an instant comment on letters! I'm amazed at this churlish attack on Sriram Khe and his writing. If he were, for example a physician or engineer, I might agree he'd be more moral if he went back to India to help his people -- the idea of the "brain drain" which has so benefited the US comes to mind.
However, as a professor here he has the opportunity to share his unique world view with insular Oregonians, something I appreciate and I imagine most of his students at Monmouth also enjoy. There's a Big World out there and we need to understand it.
Meanwhile, regarding my original op-ed on climate change, yet another scientific analysis, which concludes that extreme weather events are tied to climate change.

Have a nice day, y'all ;)

Friday, September 09, 2016

China sneezes, and the world gets the shivers!

Every once in a while, I wonder if I might open up the blogging window ... and draw a blank.  What if I don't have anything to write about?

And then I laugh. Hysterically.  Because, the world story is full of strange twists and turns, and I love making meaning out of them.  In fact, making meaning is what education and learning are all about--not some stupid diploma that ain't worth even wiping one's butt.  (BTW, please do not use your diploma to wipe your butt--I assume that the paper will be way too rough and it won't absorb either ... hahaha!)

Consider the craziness in shipping.  On the one hand, we need ships to transport goods all over the world.  On the other hand, old ships that are no longer useful need to be put to death.  Right?

The Chinese economy has been messing with both.  Yep, both the shipping business and the ship-breaking business.

First the shipping story.  In case you missed it, the big news is that Hanjin has declared bankruptcy.
Last week, South Korean shipping company Hanjin, the world’s seventh-largest container line, filed for bankruptcy after failing to reach an agreement with its creditors to alleviate its $5.37 billion in debt. This has left 85 of the 97 container ships the company operates literally stranded at sea, as ports refused to admit them for fear that stevedores and tugboat crews won’t be paid. Even if the situation is resolved soon, the unprecedented mess is an ominous indicator about the state of global trade.
You are thinking, 'hey, that's a South Korean company, and what has China got to do with this?'  If you thought so, then you are my kind of a thinking person.   Good for you!

What happened?  Oversupply.  Yep, way too many ships out there.  Because you are a thinking person, your next question is, 'hey, but in this global economy aren't we making something somewhere, and selling them somewhere else?'  Yes.  But then think about who makes them.  Ahem, China.
“Hubris and ego and insanity in the shipping industry,” says Baker. “It happens over and over again, cycle after cycle. Thus it was and ever will be.” The arms race was ignited by wildly optimistic global trade forecasts made in the waning days of the global recession, notably by Denmark’s Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company. What they didn’t count on was China’s recent economic slowdown. “We had a generation of people working in shipping that have lived under the China effect,” says Baker, referring to the years when the country’s construction boom and skyrocketing manufacturing sector kept the global commodities market humming. “To a large degree, everyone thought it would remain like that.”
China's economy slowed down.  And now ships are stuck at sea!

So, what has this got to do with the ship-breaking industry?  Interestingly, not too long ago, South Korea was the place where ships went to die.  Then, Korea became rich and this activity moved to places like India's Alang.
In the world’s biggest ship-recycling yard, dozens of men toil under a blazing sun, carving up the remaining portion of a vessel on the seashore. During the nearly five months it has taken for the ship they are working on to arrive at the yard and get broken apart for scrap, the price of the steel the yard is culling has skyrocketed, then plummeted—dragged along by roller-coaster trading thousands of miles away in China.
Yep, China's economic slowdown is affecting even the ship-breaking industry.
Many of the yards here, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, are saddled with losses from buying near-record numbers of boats when steel prices were surging earlier this year, then selling the scrap metal after prices had crashed.
You want more, right, because you are now fascinated?
One yard owner, who asked to remain unnamed, said he bought a ship in January for around $280 per ton, including the cost of labor. He ended up selling the scrap metal at a loss, for $250-$260 per ton, when the ship was being broken up in April and May.. 
Ultimately, it is the human interest in the story that we need to think about:
In the rows of wooden shacks that house thousands of workers at one yard in Alang, many men are waiting without pay in case more ships arrive, but face the prospect of returning home with no money for their families.
Sushil Kumar Pal, 20, is worrying about money for his two younger brothers’ schooling and for his elderly parents.
“There are so many workers here and not enough jobs going around,” he says. “So how will anyone work?”
It is one crazy world out there.  Those of us who are comfortably retired, or with secure jobs, have it easy.  The rest are, in some way or the other, at China's mercy.


Thursday, September 08, 2016

Captain Goodhope is dead. Long live General Malaise!

I first came across the idea of "social contract" in graduate school.  "Aha!"  I realized that my teenage infatuations with various anti-social political elements were nothing but a result of my frustrations with the existing atrocious social contract and a desire to contribute to rewriting it.

In recent years, as the global economic geography began to tear up the fabric of the fabled middle-class life in America, I started yelling again my frustrations with the political system that was seemingly uninterested in rewriting the social contract.  Of course, nobody listens to me.

The frustrations got worse when the political faces for the rewriting came in the form of Bernie Sanders and the fascist!  Major Buzzkill got promoted to General Malaise ;)

The next best thing then is to wallow in excellent company.  Like with Laura Tyson and Anu Madgavkar.
The consequences of such failures are far-reaching. Stagnating or falling real incomes do not just act as a brake on consumption demand and GDP growth; they also fuel social and political discontent, as citizens lose confidence in existing economic structures.
Yep. And, unlike me, those two are awesomely qualified people to say that.
MGI surveys in France, the United Kingdom, and the US have found that people whose incomes are not growing, and who do not anticipate an improvement, tend to view trade and immigration much more negatively than those who are experiencing or foresee gains. The Brexit vote in the UK and bipartisan opposition to trade agreements in the US are clear signs of this.
In case you are wondering about MGI: It ain't any socialist think-tank!  McKinsey Global Institute is as pro-capitalist as it can get, as I am sure this guy would attest to.

Another expert--this time a male, for a change--who is a columnist at another pro-capitalist publication, The Economist, also states the same ideas, using different words:
I think we are headed for a really important era in economic history. The Industrial Revolution is a pretty good guide of what that will look like. There will have to be a societal negotiation for how to share the gains from growth. That process will be long and drawn out. It will involve intense ideological conflict, and history suggests that a lot will go wrong.
A lot will go wrong?  Looks like I have company in the buzzkill department ;)
 Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are two sides of the beginning of this social evolution. Bernie is pushing along the direction of, "let’s distribute more." Trump is pushing along a related direction which is, "let’s exclude others who are not like us."
I tell ya, misery loves (excellent) company!

So, what kind of challenging political/ideological issues can we expect in the near future?
What comes next would be higher wage subsidies and in-kind benefits, like tuition-free college or subsidized health care. But it’s coming, and the debate will be: If we’re going to pay people to do work that isn’t necessary, who do we let into the system? Who is allowed to benefit?
If only we the people could talk about all these as responsible adults.  Oh well, democracy ain't perfect!