Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thankfully, 2017 is ending. Now, I worry about 2018!

In the old country, everybody is ready to blame everything on global warming.  For the most part, they have a good point: The facts of global warming are very much a part of daily life.  Temperatures are warmer than usual. Rains are erratic, and it is often a deluge when it comes down.

This December has been so warm in Chennai that the only ones happy about it are the elderly, who otherwise would have by now brought out their sweaters, monkey caps, shawls, and ear muffs.

"Only Americans don't recognize the reality of global warming," this guy said, as he calmly negotiated the traffic at high noon.

"No, only one party in America does not recognize the reality."

Up until a year ago, I could imagine having conversations and debates with the maniacal loyalists of that party. And I used to. A lot.  Not any more.  The guy who hijacked that party and stole the election with the help of foreign agents did not miss a beat, tweeted this about global warming:

Seriously, this is the president that 63 million selected for me too?

The reality is that climate weirding made 2017 memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Transnational corporations and the most powerful militaries on Earth are already building to prepare for higher sea levels and more extreme weather. The FIRE complex—finance, insurance, and real estate—knows exactly what 2017 cost them (natural and human-made disasters: $306 billion and 11,000 lives) and can calculate more of the same in 2018. They know that the radical alteration of Earth’s climate isn’t just something that’s going to happen in 100 years if we’re not careful, or in 50 years if we don’t change our economy and moonshot the crap out of science and technology. It’s here. Now. It happened. Look behind you.
It is simply beyond my imagination how educated folks can so systematically engage in denial when everybody else is worried about the very issue.
Rich people living behind walls they think can’t be breached by any rising tide, literal or metaphoric, made this disaster. And then they gaslighted the vulnerable into distrusting anyone raising the alarm. The people who benefit have made it seem as if this dark timeline was all perfectly fine.
As the economist Herbert Stein stated in a different context, “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”  The denial cannot go on forever.  Here's to hoping that the stop will begin in November 2018 itself.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The business of art

One of the Tamil movies that I watched during my late teenage years was Yarukkaaga Azhudhaan (For whom did he cry?)  Of course, it was not during its original theatrical release but much later when the government television channel telecast the movie.

Unlike the typical movies, this one had no song-dance sequences.  No songs, period.  It was an up close drama.  I loved it.  The fact that it was written and directed by Jayakanthan was a bonus.

But, such movies never became commercial successes.  The movies that hit the box office jackpot were the formulaic ones with a clearly defined hero, a much younger and attractive heroine, a designated bad guy, and a bunch of songs.  The poetic art of the theatre died out in the face of crass commercial cinema.

I have no idea about the contemporary state of "art" movies in the old country.  I hope there are still a couple of people who create meaningful art.

In the adopted home country, art (indie) movies continue to flourish, even as Hollywood itself makes interesting offbeat movies once in a while that sometimes are also commercial successes.  There is one big reason that Hollywood continues to pump up its formulaic movies with action, sex, special effects, CGI, and whatever else.  These can be sold all over the world, whereas the indie movies cannot for one simple reason: There is a lot of talking involved in the art movies.  The language and the slang are distractions for the foreign market.

All these are reflected in the list of English movies playing in Chennai.  There is only one art/commercial crossover that is playing in town--Coco.  But, some of my other favorites from this year may not ever come to town.  Like Lady Bird.

Lady Bird was on my list ever since I read the buzz about it and its writer/director Greta Gerwig, whose performance as an actor I have appreciated in a few movies.  And, when the moment came, the companion and I went to the movie hall.

Like many reviewers, I too was awed by one scene in particular.  The protagonist, Lady Bird, goes to shop for a prom dress with her mother Marion (played by Laurie Metcalf).  The entire conversation, the facial expressions, and the body language, offered wonderful insights into the human that we all are.  Here's a lengthy excerpt from a review about the movie and about this particular scene:
“It’s too tight, fuck!” Lady Bird cries as she tries on one dress. “Well, I suggested you not have that second helping of pasta,” Marion replies through the door. “Honey, you seem upset about it, and I’m trying to help,” she adds as her daughter cries out in protest, “You’re giving me an eating disorder!” Throughout the scene, Gerwig never cuts to inside the dressing room; the camera stays on Marion (with Lady Bird occasionally emerging in a new dress), with Metcalf registering the tiniest facial twinges every time she realizes she’s said something that goes too far. Finally, Lady Bird emerges in a pink, slightly sparkly number. “I love it,” she sighs. “Is it too pink?” Marion replies.
In Marion’s eyes, there’s a fine line between being critical and being helpful, and she’s straddling it, but to her daughter, every criticism is another stab in the heart, an attack on her individuality from which she can’t recover. They’re both wrong, and that’s what’s so wonderful about Gerwig’s script; it lets its characters be wrong without the viewer losing affection for them. “Why can’t you say I look nice?” Lady Bird asks. “I thought you didn’t even care what I think,” Marion counters. “I’m sorry, I was telling you the truth. Do you want me to lie?”
“I just wish … I wish that you liked me,” Lady Bird says sorrowfully. “Of course I love you.” “But do you like me?” Marion can only reply with that most stiflingly parental of philosophies: “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.” “What if this is the best version?” Lady Bird asks. Marion looks at her askance, saying more in a glance than any piece of dialogue could. Believe me, it’s not, she’s thinking. But also, It had better not be. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heartfelt, an entire relationship captured in a look, for better or worse.
Everything in that scene will be lost in translation, unlike a visual spectacle of the ticking clock and the macho hero jumping into action in order to rescue the damsel in distress.  Though, Hollywood has started creating female action characters as well--as long as they have well proportioned breasts and legs that will attract the male audience too.

Yarukkaaga Azhudhaan?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A growth that is of the bad kind

My cousin-in-law, who was born and raised in the US, often comments that India is the only country where he has seen signs and posters advertising the services of diabetologists.  Even freakier for him: Centers that specialize in diabetes care.

It might shock him even more if he were to read this NY Times report on diabetes in India.  In short, we ain't seen nothin' yet!
The International Diabetes Federation projects that the number of Indians with diabetes will soar to 123 million by 2040 as diets rich in carbohydrates and fat spread to less affluent rural areas.
During my childhood, diabetes was referred to as a rich person's disease.  Because, only those who were affluent could afford to eat the wrong foods and then sit and do nothing.  The poor, on the other hand, barely had anything to eat and were constantly physically working in order to earn that meager food. Now, the country is immensely more prosperous than when I was a kid.  Which means, yes, if the old habits continued, then the country is headed towards a diabetic explosion!
Dr. Yajnik said he believes Indians’ susceptibility to diabetes may have emerged as their diets changed with rising affluence — and that their bodies, attuned to scarcity, couldn’t handle an overload of food.
The overload has been almost instantaneous, in the larger temporal context.

So, how is this overload beginning to show up even before the arrival of diabetes?
Since 1990, the percent of children and adults in India who are overweight or obese has almost tripled to 18.8 percent from 6.4 percent, according to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Interesting coincidence, if you think about it. India opened up its economy to the world in 1991.  Junk food was among other goods that came in.

One does not have to look fat or obese in order to have diabetes.  They can be relatively thin too.  But, there is a big symptom that typically juts out: The fat that collects around the abdomen.  The spare tire.

In my boring regimented life, when people ask me for suggestions, I tell them it is a question of healthy calories in versus calories out.  Mere reduction in intake won't help--the calories out depends on physical activity.  Which is what a cousin in the extended family found out.  After years of reducing his intake alone and getting frustrated that he still continued to gain weight, he took up running and exercising.  Within months he lost quite some pounds.  And he continued with that and built up the success.  So successful that he was profiled in the newspaper a few months ago.  "You should see him now," his mother gloated a few days ago.

Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations”.  The best we can do is to at least do our part to make sure that it is a short procession!  So, get up and do twenty push-ups in order to reduce that abdominal fat that you have been fondly rubbing while reading through this post! ;)

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Moais of Oregon

The plan is to submit this for consideration as an op-ed piece.

A perfect storm is brewing in the Oregon public policy environment. When that storm makes landfall, Oregon’s higher education system will be devastated beyond recognition.

For years, it has been a struggle to fully fund the state’s public universities. Taxpayer dollars pay for less than ten percent of the research universities’ operations, and the regional universities--like Western Oregon University, where I teach--manage with a quarter of the operating expenses paid for by state allocation.

This is bound to worsen when the next recession hits.

Economies go through a period of growth, followed by stagnation. The Great Recession of 2008 was particularly hard. Since the end of that recession in June 2009, we have had steady growth in the economy over the past nearly nine years. However, growth cannot happen for ever; while any recession is difficult to predict, it will arrive sooner or later.

The coming recession will make state dollars scarce, and public higher educational institutions cannot even dream of balancing their books on the shoulders of students. Students already graduate with debt that many of the old-timers did not have to bear back when the public vigorously supported investing in higher education. To subject students to even higher debts will be outright robbery.

Students from other countries are willing to pay for an American education--they pay much higher fees than our residents do. However, the Trump administration is increasingly making it difficult for them to come here, which does not make any economic sense leave alone the benefits of greater understanding across cultures. And, because Oregonians are having fewer kids than before, the current K-12 student population in Oregon will not translate to increasing numbers of native students at higher educational institutions. All these will further complicate the coming budgetary battles.

Further, over the past couple of years, the political rhetoric in the country has turned intensely anti-intellectual. “We need more welders and less philosophers” has become a mantra. Politicians have virulently attacked various fields of inquiry that they deem wasteful. This means that when the recession hits, voters have already been primed for chopping down public universities.

Tragically, even as public higher education heads to a collapse, we are behaving similar to how the people at Easter Island did. Easter Island is located in the Pacific Ocean, and about 2,000 miles from the Chilean coast. There, as the population faced ecological crises, they--the Rapa Nui--spent more and more resources erecting stone statues--moais--hoping for divine intervention. The gods did not help, and the civilization ultimately collapsed about 400 years ago.

On college campuses, we have been constructing moais in plenty over the years. Athletic stadiums and facilities are our modern day moais, which we continue to build despite the financial urgency. Unfortunately, the massive spending on athletics, including the astronomical salaries for coaches, finds support across the political spectrum, even from the ultra-left faculty on campuses.

Like at Easter Island, these modern day moais too will merely bear witness to the collapse of public higher education in Oregon, unless educators and political leaders begin to prepare for the coming storm keeping in mind the best interests of the state’s future.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Silent Night

About a refugee and migrant camp in Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos:
If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married. Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside.
If we want to see today’s flight to Egypt, we needn’t look far: Nearly every refugee I’ve ever met has a story about escaping in the middle of the night.
If we want to understand a life upended for a census, we need only ask those refugees whose futures are uncertain until their asylum requests are processed, their entire lives now held hostage to bureaucracy.
If we want a miracle, I’d suggest looking at Anwar, who despite crying while recounting the destruction of Mosul, still paused in the middle and offered me a clementine.
As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.
Pope Francis delivers a message in his address:
Using the example of the holy family to emphasize the “dangers that attend those who have to leave their home behind,” Francis noted that in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary found a city “that had no room or place for the stranger from afar,” and which “seemed to want to build itself up by turning its back on others.” Instead, the pope said, Jesus “comes to give all of us our document of citizenship.” ...
On Christmas Eve, he recalled the famous appeal of John Paul II to opponents of Communism, that they should “Be not afraid,” “open wide the doors” and have confidence that their cause was just and would prevail.
Francis repurposed the message as an appeal for hospitality to the world’s forsaken. “Christmas is a time for turning the power of fear into the power of charity,” he said.

Caption at the source:
A Syrian boy outside his family’s tent near the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece.

The shitty priorities!

In this post a couple of days ago, I wrote about the geographic separation of religions and castes and subcastes that has been the condition in India forever.  I added there:
Had the randomness in the cosmos made me a Dalit and not a brahmin by birth, I know for certain that I would have been an angry young man, an angry middle-aged man, and perhaps a bitter old man, unable to forget the atrocities that were committed against my people.
The coexistence in India is a false narrative.  An overwhelming part of India operates within its own.
India is a fraternal society. There is a Brahmin society, a Reddy society and a Dalit society. Within each society, there is a sense of fraternity, but they don’t want to come out of that circle.
This is what I too had noted in my post, when I wrote, that the paths don't seem to cross much.  Unlike me, the one who remarked about the warped sense of fraternity in India is the Magsaysay awardee, Bezwada Wilson.
Bezwada Wilson has been fighting for the eradication of manual scavenging for three decades now. Born in Kolar, Karnataka, to a family of manual scavengers, he founded the Safai Karmachari Andolan in 1994 with retired IAS officer S.R. Sankaran and Dalit activist Paul Diwakar.
What he has been doing is simply invaluable.  According to his group, about 160,000 people continue to work as manual scavenging.  In the 21st century, as 2017 comes to an end!

Bezwada Wilson says:
Sanitation is reserved for Dalits. So there is no development in that field. We have apps to deliver food home without involving human beings but they can’t discover a technology to clear human waste. Caste is the reason behind this discrimination.
Launching rockets is a priority. Serving as the back office for US and European firms is a priority.   But, developing an appropriate technology to remove human shit is not a priority because it is not a priority for the upper castes, whose priorities are elsewhere.
Every field has extensive research, but in sanitation, no research is ever done. We are over 130 crore people, we defecate every day. We have a caste to clean it up. We don’t even think about it.  
When I was young, and a wannabe commie, all I knew was that the societal priorities were messed up.  As I got older, I figured that I did not have the balls to be an activist.  The best I could then do was to at least intellectually begin to understand the issues and engage with a few people about it.

After all these years, I am all the more convinced that there's something seriously wrong with the world, and I can't do a damn thing about it!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Kamadhenu in the lab

I am beginning to worry that we are seriously underestimating how much we humans are accelerating global climate change.  The latest came from a gathering with old friends, who joked that I am not fit to live in the US.  Unfit because ... I don't consume alcohol, did not eat "non-veg," and did not even have ice cream!

Consumption in the old country has grown beyond my wildest imagination.  It is a sign of prosperity, no doubt.  People look well-fed, and restaurants to suit various budgets are so many all around that it even comes across as if the food and beverage industry is the industry here.  A friend says that there is a restaurant that serves "Mexican dosai," which says everything about how limited my imagination is.

More cars on the road. More two-wheelers, and auto-rickshaws. Kids walking around with chocolates and juices.  Every other person is walking or driving with smartphones, which they check constantly.  The airport crowd beats the literal and metaphorical Grand Central Station.

But, all these are the mere beginnings of consumption.  And this will rapidly increase in the next decade.  If carbon is the fuel that makes pretty much all the consumption possible, and if the coming increase in consumption will be continued to be energized by carbon, then ...

And this is merely in one city.  There are other cities. And other countries. And that huge and growing population in sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, back to the gathering, only two other guys stayed with the "veg" options.  The rest were kidding that the vegetables were contaminating the "non veg."  If only the West understood India for what it is, and not as a land of a billion vegetarians!  Rare is a staunch vegetarian, like this guy, who thoughtfully took me to this place for a fabulous meal.

When the animal protein consumption is growing this rapidly in India, and will grow in other countries as well--we have clear evidence that with prosperity, humans begin to consume a lot more animal protein--one can easily draw a line to climate change, right?

This piece reminds us about that connection:
According to the United Nations, raising animals for food contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. The climate impact of animal agriculture is staggering, as are the other environmental problems associated with it. “The reality is that it takes massive amounts of land, water, fertilizer, oil and other resources to produce meat,” says global relief charity Oxfam, “significantly more than it requires to grow other nutritious and delicious kinds of food.”
So, what can be done?  Most people are not going to become vegetarians.  We need to manufacture animal protein that will taste and look like beef or chicken or ...

"Second domestication" might be the answer:
Whereas our ancestors domesticated wild animals into livestock, today Memphis Meats and others are beginning to domesticate those animals’ cells. And from one single cell of a cow, you could feed an entire village, offering real hope that we may be able to satiate humanity’s demand for meat without destroying our planet in the process.
Yep, lab-grown meat.
The history of agriculture has largely been about producing more food with fewer resources. Today, cellular agriculture is offering us the capacity to do just that while lightening our footprint on the planet in ways that in the past was always mere science fiction.
Perhaps it was put best by Drew Endy, a Stanford University synthetic biologist, who says of these kinds of technologies: “We can transition from living on Earth to living with Earth.”
May you live in exciting times!

Friday, December 22, 2017

In support of peaceism

In my classes, when students pepper their responses with any "ism"--capitalism, in particular--I tell them to avoid those usages.  At least in my classes, even if they continue with that practice elsewhere.  I tell them that while we think that we know what any "ism" means, and while we believe that everybody else agrees with that understanding, the reality is very different.

Most of us will find it difficult to define and explain any "ism."  Ask a devout Hindu what Hinduism is and you will stump them.  They will give you some rambling answers.  Even if their answer seems brief, chances of other Hindus agreeing with that brief definition are as rare as a snowfall in Chennai.

Capitalism seems like a word that we are all familiar with, and yet most of us will be hard pressed to articulate a clear and succinct understanding of it.  Even worse is when students beat up on capitalism because their professors did.  I would rather that students developed an understanding of issues and ideas, instead of merely mouthing about "isms."

One of my favorite political economic philosopher writes about capitalism that further reinforces our need to understand what we are talking about:
That we insist on ruminating on something called "capital" does not prove that its accumulation was in fact unique to modernity. And it is not. Romans and Chinese and human beings back to the caves have always accumulated capital, abstaining from consumption to get it.
Accumulating and owning capital is not anything new, right?

But, didn't "capitalism" make us rich?
What made us rich were new ideas for investing it, not the investments themselves, necessary though they were.
Which is what I tell students over and over again: The story of the last two hundred years is a story of ideas.  And, for that matter, it is through new ideas that we have gotten to where we are from the time we figured out permanent agriculture.

Even the capital, or investment capital if we want to be clear, alone does not work. Without new ideas, any amount of capital is mere crap; "financing is merely a necessary condition, not a sufficient one."

Back when I was a bullshitting teenager, I was convinced that it was a lack of money that was holding India back.  I freely and strongly opined that if people did not waste their money by buying gold, then there would be plenty of money for other things.  I forgot to ask myself: "What other things?"  Those other things are the new ideas that have transformed our lives.

So, financing is a necessary condition.  Like many other necessary conditions.
Necessary conditions are endless, and mostly not pertinent—"having liquid water at the usual temperatures" and "the absence of an active civil war" are necessary too, but nobody wants to call it waterism or peaceism.
If only we can make peaceism the dominant ideology!

So, if ideas are what transformed the world, and will continue to transform the world, then where do those new ideas come from?

Now, that is a completely different question from merely beating up on, or praising, capitalism, right?  Like I remind students, understanding the world requires us to ask the right questions.

I also tell them that I rarely ever have the answers.  My job is only to ask questions! ;)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Love and marriage don't go together like horse and carriage

We often forget that the celebrated Romeo and Juliet were teenagers who were madly in love, and died in their teens.  Had their feuding Capulets and the Montagues blessed the young love, the two would have gotten married.  If that had happened, not only will there be no story of Romeo and Juliet, chances are also that Romeo and Juliet would not have had a happy life ever after.

It is not that I am pessimistic about teenage love.  Au contraire!  It is simply that daily life sucks away all those glorious emotions that made Romeo and Juliet.  Such is the life that we humans live.

The men and women of literature help us understand this human condition.  Gabriel García Márquez is simply masterful in Love in the time of cholera when he presents the complex emotions that make us who we are.  Through one of his characters, he writes about matrimony:
an absurd invention that could exist only by the infinite grace of God. It was against all scientific reason for two people who hardly knew each other, with no ties at all between them, with different characters, different upbringings, and even different genders, to suddenly find themselves committed to living together, to sleeping in the same bed, to sharing two destinies that perhaps were fated to go in opposite directions. He would say: "The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast."
Perhaps every teenager in love, every young bridge and groom, thinks that theirs is the true love that would defy all odds and past human experience and would last forever.  Maybe we need such optimism among the young; if not, humanity has no future.

What every starry-eyed couple find out sooner than later is that the routines of everyday existence can seem boring after a while to most people.  Life can be Groundhog Day over and over again.  Marquez writes that "the problem in public life is learning to overcome terror; the problem in married life is learning to overcome boredom."

I am pretty sure that Romeo and Juliet had no idea about the boredom of everyday life, and how life--married or single--"must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast."  Perhaps they lucked out not knowing that life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality

Throughout my school days, I knew there were people who belonged to the "scheduled castes."  SC, as it was often shortened to.  As I got closer to completing high school and getting to college, I came to understand firsthand the affirmative action--reservations--for various groups, including for SC.

The extended family with whom I interacted a lot were all brahmins.  Brahmins friends with brahmins, and brahmins marrying brahmins.  When we visited grandmothers' villages, the streets were all brahmin households.

My first real awareness of the separate-and-unequal existence of peoples came when I went with my father and his uncle to visit with that uncle's friend.  I went along because that older man was also the grandfather of a classmate of mine.

I was perhaps in the beginning phase of my teenage years.  The questioning self was slowly being made.  All I sensed was that there was something seriously wrong with the world.

We crossed the main road.  And then went to another part of the village.  There were no brahmins here.  Muslims were in a different part.

Much later in life, without explicitly talking about racism, I asked my father whether he was ok with such geographic separation of religions and castes and subcastes.  His reply was a simple one: That's how things were.

The older I got, and especially after getting to America, the more I thought about all these.  In one of my early letters to my parents when I was in graduate school, I wrote about the luck of the draw.  I wrote to them that had I been born in a different house, I might have grown up a Muslim or an untouchable.  The randomness of these bothered me, and it pissed me off that the traditional explanations conveniently justified all these as divine!

A couple of years ago, when proudly posting my family's old photographs in Facebook, it occurred to me that only those of us who grew up in privileged backgrounds even had photos from the past.  The poorer people, and the lower castes, had barely anything and, therefore, there was no question of photos of their grandparents and greatgrandparents.  A privilege that I had taken for granted.

Last year, I went to a gathering of a few old school mates.  I felt uncomfortable that it was an all-brahmin crowd, with three exceptions.  I went to an 80th birthday celebration, and it was mostly an all-brahmin crowd there too.  The paths don't seem to cross much :(

MLK famously observed that the long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.  Maybe.  Had the randomness in the cosmos made me a Dalit and not a brahmin by birth, I know for certain that I would have been an angry young man, an angry middle-aged man, and perhaps a bitter old man, unable to forget the atrocities that were committed against my people.  After all, even as one who was born a brahmin, who lives in the US, I am not convinced about any arc bending towards justice.

There's something seriously wrong with the world, and I can't do a damn thing about it!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

You ain't seen nothin' yet!

In response to my op-ed, a reader emailed me a lengthy and thoughtful note.  In that, he--an octogenarian-worries that we are screwing things up and writes:
I think it is essential that we humans do everything we can to make life for our descendants at least as good as it has been for us and much better if we can.
He wrapped up his follow-up email--yep, a follow-up--with:
Whatever will be, will be. People's actions more or less are controlled by fate; who would, had they used their senses, ever selected a president like the US has now?
Yep, there is no rational explanation for how we ended up with the current president; we can only blame our ill-luck, our fate!

The president, so adored that 63 million voted for him, does not seem to worry even a tad that we might be messing things up for our descendants. To this president, climate change is all bah, humbug!  Which is why his national security strategy does not refer to climate change. It is not a global threat, he says. And, hey, if he says, then it must be true.  After all, 63 million voted for him, and they--many of them devout Christians--certainly would never have voted for a liar, when it was his opponent who was "crooked," right?

Oh well!

"America first" apparently does not include future generation Americans, leave alone future generations of the rest of the world.  Seriously, 63 million votes for this man?

But, whether the nincompoop and his 63 million voters recognize it or not, climate change is already happening and we are already experiencing its effects.  Like the extreme weather events.
researchers around the world analyzed 27 extreme weather events from 2016 and found that human-caused climate change was a “significant driver” for 21 of them.
Climate scientists are, well, scientists, which means that unless they can be certain they are not going to point to the remaining six also as results of climate weirding.  But, methinks that climate scientists are being too cautious.

And, of course, there is already significant migration happening as a result of climate change, and it will worsen rapidly:
The scale of this challenge is unlike anything humanity has ever faced. By midcentury, climate change is likely to uproot far more people than World War II, which displaced some 60 million across Europe, or the Partition of India, which affected approximately 15 million. The migration crisis that has gripped Europe since 2015 has involved something over one million refugees and migrants. It is daunting to envision much larger flows of people, but that is why the global community should start doing so now.
Which is all the more why the president and his 63 million voters want to build that wall and keep all the migrants out!

63 million voters!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Chop this post down to size

"Precis writing" was a task that I enjoyed in high school English.  I liked how we had to get to the gist of the argument, typically in about a third of the original length.  This meant that I had to understand the assigned essay, and then decide what the important ideas were and what I should discard.  If the teacher directed us to do a precis in 75 words, I would often complete it with a word count that was even lower.  Yes, we had to include a word count along with our response essay.

But, it is only writing of lesser mortals that we can prune down to size.  Most of this blog material can be read by skipping words and lines.  Heck, you can simply skip reading the blog itself!  A precis writing of a blog post here will result in a blank page!  With the best of the essays, on the other hand, there is no way to engage in precis writing.  Consider, for instance, this paragraph that I blogged about a couple of days ago.  Every word there is precious. Every single word is there for a reason.  With great masters, well, you don't mess around.

Thus, it is with care that I am reading Love in the time of cholera.  There are many words like petate that are new to me. Places and historical aspects that expose my ignorance.  And then there is "vetiver."  It was buried in a paragraph where Marquez writes about the metamorphosed heroine going shopping:
She paid no attention to the urgings of the snake charmers who offered her a syrup for eternal love, or to the pleas of the beggars lying in doorways with their running sores, or to the false Indian who tried to sell her a trained alligator. She made a long and detailed tour with no planned itinerary, stopping with no other motive than her unhurried delight in the spirit of things. She entered every doorway where there was something for sale, and everywhere she found something that increased her desire to live. She relished the aroma of vetiver in the cloth in the great chests, she wrapped herself in embossed silks, she laughed at her own laughter when she saw herself in the full-length mirror in The Golden Wire disguised as a woman from Madrid, with a comb in her hair and a fan painted with flowers.
I saw that word. I smiled.

Marquez has situated the fiction in an unnamed country that has a Caribbean coast.  Most likely in Colombia.  Not far from Maracaibo, in Venezuela, where I spent three weeks almost three decades ago.  Vetiver  in the Caribbean?

Vetiver itself is a Tamil name.  I had no idea that the plant had made all the way across to the new world.  As always, Wikipedia offers details--including that Haiti is a major producer.  Haiti?

An aunt of mine always had vetiver in the water that was in the kind of a earthen clay pot that awesomely cooled water in the hot, hot, hot summer months.  I never liked the taste of vetiver-infused water, and preferred it plain the way we did at our home.

I hope vetiver has not been forgotten in the old country, even as it has found a home in the new world.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

You don't own me ...

Back in my teenage years, I bullshitted a lot about life.  Including about why parents have children.  It bothered me back then that parents viewed children as their old age insurance schemes. 

Even as a young fellow, I was convinced that children owed nothing to their parents.

My logic was that the kids did not ask to be born but were created by the parents.  As the ones who brought the children into this world, it is the parents who owed everything to their kids.

Yep, I bullshitted like this to anybody who would listen to me, argue with me.  But, thanks to what I would later recognize as the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome, nobody respected me enough to pay attention to me! ;)  I wonder if this fellow, for instance, has forgotten such discussions that we have had as the all-knowing college students!

Of course, even now all I do is bullshit.  But, I know that dropping names helps. ;)  Like David Benatar..  Remember this post?:
An “anti-natalist,” he believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place,” he writes
So, now on to real life.

An extended family aunt came by to visit.  Most of the juicy talk was about controversies and a*hole people, of which there are gazillions in the extended family ;)

Anyway, she talked about why she was away for a few months--she was helping her sons who live far away.

You are thinking, "hey, that's not anything to write about."

You, dear reader, are correct.  That by itself is no news to write about.  What she said later is worthy of your attention.

"I brought them into this world.  They did not ask to be born. So, it is my responsibility to help them whenever they call me."


I was tempted to tell her about the secular anti-natalist philosophy.  In a nanosecond, I ran through the arguments in my head.

I looked at her and at the people around.  I was convinced that my presentation of the anti-natalist argument--even when agreeing with her--would not be well received.  Not only will I not get any respect, I would even lose whatever respect that I may have had.

So, I blog instead ;)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Now, that's love sitting down!

What a glorious paragraph from the immortal Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the time of cholera:
He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate. She heard him on their wedding night, while she lay prostrate with seasickness in the stateroom on the ship that was carrying them to France, and the sound of his stallion's stream seemed so potent, so replete with authority, that it increased her terror of the devastation to come. That memory often returned to her as the years weakened the stream, for she never could resign herself to his wetting the rim of the toilet bowl each time he used it. Dr. Urbino tried to convince her, with arguments readily understandable to anyone who wished to understand them, that the mishap was not repeated every day through carelessness on his part, as she insisted, but because of organic reasons: as a young man his stream was so defined and so direct that when he was at school he won contests for marksmanship in filling bottles, but with the ravages of age it was not only decreasing, it was also becoming oblique and scattered, and had at last turned into a fantastic fountain, impossible to control despite his many efforts to direct it. He would say: "The toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about men." He contributed to domestic peace with a quotidian act that was more humiliating than humble: he wiped the rim of the bowl with toilet paper each time he used it. She knew, but never said anything as long as the ammoniac fumes were not too strong in the bathroom, and then she proclaimed, as if she had uncovered a crime: "This stinks like a rabbit hutch." On the eve of old age this physical difficulty inspired Dr. Urbino with the ultimate solution: he urinated sitting down, as she did, which kept the bowl clean and him in a state of grace.
I suppose there is a time and a place for any book, too.  A few years ago, I started reading this novel and never was able to proceed beyond a few pages.  Was it after or before the book was referred to in the television sitcom How I met your mother, I don't remember.  This time around, I find it to be riveting.

At 350 pages, Love in the time of cholera is not for those with attention spans that have been conditioned by Twitter or Facebook posts.  This is not one that can be forwarded via WhatsApp.  The reader has to take in the words slowly and let the imagery and the emotions sink in. The reader has to enter that world, familiarize oneself with the context and the characters, and then begin to feel like and for those characters.  The days of such books are numbered, bit by byte!

Friday, December 15, 2017

No immigrants please, we're Republicans

Remember this post from a few days ago, in which I quoted from an op-ed by a highly qualified Hong Kong native who was forced to exit the US because she couldn't get the work visa?  She wrote there:
America is losing many very skilled workers because of its anti-immigrant sentiment, and while this is a disappointing blow to me and my classmates, it will also be a blow to the United States’ competitiveness in the global economy.
Like all that really matters to the 63 million voters, right?  They are willing to cut their proverbial noses in order to spite all our faces!

More and more stories every day, which will gladden the 63 million voters:
Uncertainty in the United States has been a boon to Canada, which since the election has seen a surge in immigration and interest from tech workers and entrepreneurs.
What a wonderful approach to making Canada great again!
The number of tech workers from around the world migrating to Canada is on track to beat 2016’s total by 18%, according to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
The Canadian government has also laid the groundwork to make the region more tech-friendly, Tam said. There are tax incentives for companies that invest in research and development. Students who study at public Canadian universities are offered a path to permanent residency. And a new, fast-tracked worker’s visa established this summer allows companies to bring foreign talent to the country without having to go through the rigmarole of a lottery.
Seriously, have the 63 million voters thought through their approach to keep the immigrants out?  Do they really believe that keeping immigrants away will automatically making the country great?

Meanwhile, the market does what the market does.  It even figures out a backdoor and inhumane approach like the "Optional Practical Training, which allows foreign students earning degrees from American institutions to work in their field for a year after graduation":
The flexibility of the OPT program is one reason why its numbers increased 39 percent between 2014 and 2016, and why nearly two times more OPTs were approved than H-1Bs last year. With more than 300,000 OPTs currently working in the United States, according to the federal government, the program has become a key part of the tech industry’s efforts to recruit globally.
This is not always a good deal for the students--it is "white-collar indentured servitude" for many:
For every graduate who lands a job at Amazon, Intel, or Microsoft, many more end up laboring at small companies known as “body shops” that specialize in contracting tech workers for IT and software development roles at larger firms, usually for short-term projects.
Keep in mind that such abuse of labor in servitude that lingers in the shadows is what happened in the ag industry, hotel/restaurant industry.  Right?
Of the million or so foreigners studying at American universities, 16 percent come from India. At last count, there were more than 90,000 Indian OPTs in the United States—more than double the number in 2010.
The work visas become more difficult, while more go the route of OPT.  Works well for businesses and their shareholders, but a disaster for the worker bees.  But then, as the tax bill clearly shows, making America great again has really become making America's rich richer again!  So, the OPT abuse fits right in with this approach.
Yet for all the debate raging over H-1Bs, the OPT program—which has no enrollment cap—has flown under the radar to become the surer, bigger path for Indians to temporarily work in the United States. Recently, Pravin Rao, the chief operating officer of outsourcing firm Infosys, told India’s Economic Times that his company (which has secured thousands of H-1Bs over the years) was now “looking at hiring from more colleges in the US.” Instead of facing the scrutiny that goes with importing midlevel workers from India, it could use the OPT program to take advantage of resources already in the United States.
I am sure that 63 million voters are delighted with all these.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ah, yes, the Germans ...

Lufthansa being a German airline, the announcement began in German. 

I usually ignore all the pre-flight announcements because they are all the same same all over again.  It is also because of people like me ignoring those announcements that a few airlines are coming up with creative and humorous ways to grab our attention.

But, this is a German airline.  True to their reputation and caricatures, there was no humor.  All business in a stiff tone.

Except. Yes, except for one thing.

The guy announcing in German was a young black man!

Go ahead, and recall black guys in the jokes about Germans.  You can't picture any because, ahem, this is all a part of the mixing of people especially since the Wall came tumbling down.

Even Germany, whose nationalist leader of the 1930s and 1940s tried to "clean" up his society, has long shed its blood-and-soil racism.  A black German male is not really news.

Except. Yes, except that blood-and-soil racism has become mainstream here in the US!

The nationalist leader of the US openly engages in racist rhetoric, which has further emboldened the nationalists who used to be a tad cautious in publicizing their racism and hatred.

“Mixing cultures will not lead to a higher quality of life but a lower one," tweets a longtime Republican Congressman.  Yet another proud moment for 63 million voters!

I don't ever understand why people like him are so worried about mixing cultures.  For one, it produces beautiful people, like the guy that the American nationalists openly hated all through his eight years of presidency.   Or, consider the woman who is all set to marry into the British royal family.

There is only one thing I want to say at this point: Fucking 63 million voters!

Friday, December 08, 2017

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die

When we were kids, my parents meticulously kept accounts of household expenses.  I know it well because even we tiny ones were involved with the accounting.  We helped count up the coins and helped them remember the expenditure items.

Thus, we were all intensely aware that there was no free money lying around. Often, the parents borrowed from the rainy-day-fund.  We became intensely aware that the rainy-day-fund was being depleted.

Those were the hard cold days before credit cards.  So, there was no concept of spending money and then worrying about paying that later.  If we didn't have it, well, we couldn't spend it either.  It was, therefore, no surprise that, for instance, we did not have a fridge at home, nor a "scooter" leave alone a car.

Every once in a rare while, we would be allowed to get "hotel food"--those tasty puri/potato or masala-dosai or, yes, ice cream!  I did not know of a phrase called "eating out."  Well, with mother making awesome foods and snacks and sweets, why would we want to eat out anyway, eh!

It is a different world now.  It seems like everybody eats out.  I simply do not understand how that can be possible.  Do people have unlimited expense accounts?

Turns out that "adults tend to underestimate how much they spend on eating out by more than twice what they’re actually spending."  Yep, they have no idea how much they are wasting, er, spending.  A few years ago, I remarked in class that back in my undergraduate days, we would split a cup of tea from the corner stall--we could not afford even that cheapest tea.  We took for granted that students would have to live on tight budgets.  And, I continued on with the contrast of students walking around with mochas and lattes, which easily add up to quite a few dollars per month.  People blow their budgets on eating and drinking out.
This phenomenon matters because around the world, people are eating out more than at any point in modern human history. According to most estimates, it constitutes as much (or more) than 45 percent of food expenditures in the United States.
More importantly, studies have shown that those earning less tend to spend a greater proportion of their disposable incomes on eating out.
It is insane!

On top of that, I should also note here my grandmother's observation: While mothers and grandmothers prepare healthy foods for their families, the "hotel" people do not care.  One grandmother loved remarking, "and you never know where their hands went before they cooked."

Grandmother was not way off:
while eating out doesn’t necessarily need to be unhealthy, people often aren’t aware what’s in the prepared meals we’re buying from restaurants, markets and cafeterias.
The solution is simple, I think.  Don't eat out often. Live within your budget.  Make your own damn meals and coffee, instead of wasting time on Instagram!  Right?

Nope.  This is America.  Nobody will listen to General Malaise!
The Greek philosopher Plato once said, “The first and best victory is to conquer self.”
But in a culture that implores people to “let loose” and “live a little,” self-control shouldn’t be equated with self-punishment. I like to point to a maxim of celebrated chef Julia Child: “You must have discipline to have fun.”
Apparently all I have is discipline and no fun.  As a cousin once told me, "live a little!" I am left with only one alternative: As an American, I will blame my parents for instilling in me such a fun-killing discipline ;)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Wrongful birth and parental choice

In yesterday's post, I quoted the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar:
While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place
This is not as abstract as it may seem.

Enter the discussion of "wrongful birth."
Wrongful birth is a legal cause of action in some common law countries in which the parents of a congenitally diseased child claim that their doctor failed to properly warn of their risk of conceiving or giving birth to a child with serious genetic or congenital abnormalities.
Serious genetic or congenital abnormalities.  For instance, a doctor could warn a couple with sickle-cell problems that their child will inherit that.  The couple then not having children is what Benatar writes about: "the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place."

What if the doctor knew something was wrong and did not convey that to the parents-to-be?  And then the child is born with a death sentence like cystic fibrosis (CF) that puts the child through hell on earth?

That is exactly what happened to Jen Gann, who writes an emotion-laden essay about how she never got the chance to prevent her son from being born with CF.

First, what is CF?  The body mishandles chloride and sodium:
On the outside, this means CF patients have extra-salty skin. On the inside, it means they have thick, sticky mucus in their lungs, pancreas, and other organs, leading to digestive problems and low weight gain, clogged airways and trapped bacteria. The excess mucus causes persistent lung infections, severely limiting patients’ abilities to breathe until, eventually, they no longer can. People who have CF must treat it vigilantly, with physical therapy to clear airways, inhaled medications, and fistfuls of pills. Doing so takes lots of money and staggering amounts of time.
It results in a life of suffering.  And a short life at that:
Time is important in describing life with cystic fibrosis: how many hours each day you spend on treatments (for my toddler son, two; for adults, up to four), how many weeks at a time you spend in the hospital (a couple, if you’re having a “tune-up” for a lung infection), how many months since you last saw a doctor (during periods of relative health, three). How many years you can expect to live: In 2016, half of all reported deaths occurred before the age of 30. In the later stages of the disease, you might measure time between incidents of coughing up blood, keep track of how long you’ve been on oxygen full time, or, should you qualify for one, count the number of years you’re expected to live after a double lung transplant (about five). Most patients with CF die in a hospital setting, after a long, steady decline, of overwhelming lung infections. The first time more adults than children were living with cystic fibrosis was just three years ago, in 2014.
Would you wish this on anybody?  Would you want to bring a child into this world with such daily suffering? Is life worth starting?
The more I discuss the abortion I didn’t have, the easier that part gets to say aloud: I would have ended the pregnancy. I would have terminated. I would have had an abortion. That’s firmly in the past, and it is how I would have rearranged my actions, given all the information.
Again, to quote the anti-natalist philosopher: "the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place."

Once that birth happens, then there is no undo.  We live through the agony that life is.  While death is the solution, to quote Benatar, "Life is bad, but so is death."  We, therefore, make our calculations on what gives us joy and grab on to whatever we can.  Even when the child, whose birth could have been prevented, is living with the terminal disease of cystic fibrosis:
But the most consuming, language-defying pain is just the other side of the most overwhelming joy. There are no words for the feeling of walking down the street with the person I love most, no words to describe why I wanted to have a child in the first place. After all this pain and humiliation and anger boiled down to records and money and who did what, the love I have for my son feels like the one thing that can’t be taken from me. It’s what I know more than anything in this world.
Such is life that we know because our births were not prevented in the first place!

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Look who's talking!

I am here because my parents had sex.

I know, it is bizarre to open a blog-post with that sentence.  But, hey, we have to face that reality that our existence is due to our parents having had sex, at least that fateful day.

During that sexual congress, of the about 200 million sperm that raced, one cracked open the egg shell and, I emerged forty weeks later.

Had it been some other sperm, or another day, "I" would not exist.  It would have meant a child that would have been different from me. "I" would not have been born.

So, let's recap.  "I" exist thanks to the randomness of a sexual act on a day in which one of the sperms met the egg.

In other words, it is an itsy-bitsy-tiny chance that resulted in me.  Well, your existence, too, resulted from such an ultra-low probability event.

Don't get me wrong.  Now that I am here, I am enjoying life with its warts and all.  But, keep in mind that after we are born, it is a game of survivor every single day.  And then the aches and pains and everything else.
We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort”—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations”—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even “those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.” Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. “People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly”
The "he" is David Benatar:
An “anti-natalist,” he believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place,” he writes
The only way to prevent all the pain and suffering is if I didn't exist in the first place.  We can blame our parents for having brought us to this world, but, ahem, there is no undo!
“Life is bad, but so is death,” he concludes. “Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.” It’s better, he argues, not to enter into the predicament in the first place.
Our existential crisis will not be there if we had "[not entered] into the predicament in the first place"!
He doesn’t imagine that anti-natalism could ever be widely adopted: “It runs counter to too many biological drives.” Still, for him, it’s a source of hope. “The madness of the world as a whole—what can you or I do about that?” he said, while we walked. “But every couple, or every person, can decide not to have a child. That’s an immense amount of suffering that’s avoided, which is all to the good.”
Spilling one's seeds is actually a good thing to do!  Strange to think that had the seeds been spilled on a fateful day, "I" would not exist, and would not be bugging you like this; "fate," as they called it in the old country ;)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Flowers bloom on Chowringhee Lane

When my cousin asked me about movies that I had watched recently, I laughed and reminded her that our movie tastes do not always coincide.  I told her about two movies that we had watched, and strongly recommended them.

Right from a young age, I have gravitated towards the non-commercial, non-formulaic, movies. One of my greatest complaints when growing up was that the "art" movies were not shown in theatres near me.

Fortunately, television solved that problem.

One of those non-commercial movies that I watched and enjoyed, and one which made me think a lot, was 36 Chowringhee Lane.  I was impressed with every aspect of the movie.  About how the story was told. About the story itself.  And about the director being a woman!

The main character there was an Anglo-Indian woman.  Only because of that movie did I know that she was the wife of one of the big-time commercial Hindi actors--Shashi Kapoor.  I felt a personal loss when she, Jennifer Kendal, died soon after I came to know about her.

Now, more than three decades later, Shashi Kapoor is also dead.
Balbir Raj Kapoor was born on March 18, 1938, in what was then Calcutta (now Kolkata). He had no trouble breaking into the movie business: His father was Prithviraj Kapoor, a famous actor. His mother was the former Ramsarni Mehra.
Shashi, as he became known, was still a child when he appeared in his first films, in the 1940s and ’50s.
There is so much of a dynastic effect in some professions, especially in movies.

Shashi Kapoor, too, was more than a mere lip-syncing Bollywood actor:
In 1963 he played a teacher in the domestic comedy “The Householder,” directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant, the first of a series of films Mr. Kapoor made for that production team.
Yep, that Ivory-Merchant team that gave us all those awesome movies in which nobody danced around trees!

But, as much as I loved the non-commercial movies, I loved the junk-food that the commercial ones were. Not because of any weighty stories that helped understand the human condition.  Nope, those Bollywood movies couldn't care about them. Shashi Kapoor himself talked about it:
“Of course, a lot of these films look silly,” he told The Times for an article about how movies had become a sort of balm for India’s poor. “But this is exactly what people want, pure escapism. You have people who are uneducated, poor, hungry — they want to escape from all that, they want and need some unreality.”
I couldn't understand the language too.  But, there was one thing that was awesome in those movies--the melodies of many of those film songs.

My favorite of the Shashi Kapoor film songs is this one, particularly because of the classical raaga that is the basis of the tune.

Yes, Shashi Kapoor did what was expected in the commercial Bollywood. Like life itself, it is all a part of the package.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Frosty the ... sun man?

About this time of the year, by now we would have had quite a few frosty nights and mornings.  And dense fog.  My first November here fifteen years ago, the temperature one night dipped down to 16 degrees.  Thanksgiving days have always involved chattering teeth and icy proximities.

This past November has been awesome.  As we walked up to our friend's home for Thanksgiving, I joked that it is great to have Thanksgiving in the summer.

We are not the only ones to experience such above-normal temperature.
Nearly every corner of the country is warmer than normal.
How much warmer?
Temperatures in the Rockies, for example, are more typical of mid-June than late-November. On Monday, Denver reached 81 degrees—some 34 degrees above normal and warmer than Los Angeles, Houston, or Tampa, Florida—the warmest temperature ever recorded there during the month of November. On the same day, it was so unusually warm in Salt Lake City that the city broke its record high—at 2:20 a.m. Tucson, Arizona, set record highs all four days of the long Thanksgiving weekend, peaking at 92 degrees on Sunday—the highest reading ever measured there so late in the year.
No wonder the camelia that blooms in late fall has been going strong this year.  The flowers keep on coming, and we are already into December!
The warm weather isn't just confined to the U.S. Parts of Australia, China, and the Arctic are all experiencing similarly intense heat waves. In Greenland, temperatures on Thursday are a whopping 36 degrees above normal.
Wait, what?  36 degrees above normal?

Why are the seasons becoming so confusing?
There's some science to what's happening here. Human-caused climate change is shrinking the duration of winter around the world, with cold days arriving later in the fall and not persisting as long during early spring. Winter is the fastest-warming season for most of the U.S. in part because, as snow packs shrink, darker surfaces like soil and plants are able to retain the sun's energy better.
What a scam.  Our president has assured us that climate change is a hoax.  If only he can get rid of all these fake news, so that we can all go about grabbing p*s in the warm December days!

Friday, December 01, 2017

What's good for the president is ...

For various reasons, I chose not to write any op-eds.  It has been months since I sent anything to the editor.  But, ... am thinking that I will send an edited version of this one

We are rightfully preoccupied with the political theatre in Washington, DC, especially with President Donald Trump’s tweets, and the ongoing developments in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Trump’s Russia connections.

This also means that we are not paying attention to a number of other issues that will affect the country over the long term, and for which we will need to develop constructive public policies.

One of the trend lines that does not make the headlines is the falling fertility rate in the US. If we do not worry about this now, it will become too late to do anything in the future.

The total fertility rate is the average number of children born to women in a society during their childbearing years. Adjusting for various factors, like kids who might not live to become adults or parents, demographers have presented us with an understanding that the fertility rate has to be about 2.1 children per woman in order for the population to be stable.

Fertility rates higher than 2.1 explain population growth that we see in countries like Nigeria. On the other hand, countries like Japan and Italy are on a path of population decrease because the fertility rates there are significantly below 2.1. In Japan it is 1.46 children per woman and, therefore, the population there is projected to shrink by a third in fifty years. If those trends continue, Japan will have less than half of its current population in a hundred years from now.

Here in the United States, we talk so much about “baby boomers” that we have completely overlooked the fact that we are going through a baby bust. Fertility rates in the US have been staying below that magical 2.1 children per woman. The latest data show that fertility rate has dropped to 1.77 children per woman.

This decrease is not really a surprise. After all, most other economically advanced countries have already experienced such a decline in fertility. The surprise is that the US has been a contrast to Europe and Japan for so long, and is only now showing signs of joining them.

There is, of course, an important reason why the US has been different from Europe and Japan in terms of fertility rates. It is related to a huge public policy issue—immigration.

As reported by the Pew Research Center, “were it not for the increase in births to immigrant women, the annual number of U.S. births would have declined since 1970.” While immigrants accounted for only one in seven Americans in 2015, a quarter of all the births in America were to immigrant women. “Births to women from Mexico, China, India, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, Honduras, Vietnam, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico accounted for 58% of all births to immigrant mothers in the U.S. in 2014.” Even here in Oregon, births to immigrant mothers have offset what would have otherwise been a decrease in births from 1990 to 2015.

In fact, we need to look no further than the White House for these trends. Of the five children that President Trump has, only one was born to his second wife who is from the US, while the other four are the children of immigrant women he married—Melania and Ivana, who respectively immigrated from Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

The facts are clear: Without immigrants, the US too would exhibit the low fertility rates of Europe or Japan.

It has become fashionable, and a politically winning formula, to beat up on immigrants. However, the nativists might not be aware, or perhaps they refuse to acknowledge, that without immigrants and their children, the US population will not grow, but will decrease. And, like Japan, we too will be trapped with a stagnant economy.

The question, therefore, is “so what?”

The research is also very clear that it is not easy to provide incentives to American women to have more kids. Fertility rates are dropping because women, and men too, are intentionally making those choices. People prefer to invest in education and to lead comfortable lives in leisure. Such preferences mean that they choose to have fewer children.

As any parent knows, having children is expensive. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates the average cost of raising a child till adulthood to be about $233,610. USDA notes that housing, food, and childcare account for almost two-thirds of those expenses. If we want women to have more children, then it is clear that higher fertility will not happen unless the American people are willing to pay for those expenses. It is highly unlikely that we will subsidize fertility at such high levels.

The answer to “so what?” is, therefore, obvious and staring at us: Encourage immigration for continued growth and prosperity in the United States.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Mama says there'll be days like this ...

Every visit to India, I shamelessly ask my mother to make some of my favorite dishes.  Of course, everything that she cooked was divine.  But, even there, we all had our own favorites.

A few years ago, I asked if she could make keppa-dosai (கேப்பை தோசை).  Mother's reply was not what I expected.  She said that it was not easy as it was when we were young to get the needed keppai.  And the couple of times she tried, apparently it did not pass her quality standards.

It has been a long, long time--decades actually--since I had keppa-dosai.  Some day, when I am old, maybe I will have a moment like in Ratatouille!

It is millet that I am talking about.  Yep, millet.  As kids, my brother and I loved drinking Ragimalt, which was an industrial millet concoction that was a much better alternative to Bournvita.  My grandmother thought it was hilarious that we were so much into what she referred to as keppai-kanji (கேப்பை கஞ்சி).

That millet was in India long before the "English vegetables" arrived.  Long before the polished white rice.  Long before granulated white sugar.

In the process of rapidly modernizing, we are also rapidly losing our agrobiodiversity; it is declining in many countries:
Generally, agrobiodiversity is significantly lower in wealthy nations, where the industrial food system pushes toward genetic uniformity.
The wealthier we get, the more we gravitate towards inexpensive sources of calories, continuing along the direction in which we started moving ever since we invented agriculture.
Global shifts of urbanization, migration, markets and climate can potentially be compatible with agrobiodiversity, but other powerful forces are undermining it. The imperatives of producing food at lower cost and higher yield clash with efforts to raise high-quality food and protect the environment. The future of agrobiodiversity hangs in the balance.
It hangs in the balance, for certain.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Life must go on; I forget just why.

Another death in the extended family.

He was barely 59.  Fifty-nine!

I am always struck by how a person's death upends life as they know it for the immediate family, while the rest of us merrily carry on with our lives without any interruptions.  Every death is perhaps also a reminder of how truly irrelevant we are right here on earth, leave alone in the cosmos whose vastness we cannot even imagine.

Such is life that must go on.

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Listen, children:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I'll make you little jackets;
I'll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There'll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A poem for the day

This being the month to honor the Native American heritage, the shittiest president ever decided to call a few of them to the White House, positioned them in front of another shitty president who is even called "Indian Killer" ... and then goes on to further insult Native Americans

Yet another proud moment for his 63 million voters!

How to deal with such a president?
Let’s recognize his motives and not obsess over his cynical behavior as if he’s devaluing the office of the presidency. He isn’t. He is devaluing himself. We’ve said before that Trump as president is no role model. He was disrespectful as a candidate too.
That ain't enough for me.

So, here's a poem. 


Monday, November 27, 2017

The implicit brutality of male sexuality

Years ago, an older friend who was married to an European, remarked about an aspect of the male-female relationship that did not exist in my old country nor in the adopted one.  "Harmless flirtation" at parties and at places of work is very European, he said.  Of course, the European flirtation that he referred to was in the married context, where people are in committed relationships.

Having been raised in a culture where girls and boys, and women and men, lived socially separate lives, and as one curious about how different societies around the world dealt with issues like this, I found all these to be fascinating.  In the old country, women even in my grandmother's generation rarely talked with men, which then did not even crack open the possibility of harmless flirtation.  

In enforcing such a separation between the male and the female, one of the metaphors in the Tamil culture was about fire and cotton--these need to be kept far away from each other because otherwise the cotton will get burnt.  Females being the cotton here, of course.  It was to protect women from the fire and fury that men are.

Vice President mike pence practices such a separation between men and women.  He has proudly noted how he doesn’t eat alone with any woman other than his wife.  While it might seem like a great idea, it is another version of la majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.  Why?  Because, in practice it means like this:
One reason women stall professionally, research shows, is that people have a tendency to hire, promote and mentor people like themselves. When men avoid solo interactions with women — a catch-up lunch or late night finishing a project — it puts women at a disadvantage.
So, isn't a better approach to empower women?  Give them agency?

Masha Gessen notes:
In the current American conversation, women are increasingly treated as children: defenseless, incapable of consent, always on the verge of being victimized. This should give us pause. Being infantilized has never worked out well for women.
In this post-weinstein era, I hope we don't swing to the other extreme and strictly enforce the gender separation that continues to exist in many parts of the world.

Instead, I want something else: Serious and sincere conversations on how to deal with the biological wiring in men, and how nurture can address that aspect of nature.  But then, nobody listens to what I have to say!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The browning of America is delayed ...

In the world of sovereign states after the Second World War, very few of them have allowed foreigners to permanently move into their countries.  Quite a few, like the ones in the Persian Gulf, tolerate migrant workers, and most of the rest of the countries practically do not allow for immigration.

The United States continued to stand out, in contrast.  In the 1960s, it even shed its racist immigration policies and made possible browns like me to make ourselves at home here in America.

And then trump happened.

Immigration is now targeted from many directions.  Because it is pretty much only non-whites who want to move to America--thanks to the global demographic dynamics--the anti-immigration nationalism is ethnic-cleansing through federal policy!

We are now setting ourselves up for immense losses.  Highly qualified, talented, and capable people are being denied work visas.  Like in this case:
After earning law degrees in China and at Oxford, after having worked in Hong Kong as a lawyer at a top international firm, after coming to United States three years ago for an M.B.A. and graduating and joining a start-up, I was given just 60 days to leave the country. I have 17 days left.
Law degrees, including from Oxford. MBA from Stanford.  Anything else?
My work involves artificial intelligence and big data, and my letters of support came from an authority in my industry and veteran start-up investor, and a Nobel Prize winner. But it wasn’t enough to convince the government that my job requires advanced skills.
What do Nobel Prize winners know anyway!  It is not like many American Nobel laureates are from other countries, right?

So, any final thoughts from the Hong Kong visitor who has been given her exit papers?
America is losing many very skilled workers because of its anti-immigrant sentiment, and while this is a disappointing blow to me and my classmates, it will also be a blow to the United States’ competitiveness in the global economy. Tech giants such as Google and Tesla were founded by immigrants.
I can’t make sense of why an administration that claims to want this country to be strong would be so eager to get rid of us. We are losing our dreams, and America is losing the value we bring.
As I make plans to go back to China, I find myself wondering: If I am not qualified to stay in the United States, then who is?
Who is?

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