Sunday, July 23, 2017

Blowing smoke up our asses

Rare was a politician who did not bullshit. But, trump and his minions have completely rewritten bullshitting.

Soon after the 2016 elections, one of the big news stories related to jobs and the economy was when president-elect Trump intervened in United Technologies’ decision to shift 2,100 jobs from Indiana to Monterrey, Mexico. Through the deal that he made, even prior to the formal inauguration, Trump assured the American public that he had saved 1,100 jobs.  Remember that?

Here's the update:
Carrier Corp. plans to eliminate 338 jobs at its Indianapolis furnace factory Thursday — and the timing is likely to raise some eyebrows.
The previously announced layoffs coincide, to the day, with the six-month anniversary of Donald Trump's presidency. They are part of a deal Trump struck with the company in December to prevent deeper job cuts at the plant.
The terminations are the first wave of about 630 planned before the end of the year as the company shifts work to Mexico. Carrier's parent company, United Technologies Corp., also plans to lay off another 700 workers at a factory in Huntington near Fort Wayne.
Yep.  And, that is not fake news!

Fifty-five year old Brenda Darlene Battle, who is one of the employees whose contract Carrier terminated, says:
Trump came in there to the factory last December and blew smoke up our asses. He wasn’t gonna save those jobs. 
trump blew smoke up 63 million asses.  It is one hell of a smoke job!

And he continues to blow smoke up people's asses.  Like with his rhetoric on steel from China.  Unlike the 63 million idiots here, the Chinese steelmakers are not putting up with the smoke that trump is blowing up their asses.
China’s steel industry association, which represents 80 per cent of the country’s steel production, has called on Beijing to get tougher with the administration of US President Donald Trump and to threaten retaliation if Washington moves to curb Chinese steel imports.
Meanwhile, the idiot-in-chief touts Made in America.  His bullshit has no place for logic and, therefore, the 63 million idiots do not seem to care what might happen if every country on this planet practiced their own versions.  

The 63 million (and the Berniacs too) can learn a lesson or two from, for instance, the craziness unfolding in Rwanda, which is pushing through a plan to ban second hand clothes within two years because its president, Paul Kagame who wants: "We have to grow our economies. We have to grow and establish our industries."  And the import of second-hand clothes is, therefore, the target.

The irony?
The United States, which is the leading exporter of used clothes to East Africa, has threatened to revisit favorable trade terms if any East African country goes through with the ban. Kenya, which was supposed to enact its own ban, backed off following the U.S. threat. But Rwanda and its president, Paul Kagame, who addressed the band during a press conference last month, stayed the course.
So, let's recap.  The US,  which is a gazillion bazillion times as big as the Rwandan economy, threatens Rwanda that wants to pursue a "Made in Rwanda" strategy,  which is no different from the "Made in America" that trump wants to pursue.

The bullshitter-in-chief continues to blow smoke up our asses because of 63 million smoked out idiots!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A kumbha mela in Oregon

You recall Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh?  Yes, that fraudster who reinvented himself as Osho.

Back in the early 1980s, he and his fellow criminals bought up a ranch in Oregon and called that Rajneeshpuram.  As if people were hell-bent on confirming PT Barnum's "there's a sucker born every minute," devotees descended on the ashram.  With a matter of months, the place had the largest collection of Rolls Royce cars.

But then the Bhagwan and his minions could not fool everybody.  They then engaged in bioterrorism, were prosecuted, and Rajneesh, who was kicked out of America, went back to India where he lived the rest of his life as Osho.

The police mugshot of Rajneesh.
What has all that got to do with the kumbh mela?

That ranch area is prime viewing spot for the solar eclipse on August 21st!

You see the town of Madras (yes, named after the city in India--long story!)?  The ranch was close by.

Motels and campsites at those Central Oregon locations sold out months in advance.  People are renting out rooms in their homes for quite some rates.  Because, in those dog days of summer, that is a place in the mountain where the probability is very high that no clouds or weather events will spoil one's experience.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists will be flooding Oregon close to that date.  The transportation department has issued an advisory that traffic will be chaotic.  Small towns are worried that they won't have enough toilet facilities--even the portable ones.  Madness!

This is a secular kumbha mela.  People want to be awed by a celestial event over which we humans have no control.  Not even the tiniest of impacts.

When we cannot make sense of events around us, and when we have angst about our own existence, then we turn to the cosmos for answers and comfort.  Or, we turn to religions.  Or, we fall at the feet of fraudsters.  It is all the same to me.  Religions have better, and time-tested, institutional mechanisms to defraud people, unlike Rajneesh whose schemes were blown away.

We can submit to the likes of Rajneesh.  We can be devout our religions.  We can smoke weed.  We can go to religious and secular gatherings.  But, the angst about the meaning of life can be resolved only from within.

As for my own solar eclipse plans?  I live outside the belt of totality.  I don't care.  A colleague, whose home is smack in the zone of totality strongly advised me to get up to one of those places.  "It is a once in a life time event," he said.

I merely smiled.  Because I could not tell him that every breath that we take is a once in a life time event.  Every second that we are alive is a once in a life time event.  If only we cherished every second of our lives as we value the kumbha melas of many types!

I suppose it is because we refuse to understand and appreciate such a life that we seek the fraudsters of the world, who come in many shapes.  Beware!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Build that wall

There is the crazy rhetoric from this president on any topic, especially on the election-winning chant of "build the wall."  The phenomenally smart president has also outlined the engineering specifications: It will be a transparent wall that will have solar panels, which will generate power and, thereby, pay for itself.

And then there is the reality.

The reality that the flow of labor from Mexico to the US has slowed.

While this president and his minions live in their world of alternative facts, people and businesses that rely on the flow of labor from Mexico know better.  Like the agriculture business in California:
the $47-billion agriculture industry is trying to bring technological innovation up to warp speed before it runs out of low-wage immigrant workers.
California will have to remake its fields like it did its factories, with more machines and better-educated workers to labor beside them, or risk losing entire crops, economists say.
Build the wall, stupid president, before the immigrant workers rush back to Mexico!
“We don’t see — no matter what happens — that the labor problem will be solved,” said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas.
That’s because immigrant farmworkers in California’s agricultural heartlands are getting older and not being replaced. After decades of crackdowns, the net flow across the U.S.-Mexico border reversed in 2005, a trend that has accelerated through 2014, according to a Pew Research Center study. And native-born Americans aren’t interested in the job, even at wages that have soared at higher than average rates.
“We’ve been masking this problem all these years with a system that basically allowed you to accept fraudulent documents as legal, and that’s what has been keeping this workforce going,” said Steve Scaroni, whose Fresh Harvest company is among the biggest recruiters of farm labor. “And now we find out we don’t have much of a labor force up here, at least a legal one.”
Not really news to us who have been following this for years.  There is no way to update the president and his minions unless "fox and friends" does a special show to highlight this issue.  But, don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen!

So, how  is the ag industry preparing for this?  One word: Robots!

I have written in plenty about this.  Like this post from a few weeks ago, in the context of the apple industry.

I will reiterate my lines from an oped of mine:
We the people need to try to understand such complexities in a rapidly evolving global economic geography. And, more importantly, we will need political leaders who can articulate constructive policy responses
This president ain't one of those political leaders!  Nor are his enablers in the Geriatrics Only Party!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Teaching is a cupcake

I will soon submit an edited version of the following to The Chronicle of Higher Education.  If they publish it, good.  If they don't publish it, good.  I do what I can ;)


The political rhetoric over the last year, targeting immigrants, non-Christians, and people of color, has not been easy to handle for this brown-skinned, accented, atheist professor who came to America thirty years ago from the southern part of India. A constant pressure to always be on guard is a new feeling for me. It has never been like this; not even during the days that followed the 9/11 catastrophe. In a part of the United States—Oregon—where we immigrants, non-Christians, and people of color are truly minorities, I have never felt out-of-place as I have over the past year.

These emotions are a complete contrast to how I felt at ease with my difference being highly visible at weddings and graduation parties to which students—almost always religious conservatives—invited me. In a newspaper op-ed that was published in The Register Guard in 2008, I even wrote about how I felt privileged to be an “ambassador” for a culture that is from the other side of the planet from here. In the years past, most of the students who sought me out were religious and political conservatives, and our differences did not matter one bit. One sharp student, who always had strong opinions, even brought her mother to my class—twice—because, to borrow from Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance speech, she really, really, liked me and my approach to teaching and learning.

One of my favorite of such experiences with students relate to two sisters, Tatiana and Olga. (I have replaced the real names of students with names from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.) A decade ago, Tatiana was wrapping up her freshman year in the Honors Program, for which I was the director, when I got an email from her.
“[My] sister's having her graduation/senior piano recital June 16. You're welcome if you're curious or if you'd like to meet the rest of my family.
P.S. In all fairness, I should warn you that you'll be mixing with pretty conservative folk, should you choose to attend. And the graduation will be held at our church. So if either of those factors will be too unbearable or uncomfortable. . . [smile]”
Her sister, “Olga,” was on schedule to join the same program the September following her graduation from high school. I was most delighted with the invite. Of course I had to be there.
Olga’s graduation was unlike anything I have attended. It was held at their church, with a piano recital by Olga, who was the only student graduating from the home-school. The audience was strictly friends and family—and me. I must have been a strange presence in many ways. For one, I was alone and silent whenever the gathering chimed in with their responses to the readings from the Bible. And, I was also the only one who was glaringly ethnic with my dark-skinned Indian look, while all the others in the church were white Americans.

It truly was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Jokingly, the sisters even referred to me as their uncle on campus. Tatiana and Olga—and their parents—and I did not view each other as foot-soldiers in the struggle between believers and atheists, nor between the natives and the immigrants, nor between whites and browns. We were fully aware of our differences, and yet we trusted each other while pursuing a shared goal to understand the world against the backdrop of different “truths” offered by different people. Ten years have gone by since that invitation to home-school graduation and dinner. Tatiana and Olga have moved on with their lives and occasionally email me with updates.

Of course, the intellectual pursuit of truth is always fraught with tensions. As the Honors Program director, I had required students to read Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. An email from a student, “Eugene,” shocked me because I was not prepared for that kind of a response: “I feel that the title, and I suspect the subject matter of Frankfurt's work is inappropriate for the Honors program.” Eugene went on to write that “as a Christian, such "bad words" are not something of which I approve or of which I employ in my speech and writing.”

In my reply to Eugene, I provided information about Frankfurt, along with reviews of the book, and tried to persuade him that On Bullshit had nothing to do with “bad words” and that it was a philosophical argument on the importance of truth. I wrote to Eugene that Frankfurt makes a convincing case that those who bullshit are absolutely indifferent to truth, unlike liars who try their best to hid the truth. My explanations made no difference to Eugene; in a politely worded email, he informed me about his decision to withdraw from the Honors program “after careful prayer and consideration.”

I did not blame Eugene for his reactions, how much ever baseless they were. After all, this is to be expected from the image problem that ails higher education, which is characterized as dominated by left-wing faculty who are opposed to religion and religious students. The image problem persists despite all the evidence that most faculty do not bring their personal preferences into the classroom. However, in this image crisis that higher education has, I did not feel singled out—Eugene did not have a problem with my otherness, and his concerns were only intellectual. But, I now worry that my otherness might unnecessarily complicate the intellectual differences that I explore in my classes. When I discuss migration and immigration in economic geography, or during discussions on the hijab and religious freedom as a global issue, I am now conscious that I might be perceived as having an agenda only because of my otherness. Throughout such a self-conscious worry, I also chastise myself for underestimating my students, and I become my own jury and judge as well. In short, this pressure is all new.

Thus, this past academic year was punctuated with an existential angst in an unchartered political landscape. I wrapped up the final class meeting of the year and walked back to my office, wondering what the next year will bring. Until I turned into the office hallway, I had no idea about the wonderful surprise that awaited me: Olga was standing by my office door. She had decided to surprise me with a visit, and with hazelnut cupcakes that she had baked in her mother’s kitchen during her couple of days in town with her family. Just what the doctor ordered to relieve my stress! Maybe I am doing alright after all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Nothing beyond the profit motive or self-interest?

I think I have been to Whole Foods stores three times.  Maybe only twice.  Even those trips were only because of the unique circumstances in a city that I was visiting.  A few months ago, a Whole Foods store opened in town; I don't go anywhere near it.

The founder of that business, John Mackey, has always interested me though.  Because, he seemed to offer a political vision through his business.  A libertarian, Mackey articulated his socio-business philosophy in Conscious Capitalism.  In a blog-post on this more than four years ago, I quoted from an essay:
In Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Mackey and his co-author, Raj Sisodia, make a case that businesses are at their best when reaching for a higher purpose that ranges far beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest.
The business as a higher purpose that is "far beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest."  This is why even the anti-libertarian limousine-liberals embraced Whole Foods.

Mackey has now sold his business to Amazon, whose socio-business philosophy does not have anything "far beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest."

After initial enthusiasm for Amazon, I have been trying to avoid buying anything through that behemoth.  Because, it is a ruthless business that couldn't care about anything other than to be the biggest and baddest of them all.  I have been increasingly worried about its tentacles into various aspects of life--the more a person shops at Amazon, the more the big-data driven profile of that customer.  My data becomes their dollars, and I am their raw material!  I way prefer to keep my preferences about books and rice-cookers away from those businesses.

And then my worries about the worker-bees at Amazon.
Amazon’s grand proclamations, on the other hand, tend to focus on domi­nation, not on providing any sort of abstract benefit to society outside the lowering of prices and the delivery of goods. The company has never put forth a rosy vision of the future of service labor. Amazon warehouse work is hard, often subcontracted and kept out of sight of consumers. According to a 2015 investigation by The Times, even at the corporate office, the work culture is unapologetically ruthless.
Ruthless is the word!

It is not merely the contemporary situation that Amazon that worries me.  Nope.  What really worries me is that Amazon might be the model as we rapidly enter into a future service economy, in which most humans become easily replaceable workers in a ruthless business environment that helps a very,  very few accumulate all the benefits.
Amazon’s attitude toward labor is emblematic of the culture it grew out of — and an augur of the service economy that’s on the rise today. Other tech companies, in particular platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit, have helped regular consumers grow comfortable with a software-mediated system wherein jobs are sliced into an endless series of assignments, with compensation negotiated wordlessly, instantly and without room for a second thought. Even Starbucks — once a champion of compassionate capitalism — recently began experimenting with pitiless automated scheduling software to assign shifts, before backing off after public outcry.
Yep, it is for these very reasons I have not ever used Uber either.

I wish more people thought about these rapid transformations.  But, apparently most humans do not care for anything "beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest." Even the uber-religious evangelicals who voted for a horrible human being, despite the message of selflessness from Jesus himself!

We are screwed!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Youthful bravado!

When I was an undergraduate student, a few friends and I planned to spend a couple of days in Ooty and Conoor, which were only a short bus ride away.  When I updated my parents, my father--who was all too familiar with those areas--had only words of caution about youthful bravado.

In those bad old days, inexpensive digital cameras had not even imagined, and the roll-film cameras were too expensive for us regular guys.  But, the brain is an awesome camera that holds plenty of still and moving images.  One of those images that I remember all too well is of a friend and me sitting right at the very edge at Dolphin's Nose.  At the edge.  Which made two other visitors nervous enough to warn us.  But, we sat there anyway.

Youthful bravado, indeed.  And this was by me, who usually lives a boring life!

I would think that the young have always done plenty of stupid things, all through our human story on this planet.  It is there in our genes.  I don't imagine other animals engaging in youthful bravado.  I bet that a young dog tries to stay away from anything that might put its life in danger.  A young lion carefully picks its fights.  Not us humans though.

This youthful bravado becomes even more a problem in these times of digital cameras, GoPro, Instagram, and YouTube, and more.

I am now the father worried about youthful bravado.

Worried I was when the friend and I hiked to the beautiful Tamolitch Falls, also known as Blue Pool.  It was a two-plus mile hike in from the parking place, which was already overflowing.  The hike was a constant flow of humans, and mountain-bikers.  Used to the quiet and lonely walks, I now felt as if I was in the middle of Ranganathan Street!

The pool was spectacular, yes.

But, the youthful bravado on display made a nervous Nellie out of me!

The cliffs seemed about thirty to seventy feet from the water.  We are familiar with the cold temperature of the waters of the McKenzie, and I guessed that the water temperature was maybe about 38 to 40 degrees.  Ice cold.

Youthful bravado.  Every few minutes, I could hear (I couldn't bear to watch) a young man jumping from the cliff down into the water.  A young woman in her bathing suit was swimming for a long time in the middle of the frigid pool.  I was sure I would witness an unfortunate accident.  In an area without cell signal, it would be a long time before rescue arrived.

The friend and I left in a hurry after finishing our lunch.

Today's paper has this news item:
A Texas teenager was seriously injured Monday while attempting to dive from a cliff into Blue Pool.
That teenager was a 17-year old girl.

She is fortunate to be alive, and with only a hip fracture.  Yes, people have also died at that pool.  But look at the timeline of this girl's accident:
Her jump: 12:30 pm
Bystander walks 2 miles to call 911:
First responders arrive: 3:00 pm
Finally, "40 personnel assisted with the rescue mission" help with getting her on to an Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter at 5:43 pm.
In poor countries, the youthful bravado is held under check because the young people know that there is no concept of taxpayer-funded "search and rescue."  If I had fallen off that edge thirty years ago, well, that would have been the end of me, which is why I was so carefully perched there and not moving even a tad.

I suppose we humans are remarkably stupid animals as much as we are remarkably intelligent creatures!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The robot and the orange monster

I hope you remember these lines from The Sound of Music: 
When the bear woos
When the dinosaur churns
When I'm feeling steep
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so creep
No, right?

You don't remember those lines because that is not what Oscar Hammerstein wrote.

That verse was authored by a Twitter bot called FavThingsBot.

Yes, algorithms.
Twitter bots are, essentially, computer programs that tweet of their own accord. While people access Twitter through its Web site and other clients, bots connect directly to the Twitter mainline, parsing the information in real time and posting at will; it’s a code-to-code connection, made possible by Twitter’s wide-open application programming interface, or A.P.I. The bots, whose DNA can be written in nearly any modern programming language, live on cloud servers, which never go dark and grow cheaper by the day.
Algorithms are so pervasive that there are sites like this one where you can engage in a Turing Test of sorts, and try to figure out whether even a poem--yes, a poem--was authored by a human or a bot.

Poetry writing bots don't kill people.  But, the robots are already ruining our lives.  "Robots posing as people have become a menace."  They even helped hijack the US elections last November.  What we have seen is the mere beginning:
The problem is almost certain to get worse, spreading to even more areas of life as bots are trained to become better at mimicking humans. Given the degree to which product reviews have been swamped by robots (which tend to hand out five stars with abandon), commercial sabotage in the form of negative bot reviews is not hard to predict. In coming years, campaign finance limits will be (and maybe already are) evaded by robot armies posing as “small” donors. And actual voting is another obvious target — perhaps the ultimate target.
The robots have arrived.  And we created them!
Using robots to fake support, steal tickets or crash democracy really is the kind of evil that science fiction writers were warning about. The use of robots takes advantage of the fact that political campaigns, elections and even open markets make humanistic assumptions, trusting that there is wisdom or at least legitimacy in crowds and value in public debate. But when support and opinion can be manufactured, bad or unpopular arguments can win not by logic but by a novel, dangerous form of force — the ultimate threat to every democracy.
I do follow one bot on Twitter--the bot automatically re-presents the president's crazy tweets into official statements.  This bot tells me that the batshit crazy president tweeted this earlier this morning:
This revolution is being digitized :(

Sunday, July 16, 2017

93 percent of the population cannot afford food

No, not in some sub-Saharan African country.

It is not in India.

It is in Venezuela!
Venezuela was once the richest country in South America, but food prices have skyrocketed in recent years, forcing many to scavenge for things to eat.
We humans are remarkably creative on the destruction that we can bring about :(

Everything was going well.  So well that a horrible human being--no, not this guy--stepped up to ruin it all.
Elected in 1998, President Hugo Chávez became widely popular for his promise to share the country’s oil wealth with the poor and to guarantee food security. To fund his “21st Century Socialism” agenda, he relied on oil revenues, which accounted for 93 percent of exports in 2008.
In one decade, chávez turned that country around, yes.  But, heading in the wrong direction.
During the oil price boom, the percentage of households in poverty fell to 29 percent from 53 percent. The government has not released poverty data since 2015. But a survey by three of the top universities in the country indicates that in recent years the government underestimated the level of poverty, which reached 82 percent in 2016.
"Put simply, many Venezuelans are starving to death. And their government often can’t or won’t do anything to help."

Two years ago to this date, the madman announced his candidacy for the presidency, and since then we have not been able to focus on serious issues like Venezuela.  What a tragedy!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The man who knew too little

Quite a few years ago, a well-known geographer, Neil Smith, came to campus, and I went to the talk/soirée.

There was a bar, where this teetotaler went to get a soda.  Or, pop, if you prefer.

The bartender was a student, who was of legal age and with the license to serve alcohol.  Of course I had to chit-chat with her.  It amuses me that I am not surprised that I have not forgotten that exchange.

She talked about her interest in Chinese opera.  It was one of the many moments in life when I was made to understand that I knew nothing.  I hadn't ever watched anything from Chinese opera.  Ever. And this young white woman was talking about it with some serious insight.  Even as I type this, I admit that I have not watched, nor listened to, Chinese opera.  Not even for a minute.

I am culture-challenged.

I have admitted to that all along.  I say that sincerely.  I have always said that.  But, people are quick to correct me.  Like the humanities professor back in California.  In our conversation about cinema, when I admitted to not knowing much, she immediately replied that I am a man of culture.  I am?

Over the years, I have come to understand this much then: Even my fleeting familiarity with a few aspects of literature, music, drama, and cinema, apparently make me culturally competent.  But, what about the ocean out there about which I know nothing, right?

Nobody knows it all.

After having truly understood that, the older I get, the more easily I admit to not knowing.  Especially when it comes to aspects of culture.  I am more and more at ease with responses like, "nope, I have not read that; what movie are you talking about?  who is he, or who was he, or is that a she?"

What remains is the primary experience of culture:
The problem was that in falling for New York’s endless cultural possibilities, I had — and still have — much less time for reading than I assumed would be my lot. In exchange for depth I got breadth. I relish, even when only half understanding, the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, the photography of Diane Arbus, the architecture of Henry Hobson Richardson, the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, the theater of Peter Brook. On the other hand, I haven’t come close to reading the major works of William James or Toni Morrison or hundreds of other major writers whose oeuvres I once fondly imagined would be at my fingertips. I’m reminded of a story about the librarian/fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, who was once asked in an interview to venture an opinion about Gustav Mahler. As ever, the most stupendously erudite man of his time was ready with a trenchant reply: “Who’s Mahler?” How inspiring!
I experience culture for this: "its beauty, its reach, its strangeness, its ability to transform an ordinary life like mine."  Even though I have never watched Chinese opera, and even when I have no immediate plans whatsoever to watch one.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Rights and wrongs

Way back, when I was a kid who had barely gotten on to the bicycling phase, I complained to my father that our home was far away from where my friends lived.  He said that the industrial township was intentionally designed that way--with lots of open space and trees--in order to make sure that the health impacts from the open-pit (strip) mining would be minimal.

Fast forward a few decades.  We had a thirtieth high school reunion.  After the excitement died down, we middle-aged classmates even talked about our health issues, and our parents' health.  One classmate was convinced that his father's neurological disease was from the daily exposure to toxic chemicals at the fertilizer factory.  His father's health conditions were nightmarish, of an active brain trapped in an immobile body.

My slightly asthmatic hassles were what I brought to the discussion.  I added that my parents and siblings too had--and have--allergy issues that then complicate the nose, throat, lungs functioning.  A friend quickly jumped in at that point, with a forceful comment that most of us who lived there have those very issues and that, yes, the industrial air was the cause.

Of course, establishing the cause-and-effect is not easy, especially when it comes to geographic clusters of ill-health.  But, think about it: Extensive mining, where the topsoil and the layers underneath are stripped generating whatever into the atmosphere.  Then there are the byproducts of the factories.  There is enough and more to hypothesize, right?  I suppose I should be happy that the township was at least well spread out.

It is a strange "development" model that we have put into place over the past two hundred years.  We destroy the natural environment in order to do everything from making smartphones and tshirts and whatever.

The right to pursue happiness is one thing, but don't we have a more fundamental right to clean air, clean water, a clean environment?
The idea of environmental human rights is receiving growing attention worldwide, driven by our global ecological crisis.
I worry that this is coming a tad too late.  A couple of years ago, I went to India's IT capital to meet with a few friends, including this guy.  I was shocked at how warm and dry and brown it was, in contrast to my trip there when I was wrapping up high school.  My father routinely updates me that wells in my grandmother's village have gone dry.  Every visit, I am shocked by how polluted the city is.

I wish we talked more and often about environmental human rights:
The idea of environmental human rights dates back to the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It follows other, more established conceptions of human rights, such as civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, and often is classified as part of a so-called third generation of “newer” human rights.
Few international agreements explicitly refer to environmental human rights. At the national level, however, more than 100 countries around the world have constitutions that enshrine environmental rights to some degree, including Brazil and Kenya.
Only a handful of U.S. states, including Pennsylvania and Hawaii, have constitutions that explicitly incorporate environmental rights. What is more, these provisions were largely established decades ago and have had uneven success in their enforcement.
With this president and his secretaries for the natural environments (EPA and Interior) we are well on our way to making things even worse.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

No college and all sports is the Republican dream

The other day, I told the friend that I doubt if there is even one Prius in the US with a confederate flag bumper sticker on it.  We might make fun of the liberals, yes, but at least they don't drive around with symbols of hate.

The stereotype of Prius owners exists because it reflects a great deal of the reality about them.  Similar is the stereotype of Republicans as military-loving and anti-intellectual types.  In those deep red states, the irony is their passion for college sports.  Yep, those very folks who aim their guns on colleges love, love, love football and basketball so much that they seem to tolerate the academic aspects of it because, well, without college there is no sport!

And with trump and his minions now in charge, hey, I am not at all surprised with this latest survey results:
A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.
Fifty-eight percent of the Republicans say that colleges have a negative effect on the country.  58!  These are the same idiots who gladly voted for trump!
Among Republicans and Republican leaners, younger adults have much more positive views of colleges and universities than older adults. About half (52%) of Republicans ages 18 to 29 say colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, compared with just 27% of those 65 and older. By contrast, there are no significant differences in views among Democrats by age, with comparable majorities of all age groups saying colleges and universities have a positive impact.
"just 27% of those 65 and older" Republican leaners think that college does good.  I wonder who these people voted for in the November election!

These anti-college Republicans elected a guy with no plans for the future of the country.
Trump’s innovation maybe wasn’t to bash college so much as to ignore it. Previous candidates, in both parties, paid at least lip service to the idea of expanding educational opportunities and retraining workers whose jobs were eliminated by changes in the U.S. economy. The first indications that that was changing came in the 2012 GOP primary, when Rick Santorum (B.A., Penn State; M.B.A, Pitt; J.D., Dickinson Law) accused Barack Obama of being a “snob” for trying to expand access to education. Trump didn’t bother to make the case for retraining or education; he simply promised dispossessed blue-collar workers that their jobs in mills, factories, and especially coal mines were going to come back.
As simple as that.  Just ignore higher education.  After all, nothing good ever comes from that, right?  Further, colleges are nothing but full of those damn liberals and it is better to shut them all down!

I will borrow Paul Krugman's words to wrap up this post:
Republicans have changed in the age of Trump: what was already a strong strain of anti-intellectualism has become completely dominant. The notion that there was a golden age of conservative intellectuals is basically a myth. But there used to be at least some pretense of taking facts and hard thinking seriously. Now anyone pointing out awkward facts – immigrants haven’t brought a reign of terror, coal jobs can’t be brought back, Trump lost the popular vote – is the enemy. In fact, I’d argue that anti-intellectualism was, in its own way, as big a factor in the election as racism.
What this means for the future is grim. America basically invented the modern, educated society, leading the way on universal K-12 education, building the world’s finest and most comprehensive higher education system; this in turn was an important factor in how we became leader of the free world. Now a powerful political movement basically wants to make America ignorant again.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The dirty truth that does not have to be mined

If only more people understood the importance of economic geography in their own lives.  I often tell students in my intro class that if they carried with them the economic geography way of looking at the world, ... but, of course, rare is a student who pays any attention to me.

Most of this current president's campaign lies were on issues that are absolutely economic geography.  China's competition with the US? Yes. Immigration from Mexico and elsewhere?  Yep. Coal? Of course, yes, dammit!

I read two essays on the coal country in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.  I am guessing this a region that this president won by a huge margin over Hillary Clinton, who spoke the truth about coal jobs not coming back.

Click here to zoom into the map
You know the economics of the region is in shit streets when even Walmart closes down a store.
Rural areas like McDowell County, where Walmart focused its expansion plans in the 1990s, are experiencing accelerating depopulation that is putting a strain on the firm’s boundless ambitions.
Hit hard by the longterm decline in coal mining that is the mainstay of the area, McDowell County has seen a devastating and sustained erosion of its people, from almost 100,000 in 1950 when coal was king, to about 18,000 today.
This president can bullshit all he wants, and 63 million people can vote for him, yes.  But, then there is the real world.

This wasn't even a regular Walmart store, which can seem huge to visitors from most other parts of the world.  This was a supercenter!
“It’s all about jobs,” says Melissa Nester, publisher of the local newspaper, The Welch News, which sells 4,500 copies three times a week and doggedly refuses to have a website. “Dollar stores have picked up some of the trade left by Walmart, but they haven’t created many jobs.”
At its peak, Walmart employed 300 people in the McDowell County supercenter. That was down to about 140 by the end, but it still made it the largest employer in the area.
 The reality of life in a corner of the US that is being rapidly left behind.  These are the "forgotten" people that this president bullshitted to.
After jobs, taxes are the next things to go. The town of Kimball in which the supercenter is located used to receive $145,000 a year in taxes from Walmart, and when that went it had to cut back its workforce and put all remaining staff on a four-day week.
The county government also lost $68,000 in taxes, most of which went to schools, and all its staff were given a 10% pay cut.
It does not take much for economic conditions to quickly spiral down.  Rome was not built in a day, but it did not take long for the decline and fall, right?

Linda McKinney ... "mourns the communal aspect of the supercenter, its quality as a “social hub”."
McKinney rattles off a list of all the community facilities that disappeared from the region in recent years as the population declined and the culture of mega-chains like Walmart took root.
There used to be 28 churches of her United Methodist denomination in the county, now there are six; there were seven bars in Welch, all but one have closed; there were three cinemas, now it’s down to one; there are no community centers left; many of the corner shops have gone. “There’s nothing here,” McKinney says.
A complementing essay at a different publication looks at another aspect of this economic geography: What can a community college do to help people?
As manufacturers shed workers and businesses gravitate to urban areas, they often leave economic devastation in their wake. Thousands of people reliant on a dominant industry, in this case coal, are thrown out of work and their options are few. In the hills and hollows of Eastern Kentucky, communities must also contend with low levels of education, high rates of poverty, weak infrastructure, and an opioid epidemic.
If you are like me, you are thinking this: A community college cannot do much to address such complicated issues.  True,  But, they try their best.
Meanwhile, state and regional leaders wrestle with a pressing challenge: Can they bring decent jobs to an area that lacks the infrastructure, education levels, and geography to support large manufacturers and skilled jobs? In 2014 the average annual wage for a coal miner in Kentucky was $72,000. Nothing has come along since to replace that.
Nothing will come along to replace that $72,000 job.  Of course, that is not the truth that this president and his minions talked about, right?

Keep in mind that there are other jobs.  It is just that those other jobs barely pay minimum wages.
"A lot of what you see in terms of opioid abuse, a decrease in life expectancy, a lot of that is being driven by the hopelessness of seeing jobs, but not good jobs," says Nate Anderson, who spends a lot of time in Kentucky as a senior director at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization that promotes skills training and job opportunities for low-income people. "No one wants to spend their entire life in retail earning next to nothing. They want opportunity and that’s gone."
So, what can be done?

Anything that can be done will have to start at step number one, which will never ever happen.  That first step is this: Political leaders need to start talking the truth to people.  Because that will not happen, and because even partial-truth will only make losers out of candidates, well, ... we are where we are now!

The second best thing to do: Take courses in economic geography and save yourself a whole lot of trouble!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pop talk

Today--July 11th--is World Population Day, my Google news-feed informs me.  It is also a thirty-year anniversary of the day that we recognize as an important demographic milestone:
World Population Day, which seeks to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues, was established by the then-Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme in 1989, an outgrowth of the interest generated by the Day of Five Billion, which was observed on 11 July 1987.
Yep, thirty years ago, we were only five billion people on this planet.  We are now at 7.6 billion, and growing.  By 2100, we will have added about three-billion-plus.

India is projected to overtake China as the country with the largest population in about five years from now, though there are claims that it has already done so.  An extraordinary rate of growth from the "muppadu koti janangalin" (300 million) that the poet Bharati sang about a century ago. (Click here for the movie adaptation of the song from the old days.)

Population growth continues to freak people out.  Especially those on the left.  The latest to fall victim to that was the latest darling of the left--the French president, Macron.  He claimed that “civilisational” problems and women having "seven or eight children" are some of the main challenges in Africa.

As my intro students get to know well, Africa is way too diverse for any generalization.  We will ignore the "civilisational" aspect in order to focus only on the population aspects on this day.  Even my intro class students get to understand that women having "seven or eight children" is an old story in most of Africa.  Further, population growth is happening despite women having fewer children than before.  Yes, fewer.  As I emphasize over and over and over, population growth is not because of women having more children than ever before, but because children and adults don't die young as they used to in the past.  We live long.  Way too long has always been my worry.

Who you gonna believe?  Macron, or the data from Google?

Macron should at least be familiar with some of the African countries that his beloved France colonized and screwed up, right?

Oh well ... the gut-level Mallthusian worries do not easily go away.

Of course, more humans means more demand for various goods and services.  But, our long-term sustainability issues have less to do with more people.  Instead, those are almost always the result of economic growth and development, and various geopolitical happenings (colonization in the past, wars in the past and present, ...)

If Macron or anybody else wants to do something about population growth, the answer is simple.  It has been known to us for a long time now.  Educating girls acts works like a contraceptive.  The more illiterate the female population, the more they end up in the traditional childbearing roles.  And then provide women with the freedom that men take for granted, well, you will soon have to bribe women to have children.

Of course, with this American president, female empowerment is next to impossible. The 71-year old man-child has had more children than the previous three presidents have had.  We should be more worried about the growth in trump population than in the world population!

Monday, July 10, 2017

10LADs and women

It was about a year ago.  The hot summer days.  The Republican nominee for the presidency said that the news anchor at Faux News "had blood coming out of her wherever."

That was merely an addition to lots of other words and phrases he had used to describe women: Fat. Pig. Dog. Slob. Disgusting animal ...

Ah yes, the good times they were.  And they kept on coming.  And it keeps on coming, well past his advice on pussy-grabbing, thanks to 63 million Americans.

With him as the president, I have no right to comment on the state of affairs anywhere else in the world.  Those who live in glass houses ... and I am stark naked in my glass house :(

At least in the years past we pretended to worry about morals.  We Americans could claim the moral high ground as an aspiration.  But, the day to day reality now makes utter hypocrisy out of any moral finger-pointing.

The fact that we now occupy a stinking swamp having come down from the high ground does not mean, however, the world's problems have gone away though.

Consider, for instance, the death of an 18-year old girl in Nepal.  Even by itself, that death is a tragedy.  And then to think about other young women like here, only because they menstruate--you know, the "blood coming out of her wherever"--makes it terribly, terribly tragic.  All because of "a tradition known as chhaupadi that sequesters menstruating women from their families.":
The Supreme Court of Nepal ordered an end to chhaupadi, which is linked to Hinduism, in 2005. But it is still practiced in many of Nepal’s isolated villages, particularly in the west. A bill is pending in Parliament to formally criminalize the practice. Many people in rural villages believe that menstruating women are impure and can bring bad luck on a household. Under the chhaupadi tradition, the women are kept from taking part in normal family activities and social gatherings or from entering houses, kitchens and temples....
The practice has its dangers: Women must often brave winter cold or summer heat in rude huts where they are vulnerable to human and animal intruders.
Vulnerable to animals like snakes that bit that 18-year old woman who died a day after that unfortunate event.

All because of "blood coming out of her wherever."

Visualize this.  A kid might write to the President complaining about anything--from homework to stress to world peace to whatever.  From anywhere on the planet, for that matter.  (An uncle of mine wanted to name his home "White House."  So, he wrote a letter to President Eisenhower requesting his ok  And he received a formal reply stating that the President had no problems with that.)

Now, think about a Nepali girl who wants to tell the American President about this chhaupadi issue. ... you can fill in the rest!

Don't ever think that I am exaggerating such an aspect of the Presidency.  That's what the 10LADs in the subject refers to:
At the beginning of his first term, President Obama said he wanted to read his mail. He said he would like to see 10 letters a day. After that, the 10LADs, as they came to be called, were put in a purple folder and added to the back of the briefing book he took with him to the residence on the second floor of the White House each night.
Caption at the source:
In the Obama White House’s hard-mail room, each intern and staff member read and categorized 300 letters a day.
The reporter asked Obama "how he might advise Donald Trump on what to do with the mail if he were to become president."  Obama's response:
He laughed. “You know what, this is a great habit. But um, it, uh,” he said about the idea of a President Trump reading constituent mail. “I think it worked for me because it wasn’t something I did for anyone else — I did it because it ... sustained me. So maybe it will sustain others in the future.
No letter from a Nepali girl about "blood coming out of her wherever," will ever be read by this president.

Maybe those girls will write to the real leader of the free world, who personally knows well about "blood coming out of her wherever."

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The caveman speaketh!

One of the many charming, charismatic, aspects of M.K. (Mahatma) Gandhi was that in both still and moving images he always had a smiling and welcoming appearance.  Something rare for the culture in which I grew up where, at least in the old days, people did not smile when photographed.  I suspect that Gandhi's pleasant demeanor was no accident--that was his real persona.

Gandhi was one heck of a force that the militant white supremacists had to reckon with, and yet he comes across in the images as a soft dude.  A dude with a wonderful sense of humor.  One of my favorites about him is this: Gandhi was asked by a reporter what he thought of the western civilization.  Always quick on the draw, Gandhi replied, "I think it would be a very good idea."

Here we are seven decades after Gandhi was shot dead, and living under a different kind of a dark threat, with white supremacists boldly out in the open, and right in the White House.  The Oval Office occupant re-enacted his awful "American carnage" theme but this time in Poland, where he presented the world as a clash of civilizations in which he worried that the West did not have the will to survive.

In that international carnage speech, he said:
We write symphonies.  We pursue innovation.  We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.
I suppose the "others" do not celebrate ancient heroes.  The people who are not from the West do not embrace their timeless traditions and customs.  What do people from Iraq, Iran, China, know about timelessness, right?  After all, it was only a few years ago that they barely crawled out of their caves, dragging women by their hair, and beating each other with clubs!  What does the Subcontinent know about music when all they do is clang stones together to create noise!

It is one thing for the fuhrer to engage in such awfulness.  It is another when a NY Times columnist pretty much offers similar arguments but cloaked in sophisticated language.  He seems to equate the white supremacists nationalism of this president and his voters, with the nationalism of the once colonized brown-skinned!

What a mess that 63 million voters have created!  If only the fuhrer understood his own words: "Words are easy, but actions are what matters."

Saturday, July 08, 2017

No love, in the time of cholera!

I went to graduate school because of my naïveté.  Living in my own bubble, I thought that the causes of the miserable human condition all around me in India and elsewhere had not been clearly understood, and that graduate school would lead to a breakthrough.

Turned out that I did learn a lot through my six years--problems continue primarily because of politics that prevents us from doing the right thing.

I don't mean politics as in elections and voting, but politics as in how we as individuals and groups prefer to view the world and, therefore, how to respond to the human condition--whether it is at the street corner or in a far away country.

Consider cholera, for instance.  Sure, once upon a time humans thought that this disease and fatality was some mysterious event.  But, a cholera outbreak in London during the height of its Industrial Revolution and urbanization was also when we humans figured out what was going on.  It is a story of geography and maps.  (Wikipedia can help, if it interests you.)

My point is this: If there are people dying from cholera in the year 2017, it ain't because we don't know what causes cholera.  We know all too well.  We know how it spreads.  We know how it kills.

So, why do people die from cholera?  Politics.

The worst of that politics is being played out in Yemen:
The Yemeni farm laborer was picking crops in a hot field when the call came. His children, all seven of them, had fallen gravely ill.
Some were vomiting, others had diarrhea, and all were listless, indicating that they had fallen victim to the latest disaster to afflict this impoverished corner of the Arabian Peninsula: one of the worst outbreaks of cholera infection in recent times.
No amount of graduate schooling by any number of eager-beaver students can help, when we are hell bent on making the human condition miserable.
For much of the world, cholera, a bacterial infection spread by water contaminated with feces, has been relegated to the history books. In the 19th century, it claimed tens of millions of lives across the world, mainly through dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
That ended with modern sanitation and water systems. When it pops up now, it is usually treated easily with rehydration solutions and, if severe, with antibiotics.
Yep, we thought had condemned killing by cholera to history.  And then we watch it happen in real time:
Since a severe outbreak began in late April, according to Unicef, cholera has spread to 21 of the country’s 22 provinces, infecting at least 269,608 people and killing at least 1,614. That is more than the total number of cholera deaths reported to the World Health Organization worldwide in 2015.
How fucked up are we humans!
In October, the government stopped paying civil servants, prompting strikes from sanitation workers and leading to garbage pileups and septic backups. That contaminated the wells that many Yemenis rely on for water, providing the ideal environment for cholera to spread. The outbreak picked up speed in April, after dirty rainwater further polluted the wells.
Not everyone who is exposed to cholera will contract the disease. But in places like Yemen, where more than 14 million of Yemen’s 27 million people lack access to clean water and 17 million do not have enough food, people are far more vulnerable — particularly malnourished children.
“The average person lives on tea and bread. It’s just one meal a day,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. “They are in a weakened state, and that is why they are getting sick.”
Making matters worse, the war has damaged 65 percent of Yemen’s medical facilities, denying more than 14 million people access to health care.
You have to wonder why we can't seem to get along, right?

Meanwhile, acute resource constraints in a remarkably rich world:
The United Nations says it needs $2.1 billion for its work in Yemen this year, but it has received only 29 percent of that amount despite repeated pleas for donations from aid groups.
In addition to shedding my naïveté, there is one huge difference between the graduate school me versus the me now--I am not a starving graduate student.

So, I did the only thing that I could--I donated, to my favorite group that does phenomenal work in such situations: MSF.

Friday, July 07, 2017

One swallow doesn't make a summer

I heard that expression first when I was a school kid.

It was back in the old country.  With English as a special, er, second language, I originally misheard that as "one sparrow doesn't make a summer."

I figured that in England, where it was always cold and damp, only in the summer they get to see and hear birds and, therefore, an accidental sighting of a sparrow does not mean it is summer.  Unlike my old part of the world where crows crowed every single day.

I was all ok with it, until I was corrected by the English teacher.  She said it was not "sparrow" but "swallow."

"Swallow"?  Do people not swallow in the winter?  And one swallow does not make a summer?  Had I known WTH and WTF back then, I would have written that all over my English notebook! ;)

By correcting me, the teacher confused me.  I didn't have the guts to ask her what swallow meant in that sentence!  I, like most kids, typically stayed away from asking questions.

It was much later that I came to know that in this case "swallow" was a bird.

The misheard word apparently did not screw up my understanding of the idiom.

The more I recall my life, the more I am always amazed at my own idiocy.

The sighting of a bird brought back those memories.  It is summer here and a bird flew into the yard and hopped around on the ground.  I had no idea what bird that was.  I stood there watching that tiny squawking life until it took off to report to whoever that the mission was accomplished.

In the old country, rapid urbanization has led to people living in tight quarters in megacities.  The last time I was there, mother went outside their flat with a couple of small balls of cooked rice.  She then called out for crows.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zippo. Zilch.  Not a crow to be found or heard.

I helped her out with crow calls of my own.  I wondered whether there was an American accent in my bird call ;)

Not a crow in sight.

"These are city birds.  They want chips and pizza," mother said and gave up waiting for crows.

The pigeons on the neighboring building couldn't care about all this drama.  It is always summer for them.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion

Carefully look at the person in this photograph:

Is he:
a. Saudi?
b. Iraqi?
c. Indian?
d. Persian?
e. Afghan?
f. Italian?

Could be any one of those, right?

Now, consider the following photo of the same person without the beard:


Is he:
a. Saudi?
b. Iraqi?
c. Indian?
d. Persian?
e. Afghan?
f. Italian?

Not sure, eh!

Look at the two photos again.  Doesn't the one with the beard seem more like a Muslim and the clean-shaven one more like a non-Muslim?

Doesn't the guy portrayed in the photo below look like a Muslim?

Yep, that is the point.

The first two photos are of the same person--Amit Majmudar.  I have blogged about him before.

So, why do I blog about Majmudar and his photos with and without a beard?

Here's why:
Read that poem at the source that I have linked to.  Better yet, listen to Majmudar read that poem.

Oh, in case you are waiting for the correct answer to the multiple-choice question, yes, Majmudar is an American.  Ok, yes, an Indian-American.

In my previous post, I wrote:
Amit Majmudar is yet another Indian-American who makes me feel like I am nothing but a blabbering idiot who does nothing. Majmudar is a radiologist, novelist, poet, and writes commentaries. And, yes, he is a family man. Seriously, isn't that supposed to be four different people? And, oh, he is yet to turn forty! I hate such people who make a good-for-nothing out of me!!! ;)
Majmudar has more to say about his dual career life:
 Majmudar, whose poetry has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2007 and periodicals like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, won the 2011 Donald Justice Prize. Majmudar was amused when asked to explain why many Indian-American doctors are also writers, prominent examples being Abraham Verghese, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Atul Gawande. “I don’t know why that is,” he said, “except if you look at the Indians who came over in the sixties and seventies many were doctors like my parents. Medicine is the Majmudar family profession. My sister and I are also doctors. Going forward, I don’t think we will see this split. If someone is interested in writing, he will go into writing, and that will be the end of it.”
May a million writers--bearded or not--bloom!

ps: the title of this post is a G.K. Chesterton quote.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Unpaid thinking work while on furlough

More than a fortnight into the summer, I have been tossing around the word furlough a lot, whenever strangers and friends alike ask me about my "summer off."

"So, how do you spend your time then," asked a neighbor who is a year away from reaching sixty.  Perhaps he is contemplating retirement and, therefore, how to spend time post-work.  I suppose not everybody can goof away in a prematurely retired life like how this guy does! ;)

There is a paper that I am writing for a journal--it is almost done.  I need to wrap it soon because the deadline is nearing.  There are other things related to my professional life that I am able to address only during the uninterrupted summer days.

Meanwhile, student emails keep coming.  Like this one, from "A":
I hope you're having a good summer break so far and was wondering if you could send me more articles on economic geography or really anything interesting that you would like to share with me.
Thank you for your time,
How can I not engage with this student, right?

Life in the academy is not really about what happens in the classroom.  It is about what I do outside the classroom preparing for those minutes in the classroom.  Those minutes require days and days of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing.  Else, as Kalidasa wrote more than 1,700 years ago:
He's but a petty tradesman at the best,
Selling retail the work of other men
Perhaps even back then there were people who wondered what teachers did in their easy lives!

Almost always, everybody has comments on teaching and teachers, on what has to be taught and how anything has to be taught.  I am glad that there is such an interest in teaching and learning.  But, as one can imagine, this level  of outside commentary on teaching can easily slide into judging what is "correct" and what is not.  And if something about the teacher is not "correct," then off with her head.  Or, at least, fire the teacher.

Academic freedom, which is something that very few teachers around the world have, is, therefore, precious.  And tenure plays an important role in academic freedom:
Tenure for professors protects the right to pursue unpopular research and take unpopular positions. It is one of the counter-majoritarian bulwarks of a free society, like a free press or an independent judiciary. 
Trump America and opportunistic populism has started going after tenure and academic freedom.
Aversion to “expertise” and rejection of “establishment” authorities is a central element in the politics of populism. The honest, practical, plain-speaking majority is pitted against the complacent, condescending, and entitled mandarins.
The truth, however, is that populism is a politics of bad faith. Our societies would stop functioning without the expertise that comes from academic knowledge. Populist political leaders who win votes by disparaging experts – we can all choose our favorite examples – are bound to find themselves fumbling for the light switch when they come to power. Expertise remains essential to any decent governance whatsoever.  
Here in the US, while conditions in higher education are getting dark, it is nothing compared to many other countries, like in Turkey or Russia.  In Hungary, Central European University (CEU) "is fighting to remain a free institution in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, following the passage of new legislation that would, in essence, require the university to close."
Ultimately, academic freedom depends on the health of democratic institutions. When democracies are weak, when majoritarian populists erode checks and balances, press freedom, and judicial independence, universities are especially vulnerable. That is what has happened in Hungary. 
Populists and authoritarians always go after artists and professors--these are groups that always question the status quo.  I cannot understand how within a matter of months the political environment has become so toxic.  At least for now, I have the furlough months to think about all these, and more.

PS: If you are interested, I sent the student,"A," this reply:
I will start you with these two, both from the NY Times: One and Two.
Read them preferably in that order.
They are on completely different topics, but you will see that they will wonderfully enrich your understanding of the world, and will make you think about quite a few things.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Why can't we all get along?

Soon after a new Iraqi government was formed in the post-Saddam years, in my class I showed students the photographs of the three top most people.  One was a Sunni, the other was a Shia, and the third person was a Kurd.

I asked the class whether they could tell who was the Shia Iraqi.

Of course they could not.

In another meeting, I showed them a photograph of an Indian male and and a Pakistani male.  They didn't see any difference.

You can see where I am going with this.

People might look the same, eat pretty much the same foods, listen to the same music, and yet they could be ready to kill each other.

We humans are strange, eh!

Reading Branko Milanovic's blog-post reminded me of those classroom exercises.He questions, challenges, the assumption that "people who live close to each other are “similar”, have similar preferences and want to live together in a country or a union."

I grew up in Tamil Nadu, and I could never understand why I was in the same country with many others.  Well, other than the couple of years when I was consumed by an "Indian" rage.  It is not that I thought any less of the other parts of India and the people there.  I did not see any reason why I had to be in the same country as the people in the north, west, and east did, similar to how I did not see any reason for Tamil Nadu to be in a political union with Iceland.

Just because we "live close to each other are “similar”" did not mean we had to be in the same country.

Milanovic warns us about:
the common misconception that one often hears even today, namely that ethnic or religious conflicts are somehow the product of lack of knowledge of the two communities about each other and that if people only spent more time with each other, the conflict would lose its raison d’être and dissipate. 
Shia and Sunni in Iraq are warring not because they do not know each other well enough: they have lived together as neighbors for centuries. Does anybody think the Spaniards and Catalans do not sufficiently know each other? Or Serbs and Croats and Bosniaks who speak the same language and who have intermarried prior to the Civil War in the 1990s more than if the marriage pairing was random? The same is true for ethnic and religious wars in other places: Catholic and Protestant Irish, Ethiopians and Eritreans, Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Even the worst civil conflict of all, the Holocaust, did not happen because ethnic-German Germans and Jewish Germans did not know each other well or did not intermarry sufficiently. On the contrary, it is often argued that of all countries in Europe, Jews were most integrated in Germany.
I think  -–and I trust that this is something increasingly confirmed —that similar people are as likely to want to share a state as to be willing to split up or to go to war; and that believing  conflict can be prevented by people knowing each other better is just an illusion.
So, ... what can be done, right?

We can only wait for, and work towards, better leadership.  Like Helmut Kohl, for instance:
"Helmut Kohl was not just the architect of German unity. He contributed substantially, more than others, to the reconciliation between European history and European geography" ...
Kohl’s successor and one-time protege, Angela Merkel, struggled to rein in her emotions as she hailed “the chancellor of unification”.
“Without Helmut Kohl, the life of millions of people, mine included, who lived on the other side of the wall, would not be what it is today,” she declared.
Those of us who are old enough remember all too well how bleak and "cold" the world came across in 1988.  Then, the world became very different in 1990.

But, Kohl's own life and death show us how complicated all these are.
His apparent anger and bitterness towards them is said to be behind his refusal to even allow a state funeral to take place on German soil. Many of his former colleagues and friends have not been invited. Even his driver, Eckhard “Ecki” Seeber, often described as his closest confidant, is believed to have been excluded. So too Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
His elder son has gone so far as to describe the funeral plans as “unworthy” of his father. It is unclear whether Walter Kohl or his younger brother Peter, who have been estranged from their father for years, will even attend.
Such is the human drama on this planet!

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