Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A biased post

Years ago, I was new to Bakersfield when I got a call from a stranger, who was responding to my commentary in the local newspaper.  We briefly spoke, and a few days later it was dinner at his place.

He was an Indian-American professor at the local university.  He and his wife of a long marriage had awesome food waiting for us.

Well, it was his wife's cooking.  All Indian food, of course.

Oh, she was from Denmark--they had met decades earlier, when he was a graduate student in Denmark.

He often joked that while his wife was "mistaken" for an American because she is white, even though she was not born here, he was always viewed as an outsider.

One of his stories was about traveling in Europe in those old pre-1989 days, when in one of those countries he was held in detention until they were able to verify that his American passport was a legitimate one.  The security folks there apparently could not understand how there could be an American citizen who looked like him and talked the way he did. After all, the default image of an "American" is that of a white American.

We carry within our selves plenty of default definitions that lead to implicit bias of various types.  That implicit bias is also why, for instance, for all the feminist that I believe I am, well, I trip sometimes.  Deep, deep down there is somewhere in a dark corner the old biased views of women.

And then there are plenty who openly walk the talk of explicit bias.  That open talk means that even when they want to act polite, well, it fails.

Which is what happened to the pussygrabber potus when he was in Israel.  This virulent Islamophobe had just flown in after pretending to like the Muslims all around him.  This racist then told a room full of Israelis that he "just got back from the Middle East."

He "got back" from the Middle East when he was in Israel?  That can only mean one thing--he does not consider Israel to be a part of the Middle East.

Now, why would he think that Israel is not in the Middle East?

Oh, yeah, Islam and Muslims and Arabs.
What a dumbass.
Indeed!

I don't care that I am deeply, deeply biased against this horrible human being.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What's the price of retail jobs?

The pussygrabber ranted on and on about jobs in the coal mines, as if he knew anything about the industry or the people who work.  But, 63 million suckers voted for him anyway!

If only his voters had paid attention to the real world, they would have been worried about an entirely different industry: "The retailing industry employs 15.9m people, accounting for one in nine American jobs."

The retail industry is shedding jobs, and closing stores, are frightening speeds:
 Since January the industry has shed 50,000 jobs, with more lay-offs sure to come. Mr Mathrani reckons that, for shopping centres to match demand, 30% of space should close permanently. In one particularly gloomy scenario, all retail property would shrink by as much. If staff dropped by the same proportion, 4.8m would be at risk of the sack—around half the number of American jobs lost during the financial crisis. Eventually, even more may be laid off, as remaining stores cut costs through automation.
Did you notice that "a" word?  Automation!
The result is that America’s rich landscape of shops now looks like a dangerous glut. Since the start of 2016 Macy’s has announced that it is closing 140 shops. J.C. Penney said in March that it would shut 138. More closures are sure to come. Department stores’ floor space has contracted by 11.5% since 2006, but sales have shrunk more than twice as fast, according to Green Street Advisors, a real-estate research firm (see chart 2). To reach the inflation-adjusted sales productivity of 2006, at least another 800 department stores would need to close, reckons D.J. Busch at Green Street.
In the world of politics, it is coal that translates to diamond when it comes to votes:
This slow melt has so far attracted little attention from politicians, despite jobs in retailing outnumbering those in coal mining, which has caught the political eye, by a factor of 300.
Meanwhile, automation in retailing is taking on another fundamental aspect of the transaction: price.
The right price—the one that will extract the most profit from consumers’ wallets—has become the fixation of a large and growing number of quantitative types, many of them economists who have left academia for Silicon Valley.
Yep, "the right price can change by the day or even by the hour" thanks to automation, which is killing the real world stores:

Guru Hariharan uncapped a dry-erase marker in a conference room at Boomerang’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. He was talking about what had led retailers to this desperate place where it’s necessary to change prices multiple times a day. On a whiteboard, he drew a series of lines representing the rising share of online sales for various kinds of products (books, DVDs, electronics) over time, then marked the years that major brick-and-mortar players (Borders, Blockbuster, Circuit City and RadioShack) went bankrupt. At first the years looked random. But the bankruptcies all clustered within a band where online sales hit between 20 and 25 percent. “In this range, there’s a crushing point,” Hariharan said, clapping his hands together for emphasis. “There’s a bloodbath happening.”
Beyond this crushing point, traditional retailers with both a brick-and-mortar and an online presence feel compelled to compete purely on price. Hariharan talked wistfully of the days when he’d walk into RadioShack and have a salesperson direct him to the exact connector cable he needed. But once retailers enter the crushing zone, expenses like staff, training, and customer support typically are slashed. Profit margins keep falling nonetheless—why go to the store at all if no one there can help you?—and a death spiral ensues. (RadioShack traced just this path before filing for bankruptcy in 2015.)

Yet, the pussygrabber always talks about those few thousand coal mining jobs?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Till death do us part

I walked around observing students talk through and write in response to the task that I had assigned. I stopped at every group's table.  Quick chats with students during these moments are yet another way that I try to connect with them.

"Are you an EMT?" I asked one because of the logo on the work clothes that he was wearing.

Teaching is so much about learning about the students.  They, too, learn about me--from my sense of humor to my intellectual pursuits to, heck, even about my daughter being a neurosurgeon.  It is almost like my classroom is also a blogging space for me, where I talk and listen instead of the writing and reading that I do here.

"A non-emergency guy," he replied.  "But, I know about emergency responses if situations arise."

"If I should have a cardiac arrest in this class, don't do anything.  I have a DNR," I told him.

"You have a DNR?  Why?"

"I have had a good life.  I am done," I replied with what I assumed was a pleasant face, fully knowing that my smiles don't get across.

"But, isn't he required to assist in an emergency? asked his groupmate.

He and I were in agreement--if he did, I could later sue him for bringing me back from the almost-dead.

Later, as I was driving home, I kept thinking about this interaction, and about how I became so embracing of death.

I think I understood death to be a natural process of life even when I was a kid.

My father was in the local hospital for hemorrhoid surgery.  Was I about eleven or ten at that time?  I went there during visiting hours.  The patient in the adjacent room was a boy about two years older than me.  He had blood cancer, and was dying.

I had known of grandfathers and others who were dead.   But, this was my first exposure to one who was dying.  And he was only two years older than me.

About four years later, I witnessed my grandmother's death.

During my train trips to and from the engineering college, I have often wondered what might happen if the train were to derail and I were to die.  I did not worry that I might die.
 
With every passing day, I find that such an approach to life and death is a contrast to how most people, and especially the medical profession, view life and death:
the attitude now towards disease and old age and death is that they are basically technical problems. It is a huge revolution in human thinking. Throughout history, old age and death were always treated as metaphysical problems, as something that the gods decreed, as something fundamental to what defines humans, what defines the human condition and reality.
Death and dying are not really viewed and treated as the human condition.
Maybe we still don't know all the mechanisms and all the remedies, but in principle, people always die due to technical reasons, not metaphysical reasons. In the middle ages, you had an image of how does a person die? Suddenly, the Angel of Death appears, and touches you on the shoulder and says, "Come. Your time has come." And you say, "No, no, no. Give me some more time." And Death said, "No, you have to come." And that's it, that is how you die.
We don't think like that today. People never die because the Angel of Death comes, they die because their heart stops pumping, or because an artery is clogged, or because cancerous cells are spreading in the liver or somewhere. These are all technical problems, and in essence, they should have some technical solution. And this way of thinking is now becoming very dominant in scientific circles, and also among the ultra-rich who have come to understand that, wait a minute, something is happening here. For the first time in history, if I'm rich enough, maybe I don't have to die.
This is a huge change in our attitude towards death.
Death is optional. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of the poor, it looks terrible, because throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they're going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That's going to bring a lot of anger.
If everything goes according to plans, I won't be here to witness all that "development."

Saturday, May 20, 2017

And yet I laugh at the Pussygrabber Presidency!

It has been only four months.

And I am already tired to my bones.
Dead tired.
Dog tired.
You get the drift.

Yes, I am referring to the four months of the Pussygrabber Presidency.

Source

Add the two months-plus between the election and his inauguration, and it is more than six months already.
To which you add the months since he glided down the golden escalator to announce his candidacy, and it is one month short of two full years of his bullying Americans and the world.
And if you think about how he became a political force to begin with--his insane questioning of Obama's birth certificate--it has been six years of the horrible human being!

Like I said, I am tired.

I wonder how activists all across the world keep going, day after day. Or, what propelled Martin Luther King, Jr., to keep on fighting, with optimism that African-Americans would one day reached the promised land that he was able to see from the mountain top?  Or, how did Gandhi know that British bastards would leave India even though the damn white supremacists had all the gun power?

Maybe I am tired because I am a wimp. A wuss. At least when compared to those activists, big and small.

I.
Am.
So.
Tired.
Already!


Friday, May 19, 2017

Africa? My ass!

I am no Chinese expert.  Heck, am not an expert on anything,  but that has never stopped me from commenting.  It has worked out well all these years; so, why stop now, right?

Of course I have been fascinated with China forever.  Don't forget that I was a commie sympathizer even before I got my first pimple.  I hated how the pimples always appeared in the most obvious places on my face--on my nose, and the center of my forehead.  Yet, I hated the damn British bastards more than how much I hated those damn pimples!

It was only after I started understanding how much the communist systems in China and the USSR were messing around with people, that I started questioning my belief that the commies were the good guys.  As the years rolled on, I could not be bothered with that political economic system, and I decided that America was going to be my home, as imperfect as it was/is.

Now, I detest any system where the party decides the fates of its peoples, and a system where people aren't free.  But, that is their problem, I suppose.

However, when China begins to flex its muscles around the world, it becomes my problem too!

The NY Times editorializes about China's trillion dollar foreign policy, and notes there:
Whatever the economic benefits, a project cannot be allowed to run roughshod over individuals or trample on the environment. Mr. Xi stressed that consultation, transparency and people’s “well-being” are vital, but China’s track record is not encouraging. One example: Kyaukphyu, Myanmar, where a Chinese-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline was pursued in secret, stomped on farmers’ property rights and did significant environmental damage.
China clearly aims to dominate the international system. If it succeeds — shaping how vast sums are spent and where, and which laws are followed or not — it could upend a system established by Washington and its allies after World War II. And there are military concerns: For instance, many Burmese and foreign experts worry that China could use the Kyaukphyu ports for military purposes.
But, China's economic development is built on that model--to "run roughshod over individuals or trample on the environment." The party has merely gone international with its domestic approach.

This approach when taken to countries that are poor and when they have no power to stand up can then result in awful stories like this--Africa's donkeys are being killed in huge numbers:
Donkeys are being slaughtered at an alarming pace to feed a global trade in donkey hides that’s fueled by soaring demand in China, where the skins are used to manufacture a gelatin believed to have anti-ageing and libido-enhancing properties.
I care not about crazy beliefs in anti-ageing and in libido properties.  But, I care about the poor farmers being messed up.  "Niger halted exports of the animal and completely prohibited their slaughtering,"
Mali, Senegal and Gambia followed suit. Zimbabwe, where donkeys are less common, turned down an application to build a donkey slaughterhouse, while Ethiopia closed its only functioning donkey abattoir after residents complained about the stench and pollution.
But large-scale slaughtering continues in many African countries, including Tanzania, Ghana and Kenya, and online sales ads for donkey hides are especially easy to find in Nigeria.”
And, yes, the donkeys are the latest to suffer from this Chinese demand:
Like the poaching of Africa’s rhinos and elephants, and deforestation caused by the largely illicit trade in rosewood timber, the slaughter of donkeys is an unforeseen consequence of rising Chinese incomes and an expanding middle class.
Can't the party strike a balance between its old Mao days and such an approach to "run roughshod over individuals or trample on the environment"?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Do no harm

My only trip to the African continent was for a specific purpose.  No, not a safari.  I had an academic interest that I was pursuing: Does volunteer tourism benefit the local community, or is it merely a feel good trip for the volunteers?

I spent a good chunk of time looking at various organizations that run such programs.  After weeks of poring over the information, I selected one, paid up, got all my medical shots, and ... I was off to Tanzania.

Turned out that my hunch was not off-base.

It was disappointing that I could not reject my hypothesis that the volunteer tourism doesn't really contribute much to the local community.

I filed a couple of op-eds, but not about the volunteer tourism itself.  I wrote about everything else, it seems like.  And, of course, my excommunication at the university meant that I didn't have any forum to talk about it with "peers."  Nobody cares!

At least I didn't help with delivering babies or doing circumcisions!
As a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.
This research shows that some help does indeed cause harm. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.
Is it the cynical me, or is it the case that there are crazy things in many walks of life that people intentionally do not talk about, which is why I am drawn to the studies like that one in the Scientific American?  Do most people really go about with "do not rock the boat" attitude and are merely happy to collect their paychecks?  There is something seriously wrong here.
Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse. The most-cited figure estimates up to 10 million volunteers travel abroad annually, spending approximately $4 billion.
Where do these people go?
Popular destinations tend to be both lower-income countries and tourist destinations: Tanzania, Ghana, Cambodia, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and others. Many organizations’ websites prioritize prospective volunteers’ interests rather than the interests of those they purportedly serve.
You saw Tanzania in that list?
Research has found that volunteering in health settings can be detrimental, even if the volunteers don’t realize it. Volunteers often over-estimate their positive impact.
Say that again, sister!

Source

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Truth is for losers?

Yet another post on "if only people would listen to me" edition! ;)

In many posts, I have complained that more and more people seem to be uninterested in the pursuit of truth.  Whether it is in a family context, or in a small college like mine, or national politics, it is only a few idiots like me who apparently believe in pursuing the truth.  A relentless pursuit of truth requires us to rid of our preconceived notions and to also question, say our favorite religious or political bottom-lines.

Consider for instance this post from less than a year ago, in which I worried about facts and truth.  I linked it to my graduate school days when I first came across "postmodernism."  I concluded that post with:
It is surreal that we now live a life where facts simply do not matter.  Academic post-modernists, who detest Trump and Putin, find that Trump and Putin are successfully practicing post-modernism where anything goes!
Or, how about this post from a month ago, in which I quoted from an essay:
Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them. For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.
And today, I heard on NPR:
I think that several things have gone on in American society that have caused a kind of moral confusion. One of those things, I think, is that there's been a rather sustained assault on truth, kind of postmodernism. And that's a movement that really developed in the academy years ago, the notion that either objective truth doesn't exist or if it does, it's not something that we can ascertain. ...
I think what's happened is that that has now spread to the wider society and including political society. And I think when you lose that, you lose the ability to reason together. And that kind of thing is really problematic in a society. And we're seeing a kind of paranoia and conspiracy mongering in politics that is unusual and, I think, worrisome. And I think a lot of that comes back to this point about the idea that there just isn't a truth that we can agree on or accept.
Yep, as I titled that earlier post, if anything goes, then trump happens.

The question that the show's host asked is an awesome one:
 So are you asking lawmakers today to almost become political martyrs if they need to? They might go down in the next election, but at least they would be leading by example in trying to make the country less divided?
The guy--Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center--dodged that with a weak response.  But, that is the reality--pursuing the truth might lead to unpleasant outcomes for the pursuer--like how I could be without a job in a matter of four years from now.  But, the terror of losing my job does not deter me from seeking the truth.  I care not that I am an idiot for such an approach to life.


Monday, May 15, 2017

The frightful adjunct economy

The US is embarking on a potentially disastrous experiment--to create freelance work without a social safety net.  This does not bode well.

Freelancers are not new to the higher education industry--over the years, the system has been increasingly employing part-timers, whom we refer to as "adjuncts."  In large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, it is not uncommon for adjuncts to teach classes at more than one college.  Given the time they spend traveling from home to different campuses, they are also referred to as "road scholars."

Life as an adjunct is tough.  The additional income is great if one already has a full-time job.  This was my story when I started teaching in California.  But, without a full-time job, and relying on adjunct positions means they have to keep the departments and students happy--else, they lose the gig.  And, if budgets tighten up, they are the first ones to be let go.

When they lose their jobs, the former adjunct professors scramble for health insurance--this is a benefit that is tied to the job.  The lack of a national health plan was addressed only a few years ago with Obamacare, which might be gone really soon.  Retirement and disability benefits are also benefits that full-timers have.

This adjunct thing has not worked out well in higher education.  And now we are taking this disastrous approach to the rest of the economy, via Uber, and AirBnB, and ...
The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.
Remains uncertain is an understatement.
Normally, every efficiency has a winner and a loser. A service like Uber benefits the rider, who’s saving on the taxi fare she might otherwise pay, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who wince at the bill of a decent hotel, yet it also means that tourism spending doesn’t make its way directly to the usual armies of full-time employees: housekeepers, bellhops, cooks.
We are rushing to decimate full-time work, and replacing that with part-time "gigs" that do not offer benefits and in a society with a frayed and tattered safety net.  All these are profound political transformations, but without the needed political discussions!
A century ago, liberalism was a systems-building philosophy. Its revelation was that society, left alone, tended toward entropy and extremes, not because people were inherently awful but because they thought locally. You wanted a decent life for your family and the families that you knew. You did not—could not—make every personal choice with an eye to the fates of people in some unknown factory. But, even if individuals couldn’t deal with the big picture, early-twentieth-century liberals saw, a larger entity such as government could. This way of thinking brought us the New Deal and “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Its ultimate rejection brought us customized life paths, heroic entrepreneurship, and maybe even Instagram performance. We are now back to the politics of the particular.
For gigging companies, that shift means a constant struggle against a legacy of systemic control, with legal squabbles like the one in New York. Regulation is government’s usual tool for blunting adverse consequences, but most sharing platforms gain their competitive edge by skirting its requirements. Uber and Lyft avoid taxi rules that fix rates and cap the supply on the road. Handy saves on overtime and benefits by categorizing workers as contractors.
 I don't understand how people think that all these will work out without serious discussions on a new social contract that reflects the rapidly changing 21st century conditions.  A new social contract will require the mega-mega-rich to spare a few dimes, but the GOP is only keen on giving them more tax breaks!

If all that doesn't worry one, there is more:
We are, all of us, in inescapable thrall to one of the handful of American technology companies that now dominate much of the global economy. I speak, of course, of my old friends the Frightful Five: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, the parent company of Google.
Enjoy, for now, because "It’s too late to escape."

Sunday, May 14, 2017

To get rich is glorious

Thus spake Deng Xiaoping almost forty years ago, as he opened up the struggling Communist China to the world.

Source

China has transformed in a hurry since then.  And with a clueless pussygrabber as the American president who is increasingly bogged down with various political issues, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is playing an awesome global game making his, and China's, presence known all over the world.
To celebrate China’s new global influence, Mr. Xi is gathering dozens of state leaders, including President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in Beijing on Sunday.
It is global commerce on China’s terms.
Mr. Xi is aiming to use China’s wealth and industrial know-how to create a new kind of globalization that will dispense with the rules of the aging Western-dominated institutions. The goal is to refashion the global economic order, drawing countries and companies more tightly into China’s orbit.
Today is that Sunday, as I blog.  While all that is happening, most of my fellow citizens don't even know the name of China's president, but I digress!  Two other strongman-leaders were in attendance:
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey also spoke at the opening ceremony.
The pussygrabber adores those three because he realizes that the American president cannot ever get the kinds of power those strongmen have, but I digress.

Unlike the pussygrabber, Xi knows well the old stories, like this one:

Source

Xi wants to continue to remind the world about China.  His ambitious project is about those old glories, which will take on a 21st century twist.  But, the Economist noted that Xi's modern day Silk Road plan is "running into three linked problems."
First, it is unclear what its priorities are, or who is running it. ...
A second problem is finding enough profitable projects to match the vaulting ambition of the scheme, which aims to create a Eurasian trading bloc rivalling the American-dominated transatlantic area. ...
Third, locals in some countries are angry about what they view as China’s heavy-handedness.
All these are wonderful fodder for me.  In one course that I am teaching this term, this upcoming week is all about the China model for economic development.  In another, I will have students think about some of the issues related to China--from the treatment of Uighurs to the territorial disputes in South China Sea.

If only people would listen to me and recognize the urgency to understand and respect China, instead of voting to power the pussygrabber who talks about "gina"!


Saturday, May 13, 2017

I hope this bugs you

As a general rule, I don't like to see any bug walk, crawl, or fly through my living space.  My rule has always been that I given them their space and they should not interfere with mine.  I don't go out of my way to kill anything either, though I am not like my parents who think they should coexist with the damn cockroaches too!

I give those critters their space not only because they deserve to live as much as I deserve to live, but also because way back in middle or high school we learnt about food chains and ecosystems and that message stuck with me.  We are all dependent on each other.  Unfortunately, we humans have gained enough power over other life forms that we casually and easily decimate this complex relationship.

Here is a quick test, especially for the readers in the old country.  When was the last time you saw a firefly in the night?  Remember all those dark nights when you delighted in their movements?
Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. "We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species," which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.
In this context, I don't need any data as evidence of the decline in bugs of many sorts.  I have lived a life experiencing the decline.  While the panda and the polar bear and rhinos grab our attention as we worry about driving species into extinction, we pay far less attention to the small fellows.  The story of our life, I suppose--we always ignore the vast subaltern, as the radical postcolonial intellectuals like to talk about.
"If you're an insect-eating bird living in that area, four-fifths of your food is gone in the last quarter-century, which is staggering," says Dave Goulson, an ecologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, who is working with the Krefeld group to analyze and publish some of the data. "One almost hopes that it's not representative—that it's some strange artifact."
No one knows how broadly representative the data are of trends elsewhere. But the specificity of the observations offers a unique window into the state of some of the planet's less appreciated species.
People tend to forget that this is what regular science is all about--scientists go through understanding bits and pieces, day after day, while the rest of us are happy to entertain ourselves with the latest that a digital screen has to offer.  And then we are arrogant enough to complain that science is a waste of taxpayer dollars!
Changes in land use surrounding the reserves are probably playing a role. "We've lost huge amounts of habitat, which has certainly contributed to all these declines," Goulson says. "If we turn all the seminatural habitats to wheat and cornfields, then there will be virtually no life in those fields." As fields expand and hedgerows disappear, the isolated islands of habitat left can support fewer species. Increased fertilizer on remaining grazing lands favors grasses over the diverse wildflowers that many insects prefer. And when development replaces countryside, streets and buildings generate light pollution that leads nocturnal insects astray and interrupts their mating.
One doesn't have to be the cliched tree-hugging environmentalist in order to worry about all these. Unfortunately, the only thing that most of us do is to make fun of those tree-hugging environmentalists.
Paying attention to what E. O. Wilson calls "the little things that run the world" is worthwhile, Sorg says. "We won't exterminate all insects. That's nonsense. Vertebrates would die out first. But we can cause massive damage to biodiversity—damage that harms us."
Yes, indeed.  Remember that old quote, whether or not Jonas Salk really said that?
If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Never enough?

Years ago, soon after Amazon released the Kindle, my daughter bought me one.  And later, she was surprised that I was not using that gadget.  I tried my best to explain to her that I am not into gadgets just because they are new and fancy.

Now, it does not mean that I am not a consumer.  I am one hell of a consumer.  A wasteful consumer as much as anybody else.
much of the world’s waste is a product of habitual practices we think normal: driving a car, yes, but taking a daily shower, too, or heating our homes or changing our underpants daily (by 1986, 45 percent of German men did compared to the 5 percent who did in 1966). It has almost nothing to do with individual motives or morality.
I think of my own life, and can easily see how rapidly my consumption has increased.  Take, for instance, clothes.  Back when I was a kid, all my clothes could have been packed into a small carry-on.  Come to think of it, back then most of us kids did not even wear underwear.  I say this with confidence because one of the punishments at school was to stand up on the bench.

One of the old jokes related to this punishment is this:
The teacher asks, "where is Kenya?"
The student has no clue.
The teacher tells the student to stand on the bench.
The smartass student then asks, "if I stand up on the bench, will I be able to see Kenya?"

It was a public shaming--the one standing up on the bench did something wrong according to the teacher and now the entire class and anybody who passed by is made aware as well.  We would giggle at being able to see the bat and balls, if you know what I mean, of the one standing adjacent to us.  Chances are that, now, no urban first grader boy in India ever goes to school without underwear on.  A small change in daily life, but that is an example of daily life consumption, right?

Unlike my six-year old self, whose clothes could be packed into one small carry-on, I will now need a few boxes to pack all my clothes.  And then the footwear!  I have three pairs of work shoes, two pairs of sneakers, two pairs of sandals--in contrast to one pair of slippers (flipflops) and a pair of shoes that I wore to school when I was a kid.  What I had as a kid was itself a great deal more than what my father had--he got his first pair of footwear only when he got to the "First Form"--sixth grade, I think it means.  Until he was eleven or twelve, father went about barefoot like almost everybody else.

My point is that my not having a Kindle or an iPad or whatever does not make me any holier.

From a larger perspective, we need to understand this--it is not anything "American":
Trentmann demonstrates that by the twentieth century, states of many kinds—not just the liberal democracies—regarded consumption as indispensable. Countries such as Britain and the United States set the model: there, the link between the citizen and the consumer was forged tightly. At the heart of the New Deal were ideals of freedom and plenty, understood as mutually reinforcing propositions. But Trentmann seeks to extend the point more broadly, to demonstrate that freedom was hardly necessary to a thriving consumer society. Nazi Germany, for instance, sought to deliver the goods or, failing that, to promise their appearance; German factories continued producing toys and cosmetics until the defeat at Stalingrad. With its canny embrace of consumption, the contemporary Chinese state furnishes another good example. Starting in the late 1990s, China created “a nation of property owners” in less than a decade, a feat that outstrips the record of Herbert Hoover and Margaret Thatcher, the Anglo-American “champions of home-owning democracy.”
I consume, therefore I am!  One of the paradoxes of economic transformation from the old agrarian past.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In your head

Consider the following paragraph:
Some time ago I went with my six-year-old nephew Matan to hunt for Pokémon. As we walked down the street, Matan kept looking at his smartphone, which enabled him to spot Pokémon all around us. I didn’t see any Pokémon at all, because I didn’t carry a smartphone. Then we saw two others kids on the street who were hunting the same Pokémon, and we almost got into a fight with them. It struck me how similar the situation was to the conflict between Jews and Muslims about the holy city of Jerusalem. When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.
What a wonderful analogy!  No wonder the author is a celebrated thinker, futurist!

I have quoted the author, Yuval Noah Harari, in a previous blog-post.  I am now all the more convinced that Harari is now my go-to-guy to think about the future.

So, yes, those strange critters are invisible to me because I don't play that game, even though I carry a smartphone.  A technological approach to understanding maya too?  Nah, I don't want to digress.

If it were not for those religious "smartbooks" the stones of Jerusalem will be mere stone and nobody would fight over them.  Of course, this fight over the stones is not a new insight.  What is awesome about Harari's essay--read it in full because I am doing injustice to it by excerpting to tell my own stories--is how he compares religions to multiplayer virtual reality computer games:
What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).
Can one get addicted to such a virtual reality game that religion is?  Harari has thought this through:
n Israel, a significant percentage of ultra-orthodox Jewish men never work. They spend their entire lives studying holy scriptures and performing religion rituals.
Talk about game addicts!

Harari's essay is awesome.  Lemme say it again--read the entire essay.  Do not base your thoughts on whatever I have excerpted for my own selfish reasons.

Harari's point is that in the near future, when computers/AI will make more and more among us unemployable--the useless class, as he calls them--sophisticated video games will keep them busy and entertained, just like how religions have forever kept humans busy and addicted.

Harari ends the essay with quite a flourish:
In any case, the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles. Eighteenth-century English country squires, present-day ultra-orthodox Jews, and children in all cultures and eras have found a lot of interest and meaning in life even without working. People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.
But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.
It is all in our imagination!  It is maya!


Tuesday, May 09, 2017

People disappear

I imagine the husband and wife were ecstatic as they boarded the plane.

Of course they would have been ecstatic--at the end of the travel to the other side of the planet, they were going to meet their daughter who was graduating with a masters degree in engineering.

I imagine a whole lot of hugging, despite the old country traditions, when they all met after the immigration and customs processing in a country that the parents were visiting for the first time.

I imagine that the parents and their ready-to-graduate daughter reached her apartment, where the daughter had dinner waiting for the tired travelers from the old country.  And then a bunch of phone calls to people in the old and new countries.  Sheer excitement all around.

I do not know what to imagine when the father was dead the following morning.
Early morning.
Barely a few hours after landing on the American soil.

I was reminded of the quote that was attributed to Haruki Murakami, which I had tweeted only two days prior to this unfortunate and tragic end:
People just disappear sometimes. You have to love and appreciate them while they're near you.
It is one thing to tweet that, or blog about death, which I have done in plenty.  But, that moment, when the message about the death appeared on my screen, I was at a loss for words.  What can one possibly tell some one at such a moment of grief and shock?

My imagination drew a blank.

I could barely come up with:
OMG!
How terrible ... am so sorry
Awful 😞
People disappear forever.  He did.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Chinese Gooseberries and Alligator Pears

In my early years in California, a colleague gave me three or four huge avocados.  They were from her father's farm in Lindsay, which was only a few minutes of a drive away.

I was new to this fruit--until I came to graduate school in Los Angeles, I had't even heard of avocados.  I was just about getting used to eating chips with store-bought guacamole, and now three huge avocados were staring at me on the kitchen counter.

All I knew was that they were not ripe.  They felt rock solid.  

I let a couple of days go by.  They didn't seem to get any less solid.  

After another couple of days, I lost my patience.  I was now beginning to behave like one of those characters in "Three men in a boat."  

I knifed one of those avocados.  They were solid, and raw, and now I was stuck with a wasted fruit.

Undeterred, I decided to chop them down to pieces in the Cuisinart.  And then added salt to taste.

I threw the whole thing into the trash can.

Over time, I learnt how to make good use of avocados.  A few years later, when I started teaching at the local university, Juan, who was a Mexican-American student, shared with me his family recipe to make guacamole.  The first couple of times, I faithfully followed the recipe.  And then I started freewheeling like I always do in the kitchen.

If only I had known avocados back when I was a kid in India--maybe like some of the southeast Asians, I too would have had avocado milkshakes ;)

Eating something alien to us is not easy.  Consider even the name avocado; in most of the US, avocados were not even how they were referred to.
While avocados were popular in California, that wasn’t true for the rest of the country. In the beginning of the 20th-century, they were called “alligator pears.” Their bumpy, olive skin connected them to those denizens of the swamp, and it’s shape resembled, well, a pear.  They had a marketing problem.
I am not sure if I would have eagerly sought out alligator pears.  We might quote "what's in a name"; but, the reality is that the name makes a huge difference.  Names can be misleading too--like how when I was new in the country, I thought that Chinese Gooseberries were the gooseberries back in the old country!

And then the alligator pears went through an intense marketing and branding makeover.  The rest, as they say, is history.
At the end of the day, avocados have a place on today’s table thanks in part to a tireless campaign to redefine and redraft their identity. Some of it was misguided, some of it was weird and some of it was good. That is the nature of advertising.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

I read. And then re-read. For a reason.

I have often written here, and talked about, how much literature helps me understand humanity.  While in my younger years I read fiction to entertain myself, the older I got the less I sought after "entertaining" fiction.  Whether it was in Tamil or English, it was only when I was utterly bored did I look for an entertaining fiction.

The world of fiction--especially the short story genre--helps me imagine what other people might go through in their lives.  An insight that I would never have otherwise.  And, of course, great writers wonderfully weave into the stories philosophical observations about life.

In the latest short story in my favorite magazine--the New Yorker, which is now the only one that I pay for--Yiyun Li offers this gem:
Perhaps that’s what separates a lucky person from a luckless one. The lucky, like Mr. Wu, had to give up something essential in order to advance in the world, because a person of good luck could become a person of bad luck overnight. The luckless, like Bella or the deaf-mute, had no choice but to follow the path assigned to them. That their lives had turned out differently was a mere accident.
As one who has blogged a lot about luck and a life in a probabilistic world, I now had plenty more to think about those aspects of life.

Of course, this is not the first time that I have read Yiyun Li's story--I have read every work of hers that has been published in the New Yorker.   Her life experiences influence her storytelling, which she wrote about in a personal history piece in the magazine:
In the summer and autumn of 2012, I was hospitalized in California and in New York for suicide attempts, the first time for a few days, and the second time for three weeks. 
I pulled up one of her early stories and read it all over again.  All the more the evidence that Nabokov was right:
Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.
 If only we put in more effort to understand "the others" through reading and re-reading, and developed a better understanding of what it means to be human!  

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Maduro Diet

The fuhrer is trying to suck up all the energy.  It is a daily struggle to look past him, and to make sure I don't accidentally let his voice come through on the radio.

I cannot believe that 63 million voters, including past commenters at this blog, voted for him!

But, hey, I will survive, yes.  There are plenty others, even in this country, who won't--some even literally.

South of us--way south--things are getting worse.
Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation—estimated by the International Monetary Fund to reach 720% this year—making it nearly impossible for families to make ends meet. Since 2013, the economy has shrunk 27%, according to local investment bank Torino Capital; imports of food have plunged 70%.
Hordes of people, many with children in tow, rummage through garbage, an uncommon sight a year ago. People in the countryside pick farms clean at night, stealing everything from fruits hanging on trees to pumpkins on the ground, adding to the misery of farmers hurt by shortages of seed and fertilizer. Looters target food stores. Families padlock their refrigerators.
Three in four Venezuelans said they had lost weight last year, an average of 19 pounds, according to the National Poll of Living Conditions, an annual study by social scientists. People here, in a mix of rage and humor, call it the Maduro diet after President Nicolás Maduro.
In normal times, we would have paid attention to the unfolding events in Venezuela--despite the typical American attitude to not care about the rest of the world.  But, these are extraordinary times.  Unchartered waters.  So, now we couldn't be bothered with the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

Please, please read the entire WSJ report
Perhaps you are wondering whether the president has done anything regarding Venezuela.  Yes, he has--he took the half-million dollars that were donated to his inauguration gala.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, took a principled stand in US dealings with Venezuela, imposing sanctions to rein in rogue behavior, a policy that drew broad bipartisan support. The Trump administration needs to stay the course, especially as lower oil prices have weakened the Venezuelan government’s hand. Instead of bashing Latin America, the US needs to show it can be a steady and principled friend that will not be swayed by corrupt bribes of any type.
"principled"?  This pussy-grabbing president? This president who mocked a disabled reporter?  Hah!

Meanwhile, more agony in Venezuela :(


Friday, May 05, 2017

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Nobody cares for what I say or write; so, I will quote myself ;)

Back in January 2015, I wrote in an op-ed:

Even the most ardent supporters of universities and higher education aren’t being helpful when the only support they show is for basketball and football victories, for which they are also willing to invest millions of dollars. Imagine, instead, that a few million dollars were invested in order to encourage students to learn Chinese and Arabic. Not that I don’t want students to, say, learn French. Au contraire! But in preparing students for the future, shouldn’t we actively promote Arabic, Mandarin and Hindi, which will then become portals to understand those different places and their peoples?

Yep, that was more than two years ago.  Over the nearly thirty months since then, don't you think that the importance of understanding the part of the world where Arabic, Mandarin, and Hindi are spoken has vastly increased?

Even the British bastards knew better--in order to suck the blood out of their colonies, they knew that they needed quite a few of their own people to be fluent in the vernacular of the brown people.  And those bastards even really enjoyed the food in the colonies, unlike the current American president!

By now you know that this blogger presents logic and evidence, unlike the president and his 63 million voters,  Here too, in the case of foreign language, you can bet your farm that there is plenty of evidence that we need to worry about.  Like from the United States Government Accountability Office.  (How they managed to get such reports out under this presidency beats me!)

First, the context for the GAO report:
Proficiency in foreign languages is a key skill for U.S. diplomats to advance U.S. interests overseas. GAO has issued several reports highlighting State’s persistent foreign language shortfalls. In 2009, GAO recommended that State, to address these shortfalls, develop a strategic plan linking all of its efforts to meet its foreign language requirements. In response, in 2011 State issued its “Strategic Plan for Foreign Language Capabilities.”
In 2009.  That explains it--of course, the Kenyan Muslim Obama would be interested in foreign languages!  A real American would not care a shit about any language other than "Murican."

So, in brief, what has the GAO to report?
As of September 2016, 23 percent of overseas language-designated positions (LDP) were filled by Foreign Service officers (FSO) who did not meet the positions’ language proficiency requirements. While this represents an 8-percentage-point improvement from 2008, the Department of State (State) still faces significant language proficiency gaps
Guess where the deficiencies were the highest?  In the least important parts of the world. of course, I am being satirical!
Regionally, the greatest gaps were in the Near East (37 percent), Africa (34 percent), and South and Central Asia (31 percent).
It is not like there is anything important happening in any of those regions that we want to understand anyway, right?  Oh, wait, those are also some of the hardest languages for "Muricans" to learn?
Category I—World languages (e.g., French and Spanish)
Category II—Difficult world languages (e.g., German)
Category III—Hard languages (e.g., Russian and Urdu)
Category IV—Super-hard languages (e.g., Arabic and Chinese)
According to State documents, the time it takes to achieve general proficiency depends on the difficulty of the language. World languages require 24 to 30 weeks, difficult world languages require 36 weeks, hard languages require 44 weeks, and super-hard languages require 88 weeks to achieve general proficiency.
Oh, the harder it is, the more we want to avoid investing in learning that language.  Makes fucking sense to me.

So, you want a feel for the implications for this language gap, yes?
language proficiency gaps have, in some cases, affected State’s ability to properly adjudicate visa applications; effectively communicate with foreign audiences, address security concerns, and perform other critical diplomatic duties.
I will wrap up the post with this:
embassy managers in countries where super-hard or hard languages, such as
Arabic and Russian, are spoken said that certain positions have been designated as not requiring language proficiency or designated at a lower proficiency level to increase the likelihood of filling the positions
Managers also said that, while they would prefer to require higher levels of language proficiency, they sometimes require lower levels to avoid delaying the arrival of FSOs at posts who would otherwise have to spend longer periods in language training. Some State geographic bureau officials spoke of significant tension between quickly filling a vacant position with an officer who lacks language skills versus waiting to fill the position with an officer who is trained and fully proficient.
Oh well ... it is not like 63 million voters care about anything other than "White Christian America First."


Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Listen to your women

In the Mahabharata, the story with its wonderful twists and turns, one of the pivotal moments is when Draupadi laughs at the sight of Duryodhana stumbling because of one of the many illusions that were a part of the palace architecture.  That slight alone was enough for Duryodhana, who then takes revenge on her later on by having her disrobed in the royal court in the presence of all the elders and ministers.

A woman laughing at a macho man can be utterly emasculating, I suppose.  Women should remain unseen and unheard, was the old rule.

Not that old a rule though.
A Code Pink Protester Laughs Over a Trump Nominee and Is Convicted
Yep, that is a real headline. From the New York Times.
It was early in the hearing when Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, said that Mr. Sessions’s record of “treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented,” Ariel Gold, the campaign director of Code Pink, said on Wednesday.
Ms. Fairooz said that, on hearing that, she let out a giggle.
“I just couldn’t hold it,” she said on Wednesday. “It was spontaneous. It was an immediate rejection of what I considered an outright lie or pure ignorance.”
The BBC refers to a court document:
Ms Fairooz "let out aloud [sic] bursts of laughter, followed by a second louder burst of laughter", according to a court document.
How big was the laugh?
Code Pink campaign director Ariel Gold, who was sitting near Ms Fairooz, described the sound as a "reflexive gasp" that was "quieter than a cough".
"I would barely call it a laugh," she said.
One can safely assume that there would not be any disrobing the women in the Senate.  What is their punishment?
Each of the three protesters faces up to 12 months in jail, $2,000 in fines, or both, depending on the outcome of a June 21 sentencing hearing.
It is time for Pussy Riot then.
I’d like to quote a Pussy Riot song because, strange as it may seem, all our songs have turned out to be prophetic, including the one that says: “The KGB chief, their number one saint, will escort protestors off to jail” – that’s about us. What I’d like to quote now, however, is the next line: “Open the doors, off with the military insignia, join us in a taste of freedom.”

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The future has arrived ... subcutaneous microchips

When people started to implant microchips in their dogs, I started worrying.  Before I get to my worries, more about this animal microchip.  Did you know that in England every dog has to have a microchip?  When I present it to you that way, you perhaps a slight creepy sensation.

Let us take it one more step.  Did you know that cows are microchipped (is that even a proper usage, I don't care) which then lets the cowboy/rancher/dairy owner know when it is in heat and, therefore, when it should be inseminated?  Getting creepier?

We are on a slippery slope, my friend.  While we have not started putting a microchip on every newborn baby--yet--think about the smartphone you have.  Thanks to the signals constantly bouncing between your phone and "them," they know exactly where you are at any given time.  When an employer gives you a work phone, ahem, they can track you 24x7.  The microchip has not been planted on you, but you are carrying it with you.

But, if you thought that microchip implants on humans is not a thing for now, well, think again.
The company [Epicenter] offers to implant its workers and start-up members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.
Do you now have creepy sensations running all through your body?  You now wonder if that small bump on your hand is nothing but a microchip that was implanted when you thought you were merely getting a flu shot?
never before has the technology been used to tag employees on a broad scale. Epicenter and a handful of other companies are the first to make chip implants broadly available.
And as with most new technologies, it raises security and privacy issues. Although the chips are biologically safe, the data they generate can show how often employees come to work or what they buy. Unlike company swipe cards or smartphones, which can generate the same data, people cannot easily separate themselves from the chips.
Aren't you also worried now that the dystopian future is just round the corner?

Of course, it is not only your employer and "they" who can track you and know everything about you, if they decide to go that route, hackers will have an awesome time as well:
Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, says hackers could conceivably gain huge swaths of information from embedded microchips. The ethical dilemmas will become bigger the more sophisticated the microchips become.
“The data that you could possibly get from a chip that is embedded in your body is a lot different from the data that you can get from a smartphone,” he says. “Conceptually, you could get data about your health, you could get data about your whereabouts, how often you're working, how long you're working, if you're taking toilet breaks and things like that.”
Libberton said that if such information is collected, the big question remains of what happens to it, who uses it and for what purpose.
Have a nice day!


Monday, May 01, 2017

Who speaks to the public?

The election of the current president is not the only one that has happened at this interesting time in history.  He and his complete disregard for the truth is not that unique.  That was on the political side of our lives. Almost all the dynamics that helped the president completely dismiss the truth are also the ones challenging the work of scientists.  Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan says:
The Internet and the World Wide Web have been a tremendous boon to scientists. It's made communication far easier among scientists. It's in many ways leveled the playing field.
...
Along with the benefits, what has happened is a huge amount of noise. You have all of these people spouting pseudoscientific jargon and pushing their own ideas as if they were science. They couch all their stuff in technical jargon. They talk about energy and negative energy. Well, what does negative energy mean? Energy has a very precise definition to a chemist or a physicist. These guys are using it in some mumbo-jumbo way, but it sounds scientific. Scientists are very busy, and our science has become so technical that it's a real effort to communicate it in an accessible way to the public. The public is bombarded with all this information, so who do we believe?
The people end up believing whoever tells them the simplest of stories--even if those stories are nothing but bullshit!

I blogged about Ramakrishnan, in 2010, after reading his essay.  Back then he was a freshly minted Nobel laureate.

Back to Ramakrishnan in the contemporary context:
How do we as a science community grapple with this and communicate to the public a sense of what science is about, what is reliable in science, what is uncertain in science, and what is just plain wrong in science? How do we live with uncertainty? Scientists live with uncertainty. We know that no matter how confident we are in our theories, it is possible that we're wrong, that our ideas may be wrong, and we always have to be prepared for that. That isn't to say that our ideas lack merit and that they shouldn't be taken seriously.
This is a problem in many fields. Climate change, for example, is a classic field where uncertainties in the consensus opinion are pounced on by people who don't like the idea of climate change and therefore oppose it. These are real long-term issues that we need to grapple with.
In the seminar class last fall, I had materials for students to think about the role of uncertainty in knowledge.  Understanding that is a necessary path towards intellectual boldness, I told them.  If Ramakrishnan had talked about all these back then, I would have made the students watch the interview.

So, why is Ramakrishnan talking about these now?  Because, he is now the head of the Royal Society.  With that honor comes the responsibility--he has to address science and society:
The last year has been very interesting because, for the first time, I've been taken out of my little area of ribosomes and structural biology into thinking about broader issues about science. How do we communicate science? How do we ensure that science is reliable? How do we promote interaction among scientists? How do we constantly make the case of why science is important not just to government, but to the public and to others? It's been a very interesting experience because it's made me think about science in a much broader context.
I wish scientists would do more of that--if they want to make sure that science survives the likes of the current president of the US.  Marching for science alone will not achieve anything.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dead Man Walking

Back in March 2010--yes, more than seven years ago--I blogged about 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.  In only seven years, that goal has become even more a remote idea than it was even then.

The Scientific American reported ten days ago that we breached the 410 ppm threshold!
In what’s become a spring tradition like Passover and Easter, carbon dioxide has set a record high each year since measurements began. It stood at 280 ppm when record keeping began at Mauna Loa in 1958. In 2013, it passed 400 ppm. Just four years later, the 400 ppm mark is no longer a novelty. It’s the norm.
In 1958, it was only at 280 ppm  Think about that for a minute.

The article ends with this:
Right now we’re on track to create a climate unseen in 50 million years by mid-century.
Keep in mind that our species was not around 50 million years ago.  So, yes, what happened?  It was the Eocene:
a period when the world was completely different than the present due to extreme heat and oceans that covered a wide swath of currently dry land.
“The early Eocene was much warmer than today: global mean surface temperature was at least 10°C (18°F) warmer than today,” Dana Royer, a paleoclimate researcher at Wesleyan University who co-authored the new research, said. “There was little-to-no permanent ice. Palms and crocodiles inhabited the Canadian Arctic.”
For all we know, we seem to be headed towards "little-to-no permanent ice."
The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, suggests a huge assessment of the region. The warming is hastening the melting of Arctic ice and boosting sea-level rise.
Imagine that!  The more worrisome aspect is that what happens at the Arctic does not merely stay at the Arctic.  The Economist writes that we should be afraid. Very afraid.
The right response is fear. The Arctic is not merely a bellwether of matters climatic, but an actor in them (see Briefing).
So?
The hard truth, however, is that the Arctic as it is known today is almost certainly gone. Efforts to mitigate global warming by cutting emissions remain essential. But the state of the Arctic shows that humans cannot simply undo climate change. They will have to adapt to it.
While all this is happening, the New York Times hires a columnist who writes as if his employer is not the newspaper but Exxon.  My old classmate in India wants me to cancel my subscription to the Times.

My subversive activism has failed, and failed miserably, to convey the urgency of this problem to the denialists like some of the readers in the past.  My newspaper columns on climate change did not do shit.  My fellow citizens proudly elected a guy who claims that global warming and climate change are a hoax created by the Chinese, and his party elders bring snowballs to the Senate chambers as evidence that there is no climate change.

I know fully well that I cannot do a damn thing here.  Which is why, more to commiserate than with any hope of achieving anything, did I participate in a march last Saturday.  Ironically enough, while the march was about the future, a good chunk of  the young men and women in college--the intended beneficiaries--were partying in the streets, on the porches, in the apartments, and in bars, because it was the spring scrimmage, and they could not be bothered with joining the march.  Football beats climate change!


The future has arrived ... Robot Appleseed

It seems like forever that I have been writing here, and talking in the classrooms, about how the modern day automation is a huge job-killer and a contributor to income inequality.  And, therefore, why we need to rethink public policies.  The newspaper gives me more material evidence:
Harvesting Washington state’s vast fruit orchards each year requires thousands of farmworkers, and many of them work illegally in the United States.
That system eventually could change dramatically as at least two companies are rushing to get robotic fruit-picking machines to market.
The robotic pickers don’t get tired and can work 24 hours a day.
Yes, robots picking apples.

The anti-immigration folks can yell and scream all they want about the "illegals" in this country.  But, those illegals are also the ones working our farms, our yards, our hotels, our cows, our ... If that labor supply were to be choked off, it is not as if the apples will harvest themselves and miraculously get to the nearest grocery store!

Enter automation.  It is the same automation dynamics that have also led to severe job losses in manufacturing.  But, I don't want to digress; I want to stay focused on the farm.
“Human pickers are getting scarce,” said Gad Kober, a co-founder of Israel-based FFRobotics. “Young people do not want to work in farms, and elderly pickers are slowly retiring.”
FFRobotics and Abundant Robotics, of Hayward, Calif., are racing to get their mechanical pickers to market within the next couple of years.
Harvest has been mechanized for large portions of the agriculture industry such as wheat, corn, green beans and tomatoes for some time. But for more fragile commodities like apples, berries, table grapes and lettuce — where the crop’s appearance is especially important — harvest is still done by hand.
Did you catch that?  "Israel-based."  If only people understood that economic geography is global!
While financial details are not available, the builders say the robotic pickers should pay for themselves in two years. That puts the likely cost of the machines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
FFRobotics is developing a machine that has three-fingered grips to grab fruit and twist or clip it from a branch. The machine would have between four and 12 robotic arms, and can pick up to 10,000 apples an hour, Kober said.
One machine would be able to harvest a variety of crops, taking 85 to 90 percent of the crop off the trees, Kober said. Humans could pick the rest.
Abundant Robotics is working on a picker that uses suction to vacuum apples off trees.
I was now fascinated with this suction technology to vacuum apples.  This from IEEE--back in college, I was a student member of this professional organization of electrical and electronic engineers!--offers some interesting observations:
Besides the sheer entertainment value, the vacuum picking technique (an approach being used by other robotics groups) looks like it might be faster in operation and easier to implement than a traditional gripper. Since it only exerts pressure when its, er, orifice (?) is mostly sealed, it can pluck apples out of trees while leaves remain untouched, and as long as it gets close enough, it looks like the apples essentially pick themselves.
The tricky parts are going to be consistently “seeing” apples that may be (I would guess) almost entirely hidden behind leaves and branches, and then managing to reach those apples with a very bulky picking system. Making it reliable and cost-effective will be another challenge, although the potential market is certainly significant. Of course, all we really have to go on right now is a blurry video of a prototype that’s almost a year old and our usual wild speculation, but our guess is that we’ll be finding out more within the year.
The video of the vaccuum-technology in apple picking is without sounds.  The gripper technology is impressive enough for me.

Building that wall--even the mere rhetoric--accelerates the building of more robots, I suppose.

As I wrote in my recent op-ed::
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

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The future has arrived

In an op-ed back in January 2015, I wrote:
 I increasingly worry that there is a huge disconnect between how undergraduates spend their four or five — or even six — years in college and the real world, which is changing by the minute.
Some of the important issues of the day, which will influence our lives well into the next few decades, arise from China, India, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
Will it shock readers to know that a typical college student can earn a diploma without learning anything substantive about these areas, which account for half of the world’s population even now, and whose share will increase in the future? Wouldn’t we want students to know at least a little bit about the global drivers of economic and political decisions?
Nobody cares for what I worry about!  We continue to graduate students who have no idea about China, India, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.  I wish I could ask every graduating student at my university to name the leaders of the governments of China and India, and to point out where Syria is on a map of the Middle East.

Students are like most Americans who simply have no idea how rapidly China has transformed.  If I were to present the following to them, they might simply collapse from hyperventilation:
China became the world’s largest economy (measured by purchasing power parity, PPP) in 2014. What isn’t so well known is how astonishingly fast the end came for the 140-year reign of the American economy as the world’s largest. According to numbers Rachman cites, China was just 12 percent of the size of the US economy in 2000 and only half as big as late as 2011. Such meteoric growth has been enough to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, finance the US deficit, and still allow China to increase its military spending at double-digit rates every year for two decades.
In matters of national security the momentum of Chinese growth has meant, for example, that while Japan’s military spending was triple China’s in 2000, it was only half as large by 2015.
Go ahead, and re-read those previous sentences.

Seventeen years ago, China was merely an eighth of the US economy.  During those years, while the US was busy fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever we wanted to drop bombs, China went about expanding its economic and military might.  Here we are in 2017, with China launching a home-built aircraft carrier.

In that op-ed, I wrote about the need to learn the languages that we will need to learn and become fluent in, if we want to understand the future.  Especially Chinese and Arabic.  But, of course, most universities couldn't care!

I cannot figure out how much longer we can go on without truly understanding China, and recognizing it as an important player.
China is a challenge to the United States on several fronts; not an enemy. However, the relationship is riven with tensions that could escalate into open conflict. Neither side understands or trusts the other. Avoiding these thorns will depend on steady leaders and skilled diplomacy in reading each other’s behavior. Improvisation or short-sighted deals made for a domestic audience are likely to end badly. History also warns that success will not be easy. Most often, in the past, rising new powers have clashed with reigning ones. The US–China relationship will remain the most consequential in the world for decades to come.
And if we continue to insult China?
Never before has a president suggested handing over most of the currency of US global leadership to others, free of charge. China will not hesitate to seize every opportunity offered. A much diminished and less influential America, and consequently a much less secure Asia, would be the result.
Alas, we gleefully continue eating "Asian Salad"!


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