Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not well-versed in Twitter ;)

Verse as in ...

The term is coming to an end ... this is when my problems begin ... because, I have just about gotten to know students, and we have to start wrapping things up.  And then, as if I never learn from past experiences, I once again start all over when a new term begins, and ... it is like the Buddhist monks and their mandalas--they painstakingly create those awesome colorful patterns, only to erase them when done.  And to erase it as a ritual as well.

Academic life too, is, thus about the cycle of beginnings and endings, and beginnings and endings, and ...

Here are a few tweet-verses in which I expressed some of those mandalas that were created ...

Monday, February 27, 2017

Your food is a political statement

As a way to stress the importance of the courses that I teach, I often tell students that they have enormous power to influence the outcomes through two roles that they have: Consumer and voter.  I then follow up with how people talk about the voting aspect, but that they vastly underestimate the decisions that we make every single day as consumers.  When we buy a tshirt that was manufactured in Bangladesh, it is a political act too, I tell them.

If only they and the rest of the world listened to me!

Take the food that we eat, for instance.  I have blogged in plenty about how much beef is an environmental disaster.  (Like here, for example.)  Beef and chicken consumers are essentially saying, "fuck it, I don't care about climate change."  Because, if they did care, then it will be difficult to justify their actions.

Every small thing, however mundane and a daily boring thing it is that we do, is a political statement.  It is just that we don't think of it that way.

Gidon Eshel talks about in the video that I have embedded here.  But, hey, maybe not everybody wants to spend 45 minutes on that talk ;)  He says:
“When you make a choice between any two competing ingredients or any two competing meals,” Eshel said in a December lecture (on “Rethinking the American Diet”), “you are making a whole cascade of important choices that you may or may not be aware of. For example, in that choice you determine…the nature of rural communities” in terms of structure, land use, and population density; the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted “on your behalf” for food production; the biodiversity of rangelands; the likelihood of species extinctions; and the health of waterways and coastal ocean fisheries, where massive die-offs are one consequence of agricultural pollution. “You even get to take sides in things that we don’t often associate with food choices, like societal strife,” he said, citing the example of a water-rights dispute pitting alfalfa farmers against a Native American tribe in Oregon’s Klamath basin.
You see how even the food that we eat is a statement on various people and natural elements all around?

If I had been asked to guess how much of the agricultural land is used to grow all things healthy, like apples and oranges and nuts and tomatoes, I would never, ever, have guessed anywhere near the neighborhood.  My number would have been like trump's factoids that he grabs from his asshole!  The reality is shocking:
all the lettuce, tomatoes, fruits, and nuts people eat (including apples, citrus, and almonds) are grown in less than one-half of 1 percent of the agricultural lands: “a minuscule fraction of the total” 
What the what?  One-half of one percent of the ag lands in this country?  That's it?  Oh my!

So, what is Eshel's bottom-line?
When making their dietary choices, Eshel said in summing up his research, individuals “get to tip the scale of environmental, social, and political contests,” as well as improve their personal health. Eating healthy foods that use less land, therefore, “is one of the callings of our time….”
Imagine explaining all these to the 63 million who voted for the asshole-in-chief!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

How will you bet on Man v. the Machine?

Intellectually, rationally, I have a very tough time understanding how trump could have campaigned telling workers that he will bring back their old jobs.  It is beyond my imagination and understanding.  It is a crime to intentionally mislead gullible and helpless people by promising a future that simply cannot happen.  Yet, he did.  And he won telling such tales that have no basis in reality.

I, on the other hand, have been telling students for years that the reality of business decision-making, and the reality of advancement in science and technology, mean that anything that can be outsourced will be outsourced and anything that can be automated will be automated.

An essay by David Rotman--the editor of MIT Technology Review--is about all these issues, which make me worry even more about the demagoguery:
It is “glaringly obvious,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at MIT, that political leaders are “totally unprepared” to deal with how automation is changing employment. Automation has been displacing workers from a variety of occupations, including ones in manufacturing. And now, he says, AI and the quickening deployment of robots in various industries, including auto manufacturing, metal products, pharmaceuticals, food service, and warehouses, could exacerbate the effects. “We haven’t even begun the debate,” he warns
For a while now, I have also been telling students that the transition that we are now in will be challenging.  Painful for some.  Just like how the Industrial Revolution was a painful adjustment process.  The pain that led the Luddites to break a few machines.  But, that didn't stop the Industrial Revolution, did it?

I often quote Andrew McAfee--also at MIT--when I tell students that we haven't seen nothing yet.  Rotman writes that the changes coming our way will be beyond our imagination:
Joel Mokyr, a leading economic historian at Northwestern University, has spent his career studying how people and societies have experienced the radical transitions spurred by advances in technology, such as the Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century. The current disruptions are faster and “more intensive,” Mokyr says. “It is nothing like what we have seen in the past, and the issue is whether the system can adapt as it did in the past.”
Adapting to the changes will require principled and responsible political leaders.  Exactly the kind that we do not have today.  The November 2016 election threw out the only candidate who tried to bring a level of reason and responsibility.  That candidate talked a lot about the need for retraining, for which the US spends very, very little:

Even that little bit that we spend, well, left to the GOP they want to gut it because they will rather spend the money to strengthen the military, and provide taxcuts to the rich!
Not only might automation and AI prove particularly prone to replacing human workers, but the effects might not be offset by the government policies that have softened the blow of such transitions in the past. Initiatives like improved retraining for workers who have lost their jobs to automation, and increased financial protections for those seeking new careers, are steps recommended by the White House report. But there appears to be no political appetite for such programs.
How terrible!
The economic anxiety over AI and automation is real and shouldn’t be dismissed. But there is no reversing technological progress. We will need the economic boost from these technologies to improve the lackluster productivity growth that is threatening many people’s financial prospects. Furthermore, the progress AI promises in medicine and other areas could greatly improve how we live. Yet if we fail to use the technology in a way that benefits as many people as possible (see “Who Will Own the Robots?”), we risk fueling public resentment of automation and its creators. 
It is way, way, way more difficult to understand these issues and convey these to voters who need to be educated on such matters.  It is far, far, far easier to simply yell and tweet Make America Great Again!  What an asshole trump is, and what a bunch of assholes the GOP leaders are!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

This nadu is my land, this nadu is your land ;)

Right from when I was a kid, I have always believed that there is something in people in India that makes us feel it is normal to go far away from the places where we were born and raised.  Maybe the stories of my grandfather were the reason; back in the early 1930s, he went from his home in the southern tip of the peninsular India all the way to Varanasi (Benares) for his undergraduate education.  Given the transport and communication technologies of the day, that kind of a decision is almost unimaginable these days.

Or, maybe because of the stories that I heard about my father, who went all the way from the southern tip of the peninsular India all the way up to a back-of-beyond place in Bihar in order to work at a project that was modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA.)  Those days, travel from his mother's home to his work consumed five days, which meant that ten days of a month-long vacation were spent merely on traveling!

By the time I was a pre-teen, I had been made aware of the far corners of the world to which people from India had spread.

Such a "will travel" attitude means that soon people of Indian origin pop up in areas all around.  Sometimes, that leads to tragedies too--like in the case of an Indian engineer who was shot dead by a white terrorist.

If we don't get killed, and if we are allowed to do what we like doing, then, hey, a Sendhil Mullainathan happens.

To people like me, who come from a certain part of India, that name immediately tells us that he is one of us.  It is a Tamil name.  

For a few years, I have been following Mullainathan's work to the extent that I can understand.  He has been engaging with the public, too.  Good for him, and good for us.  A chair professor at Harvard, he writes in the NY Times about trump not having an economic adviser:
The Council of Economic Advisers performs a function, and provides a perspective, that businesspeople do not.
By way of background, it is useful to understand how the council, which does not, at the moment, have a chairman, actually operates. In effect, it is an in-house economic consultancy for the White House. The staff produces economic analysis on nearly every issue the president faces.
trump is clear that he knows it all.  He doesn't need any stinking economist to tell him about the economy.  How many economists are as rich as he and some of his cabinet members are, right?  If you are so smart, how come you ain't rich, you stupid economics professor?

Mullainathan addresses this difference between business and economics:
This is a much broader responsibility than you might imagine. For example, suppose a reduction in the size of the Army was being considered. The effect on national security would be a major concern, but even this policy has economic consequences. What would the reduced job opportunities do to people who have made the military their profession? What would happen to the economies of the towns that surround Army bases? What would the fiscal consequences be, such as the cost of early retirement or severance packages that might need to be paid as part of a downsizing? It is the council’s job to marshal the best analysis and evidence to answer these questions.
Ah, those elite professors at liberal universities that keep conservatives away from campuses.  trump and his minions know better.

Chances are that despite the best efforts of the white supremacist party aka the GOP, a smart, good-looking, person of Indian origin might even make it all the way to the Oval Office; just wait for it ;)

Friday, February 24, 2017

A life in gratitude

The weather outside has been quite dynamic and dramatic these past couple of days.  One moment, the dark sky gives me an idea of what the last hours of Pompeii might have looked like, and then it is rain and hail and ice the next.

Yes, ice falling from the sky.  They fall kind of eerily.

When I stepped out of the meeting to head home, the parking lot was covered with ice and slush.  The car was coated with ice.  Ice, ice, baby!

Then the sun appeared through a blue opening in the dark sky.  It was gorgeous.  I drove with the slushy ice on the hood and the roof (bonnet, for some of you readers.)  As the speed picked up, and as the engine's warmth spread to the hood, the slush started melting.  Every few seconds, a chunk would fly off gracefully and the droplets splashed against the windshield making it all exciting for the four-year old within me.

I pulled up at a gas station.

The attendant, a young man, came running.  With a huge smile, he asked, "how you doin', sir?"

"Fine.  How are you?"

"Living a life in gratitude" he replied as he took my credit card.

After handing the card back to me, he proceeded to clean the windshield.

His facial expression, his body language, and the way he spoke, told me that he meant every word of "living a life in gratitude."  I wonder how he gained that wisdom in such a young age.

We often go through life without being thankful for the people and materials in our lives. Gratitude calls for a meaningful and profound appreciation for what one has.  Usually, this sentiment is associated with a humble religious person.  A couple of years ago, an essay raised a question that is important to people like me who are convinced that we can lead moral and fulfilling lives without religions and gods; the essay was about "gratitude without god."

Keep in mind that gratitude is more than a mere "thanks."  As the essay put it:
You can thank your grandma for making delicious pie, but who do you thank for the circumstances of your life?
I liked the following in that essay:
We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people. ...    
Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.
On this special day, even if I do not always practice it, I like to think that I am living a life in gratitude.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Pineapple and Aphasia

A few months ago, the New Yorker had an essay on the presidential elections in Iceland.  I know, the most followed news item ever! ;)  I loved that essay.  It was an awesome read.  It was so neat that the country was so laid back about its candidates and the elections.  But more than the elections, it was the description of the country and its peoples that was so charming and memorable; I tracked it down for your pleasure, dear reader:
“Icelanders suffer from ecstatic numerical aphasia”
If you are like me--and I hope you are not--you want to re-check your understanding of the world "aphasia."  Google says it means "loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage."  Or, if you want a one-word synonymn: trump! ;)

So, why that ecstatic numerical aphasia?  Here is that awesome paragraph:
In thinking about Iceland, one is always whipsawed between two facts. On the one hand, there’s the tiny scale of the place. There are only three hundred thousand-plus people in the country, and a Presidential election, even though it gets a huge, Nordic-style turnout, will still top out at about two hundred and forty thousand voters, about one-third the number in a single congressional district in New York City. One might read that, as a proportion of the population, more Icelanders died in the Second World War than Americans did, which means two hundred and thirty, most of them in seafaring accidents. “Icelanders suffer from ecstatic numerical aphasia” is the way that Heiða Helgadóttir, a prominent alternative politician, put it one morning, over milky coffee, the country’s vin ordinaire. “We are convinced that we come from a country of at least two or three million, and nothing dissuades us.” On the other hand, Iceland is an honest-to-God country, not a principality, like Monaco, or a fragment fallen off a larger one, like Montenegro. It has a language and a history and a culture entirely its own, it fields competitive teams in international football tournaments, and it can claim about as many famous artists—Björk, Sigur Rós—as its far larger Nordic peers.
Doesn't that one paragraph capture the country for us?  Those damn New Yorker writers; I am always jealous of them!

That essay was from last summer.    Why blog about it after all these months?  That essay was about a candidate named Guðni Jóhannesson.  I was reminded of that piece because this Jóhannesson was in the news.  Not because he trashed trump's aphasia ;)  But, because he--get this--ridiculed pineapple as a pizza topping!!!
In answering questions from students about pizza and football (his favorite Premier League team is Manchester United), Mr. Johannesson told them that, should he be able to pass laws, he would like to ban pineapple as a pizza topping, igniting a media firestorm.
A global outrage.  Like how trump's tweets cause havoc :)

In his "apology" the professor-president triggered even more outrage:
“I like pineapples, just not on pizza. I do not have the power to make laws which forbid people to put pineapples on their pizza. I am glad that I do not hold such power. Presidents should not have unlimited power. I would not want to hold this position if I could pass laws forbidding that which I don’t like. I would not want to live in such a country. For pizzas, I recommend seafood.”
Wait, what on pizza?
the president used the word “fiskmeti” in the Icelandic-language version of his post, which translates as fish-products, rather than seafood.
Like Adam Gopnik noted,
“Icelanders suffer from ecstatic numerical aphasia”
Don't worry about the presidents' political life though:
Despite stepping into this controversy, Mr. Johannesson’s approval ratings have remained high.
A former history professor at the University of Iceland with a laid-back style, he has turned down a 20 percent pay hike, donated 10 percent of his pretax salary to charity, and holds the distinction of being the first president to march in a gay pride parade.
How cool!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ignorance and the law

A few years ago, when a local organization filed a lawsuit against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry under the public trust doctrine, I didn't think that anything will be accomplished.  But, much to my surprise, the courts are siding with them.  Their claim, on behalf of a few named children plaintiffs, and on behalf of all children, is that the public trust doctrine "requires our government to protect and maintain survival resources for future generations."

The Oregon approach is now not the only one.  I didn't know, until I read this, that February 7th, the court heard "Juliana, et al v. United States of America, et al — a case a group of kids, young adults and environmentalists brought in 2015 against the U.S. government."  It is not the merits of the case that this post is about; there is no way I am going to pretend that I know the law.  I firmly believe in Charles Dickens's description that the law is an ass!

What caught my attention is this:
The lead attorney for U.S. manufacturers and oil and gas companies on a climate change lawsuit didn't know the answer to a measurement fact when asked in court two weeks ago, court papers show.
And what was that measurement fact?
Frank Volpe said he didn't know whether carbon dioxide levels had reached 400 parts per million, a measurement of atmospheric concentration.
A simple measurement fact.  About CO2 in the atmosphere.  The lead attorney defending the industry said he didn't know.

Of course Volpe knows.  Volpe is "representing the American Petroleum Institute, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and National Association of Manufacturers in the case."  Of course the industry knows.  They just do not want to admit that they know.

The judge didn't let him off the hook:
Asked by Judge Thomas Coffin whether the groups he represents “acknowledge that the CO2 levels in the atmosphere are currently at 400 ppm,” Volpe did not answer.
“Do you deny that, or do you not know?” Coffin asked, according to a transcript.
“I would say that as we said in our answer, we don't know,” Volpe said.
“You don't know,” Coffin replied. Volpe said that determination would be up to an expert witness.
If we watched such an exchange on Saturday Night Live, we might laugh our asses off.  But, this is for real, in a real courtroom.

The judge tried again.
“So as we sit here today, do you have an expert witness that the intervenors intend to call that you can identify that will opine that the CO2 levels are not 400 ppm, but are something other than that and, if so, what?” he asked.
“I don't know, your honor,” Volpe responded.
How screwed up are the fossil fuel industry and their attorneys!
Neither Volpe nor C. Marie Eckert, another attorney for the trade groups, responded to requests for comment about their clients' views on carbon dioxide concentrations.
Why would they!

You ask scientists the same question, and they will give you the answer even when they are piss-drunk at the unholy 3:00 am when this president starts tweeting.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks CO2 levels measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. The monthly averages for January this year and last were both greater than 400 ppm, according to the agency.
Reached by phone and asked of the possibility that CO2 levels aren't at 400, a spokesman for the agency laughed.
63 million Americans have voted for a man who denies climate change, and who has appointed to the EPA a man who would rather dismantle the EPA.  How messed up are these 63 million voters?  What a disaster!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Automate or die

My class freaked out when we got to discussing the economic geography of the future that will be highly automated.  Well, these are the latest class to get all worried; I have been doing it to students for a few years now.  Because, it has been an open secret that automation has been replacing humans at various jobs here in the US. However much trump wants to tell his people that China, Mexico, and India are to be blamed for their job losses, automation is the real story.

And that story has barely begun.  You ain't seen nothin' yet!

Imagine if trump and his people were to even glance at the headlines that USA Today recently had:
Bill Gates: If a robot takes a human job, it should be taxed
Read that again.  It is Bill Gates.  Yes, that Bill Gates.  He is making an argument that robots taking jobs from humans should be taxed.

Not a human in China, Mexico, or India, but a robot right here in America!

Ah, but all these are nothing but fake news anyway, right Mr. President?

There is a reason that Bill Gates wants to talk about taxing robots.  Robots are not the real problem.

Well, automation is for real, and the robots--physical and software agents--are an unstoppable force.  But, we humans are the ones designing and using the robots, right?  Who benefits from the use of automation?

Answering that question, which is what Gates does, means that trump and the Republicans have to seriously engage with a topic that they would rather not: Redistribution.  Or, if you prefer the milder phrase that I have been blogging about for years: The Social Contract.

The NY Times gets to that in its editorial:
While breakthroughs could come at any time, the problem with automation isn’t robots; it’s politicians, who have failed for decades to support policies that let workers share the wealth from technology-led growth.
You think that the fabled white working class will not support this, if the logic is explained to them?  They will immediately embrace it.  They will demand a new social contract.  But, of course that is exactly what trump and his party do not want to do.  After all, the white nationalist party hates the very idea that some brown-skins might also benefit from this redistribution!

The editorial gives a quick lesson in economic history, and then concludes with:
Economic history shows that automation not only substitutes for human labor, it complements it. The disappearance of some jobs and industries gives rise to others. Nontechnology industries, from restaurants to personal fitness, benefit from the consumer demand that results from rising incomes in a growing economy. But only robust public policy can ensure that the benefits of growth are broadly shared.
If reforms are not enacted — as is likely with President Trump and congressional Republicans in charge — Americans should blame policy makers, not robots.
My guess is that such reforms will not even be discussed.  And trump and the GOP will continue to blame China, Mexico, and India, and the white voters will continue to vote for the white supremacists who promise to beat up on the non-whites.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Screw all those people!

I was in graduate school when I watched Guess Who's Coming to Dinner on television.

I. Was. Blown. Away.

When Spencer Tracy delivered those lines at the end, I was all teary-eyed.

Movies, like theatre and fiction, have taught me a lot about life. About humans. About what it means to be human.

A long time civil rights leader, and a successful business hand, Vernon Jordan, writes in the context of Hidden Figures:
Over a lifetime spent fighting on the battlefield of civil rights, I’ve seen how movies can be one of the most effective weapons in our arsenal. As a young man, I marveled at Sidney Poitier challenging prejudice in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and giving as good as he got in “In the Heat of the Night.” When we see injustice from another perspective on the screen, it makes us more aware of real-life injustices around us.
Yes.  Works of art educate us about the injustices all around us.

Decades ago, back in the old country, I watched quite a few "art" movies on the small black-and-white television set at home.  There were so many stories of the "others" that I watched and learnt.  And empathized.  The struggles often related to two kinds of "others": Women and lower-castes.  

Jordan notes a similar parallel here too:
“Hidden Figures” shows the complexity of prejudice from many angles. We see in stark clarity that the fights for women’s rights and civil rights have never been separate stories. These issues are intertwined and inescapable — and that’s exactly how they should be viewed in and out of the theater.
As tough as the current political climate is in my adopted country for anybody who is not a white male, with even white females less than equal to the white males, we have come a long way from those bad old days.  As MLK said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  

Jordan adds:
Making progress on civil rights depends on a willingness to dig into each of our pasts. Even small actions — something as simple as encouraging someone not to give up, or telling someone that their story matters as much as anyone else’s — can make a difference.
I needed such an encouragement and a reminder.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Hello Dolly!

My daughter was in high school when quite a bit of science-related stuff happened all around for her to get that much more excited about biology and chemistry.  Along with her class, she wrote to Al Gore, who was then the vice president, relaying her worries about global warming and the future that she would inherit.  Perhaps influenced by the rabid opinion-spewing father at home, she also wrote an opinion essay, which the newspaper published.  She used the context of the controversy over the cloned sheep, Dolly, in order to advocate for continued research into genetics.

Ah, those were the much simpler days, when the American public seemed to care for real news, and the public was not as crazy as it is now in the way it treats scientific understanding!   In contrast, we now have a president who tells us over and over again that he alone knows what the truth is, on anything and everything, from racism to putin to climate change!  And we have 63 million Americans, on their knees like how the maniac always seems to picture people, licking his golden boots!

It is now twenty years since Dolly was cloned.

It was not a case of "America First!"  It happened in a remote Scotland, an ancestral home of this maniacal president--his mother was an illegal immigrant from there.  If only a few Native Americans had deported her right then and there!

Dolly was a revolutionary moment in science:
Dolly was a clone. Rather than being made from a sperm and an egg, she originated from a mammary gland cell of another, no-longer-living, six-year-old Fynn Dorset ewe.
With her birth, a scientific and societal revolution was also born.
It was one of those moments when we could truly appreciate the profoundness of Thomas Kuhn's theory on scientific revolutions.  We were right there watching the paradigm shifting.
Dolly was produced by what’s called somatic cell nuclear transfer. In this process, researchers remove the genetic material from an egg and replace it with the nucleus of some other body cell. The resulting egg becomes a factory to produce an embryo that develops into an offspring. No sperm is in the picture; instead of half the genetic material coming from a sperm and half from an egg, it all comes from a single cell.
No sperm was involved.  It provided for plenty of comic punchlines.  One I remember is this: A female comedian joking that even though men might not be needed for their sperm, they will be needed to kill spiders crawling in the bathrooms!

The scientific community always treats a finding that is too good to be true to be worthy of replication; if falsified, then more glory.  But, Dolly was for real.  And more happened.
It was amazing to see a differentiated cell – an adult cell specialized to do its particular job – transform into an embryonic one that could go on to give rise to all the other cells of a normal body. We researchers wondered if we could go further: Could we in the lab make an adult cell once again undifferentiated, without needing to make a cloned embryo?
A decade after Dolly was announced, stem cell researcher Shynia Yamanaka’s team did just that. He went on to be the Nobel corecipient with Gurdon for showing that mature cells could be reprogrammed to become pluripotent: able to develop into any specialized adult cell.
Any specialized adult cell.  It is a brave new world.  I am not sure if I am happy with such developments, but, as Isaac Asimov wonderfully articulated in an essay that we read back in high school, there is no way but forward.
The new Dollies are now telling us that if we take a cell from an animal of any age, and we introduce its nucleus into a nonfertilized mature egg, we can have an individual born with its lifespan fully restored. They confirmed that all signs of biological and chronological age matched between cloned and noncloned sheep.
There seems to be a natural built-in mechanism in the eggs that can rejuvenate a cell. We don’t know what it is yet, but it is there. Our group as well as others are hard at work, and as soon as someone finds it, the most astonishing legacy of Dolly will be realized.
Re-read this: "an individual born with its lifespan fully restored."  Creepy science fiction-like, right?  But, hey, there is no going back.  Just like we cannot undo the results of the election that have provided to the US and the world the most horrible human being as the President of the US!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

If Not Now, When?

I feel like I am missing something in my daily life if I don't do my random readings.  Am I addicted to reading and thinking?  Should I check myself into an institution?

Oh, wait, I am already at one--a higher education institution ;)

A joy in reading is that wonderful nuggets appear from nowhere.  The serendipity is awesome.  BTW, did you know that the word serendipity has its origins in modern day Sri Lanka?

It started with a link to an interview with Steven Pinker.  I have plenty of references to Pinker and his work--like in this one.  So, of course, I had to read it.

It was not a serious intellectual interview, but more along the lines of getting to know a celebrity.  Well, the intellectual that Pinker is, the replies are not anywhere like what you might hear on the current president's old reality show (as opposed to the current show in which he stars and tweets.)

One question that Pinker was asked is this:
What is your favourite saying?
Go ahead. Give it a thought.  What is your favorite?

I am drawing a blank.  I don't have any profound words to offer.

But, Pinker is no schmuck.  The guy offers this:
From the 1st century BC Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
What a profound one, right?  What the hell am I, indeed!

Naturally, I wanted to know more about Rabbi Hillel.  Which is when I came across this:
A man asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah, the five books of Moses, while standing on one foot. And Hillel did. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That's the whole Torah, he said. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.

If only a rabbi would explain this to the current president and his adopted political party!  For that matter, if only a rabbi would explain this to the prime minister of Israel who is visiting with the president--two birds in one stone!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

More on that damn foreign aid

Remember this post on how the foreign aid that the US gives is sinking it deeper and deeper into the gazillion dollar debt?

Go ahead, take a minute to read that and come back.

You ready for me?
The United Kingdom’s largest-circulation Sunday newspaper recently launched a petition calling for an end to ring-fenced aid spending (worth 0.7% of national income). Prior to his election victory, US President Donald Trump railed against “sending foreign aid to countries that hate us,” reflecting a widespread belief that aid needs to be cut. The United States allocates less than 1% of the federal budget to aid, but the average American believes this figure to be thirty-one-times higher.
Yes, welcome to the brave new world of alternative facts and all-about-me-who-cares-about-the-rest.

The other day, in class, students were clearly appalled at the fact that a billion people in this world do not even have access to electricity.  Mere access.  Without access, there is no question of consumption of electricity.  Students were at a loss understanding why developed countries were not helping out.  I didn't tell them though at the miserly amount we give as foreign aid; why completely discourage those young students, right?

Ah yes, let those poor people eat cakes in the dark!

But,enough with the doom and gloom.  (Flynn resigning, and the FBI continuing to investigate him, has boosted my morale!)

Let us look at something positive then:
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spends more each year on development aid than most rich governments do.
Re-read that sentence.  Go ahead.  And be impressed.

Against the backdrop of the pathological presidency of Trump's, which wants to reduce funding for organizations that educate girls and women about family planning, I want to highlight the following from the Gates Foundation:
For the first time in history, more than 300 million women in developing countries are using modern methods of contraception. It took decades to reach 200 million women. It has taken only another 13 years to reach 300 million—and the impact in saving lives is fantastic.
Why is this a big deal?
When women in developing countries space their births by at least three years, their babies are almost twice as likely to reach their first birthday. Over time, the ability of women to use contraceptives and space their pregnancies will become one of the largest contributors in cutting childhood deaths.
If only the asshole president and his asshole minions will listen to Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett!  There is a lot more to life than to be obsessed with fertilized eggs!
Contraceptives are also one of the greatest antipoverty innovations in history. When women are able to time and space their pregnancies, they are more likely to advance their education and earn an income—and they’re more likely to have healthy children.
Join me in yelling a yuge "fuck you" to trump and his minions, and an even bigly and yuger yell to say "thank you" to Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Chew on this!

When I cook, I like the veggies in the dishes to have a little bit of crunch, bite, body left in them. I don't like them overcooked and uber-soft.  To borrow from another culture and language, al dente!

A couple of years ago, when in India, I was helping my sister in the kitchen.  I reached to turn off the flame because the green beans were in that awesome al dente stage, when my sister caught me in the act.  "No, no, no" she said.  "Appa and amma can't chew well if they are this firm.  These need to cook a little bit more."

You see, al dente works only when we have all those teeth in good condition.  The reality is that as we get old, those teeth don't work no more.  And, therefore, the sans teeth and sans taste that Shakespeare wrote about!

As we get deeper into that second childhood and infancy, food once again is purées.  Thankfully, my parents are not at that stage, yet.

Think about Japan, which has the world's highest proportion of people 65 and older.  And with all those 100-plus people.
The country is a global leader in adapting to the needs of an aging citizenry, with racks of reading glasses at bank counters and walking-cane holders in city offices.
So, of course, Japan is addressing this no more al dente food issue.  The pureed food transforms into "solids":
In Japan, companies are developing special thickening products that can be added to meals during preparation to alter the texture of various foods and ease swallowing. In a culture where meals are prepared with great care and artistry, the thickening gels make it possible for chefs to reshape the food into visually pleasing dishes.
How fascinating, right?
For the residents who have more severe swallowing issues, the staff sent the meal through a food processor, adding a gel powder before cooking the puréed versions in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. Then the resulting gelatinous blocks were poured into molds so that the chefs could create meals that looked like a piece of fish accented with slices of carrots and radish.
“We want them to enjoy different textures, flavors and looks,” said Fumie Egashira, a dietary consultant who works with the nursing home. “This is one of the greatest joys for them. We are not satisfied just because they feel full or can eat safely. We also have to give them pleasure and let them share a meal together.”
When it comes to old age issues, Japan is in the forefront.  The rest of us are behind, but not by that much.
With its expanding efforts to accommodate the growing population of the elderly, Japan offers a foretaste of the kinds of societal changes that are beginning to shake a number of wealthy places with rapidly aging populations, including many countries in Western Europe as well as South Korea and Hong Kong.
I have only suggestion for you, dear reader: Floss! ;)

"A jelly-type meal at a nursing home in Atsugi, Japan. Companies are developing thickening products that ease swallowing but still allow the creation of visually pleasing dishes. "

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history"

Alright. Quick reflex answer needed. No deep thinking before responding. Ok?

Answer with a yes or a no.

Do you think that people who are convinced that humans descended/evolved from apes will, by and large, subscribe to ideas that any one human "race" is superior to another?

Or, to put it differently, do you think that people who deny that we descended/evolved from apes might possibly belong to supremacist groups, or might operate with a sense of one human "race" being superior to another?

As I look at the American socio-political landscape, I see among the Republican Party a great overlap between those who deny evolution and those who are also convinced about their white supremacy.

Apparently there is a reason for me to think along those lines.  Darwin’s theory of evolution might have encouraged the abolition of slavery.  How?  First, what did Darwin himself say about where humans came from?
Darwin was so concerned about the heretical nature of his message that he decided to avoid mentioning the most incendiary of all his conclusions: that humans, supposedly created in the image of God, were in fact nothing more than modified great apes. He therefore devoted just 12 timid words to human evolution in the entire 500-page work: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”
The man buried the lede, eh!

What's the connection to abolishing slavery?

Darwin, whose birthday is today--and, hence, this second post of the day--published his opus in 1859.  In that era, prior to his publication:
At the time, it was debated whether humans had a single origin or several, with each race being separately created. The multiple-creation school, polygenism, was popular with apologists for slavery. If, as they supposed, the Adam-and-Eve creation produced whites, but other races derived from earlier and inferior acts of creation, then whites were justified in applying a different moral standard to people of nonwhite race, who were not created in God’s image. Polygenists sometimes saw blacks as subhuman intermediates or even as members of a different species, justifying their subjugation and enslavement.     
You can see where this is going.  And you can, therefore, see why those who championed white supremacy in the American South even made a lawsuit out of the teaching of evolution.  (Click here for an older post on this topic.)

So, back to 1859.  Darwin's ideas are heretic.
But if humans had a single origin (monogenism), as Darwin proposed for other species, then all human races were genealogically connected: Blacks were every bit as human as whites — equivalent to distant cousins — and slavery became morally untenable.
Aha, you say!

Of course, even by 1859, there were enough abolitionists, and enough of a momentum to abolish slavery.  Darwin's book might have added that much more to the abolitionists' arguments.
Things haven’t changed much since 1860. A 2014 Gallup poll showed that 42 percent of Americans are young-Earth creationists, while another 31 percent are theistic evolutionists like Gray, accepting some form of human evolution but insisting it was directed by God. And only 19 percent of us — 1 in 5 — adhere to Darwin’s view that humans evolved in a purely naturalistic way with no supernatural help. Slavery, thankfully, is no longer with us
Only 1 in 5 view that humans evolved without a divine intervention.  Only one in five!  Oh My Darwin! ;)

Two old men killed Lady Liberty

I remember how after the events of 9/11, the thoughts, words, and actions everywhere and every time were all related to 9/11.  It seemed like there was nothing else.

It is a similar effect now.  Everywhere I go to read anything, it is all about this current president.  I wish it were not the case.  A government and a president ought to be like how children were often referred to.  Remember that line?  Children should be seen and not heard.

Yes, the 63 million voters are to be blamed for this.  But, there is one group that I will not let off the hook: Bernie Sanders and his loyal followers.

Let me explain.

A few months before the election, the friend and I visited with another couple, who are more than a decade older than us and were Berniacs.  When talking, one of the older friends asked me what I thought about Sanders's criticism of how the US workers were being shafted by the fact that we don't manufacture anything here in America.

Without adopting a faculty tone, and without being snarky like how some of my blog-posts (examples: one, two, three ...) have been on this topic, I gave them my take on the economic geography of manufacturing.

But, these issues were/are less about logic and facts and more about how one "feels."  The Berniacs were often less interested in logic and evidence as much as the trumpeters couldn't care about logic and evidence.

In the process of expressing their "feelings," Sanders and his followers completely destroyed Hillary Clinton's credibility.  Remember those days, from only a few months ago?  It was best summed up by susan sarandon, echoing many, many, Berniacs, referring to Hillary Clinton as being more dangerous than trump:
“But this is what we’re fed. ‘He’s so dangerous. He’s so dangerous,'” Sarandon said, shrugging off Trump’s most controversial rhetoric as too implausible to be considered a serious threat.
“Seriously I am not worried about a wall being built, he is not going to get rid of every Muslim in this country… but seriously, I don’t know what his policy is. I do know what her policies are, I do know who she is taking money from, and I do know that she is no transparent, and I do know that nobody calls her on it”
Yep, that was the typical line from the loony left.

I was way concerned about this because, as many posts in this blog showed, I was intensely worried about the real possibility of Clinton losing in the general elections and the fascist winning.  Defeating the fascist was infinitely more important to me than debating whether Clinton was an honest politician.  Berniacs repeating the line that Clinton was more dangerous to the country than trump was seemed reckless and foolish.

Of course, there were more than a few of us worried about the effect the Berniacs were having.  Like this headline from last June, which says it all: "Did Bernie Sanders Hand Trump the Election?"

And the Berniac defiance grew:
You heard similar language—or at least a similar tone—from Sanders surrogates like actress Rosario Dawson, who told a collection of Bernie supporters and delegates that they should press on with their demands, regardless of what happens. “If Trump wins,” she said, “it’s not our fault.”
"regardless of what happens" ... how terrible!

The sanders campaign was, for all purposes, a mirror image of the trump campaign--filled with populist rhetoric on making America great, and it was all about the man.
Whatever your opinions about Clinton, the most progressive Democratic platform in history was on the ballot with her; any Bernie Sanders supporter worth their salt should’ve been able to see that. If they cared about progressive policy they would have bothered to show up.
This election will leave the party with many newly perceived facts to study, but one seems to be that many young voters and young Sanders supporters, in particular, weren’t actually voting for him because of where he stands on the issues: if they were, the platform would have mattered. They wanted him for reasons the Americans always choose their political candidates: for his aura – a star-power defined in terms of a masculinity that’s become synonymous with political charisma.
Those damn Berniacs. Assholes who gave us this president!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The huge budget deficit because of that damn foreign aid we give!

When discussing alternatives to carbon, students suggested--and correctly--that alternatives are either expensive or cannot serve the huge demand.  The class seemed pretty confident that the way forward is to aggressively pursue clean energy.

But then this is Oregon and these are wonderfully young people who have not been tainted by alternative facts.

One student, from the back, slowly raised his hand.  "Even a ten percent cut in the military budget can pay for a lot of this stuff."

This president and his minions are in serious trouble if more Americans are like the students in that class.  But, here's what is working well for this president and his adopted white supremacists party:
Fortunately for Trump, most voters have no real idea how the government spends its money
Which is why when this president presents his alternative facts about federal workers being a waste, the crowd applauds thinking believing that he will make America great again!
The sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in her recent book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” about working-class Republicans in Louisiana, documented wider misconceptions. Many of the people she talked to believe that the federal government employs forty per cent of American workers; it’s closer to two per cent. “They think that the government is full of waste and freeloaders,” Hochschild told me.
Think about it.  The reality is a number that is close to two percent.  It is not as if the loyal Republican white working class thought the number was four, or five, or even ten percent.  They thought the federal government employs forty percent of American workers.  40 versus 2!

It is the same case with everything that the party beats up on, which the loyal base applauds, and treats as god-given facts.  Which is why they beat up on foreign aid, or NPR, as if these are the reasons why we have deficits.  You ask them about the military budget and they will repeat the party line that the damn Democrats have weakened the military by repeatedly shredding the budget.  And, therefore, the Democrats are traitors!

This president and his falsehood-peddling minions can talk all the shit they want, but they won't be able to balance the budget.  Simple math:
Most federal spending is nondiscretionary, meaning that it goes to entitlements (such as Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance) and to pay the interest on the national debt. Discretionary spending totals just $1.2 trillion a year (out of a budget of almost four trillion), and roughly half of that goes to national defense, which Trump insists that he won’t touch. The federal budget deficit is around six hundred billion dollars a year, and analysis by the Tax Foundation suggests that Trump’s proposed tax cut would reduce federal revenue by another half trillion or so. So it’s simply impossible for Trump to balance the budget while protecting defense and entitlement spending.
The theatre of endless discussions over foreign aid or PBS will entertain the masses, yes, but the budget hole will continue to get bigger and bigger and bigger.

Such insanity--and remember that this is an administration that is only three weeks old--is also why no economist of any decent reputation wants to go anywhere near being an adviser to this president:
Other than Mr Navarro, Mr Trump struggles to find economists who will support him. Perhaps as a result, his cabinet will be wonk-free.
Seriously, 63 million Americans voted for this man?  The Republican Party kowtows to this nincompoop?  There is simply no way that there can be anything good about a Trump voter!  Assholes, all of them!


Friday, February 10, 2017

Climate Change is a Big Fat Lie!

It took a while for me to synchronize my personal approach to knowledge with my how I engage with teaching and learning in the classroom.  You know, my commitment to a public-intellectual way of scholarship into the classroom. (I have blogged in plenty about that, like here.)

Thus, in my intro class, I took to them a one-pager, from this recent proposal from a bunch of Republicans who want to tax carbon as the way to deal with climate change.  I wanted students to understand that the academic ideas that we talk about in class has real world applications in various public policy issues like climate change.

Of course, as with most things that I do, there was a structure to the class discussions.  It was clear that students had never been presented such an idea before.  The part about the tax revenue being returned to people as a dividend-check really grabbed their attention.

And then one student said, "but, this cannot work when Trump does not even think that climate change is real."

And that is only the beginning.  The first step is to stop denying climate change.  To recognize and understand that it is for real.

The second step is to acknowledge that this climate change is being caused by human actions.  This will be a huge step for most Republicans to take.  A yuge step.

And then to recognize and understand the role that carbon plays in this process.

And finally to get into a constructive discussion on what to do about carbon.

Now, ask yourself, do you think all these can ever happen with a president and his minions dealing with "alternative facts"?  With 63 million assholes--like this powerful guy--voting for the orange asshole?

So, party like there is no tomorrow, folks!

Thursday, February 09, 2017

That's life

In the movie 20th Century Women, the young teenage boy, who is raised by his divorced mother, asks his mother a simple question.  He asks her whether she was ever in love with his father (her ex-husband.)

There were many such moments in the movie, written and directed by Mike Mills.  Reading the reviews of the movie, I was reminded of his previous movie that I enjoyed: Beginners.  I remembered that one of the things that appealed to me the most about Beginners was that it seemed so real and genuinely plausible.  This movie, too, felt the same way--a mix of characters that is not out of the domain of real world happenings.

I re-read the New Yorker essay about Mills, and this stood out in a way that I can relate to both those movies:
“Mike is obsessed by exploring the connection between the dramatic and the real,” the director Lance Hammer, a neighbor of Mills’s, said. “I think it comes from the need to believe he’s actually here, that he’s not having a dream, not floating away.”
I have always felt that fiction that makes me think and feel for the characters does so because of how real it feels.  Which is also why I have difficulty connecting with fiction that deals with a future that is far, far away, or that is mythological like with the Hobbits.  That connection between the dramatic and the real helps me understand the world, the humanity around me, which is what I am looking for--it is not mere entertainment.

Anyway, back to the son's question.  The mother's reply to her son was, well, real.

She looks at the son with a matter-of-fact face and tells him that she didn't think so.  She got married to his father because she was getting old, and was concerned that she would end up alone and unloved.  And, sure enough, they were divorced real soon after, instead of the ever after.

Real life is way too complicated.

A short story in the New Yorker was also about life that is anything but simple.

Literature and the arts help me understand my fellow humans and, therefore, my own place among us.  The empathy that I did not understand till I got older.

Before he won the presidential contest, when he was a US Senator, Barack Obama spoke about the empathy deficit, in his commencement address at Northwestern. In that, Obama said:
The world doesn’t just revolve around you.
There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.
As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier.
If only this current president would read a few such short stories, or watch a few movies, or even listen to any one of Obama's commencement addresses, in order to truly understand the complicated lives that all of us lead and, therefore, to empathize.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Hey, it is not news that we have fake news!

One of the greatest stories ever told is from my old country.  The Mahabharata.

The first time that I read the retelling of it by Rajaji, I was maybe 10 or 11 years old.  It was riveting.  The complex story that wove together a gazillion characters, and for me to keep track of the connections between the characters ... it was phenomenal.

Every Hindu kid knows that story-line of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, and the build up to the war between the two clans.

(I suppose I have lost the non-Indian audience by now! Come back, come back; the moral of the story is understandable and contemporary.)

The war unfolds.  Both the sides are evenly matched.  The god--Krishna--is on one side, and you know that this god cannot lose.  Therefore, the Pandavas, whom Krishna supports, will win is a given.

But, what you might not have been prepared for is the level of chicanery that Krishna indulges in.  The god cheats and fakes.  Winning is everything.  Win at all costs.  Winning is the only thing!

Anyway, after the Pandavas knock off the grand old man, Bhishma, their old teacher, Drona, becomes the commander-in-chief of the Kauravas.  Krishna realizes that Drona is way too accomplished a fighter and tactician.  So, get this, Krishna develops an elaborate fake news scheme.  Yep, fake news in the battlefield.

Of course, in war, any smart fellow will watch out for fake news.  Drona is uber-smart.  So, Krishna then recruits into his scheme the one guy who always, always, always, tells the truth--Yudhishtra.  But, Krishna knows that Yudhishtra will not ever tell a lie.  Hence, Krishna--keep in mind that he is a god who gets into such planning--hatches an idea.

The idea is this: Drona has a son named Ashwatthama, who is also a warrior on the other side.  If Drona could be informed that his son is dead, then Drona will be heartbroken and, then, can be easily killed.

The plot thickens.

Krishna tells the physically powerful Bhima to kill an elephant named Ashwatthama.   Bhima does as told.

Now, Ashwatthama is dead.  But, it is an elephant, of course.

Krishna has Yudhishtra announce that Ashwatthama is dead.  But, something like this: Ashwatthama, the elephant, is dead.  While "Ashwatthama" and "dead" are yelled loudly, "the elephant" is practically muted.

Drona hears that Ashwatthama is dead.  Coming from Yudhishtra, who only speaks the truth, it has to be true.  Drona is devastated that his son is dead.  He lets his guard down. His head is chopped off.  End of Drona.

The Pandavas are well on to their victory.  Thanks to fake news.  Fake news hatched by a god.  Go figure!

The birther story and other fake news created by this president and Faux News cannot even begin to match such heroics, unless and until this president begins to lop a few heads off ;)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Chinese food, Mexican food, Indian food. Boycott them all!

In contemporary America, it seems like every Republican, following their standard-bearer's lead, beats up on China, Mexico, and India--that these three countries are responsible for the stagnation/collapse of middle-class jobs and wages.

Forget the economic (il)logic for now.  Here's something to consider: How many of the rabid supporters of this POTUS will be able to name the heads of the governments of China, Mexico, and India?

Think about it.  What does it mean when people don't have a freaking idea about those leaders even as they beat up on those countries day after day?  Shouldn't they be familiar with their names as much as they know the name Putin?

Especially the Chinese president.  It might come as a surprise to most Americans that China is the world's largest economy.  Add to that its military might.  The names of Chinese leaders ought to be familiar even to high school students, right?  Like how everybody knew about the Cold War leaders on the Soviet side?

So, if you are a Chinese, what would you think?  My guess is that they will be pissed off at the Rodney Dangerfield treatment that they get from America and its people.  Do we really want to ignore and intentionally isolate them?
Mao was clearly petrified of closer ties with America, telling the Soviet ambassador in January 1955 that a lack of relations with the United States “gives us the chance to more freely educate our people in the anti-American spirit.”
Starting a trade war with China or gearing up for a military conflict in the South China Sea will do very much the same.
Mexico is our neighbor.  Why don't people know the name of Mexico's president, but they know the name of Canada's prime minister?

What the hell must a non-white do in order to get some level of a recognition?

Forget the maniacal supporters this president--these things do not matter to the fake news they read and watch.  I would love to ask students graduating from colleges and universities across the country in the spring whether they can name these three people.

My guess is that it will be a tiny minority who can score the trifecta.  Of those who name one or two, they perhaps will have a personal connection to those countries, or might have majored in disciplines where they studied something about those countries and the governments.

I try my best to tell students that if they really want to understand the world through a study abroad, then they should spend at least three to six months living and studying in China.  Preferably in a place like Xian--a huge city, with a phenomenal history, and far away from the typical haunts of Beijing and Shanghai.  (Well, I have had this plan to travel to Xian for a long time, ever since reading about it in high school in the context of the Silk Road.  And, especially after meeting a few years ago, thanks to the friend, a Chinese environmental lawyer from Xian.  Some day!)

But then I, too, suffer from the Rodney Dangerfield problem of no respect.  Nobody cares about what I have to say.

Monday, February 06, 2017

This land of immigrants ... no more?

I have sent this across to the editor.  I assume there will be some hate mail/comments after it is published ;)

My 87-year old father is concerned about the Trump administration’s radical immigration plans. “What’s happening to your country?” he asked me in a recent telephone conversation.

An engineer who has been retired for two decades now, my father’s interest in this is not because he wants to visit, or move, to the US, but because he understands the effect such policy discussions are already having in India.

For one, the companies in India that have grown tremendously over the past two decades, thanks to outsourcing, have already seen their share prices drop. Young engineers and programmers are worried that their paths to prosperity now look bumpy. But, my father is less worried about the outsourcing industry. He is delighted with the success that he sees all around him, and he is confident that the talent will quickly refocus on more productive activities.

However, from his years of observing America from afar, he wonders whether this new political environment will mean that college and high school students might find it more difficult to get their visas to come and study in the US. Not only is a university diploma from America a highly prized credential in India, not getting a visa also effectively precludes the possibility of transitioning to working here in the US after graduation.

My father started understanding America, especially through people he knew, when a close friend from his youthful years came to the US in the 1960s, and worked as a professor of chemistry at Washington State University until he retired. Another friend of his returned to India after earning his doctorate in chemistry. Sixty years of such personal interactions, in addition to news reports, guide my father’s concerns.

Interestingly, and oddly, enough, before he became the nominee of the Republican Party, Trump too spoke about the value of immigration. “When someone’s going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Stanford, all the greats, and they graduate, and not only graduate but do great, and we throw them out of the country and they can’t get back in, I think that’s terrible.”

One of those who “do great” is Sundar Pichai, who is Google’s CEO. Pichai’s roots are in the same part of India as mine—Tamil Nadu. Hence, friends and family back in India are always excited to talk about him—even though not one amongst us has any personal connections to Pichai!

We in the US have benefited from Pichai staying back here after his graduate degree in engineering from Stanford and an MBA from Trump’s alma mater—University of Pennsylvania. Pichai and many more, including me, were fortunate to have been allowed into this wonderful country where we have made ourselves at home. But, some were not. Like Kunal Bahl, for instance. Bahl, too, earned his academic credentials at the University of Pennsylvania. But, he was forced to return to India in 2007 after he was refused a work visa.

Bahl has done well in India—he launched Snapdeal, a competitor to Amazon, which is now valued at more than 7 billion dollars! In a hyper-competitive global economy, wouldn’t we in the US want Bahl working and living here in America, instead of competing from halfway around the world?

Not allowing people from countries mean that we are denying ourselves productive and wealthy contributions from the likes of Pichai and Bahl from those countries. That is essentially what the president’s executive order will mean. Through an executive order, Trump barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for at least three months.

Even now, the technology and health care industries, in particular, are heavily populated with highly qualified professionals from around the world, including from the seven countries that have been placed in a restricted list without any rationale. As the internet was quick to point out, had this ban been in place years ago, we would not have had a Steve Jobs and the iPhone—Jobs’s biological father was from Syria, which is one of the seven countries named in the banned list.

Rumors now abound that the administration is getting ready to tighten the legal work visas for people from other countries too. It is as if the list of seven countries was only a beginning, and the administration will add a seventy more. Which is why my father worries about developments that would make it harder for skilled and talented Indians too.

All these economic implications aside, there is the humanitarian challenge in refusing entry to refugees, who are the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It will be a while before the constitutionality issues are settled. For now, the rashness with which the administration is approaching the political issue of immigration seems more along the lines of "cutting off the nose to spite the face."

Sunday, February 05, 2017

I won't watch this Super Bowl, too

"The bag is not even full, and the total is almost 35 dollars?" I remarked with a laugh after the clerk rang up my groceries.

"Yes, eating is an expensive habit" she joined in.

My groceries were nothing compared to another guy's basket.  His was a more expensive amount.  But, it was not because he was loading up with food as if end times were around the corner.  Nope.  His high bill came from the beer and wine and party food--it is time for Super Bowl Sunday.

As the only regular reader (hehe!) knows well, I don't care a damn about the Super Bowl.  I cannot even recall the last time I watched the game.  Even in the years that I did, I was way more interested in the singing of the national anthem--all because of the phenomenal job that Whitney Houston did way back in my early years in this country.

Despite all the news reports on concussions and the taxpayer subsidies, the sport continues to have maniacal supporters.  Not only those who voted for this POTUS.  A great number of the ultra-left too are rabid sportswatchers.  I have always wondered how these lefties deal with the cognitive dissonance--their own ideological views on the political economy, versus the anti-competitive mega-rich owners of the teams sucking on taxpayer teats!  I tell ya, it is such unholy combinations that makes politics bizarre, and why truth has no place in politics.

The defense of taxpayer subsidy for sports, especially the stadiums (stadia?), is beyond truth!
Federal subsidies are justified for infrastructure projects that provide a public good across states, but local sports stadiums clearly do not meet this criterion.
Indeed, there is little evidence that stadiums provide even local economic benefits. Decades of academic studies consistently find no discernible positive relationship between sports facilities and local economic development, income growth, or job creation. And local benefits aside, there is clearly no economic justification for federal subsidies for sports stadiums. Residents of, say, Wyoming, Maine, or Alaska have nothing to gain from the Washington-area football team’s decision to locate in Virginia, Maryland, or the District of Columbia.

Now that we are fully in a post-truth America, who cares, right?  A listing--like here--on how all that taxpayer waste can be put to use will appeal only to a few truth-seekers!

I have often commented that sports in America is a wonderful proxy measure for many aspects of the country.  American football is highly correlated with jingoism and a militaristic attitude.  And more, like these two NY Times reports show:

It is a mad, mad, mad world! :(

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Jobs, jobs, and jobs. But, hey, incomes?

"I am especially keen to have you involved in the panel given your distinguished track record," was a sentence in a lengthy email inviting me to a session at the upcoming international conference.  After years of marching to my own drumbeat of scholarship that is aimed at public engagement, it is encouraging that there is some recognition of the urgency of the issue--and, of course, recognition of what I do as an academic.

I won't hold my breath for any recognition within my university.  The latest was an email from my dean who pooh-poohed my work and external recognition with a note on how I need to work on "scholarly activities."  I.e., my public scholarship is not "scholarly activities."  I figured that his email is best ignored--no reply.  I hope at some time--sooner than later--he and the rest will understand that intellectual onanism is not necessarily what "scholarly" means.

In many op-eds and blog-posts over the years, and in classroom discussions with students, I have been worrying a lot about automation's impact on jobs and incomes.  My bottom-line to students has always been that they will experience a fantastic future thanks to automation, but that jobs--and well-paying jobs, in particular--might not be easy to come by.  "It could be a challenging future" is what I typically tell them.  But, like my faculty and administrative colleagues, most students too do not listen to me.  Why should they, when they hear from those faculty and administrators that awesome jobs wait for college graduates!

This POTUS does nothing to help people understand the rapidly changing employment scene.  He thinks believes that jobs--and well paying middle-class jobs--can be brought back by him beating the pulp out of the CEOs, as if his job is to be the mafia chief.  Why doesn't he explain to his faithful followers, and to the unprincipled Republican leaders, the reality about automation's impacts on employment?
Trump knows virtually nothing about technology — other than a smartphone, he doesn’t use it much. And the industries he’s worked in — construction, real estate, hotels, and resorts — are among the least sophisticated in their use of information technology. So he’s not well equipped to understand the dynamics of automation-driven job loss.
One does not need to even work in the information industry, or in manufacturing, in order to understand the impact of automation.  Consider, as a contrast, the former POTUS, whose experiences were shaped elsewhere--"community organizing" that the unprincipled Republicans always ridiculed:
“The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas,” Mr. Obama said. “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”
Even if he is informed enough, the current POTUS does not want to talk about automation because that will mean speaking truth with people.  And he has made it immensely clear that truth is nowhere in his mind, ever.  While he makes a grand spectacle out of his "negotiations" over plant closings and offshoring,
automation-related job loss is difficult to negotiate about. It’s the silent killer of human labor, eliminating job after job over a period of time. Jobs often disappear through attrition. There are no visible plant closings to respond to, no press releases by foreign rivals to counter. It’s a complex subject that doesn’t lend itself to TV sound bites or tweets.
If only his people will understand this:
Technology delivers its benefits and harms in an unequal way. That explains why even though the economy is humming, it doesn’t feel like it for a large group of workers.
The solutions to this are not simple, and "they’re not easily summarized in a sound bite."  Certainly not in 140 characters!

Friday, February 03, 2017

Meditate on this!

A high school friend offered to drop me at home from another's friend's home where a dozen of us (or more?) classmates had gathered to eat and chat.  Even as he smoothly negotiated the chaotic traffic, he was at ease talking with me..

I am always amazed by people who can successfully do more than one thing at the same time.  The other day, I was talking with students while trying to get the overhead digital projector to turn on, and I ended up shutting down the entire system!  "I cannot multi-task" I admitted to them; some were hysterically laughing at my clumsiness! ;)

"Tell me, Sriram, you don't have any responsibility, right?  You don't have to make decisions that affect people's lives," my friend commented.

That is true.  But, it is also irrelevant and immaterial, as Perry Mason often declared in the courtroom.  Nobody forces us to be in positions of authority where decisions have serious consequences.  As Harry Truman said, if you can't stand the heat then get out of the kitchen.  Right?

But, yes, in my role as a commentator and critic, I don't make decisions and, instead, am always reacting to decisions made by somebody else.  We both have our roles to play.  The world needs ditch-diggers too!

Some roles are more stressful than others, no doubt.  Like being the Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.)  Remember the Ebola days and months?  The Zika scare?  Every decision the CDC director makes, or does not make, will be analyzed by the informed and the idiots alike.  How does he--Tom Frieden--handle it?
I have not said this publicly before. But yes, for 40 years I have been meditating twice a day. Twenty minutes, twice a day.
With all the gadgets rapidly spewing something or the other, people seem to be more and more manic in their behavior.  On top of that, the stress from having a president who is ready to take the country to war via a tweet at three in the morning--East Coast time, which means here on the Pacific Coast we are just about getting ready to catch some zzzzzzzz's.  It is, therefore, no surprise that there are meditation tips everywhere I go.  I like this series because it is all about the stuff that daily life is.  And, hence, how one could be mindful even in those daily tasks.  Like when making coffee:
“Approach making your coffee the same way you approach meditating. Be completely here and now in the present moment, centering your attention exclusively on what you are doing and feeling. Being mindful of how you make your coffee shows you how to be mindful in every part of your life.”
As the friend will vouch for it, that is exactly how I am with the coffee that I make and drink.  It is a ritual that demands my complete attention.  The "here and now" is all I am with the coffee.  I cannot even recall the last time I made a coffee to go.  Go where?

It is a meditative experience brewing and consuming the magical elixir.
Smell the aroma from the coffee grounds as you put them into the coffee filter. Breathe in their deep, rich, intense fragrance.
As you pour the water into your coffee maker, notice the clearness of the water, hear the gurgling sound. Listen to the first drops of water as they sizzle into the carafe; notice the color of the coffee.
Watch the steam that rises, swirling in the carafe; be mindful of the ethereal nature of your inner self.
Smell the first delicious whiff of your coffee as it begins to brew.
Listen to the sounds the coffee maker makes as it brews your coffee.
When the coffee is done brewing, let it sit for a moment or two to attain its full flavor.
Let yourself sit for a moment or two, to obtain the full flavor of meditating.
Yes!  Especially when all I have to do after that is to critique somebody else's decisions! ;)