Monday, October 31, 2016

Solitude in the technologically connected world

I think that I have qualities that will piss people off day in and day out.  But, maybe there are at least a couple of things about me that appeal to somebody.  And maybe a couple of different things about me appeal to somebody else.  But, here is the problem: Anybody who wants to be friends with me has to work with the entire me, right?  After all, they can't merely get those one or two things and then vanish.

If you agree with me, then you are my kind of a person.  But then that is also why you are here, reading the crap that I post every day.

But, if you think about seriously enough, you will immediately see that you can get those one or two things from me and then vanish.  Are you thinking how?

For instance, the moment I start talking slowly about something that absolutely fascinates me but is boring to you, maybe you start doing a quick check on the emails.  Or the Facebook feed.  Or you are sending a text message to your colleague at work about the meeting tomorrow. Or, you ... now you can begin to see how you can choose to get what you want from me, right?

Of course, this is not anything new.  In the old days, people simply zoned out.  Students' minds drifted off into worlds far away from away from our galaxy.  But, what is new is, well, let me give you an example.  Recently, I texted an older friend about swinging by their place to say hi and chat for a while.  A couple of minutes later, the text reply that I read shocked me.  The message said that they were at a funeral service for a friend.  Before the days of the smartphone, when we attended a funeral service, we had no choice but to be physically and mentally be at the funeral service.  Not anymore.  Whether it is a funeral, or a wedding, or my classes, or a board meeting, or whatever, we have started being here and in a gazillion other places all at once at the same time.
Why does this matter? It matters to me because I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble -- trouble certainly in how we relate to each other, but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection. We're getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere -- connected to all the different places they want to be. People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are because the thing that matters most to them is control over where they put their attention. 
I like how Sherry Turkle puts it: We want to customize our lives.  Which is what I see even in students in my classes.  You warming up now?
Across the generations, I see that people can't get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right.
With the technology for which the smartphone is merely a forerunner of even smarter stuff coming our way, we are almost instantaneously editing our lives and our interactions with others.  But, this is far from the approach to understanding who we are--as individuals and as humans.
 Human relationships are rich and they're messy and they're demanding. And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring. 
Are you with me now?
We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, "Why have things come to this?"
Exactly.  Why have things come to this?  What is the inner force propelling us faster and faster along this route?
technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we're not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.
We are making life unnecessarily complicated for ourselves.  Instead of admitting to the awful burden that loneliness and working towards eliminating that problem, we seek the illusion of companionship that technology provides us.
 if we don't have connection, we don't feel like ourselves. We almost don't feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.
How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don't have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we're not able to appreciate who they are. It's as though we're using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we're at risk, because actually it's the opposite that's true. If we're not able to be alone, we're going to be more lonely.
So ... any suggestions?

Really, you need suggestions after all the posts on such topics?  Tell you what ... nothing will be new in the following:
Start thinking of solitude as a good thing. Make room for it. Find ways to demonstrate this as a value to your children. Create sacred spaces at home -- the kitchen, the dining room -- and reclaim them for conversation. Do the same thing at work. ... Most important, we all really need to listen to each other, including to the boring bits. Because it's when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.
Even to the boring bits.

We will put that to a test here.
Let me tell you about my ... hey, listen to me.
DO NOT run away from me ...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Not this shit again

Julian Assange and James Comey have delivered all the October surprises that we did not need.  It didn't matter to me; I was done with my ballot last weekend, and signed, sealed, and delivered it last Monday.  If everything goes well, on the evening of November 8th, the world will breathe a sigh of relief that the US dodged electing the guy who could be the greatest recruiting poster for all the disaffected crazies in the troubled Islamic countries.

The American elections have been one heck of a reality TV show around the world.  But, there are far more compelling human dramas unfolding in real time.  Tragedies, with no end in sight.  No, this post is not about Syria. Nor about the migrants. Nor about Yemen. Nor about ...

It is about Venezuela:
a relatively large, relatively sophisticated major oil producer just three hours’ flying time from the United States has just become the second all-out, no-more-elections dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
The courts have suspended what would have been a referendum to recall the "loathed authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro."

A referendum that Maduro would have lost; there were eight voters lined up against him for every supporter, according to surveys.  Given such intense opposition,
how does Maduro retain enough support going forward to hang on to power? Where is his genuine source of support at this point?
You want a nanosecond to think about it?
People with guns. That includes the military of course, which has been given enormous privileges during the last 18 years. [It has] been put in charge of mining businesses, been part of the oil industry, and smuggling, and cocaine, and a lot of other things.
"Includes the military" because it is not merely the military:
It’s the paramilitarization of the ruling party. So [the] PSUV, or Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, has what are called colectivos. [These are] sort of grassroots supporter civilians who are armed and organized. What they are is paramilitaries. They are armed civilian groups that support the government. The degree of tactical cooperation between the armed security forces and these paramilitary groups is shocking now and really, they’re not trying to hide it. And these days there’s Twitter—you can’t hide things even if you want to. 
So, ... what next?  If life in Venezuela has already gone from bad to worse to worst, ...?
We are in deeply uncharted territory here, so to try to forecast it now is really, really dicey. There’s a sense in the opposition now of learned helplessness. [A sense of,] “we’ve done a lot, we’ve done a lot to try to get rid of these guys and they’ve worn us out every time, and we’ve failed every time and the country has gotten worse and worse and worse.” So in a way, that’s the hardest thing to get over. Part of the reason that people reacted to the offer of the Vatican mediation the way they did is precisely that: Not this shit again.  
"Not this shit again" can equally apply to the presidential campaign here in the US too.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

When day is done!

I scan the obituary notices in the local paper.  Not because of any morbid curiosity.  Not because I want to know if anybody I know is dead.

I scan them for two important reminders about life: One, we all die, and I will also die.

The second reason I scan them is to remind myself that we all age, and that if we are lucky enough to live long, then we will see our youth recede farther and farther in our rear-view mirrors.

I have blogged in plenty, like here, about how when we see old and frail people, we see them only as old and frail people, and forget that they, too, were once young and lively and energetic.  To quite an extent, the old and the frail are constant reminders of what is coming our way.  We see the future every day, yet we so easily dismiss what we see.

Of course, this is nothing new.  It is very much a part of the story of the Buddha himself.  Remember that story?  Siddhartha was brought up in a bubble where the misfortunes of life were hidden from him.  Siddhartha did not know anything about the human suffering,  And then, one day, he ventures out and finds a dead person.  A corpse.  Siddhartha meets an old man, and now worries that he too might become old and wrinkly.  The metamorphosis of Siddhartha to the Buddha began.

We might try our best to defeat aging and death.  But, resistance is futile.  Resisting it also means that we lose the wonderful opportunity that we have to enjoy the here and the now.

If only we understood carpe diem and YOLO along these lines!

No, I did not wake up thinking about all these. Instead, it was watching reading and watching this that led me to blogging for today.

Enjoy, before the day is done!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Back in the USSR

While liberals adored the hippie-life that Oregon represented, I was equally impressed with the state's Republican leaders that I had read about back in my California days.

There was the famous governor, Tom McCall--thanks to his concern for the environment, we have public access to the awesome beaches, and the first ever legislation that emphasized recycling.  Yep, a Republican.

Or, there was Senator Mark Hatfield, who often voted against his fellow Republicans, and whose principled policy positions might be considered to be dangerously left by today's GOP standards.  Yes, a Republican.

Now, Oregon has become a deep blue state.  It has been three decades since a Republican was voted into the governor's office.  For almost a decade now, both our US senators have been Democrats.  The statewide offices are almost always Democratic.  I worry that we are becoming a one-party state.

It is not that I have problems with our two senators--not at all.  In fact, I have often tweeted supporting their policy positions.  I have no problems with the governors either.  I am concerned that the lack of strong opposition is not always a good thing.  Maybe it is the logic of thesis and antithesis that drives my thinking.  But, hey, that is good enough grounds for being concerned.

Catherine Rampbell's column, therefore, resonates with me.  She writes there that the GOP's implosion, while a good thing as far as purging the crazies out of the party, can also be a bad development because we might not have the healthy debates that we need to have on various policy issues.
Right now a number of bad ideas booming on the left need a credible, coherent, megaphoned rebuttal. These are ideas that may sound nice and perhaps appear helpful. But pursuing many of them would be, at best, irrelevant and ineffective, a waste of time and resources; at worst, they would be actively harmful to the marginalized groups that bleeding-heart liberals claim to champion.
These are proposals such as bringing back Glass-Steagall, a banking law whose repeal actually had nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis. Its resurrection is perplexingly popular on the left.
Or banning genetically modified organisms.
Or instituting a $15-an-hour minimum wage nationwide, even though that’s higher than the current median wage in four states and three territories.
Or free college for all, including rich people.
Or arbitrary tax carve-outs for items such as tampons (which constitute a giveaway to rich people, too, and ultimately require raising tax rates on everything else, which can disproportionately hurt poor people).  
You might think that none of these can easily happen at DC because even a weakened set of zombie Republicans at the Senate and the House will put up a good fight.  True.
Many of these ideas have little chance of making it into federal law, given current Capitol Hill dynamics. But inspired states and municipalities are going forward with some of them. Additionally, liberal firebrands such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have made clear their intention to pressure a President Clinton from the left when and where she would have policymaking power.
If only we had responsible politicians and a responsible citizenry, right?  But, that requires rational voters, and we simply ain't.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Where does the neighborhood end?

Usually when I call my parents, thanks to life on opposite sides of the world, I end up calling them when they have just about wrapped up a hot breakfast, and when they are contemplating what to prepare for lunch.  Usually.

Not that one day.  Their lunch prep was on hold.

The preparations had to wait because the neighbor had died and they did not want to get the kitchen operations going until the body was taken away.  Whatever be the religious reasons, there is a basic humanitarian reason for such a delay, which you may have already figured out.  Indian cooking releases a gazillion mouth-watering aromas (or, strong odors, if you don't care for them) and such an act while the neighbor's family is sitting with the dead person is simply an awfully discourteous behavior.

In the old days, in my grandmothers' villages, one of the reasons for a quick disposal of the body was to also make sure that the neighbors were not put to a great inconvenience--after all, when tragedy strikes in our life, it is not a tragedy for everybody, right?

Which is what I want to get to in this post.  Where does that neighborhood boundary end?

Tragedies happen every minute of every day all around the world.  But, that does not stop us from cooking delicious meals, traveling, having sex, ... whatever.  While it is a wonderful survival mechanism to make sure that we don't involved with the tragedies all around, my objective in this post is a much simpler one: For us to be reminded that there are real people all around with real problems that are far more compelling than our problems with the overcast skies and crappy cellphone coverage.

One of those tragedies was this image that appeared in my Twitter feed:

The tweet noted:
it's a kid arm holding to his bag after today's bombing
Yet another tragic day in Syria :(

I started following that Twitter feed after reading a Nick Kristof column, in which he had included details about a kid and her mother in Aleppo.  Now, thanks to that, I am reminded every day that life is not normal in Syria.  The image of a kid's severed arm lying on the ground with the fingers wrapped around a school bag is, sadly, only the latest of the horrific images that we have seen over the past couple of years.

Later, news reports provided a complete picture related to that image:
A school compound in a rebel-held part of northern Syria was repeatedly hit by airstrikes on Wednesday in an assault that monitoring groups and rescuers said had left dozens of people dead, including many children.
Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said the assault in Idlib Province may have been the deadliest on a school since the Syrian war began more than five years ago.
Twenty-two children and six teachers were killed in the strikes, Unicef said. 
Neither my parents nor I stop our lunch and dinner preparations in order to honor and respect the dead in Aleppo. Or in Mosul. Or in wherever.  Because ... they aren't our neighbors?!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What if we, the people, are just not rational?

Decision-making within the 35-home neighborhood where I live became a tad contentious.  The rhetoric got heated.  I followed Harry Truman's "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" and quit the governing board.

If a 35-home neighborhood can generate enough political heat for me to throw in that metaphorical towel, do you think I will be able to stand even one tweet from Adolf Trump?

What shocks me more than Drumpf  as the major party candidate is this: There are tens of millions of people who support him, despite all the horrible tweets of his, and despite all the horrible things he has said about a whole bunch of people not only this country but even outside the US.

We cannot dismiss this as a freakish outlier.  To me, this is all the more evidence that there is a wide gulf between the democracy that we idealize and the reality of it all.  This gulf has existed all the time; it is not anything new.  But, never before has it become this glaringly in our face, which means we can't really be in denial anymore.

When it comes to democracy in America:
[Maybe] the problem is that we were expecting too much out of it in the first place ... It's time to stop pretending that there's such a thing as a rational voter.
I agree.  Maybe it is time we lowered the expectations. And lowered it a great deal.  It is the unrealistic expectations that also then end up with the complications like the ballot measures that we regular people simply cannot even understand and, yet, are asked to vote on.  The same unrealistic expectations of rational voters thinking through issues is also how the Brexit screw-up happened.  It is the same story in any democracy, not only here in the US.
"Can ordinary people, busy with their lives and with no firsthand experience of policy making or public administration, do what the theory expects them to do?" Of course not. "Mostly," Achen and Bartels write, "they identify with ethnic, racial, occupation, religious or other sorts of groups, and often — whether through group ties or hereditary loyalties — with a political party."
Exactly.  Back in the old country, I was always shocked at how ethnic, religious, and other affiliations seemed to lead plenty--perhaps an overwhelming majority even--to vote.  I tell ya, my adopted country is no different from my old country!

The author writes, "it’s finally time to make peace with a simple fact of political life: Informed, individualistic rationality is a chimera."   I am ready.  I made my own peace with it a long time ago, which is also why until a month ago, I never ruled out Hitler winning on November 8th.  It is also why I was not that surprised that Bush won a second term.

The friend always asks me for some kind of a constructive takeaway.  Here, it is simple: Stop imagining about the utopia and work with the reality.  Do not deny the reality that you observe.  And, more than anything else, do not ever think that more education means a better democracy.  Nope!
For the good-government reform community, this suggests something equally radical: giving up on the deeply held belief that American democracy can be solved by giving citizens more opportunities to participate by emailing Congress or voting, and an end to thinking all would be better if more people would just "get informed on the issues. ...
It also means coming to terms with the fact that we don’t think for ourselves; we think together. And maybe that’s fine. Partisanship and group loyalties are inevitable, and they can even be good things if they can help us realize shared interests.
Have a nice day! ;)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return

A few years ago, in an academic exchange, somebody remarked that the line in the burial scenes in movies--ashes to ashes, and dust to dust--is not literally there in the bible, but is a paraphrase of the idea.  I tell ya, academics are very particular about the words used.  I remember two colleagues arguing about the meaning of the word "intrinsic."  Whatever floats one's boat, right?

Anyway, about the burial scenes in movies.  A few days ago, my father was recalling old stories and about a death in the extended family.  He said only a couple of people went to the burial ground.  I suppose I forgot I was talking with my father, and as if I was in a classroom I asked him, "when it is cremation that is done, why the usage of 'burial ground'"?  He thinks it might have been from the British days, which is how English words became a part of the vocabulary.  Because the Christian British referred to the burial ground, well, even cremation grounds became "burial grounds."  Methinks I should stop asking questions! ;)

The atheist that I am, even if it were not for my Hindu upbringing, I favor cremation.  After all, death renders the person as nothing but "the body."  When alive, I am sriram, but after I die, the question will not be "what are you going to do with sriram?"  Nope.  The question will be "what about the body?"

As Neil deGrasse Tyson wonderfully put it in this talk, our body is nothing but cosmic dust.  The periodic table elements in us matches the elements in the universe.  The universe is within us, and we are the universe.  It is one heck of a spiritual way to appreciate our place in this universe.  So, after death, cremating and converting me to ashes sounds logical.  Return me to dust.

Of course, to many believers, in the Judeo-Christian faith, cremation is not, ahem, kosher.  Which means that new doctrinal interpretations have to be developed by those who can read the mind of god.  The Roman Catholic institution is now caught up in the, ahem, dust:
On Tuesday, the Vatican responded to what it called an “unstoppable increase” in cremation and set down new guidelines barring the scattering of ashes “in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way.”
When new guidelines are issued, I would think that those we quickly refer to as fundamentalists go berserk.  Either something was the instruction from god, or it was not.  So, what happens to the old instruction that the dead body should not be cremated because of the belief "in the resurrection of the body"?  Not my hassle--it is for the believers to sort out the new software update, so to speak.
Burial prevents the forgetting of the loved one, as well as “unfitting or superstitious practices,” the document states.
For that reason, the Vatican said that cremation urns should not be kept at home, save for “grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature.”
My conversations with my father are evidence that cremation does not mean we have forgotten the people who went before us.  We share plenty of stories about those whose bodies were cremated; a marker in the graveyard  is not needed by any means to remember and respect the dead.

But then, maybe I am being a cantankerous academic ;)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Vote early. Not often.

"Election time approaches, and I am curious if you have a comment on Measure 98," began the email.  It was from a person who is not really a stranger--only because he has emailed me once before, and it was in response to my op-ed in the Statesman Journal.  But a stranger as in I don't know the sender.

I was shocked.  Stunned. Somebody asking me for my thoughts on a statewide ballot measure?  My views matter to somebody?

I mean, I have enough and more feedback as evidence that my op-eds have reached people, even when they disagree with me.  So, yes, my opinion has mattered to them.  But, "your opinion is a direct influence on my decision of how to vote."  This is an entirely different ballgame altogether, on how I would vote on a measure and what my thoughts are.

It is understandable.  Our ballots have gotten to be way too long, and the ballot information book is now as fat and boring as a college textbook typically is.  It is even worse in some states like Colorado and California.  Of course, one can simply avoid voting, or casually vote a yes/no without giving the choices a great deal of thought.  But, if one wants to carefully weigh the choices, it is a lot of work, and a lot of hard work at that.  The only good thing is that here in Oregon we can vote from home.  Which is what I did Sunday evening, with the voter information book and the internet as my resources for the open-book exam.

I am not the only one worried that we might be asking way too much from us.  A political science professor at the University of Denver writes:
Look, I’m a passionate advocate for free and fair elections and for public participation in them. But this is too much. As a political scientist who specializes in American elections, I’ve just got to be toward the upper end of the informed scale, and there’s no way I’m going to cast an informed vote on all these contests.
Exactly.  If relatively informed people like him and me have a tough time doing the homework and then marking our preferences, ...

Measure 98--the one that the email referred to--is one of the few measures on the ballot here in Oregon.  These are complex policy ideas.  At least not as complex as the carbon-tax ballot measure in Washington, which I had blogged about a few days ago.

The Denver professor asks a question that is familiar to me.  "But is the ballot really the right place to hammer these things out?"  In an op-ed a few years ago, I argued that asking voters to say yes/no to complex ideas is horribly wrong.  If it were as simple as that, then we don't need a legislative body.  We have a legislature--a bicameral one at that--because such complex issues need to be discussed and argued at length by all of us, via our elected representatives.  But, hey, whoever listens to me, right?

Democracy is terribly messy.  Painful.  But, there is no better alternative.  For now, I am relieved and happy that I don't have to deal with a ballot for some time ;)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

This heavy post won't fly!

Every day, I seem to have some interesting memory-recall instances.  Why should today be any exception, right?

Even as I glanced at the headline, I thought to myself, "I have discussed this somewhere."  The headline was this: An American airline wins the right to weigh passengers on its Samoan route.

I spent a couple of minutes thinking about where it was ... and then it came to me.  It was the blog that this lazy business-focused guy has stopped working on.  I tracked down his post and my own comment as well.

The other day, I told students in one class that understanding the world, which is what learning is about, is to a large extent nothing but conversations--with those around us, with authors of texts that we read, with speakers we watch, and--heck--even with Socrates.  So, along those lines, I suppose this post is a continuation of the conversation from three years ago ;)

First a recap of the issues for those who are jumping into the conversation without any idea of what happened: "Samoa Air in 2013 became the first airline to charge passengers by weight."  That was what the retired businessman had blogged about in joy.  Since then, Hawaiian Airlines came to the same idea of weighing the Samoan passengers:
The problem for Hawaiian Airlines began when the carrier discovered it was burning through more fuel than anticipated on its route between Honolulu and the small Pacific island territory of American Samoa, according to reporting by the Associated Press. The airline ruled out explanations like strong winds and decided to conduct a voluntary survey among its passengers on the route. The results were clear: passengers and their carry-on luggage were, on average, 30 pounds (14 kilograms) heavier than expected.
So Hawaiian Airlines instituted a new policy. People flying between Honolulu and American Samoa would no longer be able to select their seats before arriving at the airport. Instead, they would be assigned seats when they checked in so that the carrier could distribute their weight evenly around the plane.
Now, if Samoans weighed only as much as the sports-maniac did, then nothing to worry about.  But, Samoans "have among the highest rates of obesity in the world."

Three years ago, my comment was this:
Hmmm ... you should be happy that you are not in the US--by now, a lawyer would have sued for a pound of flesh from you. Oh wait, you don't have a pound on you!!!
Well ... in a way, yes, this Hawaiian Airlines decision did not go unnoticed.  The people complained that:
Hawaiian’s decision is discriminatory because it applies only to that one route, most of whose passengers are Samoan or of Samoan descent.
How do you think that the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled on this?  I will leave it to you infer that from the headline of the article ;)

One of the comments in response to the article is interesting:
As a small person who has been subsidizing large people on airline flights forever, all I can say is get over it. You've had it lucky for years. A truly just and equitable system would be to charge everyone by total weight (body plus luggage). We seem to accept that principle for freight. Well, that's what we all are, human freight.
We are human freight?  It is one heck of a strange world in which we live.  Am reminded of the Brazil minister's response to the notorious memo authored by Larry Summers back when he was the World Bank's chief economist: " reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane."  Hey, that's another memory recall; how about that! ;)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Spending time well before you die

Over the years, I have come up with many arrangements in order to manage technology in my life. After I switched to the smartphone--which I did only because my old phone became non-functional--I made sure that notifications were turned off.  I set it up such that unless I activated email or Facebook or Twitter, well, there would not be any automatic downloading of the latest.

On top of all these, I almost always went for my favorite walk by the river without my phone.  It was me, the river, the trees, the birds, the everything but technology.  Sometimes, even my grocery and other errands were without the iPhone, which I would leave behind at home.

All because for the longest time I have operated with a clear notion that I get to decide how to use technology, and that technology should not begin to redefine my life.

Perhaps it is this distrust of technology at an instinct-level that also contributed to my wanting to ditch engineering at the earliest.  I am all the happier that such a good instinct has guided my life ;)

It is more than instinct, of course.  There is an increasing body of evidence that people of all ages, and the younger ones in particular, are addicted to the gadgets because of the number of apps that specifically prey on our wiring for addiction.  Yes, as much as the tobacco industry knew how nicotine is addictive, these app developers also know how addicting it can be.
While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, [Tristan] Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” “You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.
You, dear reader, are like me in how much you are fighting against the technology that wants to control our lives.  But, we are in a minority.  A shrinking minority.  A rapidly shrinking minority.

One of the main centers that has spawned highly intelligent software professionals who create such addictive apps is the Persuasive Technology Lab, at Stanford.
Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of “behavior design”—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill. (One of Instagram’s co-founders is an alumnus.) In Fogg’s course, Harris studied the psychology of behavior change, such as how clicker training for dogs, among other methods of conditioning, can inspire products for people. For example, rewarding someone with an instantaneous “like” after they post a photo can reinforce the action, and potentially shift it from an occasional to a daily activity.
Pause and think about this.  Highly intelligent people are sitting around and systematically creating ways in which people can become addicted to the apps they create.  You think a great number of humans will be able to fight such a concerted effort?  It is a losing battle for most people, my friend.

One of the examples cited there was something that I had not known about--the Snapstreak feature in Snapchat.  After reading the article--which I did offline the old fashioned way by holding The Atlantic in my hands--I had to Google "snapstreak" to understand it.  Check it out, if you are like me and you have no idea what that is.  Here is an effect that the addictive Snapstreak has:
Research shared with Harris by Emily Weinstein, a Harvard doctoral candidate, shows that Snapstreak is driving some teenagers nuts—to the point that before going on vacation, they give friends their log-in information and beg them to snap in their stead.
Of course we know why they have to make things more and more and more addictive:
“They want to make things more sugary and more tasty, and pull you in, and justify billions of dollars of valuation and hundreds of millions of dollars [in] VC funds.”
Tristan Harris is also a young tech dude, but is leading a good fight on behalf of us.  "Under the auspices of Time Well Spent, Harris is leading a movement to change the fundamentals of software design."

A few months ago, I sent a link about Harris and his "Hippocratic oath" to a student who was working on her thesis with my guidance.  I am always awed by people like Harris who are willing to give up gazillions in order to do good things.  I will end this post with one of his talks on this subject.  After reading this, and after watching his video, put your phone and laptop away, shut off the television, and go talk with a human.  Make eye contact.  Hold their hand.  Contemplate on what it means to be human.  You will be healthier--and wealthier too.

Friday, October 21, 2016

No Belles, Hombres, and Equalism

David J. Thouless
F. Duncan M. Haldane
J. Michael Kosterlitz
Jean-Pierre Sauvage
Sir J. Fraser Stoddart
Bernard L. Feringa
Yoshinori Ohsumi
Juan Manuel Santos
Bob Dylan
Oliver Hart
Bengt Holmström
If you are like me, then reading "Bob Dylan" in that list of names is the clue that explains that they are the people tapped with the Nobel honors this year.  Well, except the last two on the list--theirs is a fake Nobel!

The listing of names reveals something, right?  No females honored with that stratospheric honor.  In fact, "it’s been 53 years since a woman won the Nobel Prize in physics."  Most of that is political--a process that keeps deserving women away.  My favorite in this context is Rosalind Franklin.  While controversy abounds, from what I can understand, I am convinced that sexist politics kept her out of the picture.

But, here's what we also find--males tend to be found in high percentages at the high achieving end, and they also seem to be overwhelmingly the gender in everything from mass shootings to drug-dealing to the population in prisons.  Of course, for even thinking about this, Larry Summers was kicked out of his job at Harvard; recall that brouhaha?

Most of us in our regular lives do not ever cross paths with the high achieving end nor the other extreme.  And, what I find in that vastness of regular life is this, and about which I have been thinking and blogging for the longest time: Men are in trouble.
Consider some startling statistics.
More than a fifth of American men — about 20 million people — between 20 and 65 had no paid work last year.
Seven million men between 25 and 55 are no longer even looking for work, twice as many black men as white.
There are 20 million men with felony records who are not in jail, with dim prospects of employment, and more of these are black men.
Half the men not in the labor force report they are in bad physical or mental health.
Men account for only 42 percent of college graduates, handicapping them in a job market that rewards higher levels of education.
Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and now a professor of economics at Harvard, estimates that a third of men between 25 and 54 without college educations could be out of work by midcentury.
Well-paying jobs that don’t demand a college degree have been shrinking for generations — and technology is accelerating that trend.
That report from the NY Times is filled with rich evidence, which is why:
Alan B. Krueger, a professor of economics at Princeton, recently conducted a study of working-age men. “I came away thinking our biggest social problem is men,” he said. 
Take your time to read through and digest all that.  A point there reinforces something that I have been talking about for a while--we need to seriously reconsider what it means to be a man in these rapidly changing times.
Succeeding in the new economy and culture may well require rethinking conventional ideas about masculinity.
I cannot understand how and why we as a society are not engaging in such important conversations and are, instead, wasting away our time and money on frivolity.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Our sterile pursuits

Consider this:
Does anyone, for instance, believe that tax accountants contribute to national wealth or to productivity, and altogether add to society’s well-being, whether material, physical or spiritual?
Perhaps you are thinking that it is so typical of this left-of-center blogger to beat up on tax accountants.  If so, ahem, you don't know me then ;)

The writer also follows up with another comment that we are wasting well-educated human intellect on such "essentially sterile pursuits.”

So, who said that?  Peter Drucker. Yep, that Drucker.

It is bizarre how in a liberal democracy we continue to add taxes and tax-breaks, which almost always end up making creative work for tax accountants and attorneys, while making even more money for corporations, when the whole idea of government collecting revenue is for the "public interest."  At the end of the day, a presidential contender struts around with everybody understanding that he paid no taxes thanks to all those lines in the tax code and all those accountants.  It is a fine mess that we have created, and even an Alexander cannot handle this Gordian Knot!

To some extent, the tax attorney/accountant jobs that we have created are not that different from the textbook case of paying people to dig holes and have them fill those hole back.  We pass laws that create all those tax loopholes, and then these highly educated folks get paid to needle the thread through those holes.  One hell of a Keynesian jobs creation scheme, except that the ones who benefit from it usually attack Keynesian ideas.

But, back to Drucker's point on highly educated people following sterile pursuits.  I wish I had known this phrase back in my undergraduate days, because all I knew then was that I didn't want to waste my life in sterile pursuits.  But, it took me a while to also figure out what might be a worthwhile pursuit.

I am yet again reminded of the observation on "bullshit jobs" that I blogged about.  In another place, that same author--David Graeber, who is as far from Drucker as can be possible in the political economic spectrum--notes:
A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble. But it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish
Of course, that is a a little exaggerated.  Without actuaries?  But Graeber's larger point is no different from Drucker's.

Like many, I too worry that the automation that is rapidly coming down our way will further drive many into sterile pursuits, instead of liberating us to pursue activities that will add meaning.  My father commented a while ago, "everybody says they are consultants.  But I don't understand what they are consulting about."  The next time he says that I should perhaps tell him that most are sterile pursuits--only because that sounds more official than saying "bullshit jobs."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Not one lasts

Many trees around me have lost all their leaves already, thanks to the vigorous northwest winds that blew through.  The maples by the river are in fifty shades of gorgeous red; soon, they too will fall, leaving the trees nude in the winter grey.

All the old things go.

The evergreens last.  Against the cloudy and dark November sky, the firs will be quite an exception.  As if they are keeping a watch on everything that happens all around.  They listen to our talking, the river rushing, the rain falling, the wind whistling.

They will be around when we also leave.

Autumn Movement
By Carl Sandburg

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.

The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman,
the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.

The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes,
new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind,
and the old things go,
not one lasts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Some are more "digital" than others?

A few days ago, I told the friend that we had to make use of the sunny Sunday that was forecast.  "It could be the last one for a long time" I said.

I am glad we put that sunny day to good use.  Boy has the weather changed since then.  Typhoon-like conditions.  Wind. Rain.  Not the drip-drip variety rain, but the rain that comes down in buckets.  The rain with the huge drops that almost crack open my bald head.

Autumn in Oregon.

The sudden change in the season has upset some people, apparently.

On the road, as the two lanes were merging, I noticed the two vehicles ahead of me were on par with each other.  Clearly neither driver wanted to yield to the other.  I slowed down and gave myself even more space than I normally do.  I didn't want to become a victim in their game of chicken.

Finally, almost at the last minute, one vehicle's brake lights flashed for a second and the other vehicle went ahead.  Collision avoided.

I was so focused on the drama in front of me that I did not know about the drama that was unfolding behind me.  It was another case of road rage, with neither driver yielding to another.  I tuned into that show at the final stages.

I saw one driver raise the hands over the steering wheel, in frustration maybe.  And almost immediately, the hand of the other driver came out.  And then the one-finger salute.

I tell ya, these people do not deserve to be in Oregon.

A couple of minutes later, another lane opened up.  I moved over to the slow lane, of course.  The finger-driver's vehicle shot past me in the other lane.  It was a woman.

Which is when I wondered whether a woman showing the finger makes any sense at all. When a man shows his finger, there is the suggested threat with the finger representing the penis.  There is nothing literal when a woman shows the finger, right?

Because I was in the slow lane, the fingered-driver's vehicle caught up with me.  The driver was a woman in this case too.

But,  here is the worst thing: In the passenger seat was a young girl, who perhaps was about twelve or thirteen.  I felt awful that the kid was exposed to such a terrible behavior.

I suppose this is also a part of life. Kids get to see angry people. Homeless people. Sick people.  All kinds of people.

It is one crazy world.

Monday, October 17, 2016

I’m an amateur

The other day, I tallied up the newspaper op-eds of mine.  The last one, which I timed with Gandhi's birthday, was number 190.  I told the friend that I am now on a countdown to reach 200.

I wanted to be an academic who was actively engaging with the public--the old-fashioned public intellectual, even if I could be at that high quality. I now look at the number 190 and, frankly, I am impressed with myself.

I did not think it would work out this well.  Especially because I am always worried that people might find out that I do not know.  I have always felt like I am an amateur who was dangerously close to the edge.  It is, therefore, comforting to know that such a thought of being an amateur is a good thing:
Being an amateur is nothing to be ashamed of. Edward Said embraced the term. For him it was the mode of the intellectual. Amateurism, he said, is "the desire to be moved not by profit or reward, but by love for an unquenchable interest in the larger picture." It is a desire, he continued, that lies "in refusing to be tied down to a specialty, in caring for ideas and values despite the restrictions of a profession."
As an amateur you are naturally anti-instrumental. You’re largely indifferent to extrinsic rewards or status. When doing research, you’re not interested in gaining an elevated position among your immediate academic peers. You’re just interested in keeping your job, making sure not to get fired.
I like that description: "you are naturally anti-instrumental,"  I do what I do not because I am chasing "extrinsic rewards or status."  I care for the ideas that I explore, for the students I serve, and as long as I continue to have the job that I have, all is well.  As simple as that.
As amateurs we need to be open. And we need to experiment with different outlets, and work on how we get our ideas across.
Exactly.  Which is also why I embraced Twitter--it is another outlet for me to figure out how to get new ideas, and to also get my ideas out.

In doing so:
Are we writing about topics worth caring about? Topics that move us? Topics that move other people? All too often we seem to write about topics that move no one and have no resonance to anyone, anywhere.
In my early years of engaging with the public, it was always a struggle trying to figure out how to convince the reader that what I write is important.  Where was the hook for the local reader if I wanted to write about India or Tanzania?  Why is that relevant to them?  The only thing I knew was this: I did not want to come across to a reader that I write because I am an expert and that they ought to read my stuff because I am an expert.  That, to me, was an unequal partnership that would never work.  Even now, when I visit India and I read the newspapers there, I find almost all the op-eds convey that tone of "listen to me, because I am an expert who works at a big time place."

I am willing to bet that this meaningful op-ed writing and engaging with the public has also made me a better teacher.  After all, it is the same mentality that I take to the classroom: How do I convince the audience--even if they are captive--that the content is relevant to them and their lives?
When writing for academic journals, you’re lucky to be read by more than a handful of people. With teaching, however, it’s different. Not only can we reach many more, but, as Russell Jacoby wrote in The Last Intellectuals, we "have students who pass through and on to other things." And with students passing through the university each year, you might have an impact after all.
As an unapologetic amateur you should like to experiment with form.
It is a pleasure, and perhaps quite an ego trip, when students do make those connections.

At the end of it all, I find more meaning in what I do.  There is no unbearable burden of calculations towards professional advancements.  The 190 remind me that I have contributed something of value to making this a better place for all of us.
Many aspiring intellectuals have put their professional careers at risk in favor of something more meaningful. They’ve cared less about their careers — and more about the world. Which, we think, is laudable.
I think I have an idea for #191.  Let us see.  In the meanwhile, there are students to serve.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Revenge is profitable. But, what about the meaning of human?

The nerd that I am, I scan the letters to the editor in the magazines that I value.  Thus, there I was reading the letters in the latest issue of the Scientific American, when I had to stop and start reading the letter from the beginning in order to make sure that the words were what I thought they were.  Here's how the letter begins:
Michael Shermer investigates the causes of death-row inmates' displays of positivity in “Death Wish” [Skeptic]. Although I am not on death row, I have served five years of a life sentence, so I may have some insight into this.
You see why I had to get to the beginning?  The letter writer is five years into his life sentence.  It is a letter in response to Shermer's column. In the Scientific American.

So, I did a Google search for the letter writer's name "Gordon Schumacher."   I pulled up another letter from him to the Denver Post, in which he is identified as "an inmate at Colorado’s Fremont Correctional Facility."   He writes in the letter, "As long as society is focused on revenge instead of healing, nothing will change."

In response to the letter in Scientific American, Shermer writes:
The problem that Schumacher identifies in the prison system is largely the result of the U.S. still mainly engaging in “retributive justice,” or the understandable desire for revenge and to give criminals their “just deserts,” instead of “restorative justice,” or the attempt to repair the damage done to the victim and to rehabilitate the perpetrator. Many countries are experimenting with complementing retribution with restoration, to great effect for victims, perpetrators and society.
Our system focuses so much on revenge.  There is an entire prison-industrial-complex that profits from this revenge.  Take the case of Canon City, in Colorado, where that letter-writer/inmate is.  I had no idea about the place until yesterday.  Wikipedia notes that the major employer includes the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Colorado Department of Corrections operates the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City.[19] In addition to several correctional facilities near Cañon City in unincorporated areas in Fremont County, Colorado State Penitentiary, the location of the state death row and execution chamber[20] is in Fremont County.[21] Other state prisons in Fremont County include Arrowhead Correctional Center,[22] Centennial Correctional Facility,[23] Fremont Correctional Facility,[24] Four Mile Correctional Center,[25] and Skyline Correctional Center.[26]
 Quite a few years ago, back in my California days, those of us interested in public policy issues started worrying about this dangerous prison-industrial-complex (the phrase being a takeoff on the famous military-industrial-complex that President Eisenhower worried/warned about.)  I lived in a county where cities competed against each other to be the location for a new prison.  It was bizarre.   And, politicians--locally and nationally--found that the public liked it if they seemed tough on crime, especially after how Bush exploited the Willie Horton incident in his campaign against Dukakis.  Incarcerating people for all kinds of crimes became a winning political strategy.  Just awful.

As the Economist noted a year ago in its commentary on America's disgraceful prison-industrial-complex,
Once we develop the mental habit of lumping together murderers and muggers as irredeemable monsters, it becomes possible to convince ourselves that it's okay to lock a man in a cage for most of his remaining years for having committed a relatively trivial "violent crime".
A reflexive dehumanisation of "criminals" and "felons" discourages the exercise of real judgment in sentencing and probation. It allows us to sleep well when judges commit injustice in the name of justice, consigning people to captivity long after they ought to be let free. And it helps us rationalise the disenfranchisement of those who are, eventually, released.
President Obama has set us (re)thinking about this awful mass incarceration.  We will hope that we will continue along this path and become civilized in the way we treat humans.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Food for thought

Having a few people around the dinner table is always a wonderful learning opportunity for me--to understand how human I am and, therefore, how much I prove that to err is human.  I never fail to err, it turns out.  I suppose that unlike that guy with a pointy cap, I am not infallible ;)

Getting together with people is about more than food, of course.  But, does the food have to be home-cooked?  Do people consider that as a waste of time?

I recall a husband teasing his wife at a party that the kitchen in their home is the most expensive room with all the fancy upgrades they had made, because now they were eating out more than before.  She immediately put him in his place with a sharp comeback.  The rest of us experienced quite an awkward moment.  We men, believing we are funny, easily connect our feet and mouths.  I suppose it is best for the males not to talk at dinners, whether or not the food is home-cooked ;)

Of course, cooking and food are not new questions.  Not new to this blog, where Soylent has been featured in more posts than I would like to.  But, seriously, how many of us would completely opt out of cooking if we could?
Take my favourite example, from a ground-breaking, obsessively detailed ethnography of the material culture of 32 middle-class Los Angeles households based on research conducted at UCLA between 2001 and 2005. In the resulting book, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century (2012), the authors note that when families in the study cooked weekday dinners from fresh, rather than pre-packaged, ingredients, it took only 10 to 12 minutes longer, on average, than preparing a convenience-food meal. Nonetheless, most of the parents in the study cite time scarcity as the reason they rely on frozen pizza, boxed macaroni-and-cheese, microwave dinners and takeout for two-thirds of their family’s weeknight meals.
Interesting, right?  As I read that, I was thinking about my latest restaurant experience.  Time to drive to the restaurant and then the time driving back.  The waiting time. The time it takes for the food to arrive.  It is not as if eating out takes way less time than cooking at home with all the modern convenient gadgets.

"Why, then, is eating convenience food viewed as a timesaving strategy?"
According to the researchers, the answer has to do with a reduction of mental effort. ‘Perhaps the most important and clear-cut effect of packaged foods is that they reduce the complexity of meal planning,’ they write. ‘The family chef can invest less time thinking about the week’s meals.’
How strange, right?  It comes back to that one thing that I have always argued is what education is fundamentally all about: Thinking.  In this case, the family food preparer can't be bothered with investing the time need to think about what to cook and to, therefore, plan out the sequence of actions.

More than anything else, "food is the primary means by which we embody and enact our shifting, species-shaping relationship with natural world." We now have more than anecdotal evidence that kids do not know where the food comes from.  My favorite on this is a news report a few years ago on how a bunch of elementary school kids were "traumatized" when their teacher explained how Elsie becomes the hamburger that they like.

Oh well ... I suppose the only advantage with not cooking is this: There won't be dishes to clean.  I now head to the kitchen to wash those pots and pans.  Poor me!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Homo Deus is a threat to our souls

I was a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog--in its various avatars at different places.  I checked in with his blog every day, just like I did with, say, the New York Times.  I liked to find out what he had to say especially because of the unique intersection of his various attributes that we normally do not expect: An immigrant, with a PhD from Harvard, deeply committed to Catholicism, gay, a Republican ...  And, he was on the forefront of blogging.  I can safely bet that he was the pioneer in the kind of public-intellectual blogging that we now take for granted--and he even made money from it!

And then, one day, just like that, he pulled the plug.  He closed shop.  He went away.

The digital/intenet life of "living-in-the-web" nearly killed him.  Literally.
In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
So, why did Sullivan keep doing that?
But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve.
And what was the problem with this?  A problem more than the health effects?
The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.
Sullivan realized that he used to be a real human being before this life on the web.  And even worse, he did not know how to get back to being a real human being.

I read his essay a few days ago and I put it aside.  I was drawn to it a second time because a student in my class tweeted about it.  It is one awesome class; more on that some other time.

In many, many ways, technology is rapidly redefining our lives even before we have even had a minute or two to think about the changes.   Today is not anything like yesterday, and tomorrow will be even more different.  Even if you want to call a time-out to pause, well, it is not as if there is one person whose foot is on the accelerator and we can request that person to instead step on the brakes.

Continuing along this path of no return threatens "humanity"--as in what it means to be human.  This book-review essay notes:
The next great stage of our evolution has begun. But what will our successes look like – and will they be that different to us?
At the recent conference, when having breakfast with two retired geographers, I told them that virtual interactions are rapidly diluting, eliminating, an important attribute--empathy.  The face-to-face interactions through which we truly understand the other and the other's feelings are now rare.  The less we have real world meaningful interactions, the less empathy we will have, I told them.

Sullivan writes:
Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.
In my classes, for the first time ever, this term I have made it clear to students--right in the syllabus--that I will not permit any use of laptops or smartphones.  For the nearly two hours that we meet, they have to shut themselves off from the outside world.  I was worried that this might backfire.  But, three weeks in, the trend that is emerging is clear: It is working great.  Students are engaged.  We are actually connecting as humans.

I recognize that my classes and my blog won't make a damn difference in the grand scheme of things.  But, when the time comes, I will assure myself that I gave it my best.

I will have Andrew Sullivan's words wrap up this post:
There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Academic conferences are more than merely for intellectual exchange.  They are also where we network, we connect with people, get energized by younger colleagues doing amazing work, ... and also get to hear horror stories from other campuses.  It is like a big counseling camp ;)

After listening to one of those horror stories, I shared one of my favorite comments about faculty: A significant percentage of them, if they were not in higher education institutions, would be locked up either in mental institutions or in penal institutions.  This is one way that society keeps antisocial assholes locked up.

Most academics do not seem to want to systematically develop within themselves two virtues that mean a lot to me--empathy and kindness.  Bullying, being a jerk, and engaging in immoral and illegal activities perhaps happen more in academia than elsewhere.  If you do not want to believe me, read this essay, where the author notes:
In a popular 2013 post, “Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness,” Inger Mewburn, who blogs as “The Thesis Whisperer,” considered whether jerks really do get ahead in academia. Relying upon Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Mewburn notes the advantages of being an asshole — someone who pursues his or her own career with ruthless dedication while stepping on and over others. More than that, unkindness is viewed as a signifier of intelligence and kindness as a signal of intellectual weakness. Academia rewards those who represent the clever and cruel version of intelligence. So nasty behavior gets reinforced. Jerks admire other jerks, and departments and institutions can become havens for assholes. 
You see how much milder my language is in comparison with the words in that paragraph? ;)

Assholes abound in academia.  Which is why if students find out that I am a good listener, I end up being their counselor.  

Apparently the absence of kindness is a part of the larger culture in which (if you want, channel Trump here) only "losers" show kindness:
According to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor, kindness “has become a forbidden pleasure.” In their 2009 book, On Kindness, they explore how kindness has emerged as trivial, corny, and/or silly rather than a crucial component in our social interactions. Simply put, kindness has a bad rap. They write: “Most people, as they grow up, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” We think people who act kind are weak or are only acting that way to further their own interests. Kindness actually makes us suspicious of other people’s intentions. 
Could there be a particular reason for empathy and kindness to be looked down upon in academia?
Part of the problem is that kindness gets associated with emotion while ideas and intellect go together. That dualism, they write, is “a philosophically thin account of what it means to be human.”
 Many academic philosophers--who are the ones we think of as contemplating what it means to be human--are also some of the most bitter, sarcastic, condescending assholes that I have met.  Recall this post on assholes in which I cited a book by a philosopher; I bet the author ran into way more unpleasant experiences with assholes than he ever wanted to write about.

We are now so much used to people behaving badly, and we so much expect the other to be nothing but an asshole, that we think that one acting with kindness has some devious agenda.  Hey, this is what progress is!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

I don't "believe" in climate change

"If I respect the person, then I am almost always open to listening to their ideas--even if they are different," a student remarked during discussions.

Now that explains why nobody listens to me! ;)

The student's observation is profound--am not sure if she realizes how insightful that is.  I hope she does not let go of that bottom-line; it will serve her well in life.

I am so convinced because, after all, I have my own experiences to confirm that.  Once, a stranger emailed me after reading an op-ed of mine, in which he wrote that he always reads my opinions because of my integrity.  The craziest thing is that he and I do not know each other and, yet, in his estimate from afar and based on my writings, I am a man of integrity.

I, too, behave the same way--I love to interact with people who are genuine and for whom I have respect.  Why would I want to waste my remaining time with people for whom I have no respect at all?

These begin to matter a lot on issues that bear enormous weight on society.  On the world.  Like with climate change.  Most people who are suspicious of claims about climate change, or the human triggers behind it, are also some of the more religious people in this country.  Most scientists, on the other hand, are not that much into religious beliefs.  So, we now have a problem: How could we convince them about the urgency?

This is not that much different from how public health issues--like small pox and polio--were tackled in developing countries.  Remember?  People, especially in villages, were not quite sold on the vaccination idea.  The campaign then sought out people in the communities whose words had some weight on others.  The village elders, the religious leaders, the school teachers, ... and when those people spoke to the community, the campaign was an easier sell.

Even here in climate change,
people can accept unwelcome truths much more readily if they come from within, rather than from outside, their community/family/group.
The NY Times profiled Katharine Hayhoe, who is a climate scientist as Texas Tech University, as one of those highly respected insiders:
Dr. Hayhoe has come to prominence in part because she is just so darned nice. It would be too easy to chalk that up to her Canadian background — she says it does help explain her commitment to finding consensus — and she has found that she gets her science across more effectively if she can connect with people personally. In a nation seemingly addicted to argument as a blood sport, she conciliates. On a topic so contentious that most participants snarl, she smiles. She is an evangelical Christian, and she does not flinch from using the language of faith and stewardship to discuss the fate of the planet.
She reminds us about something important:
While some climate warriors treat those who are not inclined to believe them as dupes or fools, she wants to talk. “If you begin a conversation with, ‘You’re an idiot,’ that’s the end of the conversation, too,” she said
Something similar is what another student remarked during the discussions.  Students hate it when they are treated like stupids.

Some people seem to intuit all these.  Some are like me--we learn it the hard way, after a few early years of arrogance.  It took me a while to understand and appreciate intellectual humility.  I wish I had understood that when way younger.

So, why the strange title for this post when it is intellectual humility that I wanted to reach?  It is straight out of that NY Times piece:
“I don’t believe in climate change,” she said. Belief doesn’t come into it; scientific verification does.
“Gravity doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not,” she said, “but if you step off a cliff, you’re going to go down.”
Facts and scientific verification have nothing to do with "belief."  But, facts and science alone cannot win the day.

Oh, the coolest thing of all?  I had tweeted the "belief" thing earlier:
And Katharine Hayhoe was one of the people who "liked" my tweet.  Hey, there are people who even listen to my tweets ;)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Meet Colonel Poppins

I told my class earlier today that I am forced to play the optimist in the classroom because I worry that all through the k-12 years, and in college classes too, it is more likely than not that students are presented only with the negative stories.  Like how population growth is a problem. Or about the polar bear. Or about the wars.  And how the country of Africa is messed up. How corporations have ruined lives. ... the list is endless.  I tell ya, if I were a college freshman, after listening to such stuff over and over and over, I will simply drop out and move to Montana and live in a cabin waiting for the end of the world as we know it.

My Major Buzzkill General Malaise personality is with a clear understanding that the world now is a much, much better place than the ones that the people who preceded us experienced.  Smartphones, internet, abundance of food, all the entertainment that Ramesh wants, long lives, eye glasses, varieties of food, ... why do we so conveniently forget that the world in which we live is a fabulous place?

So, yes, I actually told students that.  In fact, I even added this: "My alter ego's name is Major Buzzkill" and still I am an optimist.

I suppose whether it is in the news media or in college education, only bad news is sexy.  Nobody wants to talk about the number of planes took off and landed.  It is one crazy way we humans operate.

Consider, for instance, the following graphic of the progress in India since the time I was born:

In case the chart is not clear:
Life expectancy at birth: An increase of 56 percent
Infant survival: Increase of 76 percent
Personal income: Increase by 457 percent
Food supply: 23 percent increase

Notice a zero growth in democracy level.  Because the country was democratic even when I was born.  Only for two years was the country under a strong leader with individual rights suspended--the kind of a political system that Ramesh apparently loves ;)

BTW, income and food supply are all per capita numbers.

The following chart shows the improvement in life in the US, since my birth in the old country:

I complain because I want even better conditions and I want them to come about faster.  My complaints are not because I think this is a crappy world that is inferior to some good old days.  I hope you also see that Major Buzzkill is not an unenlightened doomsday warrior ;)

But, we humans are also fully capable of screwing things up.  The following statistic, for instance, should shock anybody with even a little bit of empathy in them:
In Syria, male life expectancy dropped from 73.9 years to 62.6 between 2005 and 2015.
How terrible, right?  Dropping by almost a fifth not because of a plague or AIDS or small pox, but because some of us humans can be monsters.  We have met the enemy, and it is us indeed :(

Monday, October 10, 2016

The bald fact

"What's your story?  When did you get to the US?"

At the end of a day of listening to presentations by budding and mature scholars, we were at dinner.  At my table, I was one of the three---at that table of six--who has made a home in America. Of course, I was only one who looked like I might have come from somewhere else--the other two are Scotland and Israel.

"Interesting you should ask me that," I said.  "I often review my life and look at the photographs.  What shocks me the most is how young I look in those photos when I was fresh off the boat."

And then I laid out my worst problem in life.  "I had lots of hair back then.  And black."

We laughed.

I am now a bald professor with a grey beard.  I have now become the cliché.  I suppose I can make a complete caricature of myself if I wore a tweed jacket with elbow-patches and smoked a pipe as well ;)

Of course, it is all because of the male pattern baldness.  It is not my fault; shit happens!

Here is W.B. Yeats beginning a poem with "bald heads" as if I need any reminder!

The Scholars
By W.B. Yeats

BALD heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

In a few minutes, this bald head will find out what the young women and men bring to the class.  And later I will edit their lines.  Maybe a bald head is an asset that makes me seem more learned than I really am. ;)

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Making my peace

The list is endless.  A list of countries with humanitarian crises.

Yet, the reality show candidate from the "family values" party has managed to make the year-plus long campaign all about him and his penis.  Nero playing the fiddle is, by comparison, a much more empathetic act!

A couple of days ago, the New York Times had these photographs of refugees..  Fleeing from a number of countries in Africa because of the chaotic conditions there.  So chaotic that they were willing to risk it all, by attempting to cross deep waters while crammed into boats.  Crammed enough that some died merely from the conditions in the boat.  In one boat that had about 150 people, rescuers found 29 bodies--10 men and 19 women.

Yet, we continue to be focused on the candidate and his penis.

Have we no sense of shame and decency?  Have we become so devoid of empathy, and so captivated by one man's penis show?

In an interview with National Public Radio, the photographer who took those photos had this to say:
the number may never go down if we as a Western society, we don't do something to stop all this conflict and war in their countries. We have the responsibility of what's happening there because maybe we don't help or we - you know, there is something that we could do better to help this situation.
What is that "better" that we can do?  I know one thing we could have done better--we could have made sure that we brought forward a candidate who would not put on a penis show.  That itself could have helped us think about, and discuss, some of the global priorities.  We could have attempted to understand how the candidates differ in their understanding of the issues and the policy ideas they have.  Instead, we have had nothing but a pornographic political theatre.

I have to make my own peace in all these.  I made a donation to my favorite humanitarian group--Doctors Without Borders.  In the grand scheme of things, my donation will not make a damn difference.  But, a man has got to do what a man has got to do.

And, even though a stranger mocks me in her email--in response to my latest newspaper column--all I can do is wish for world peace, fully recognizing my insignificant place in this political landscape.

Friday, October 07, 2016

What comes next? Am I ready for it?

It might come across as strange that I spend a lot of time thinking about death, given how convinced I am that there is nothing after I die.  (Note: it is death. Not "resting peacefully" or any other crappy euphemism!!!)  To be so convinced that there is neither hell nor heaven nor any limbo-state pending resolution of my status is liberating.  I am not at all worried about the after.  I am only worried about the here and the now.  I am, therefore, worried about whether or not I am doing things that I won't have to regret about as I lay dying.

I have always believed that everybody wonders at the last stages whether they did alright and whether it was worth it.  Even if it was a sudden end to life, that fraction of a second, the dying person might contemplate that.  Death can strike us any second, which means that I better have my answer ready at all times.
The immanence of human finitude — the fact that we’re dying right now and not in some distant future — should create the impetus for philosophical reflection. Most philosophers know this in some abstract sense. The Platonic dialogues are set against the backdrop of the trial and death of Socrates for a reason: The difficulty of facing death is that it comes with the sudden challenge of giving a good account of your life, what Plato called an apologia.
When dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason.
How can this not be a question that people try to answer every day?  Maybe we are arrogant, and we believe that death is far, far, away.  Or, maybe we are in extreme denial about death.  I cannot imagine either one to be a good approach to living one's short time on this planet.
When an old man asks, "What is the meaning of life?" he simultaneously queries the infinitely more particular question: "What is the meaning of my life?" Which is also the question: "What might be the meaning of my death?"
Any satisfying answers would have to address what this meaning might be from the inside, in terms that could be subjectively felt.
Nothing to disagree there.  The meaning is inside.  Indeed.  That is why I focus on death.  Not because I want to die--my posts make it very clear that I love life.  I love living.  The life that I love ends with death.  The end point of death is the destination. For me, and for you too.

In a wonderful essay, from where I had excerpted those quotes above, the authors ask, “Are we teaching students everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most?”
It must be part of our jobs, as college teachers, to launch our students on the search for something larger than their immediate concerns, to confront them with the challenges that are presented by such intractable questions as the meaning of suffering, life, and death. "One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going," Goethe wrote elsewhere, and that’s a big hint. The elusiveness of knowing about life and death might be the point. Like falling in love, or even like remembering riding a bike, thinking about death might be the willingness to embrace what is unknown, what is unknowable. The cheerfulness displayed by that old skeptic Socrates in the face of death is apt for one wise enough to admit that he’s never known anything about the most important matters.
I don't think so.  Not because it is not our jobs.  In fact, I am convinced that it is.  One of the biggest reasons that I am offering a seminar course this term is precisely because I want students to be able to think above and beyond merely coursework and their immediate concerns.  However, we will be fooling ourselves if we think that students will truly latch on to understanding the importance of examining one's life.  As much as the larger population does not care, students too do not care.

There in lies the tragedy.  We all know we will all die.  But, we do not want to spend a good chunk of our time and energy into understanding our own existence.  Our "education" is about anything but this fundamental existential question.
Yes, in the face of life and death, all that knowledge amounts to nothing. Of course it does. The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself.

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