Friday, June 30, 2017

More on the Banana Republic of America

For a few days now, I did great not tweeting anything about the current president of the United States.  I had decided that I did not want trump and his minions sucking away all the oxygen from my life.

Everything was going so well for me ...
... until he did this:

If that looks different from the usual tweets from the @realdonaldtrump, it is because on Twitter I follow this "Real Press Sec." bot, which two people had created to make sure we all realize that trump's tweets are presidential statements.  It is not some random 71-year senile man across the street.

I couldn't take it anymore.

In this piece in the NY Times, the author makes a point:
Yet criticism, even from Republicans, has not deterred Mr. Trump and some of his supporters in the past — witness how many denounced him over the Access Hollywood tapes. The president has paid no discernible political price for his actions. So that leaves the question very much open whether behavior once ruled unthinkable is again permissible in America today.
It is pathetic how Republicans do not care for this president's behavior.  That they don't care is not really a surprise.  After all, it is not as if the guy flipped after having been a perfect gentleman throughout his campaign.  These people voted for him fully knowing what a disgusting human being he is!

I had to do something, at least for my own sanity.

I sent the following message to the two senators and the congressman who represent me in DC:

I am truly, truly, feeling helpless watching this President tweet and rant with complete disregard to basic human decency, leave alone the dignity of the office to which he was (s)elected. This president's recent tweets attacking Mika Brzezinski are merely the latest example.
He is an absolute embarrassment to the nation, is destroying America's credibility around the world. I cannot for a moment even imagine how this is contributing to Making America Great Again.
Even worse, this president is giving permission to haters, bullies, xenophobes, racists, and misogynists--not only in America but around the world as well. America is, indeed, a shining city on a hill; this visibility lets the thugs and goons anywhere on this planet know that their low values are consistent with this president's values.
I worry even more about this president as a role model for impressionable children in America and elsewhere.
I understand that I am not contacting you about a policy position on which you can vote. So, what do I want you to do?
I want you to talk with the GOP members in Congress--in the House and Senate--and make them understand that their support for this president only continues to enable his indecent and disgusting behavior. Please make your GOP colleagues understand that it is not good principles for them to care only about their political victories on their preferred policy positions while being indifferent to their party's standard-bearer.
trump is an embarrassment and a shame, not only to the GOP but to all of us Americans whom he represents as the President of the United States of America.
Thank you.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


It was the old days. But not quite the oldest days.  In the oldest days, men smoked in their offices and everywhere that it pleased them.  A few women also joined them.

I am talking about the old days when men and women had to step outside the office buildings in order to smoke.  They were always huddled together, and invariably by near the entrance doors.

And they loved to talk with non-smokers also.  Only later did the etiquette evolve of non-smokers barely nodding a hello to the smokers as we kept on walking by the entrances.

Which is how one day I ended up talking with David.

He was much older than me, and was nearing retirement.  I was barely enjoying my lucky break into academe.

We talked about what I wanted to do in the academic world.  I brief him, to the extent that it was clear within me, about my rather non-traditional interests in scholarship and about public intellectualism.

He puffed away.  And nodded as he listened to me.

And then, as he exhaled the last of the cigarette smoke while stubbing the glowing tip, he looked me in the eye.

I didn't have to wonder for long what he was going to tell me.  His message was simple: If that is what guides me, and if I am convinced about it beyond doubt, then that is what I should pursue.

Looking back at it, I am thankful that he and my graduate school professor, Jim, were so strongly supportive.

Or, maybe I thank them only because life has turned out alright?  What if that approach had not worked out?  What if I had to return to the life of drudgery and monotony of the "real world," which is where I was for more than five years before that lucky return to academia?

Even if things hadn't worked out, I am confident that I will be thankful to them--at least there were two people who thought I was capable enough of their support.

A few month ago, I wrote a lengthy thank-you email to Jim.  Among other things, I wrote to him:
I want to thank you again for one particular aspect of my intellectual and professional life: There is a good chance you do not remember a conversation that I had with you during my grad school days, when I said I wanted to directly contribute to the public, instead of the traditional research. You encouraged me in that, but also cautioned me that academia does not value public engagement. You went one step more and said that society needs active engagement from academics.
 It's a wonderful life!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

It turns out that I am a sportsman after all!

Me as a sports guy?  Who woulda thunk that!

But, apparently I am.

You see, it all depends on the definition of "sports."

In the seminar class that I taught last fall, I had students think about how definitions make all the difference.  I assigned them the task of following-up with specific real-world examples of how definitions matter.

They came back with plenty of examples.  How "unemployment" is defined.  About the definition of the legal limit of alcohol in the system when driving.  ...

The students are all way too young for them to be familiar my favorite example ever--Bill Clinton's notorious "it depends on what your definition of is is."  That guy was a master at such linguistic jiu jitsu!  Remember his "I did not inhale"? ;)

Anyway, it should have been obvious to any student even partially awake that these definitions are our own constructs.  There is nothing natural about them.  These are not god-given.   We concoct the definitions and then fight over them.

Which brings me to why I am a sportsman, and how it depends on the definition of "sports."

Ask yourself how you would define sports.  Come on, what is "sports"?

You see where I am going with this?
Though there is proof of sport existing in China and Egypt thousands of years ago, as well as in the original Olympic games in Greece, the concept did not enter the English language until the late middle ages, from the French “desport”, when it meant pleasurable pastimes and activities. Its first usage to mean a game involving physical exercise dates from 1520, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
 Later as sports became more popular, governing bodies emerged to codify their rules. The oldest appears to be the Marylebone Cricket Club, founded in 1787 to revise the laws of cricket which had been drawn up by a group of “noblemen and gentlemen” in 1744. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club turns out not to be that ancient: it was founded in 1754, but didn’t codify the rules of the sport until 1897. The growth of professional sport through the 20th century, and the rise of international competitions like the modern Olympics in 1896, spurred the growth of federations to regulate the regulators. Today there is no single entity that decides what is and isn’t a sport. There are dozens.
There is "no single entity that decides what is and isn’t a sport."

So, how does that make me a sportsman?
 The European Sports Charter and the United Nations both define sports as physical activities that promote physical fitness and mental well-being, which would rule out anything mentally exercising but physically sedentary. The British Charities Act of 2011 is more inclusive: sports are activities “which promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion”. But all three are problematic, given the capacity of many of the most popular spectator sports for leaving their participants severely damaged: not just boxing and ultimate fighting, but rugby, American football, and even soccer, which, according to recent evidence, can leave players brain damaged from long years of heading the ball.
Clearly, "physical activities" and I don't belong in the same sentence, right?

So, what if the definition of sports included, ahem, mental activities?  Like, you know, playing bridge? ;)

That's exactly what happened!
Rare is the day that the philosophy of Wittgenstein and a ruling by the European Court of Justice’s advocate general combine to reshape sport. But such a day arrived last Thursday. The case was the latest instalment in a long-running saga in which the English Bridge Union (EBU) has been taking on the bureaucratic apparatus of the British state – including Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, various sports councils, and the secretary of state for culture, media and sport. The EBU was attempting to reclaim £631,000 in taxes from which “sports” are exempt. The case started at a tribunal in 2014, and then went through the English courts. Every time, the EBU lost. Then along came Maciej Szpunar. Invoking Wittgenstein, he handed down a ruling that bridge, a card game for four players with a reputation for being popular among the posh and the old, is indeed a sport.
Ok then, it is time for me to play some sports ;)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Gratification ... delayed

"When I am hungry, and I pay attention to the food that I eat, it is all the more damn tasty," I said the other day.

Maybe I am one of those who might have aced the marshmallow test, had I been administered that when I was a kid.

The more I think about it, the more I see delayed-gratification everywhere in my life.

I was at the grocery store the other day.  At the checkout counter, the cashier asked me if I had my summer off.

"Kind of.  I have a conference paper to write, and other work to do."

"You are always writing."

"I suppose I am.  But then that is my job.  If I were not writing, I am not doing my job," I replied.

Yes, in a way, I have my summer off.  But then this is delayed gratification at work.

I remember how poor I was as a graduate student.  I rented a crappy room in a drug-infested neighborhood because that is all I could afford if I wanted to live by myself.  The tap water almost always ran brown.  It was a slum!  A college-mate, Karl, was the one who told me about the place--he was living there and informed me about a vacancy.

I was always only one paycheck away from becoming a starving graduate student.

Meanwhile, graduate students who were wrapping up their masters degrees in a year-and-a-half or two were coasting away to prosperity in their new jobs.  While they bought their new cars, I was crying over my bicycle that somebody stole while it was locked.  Not that it was a fancy bike either--it was so old that I was able to buy it for next to nothing.  So, now, I didn't even have a bike.

There were bleak moments when I wondered whether this was all worth it.  Like a kid in the test wondering whether it was worth not eating the marshmallow that was right there, in order to wait for the reward of more marshmallows.

Some in my cohort had already gotten married, bought homes, and even had children by the time my life as a starving graduate student ended.

And just like that I was handed a bowl of marshmallows as a reward.  Year after year, sweet tasting summers.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The World According to Saudi Arabia

Five weeks ago, I included the following photograph in this post:

That NY Times photo ran with the caption: "A woman with cholera was treated at a hospital in Sana, Yemen, on Sunday."

Yes, cholera!

Over the five weeks, the president made a triumphant return to the country after having gained even more confidence from touching the orb.  Saudi Arabia, which is one the main reasons why Yemen is in a completely messed up state, also gained in confidence from the president touching the orb, and decided to let Qatar and Iran know who the big dog is in that part of the world.

Meanwhile, nobody cared about Yemen.

Is it any surprise that things have become worse, as if that is even possible?
Seized by violence and teetering on the edge of famine, Yemen is grappling with another danger that threatens to outpace them both: cholera.
"We are now facing the worst cholera outbreak in the world," international health authorities said in a statement Saturday.
Cholera is one of the easiest to stop, if you think about it.  Right?
The disease should not be so ferocious. Preventing cholera is pretty simple in theory: wash your hands with clean water, drink clean water, and eat food that has been boiled or cooked.
But ...
But clean water in Yemen is a luxury. Municipal workers in Sanaa have not been paid in months. And so we have no electricity, rubbish piling high in the street, and a crippled water system.
The sewer system stopped working on 17 April. Ten days later, cholera hit.
How terrible!
Yemen now suffers three-way tragedy: a population under siege, suffering the violence of war and unable to work or access nutritious food or health care; an economic collapse that has led to a rise in criminality; and now a devastating health crisis.
This all leads to what could be the largest cholera outbreak of our lifetime.
America couldn't care, even though the world knows that we are an accomplice in Yemen's deepening humanitarian crisis:
"There's a U.S. imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen that's caused by the Saudi bombing campaign," Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told NPR's Michele Kelemen last month after the U.S. signed a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
"The Saudis simply could not operate this bombing campaign without us," he continued. "Their planes can't fly without U.S. refueling capacity. They are dropping munitions that we've sold them. We are standing side by side with them often when they are reviewing intelligence about targets."
As Fareed Zakaria noted, "Saudi Arabia played Donald Trump":
The United States has now signed up for Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy — a relentless series of battles against Shiites and their allies throughout the Middle East. That will enmesh Washington in a never-ending sectarian struggle, fuel regional instability and complicate its ties with countries such as Iraq that want good relations with both sides. But most important, it will do nothing to address the direct and ongoing threat to Americans — jihadist terrorism. I thought that Trump’s foreign policy was going to put America first, not Saudi Arabia. 
Shame on us, and on the 63 million voters!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

I. Told. You. So.

But then you, like everybody else, would not listen to me!

In many posts here, I worried about the rapid annihilation of jobs in the retail industry.  In recent posts, like here and here, I expressed my concerns that unlike previous economic revolutions, this will not lead the displaced workers into more productive jobs.  Automation is king, of course,

It is not that the retail job losses are only in large metropolitan areas.  Nope.  They hit hard--perhaps even hardest--the very areas that also coincide with the regions that elected trump, whose empty rhetoric on coal and manufacturing apparently swayed the voters:
Small cities in the Midwest and Northeast are particularly vulnerable. When major industries left town, retail accounted for a growing share of the job market in places like Johnstown, Decatur, Ill and Saginaw Mich. Now, the work force is getting hit a second time, and there is little to fall back on.
Moreover, while stores in these places are shedding jobs because of e-commerce, e-commerce isn’t absorbing these workers. Growth in e-commerce jobs like marketing and engineering, while strong, is clustered around larger cities far away. Rural counties and small metropolitan areas account for about 23 percent of traditional American retail employment, but they are home to just 13 percent of e-commerce positions.
E-commerce has also fostered a boom in other industries, including warehouses. But most of those jobs are being created in larger metropolitan areas, an analysis of Census Bureau business data shows.
Of course that is the story.  Any lame-brained pretentious economic geographer in small town Oregon could have told you that!
“Every time you lose a corner store, every time you lose a restaurant, every time you lose a small clothing store, it detracts from the quality of life, as well as the job loss”
Yes, that is exactly how the downward spiral happens.  While in the aggregate customers are all better off thanks to the efficiency offered by e-commerce and automation, the impacts are local and tangible.  

As I have often argued here, politicians need to, therefore, rework the social contract and strengthen the safety net.  Instead, trump and his (adopted) party are hell bent on shredding even the minimal safety net of today.

This situation will only worsen with the increasing level of automation that we can and should expect.  So, what can be done?
Part of the answer will involve educating or retraining people in tasks A.I. tools aren’t good at. Artificial intelligence is poorly suited for jobs involving creativity, planning and “cross-domain” thinking — for example, the work of a trial lawyer. But these skills are typically required by high-paying jobs that may be hard to retrain displaced workers to do. More promising are lower-paying jobs involving the “people skills” that A.I. lacks: social workers, bartenders, concierges — professions requiring nuanced human interaction. But here, too, there is a problem: How many bartenders does a society really need?
Exactly.  It is not as if we need a gazillion bartenders and waiters.  Right?

So, can we think creatively in another way? 
The solution to the problem of mass unemployment, I suspect, will involve “service jobs of love.” These are jobs that A.I. cannot do, that society needs and that give people a sense of purpose. Examples include accompanying an older person to visit a doctor, mentoring at an orphanage and serving as a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous — or, potentially soon, Virtual Reality Anonymous (for those addicted to their parallel lives in computer-generated simulations). The volunteer service jobs of today, in other words, may turn into the real jobs of the future.
If trump and his (adopted) party cannot even understand how retail jobs vastly outnumber coal mining jobs, there is no way on earth will they even begin to understand that paragraph!
Who will pay for these jobs? Here is where the enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands comes in. It strikes me as unavoidable that large chunks of the money created by A.I. will have to be transferred to those whose jobs have been displaced. This seems feasible only through Keynesian policies of increased government spending, presumably raised through taxation on wealthy companies.
Yep, this will take reworking the social contract by increasing the tax on the gazillionaires--not by offering them more tax cuts!

Anything else that will be restatement of what I have been talking about and writing about for ever?
As for what form that social welfare would take, I would argue for a conditional universal basic income: welfare offered to those who have a financial need, on the condition they either show an effort to receive training that would make them employable or commit to a certain number of hours of “service of love” voluntarism.
To fund this, tax rates will have to be high. The government will not only have to subsidize most people’s lives and work; it will also have to compensate for the loss of individual tax revenue previously collected from employed individuals.
If only you would listen to me!

Here is the most interesting twist; the author of that essay, on how to deal with the increasingly sophisticated automation that borders on artificial intelligence, is:
Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman and chief executive of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital firm, and the president of its Artificial Intelligence Institute.
Some day, sooner than later, there will be a few people who will regret not having listened to me ;)

Monday, June 19, 2017

I blame my grandmothers!

Coconut trees cover the Kerala landscape, like the Douglas Fir here in Oregon.

Having grown up in the Travancore kingdom (now the state of Kerala), my mother and grandmothers and aunts used coconut oil in the cooking and in preparing the tasty savories.

As a kid, I always got excited with the unique and intense aroma of hot coconut oil, because it meant that there was magic happening in the kitchen.

Our taste buds were set.  Foods and snacks at other places--homes and restaurants alike--that did not use coconut oil or real ghee were, well, we did not care for them.  I grew up with such spoilt tastes ;)

Going to weddings and other social events, or even eating at restaurants, became increasingly a nightmare for us because of the rapid infusion of the dreaded dalda into the foods.  Not only did we hate with a passion the taste and smell of dalda--a hydrogenated vegetable oil--our systems also often reacted with upset stomachs and worse.

A few months ago, I spotted on the grocery store shelves potato chips that were fried in coconut oil.  Of course, I had to buy that.  And I continue to get that every once in a while.


Recently, when my peeps were visiting, I offered them those chips.  They are way younger than me, and were not raised on coconut oil, which is why I warned them that most people not used to coconut oil are put off by its taste and aroma. Turned out that they liked it!

Coconut oil has been the rage for a while here as the next best miracle oil.  My grandmothers would have laughed at this fad.

And they would have laughed even more with news reports like this:
According to the AHA, 82% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated. That's more than in butter (63%), beef fat (50%) and pork lard (39%). And, like other saturated fats, studies show it can increase "bad" cholesterol.
Some claim that the mixture of fats in coconut oil still make it a healthy option, but the AHA says there is no good-quality evidence for this.
It says people should limit how much saturated fat they eat, replacing some of it with unsaturated vegetable oils - olive oil and sunflower oil
If only people, including scientists, would understand that it is not about the sat-fat alone.  My grandmothers lived long lives for their generations despite coconut oil everyday--not only in the cooking but even on their hair.   Instead, it is all about how we consume anything.

The butter that I use is real butter, with the highest possible fat content.  But, I am not feasting on butter.  It is not really about the coconut oil.  It is all about moderation.  As my grandmothers often said அளவோட சாப்பிடு.    

Sunday, June 18, 2017

We didn't know about Father's Day back then ...

The following is a slightly modified post from three years ago

It is one of my favorite movies ever.  It is not only because of the fantastic movie it is, or for how uniquely the movie depicted humans and aliens communicating with each other, for Dreyfuss' crazed and possessed looks ... But also because ...

I was a little more than 15 years old.  After the written part of the National Talent Search exams, I was one of the few students invited to interview.  If successful, I would be a NTS guy!  And, the interview venue: The Madras campus of the Indian Institute of Technology.

Two other students from my class, Vijay and Krishna, had also gotten to this stage.  The prospect of the interview itself did not excite me as much as the thought that I would be at the fabled IIT campus for some serious, official, business.

Father took me to Madras--yes, that's how the city was called then.

The following day was the big moment at IIT.  But, I didn't care about the interview, and was immensely excited playing cards and cricket with the boys at my uncle's home.

The morning came.  We reached the campus and the interview site.

If only I had the ability to forget the bad experiences! ;)

I knew I screwed up my chances because I messed up the first question big time.

The first question was rather simple, compared to the later ones.  Even though I did well in the ones that followed, I am sure that the "golden duck" was how I lost the honor of the scholarship.

That simple question was, "what is the maximum value of the tangent of an angle?"

Throughout my school life, my math teachers--right from the earliest days that I can recall--tried their best to help me understand that I needed to pause and think about the questions before I answered them, even when confident of the answer, only because of the remarkably silly mistakes I did while being in a hurry as if I were in a race against the devil.  But, stupid is as stupid does, as I would learn much later from Forrest Gump.

Thus, consistent with that track record of buzzing in the reply as soon as the question was uttered, I said "one."

That answer bothered me.  If only they had asked me "is that your final answer?" with some dramatic violins in the background!

After I was done, and while exiting the campus, I realized the enormity of erring in that first question itself, which was the simplest of them all.

Father realized that I was kicking myself for my haste.  He did two things.

First, he took me to the beach.  We then walked over to a restaurant across from the road, where I ordered a cucumber/tomato sandwich.

And then he said we could go to any movie of my choice.

Which is how we went to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I think this was at the Satyam complex.

After the movie ended, and as we were exiting, father said, "I didn't understand anything there."

Happy father's day!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Who feels another’s pain ... Who shares another’s sorrow

As I pulled into the parking spot, I noticed her.

About thirty years old.  She was in the driver seat, with nobody else in her car.  The left hand held the smartphone to her ear, and the right hand was gesticulating, a lot.

And then I saw her face.

She was crying.

She then wiped away the tears that were flowing down.

What can this man do?  What can anyone do?

The world is a messy place.

While we can philosophize that our consciousness about ourselves and this world is nothing but a “user-illusion,” everyday life is not easy.  Our bodies ache.  Our minds ache.  She cries in the public, with her vehicle giving her a private space.  Most cry at home. Or even on Facebook.

I imagined walking up to her car and knocking on the window.  "Are you alright?"  She would probably say that she was fine.  "I'm ok, thank you."

Instead, I slowly got out of my car, and stole a glance at her.  She was gesticulating and crying.

"If she is there even when I return, I will check on her," I told myself.

I considered picking up a chocolate bar for the distraught one.  I decided against.

Her vehicle was gone when I returned.

I started driving back home.  The light turned red, and I stopped.

The homeless man held up his cardboard sign.  I acknowledged his presence with a nod.

It does not seem right that I empathize with the woman who was crying in her car, while I drive past the homeless man.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Wandering with questions, and not caring for the answer

As a graduate student, I was in heaven in the libraries.  I had never seen so many books, magazines, and newspapers in my life in the old country.  And now I had a much bigger problem than ever before: How to decide what to read and what to skip?

I suspect that this situation was the proverbial necessity for which I had to invent a whole new way of reading and understanding.  I had to figure out what was the most important message that I had to quickly scan for and know.  I am not sure if what I have since developed is the best approach to acquiring knowledge and wisdom, but it seems to work good enough for me.

So, I would wander by the book-stacks and smell those papers and pick up something to read.  I always scanned the new arrivals.  And, of course, the journals and the magazines.  Somehow, I never developed the instinct to want to write.  I merely wanted to read, and I enjoyed it.

Those were the bad old days before the web.  Now, more than two decades into the world of web, I have access to even more books, magazines, and newspapers than I could have ever dreamed about.  I continue with my habit of wandering through the cyberspace and hoovering up whatever interests me.

Which is how I ended up at this essay in which a neurologist writes about consciousness:
Over my career, I’ve gathered a neurologist’s working knowledge of the physiology of sensations. I realize neuroscientists have identified neural correlates for emotional responses. Yet I remain ignorant of what sensations and responses are at the level of experience. I know the brain creates a sense of self, but that tells me little about the nature of the sensation of “I-ness.” If the self is a brain-generated construct, I’m still left wondering who or what is experiencing the illusion of being me. Similarly, if the feeling of agency is an illusion, as some philosophers of mind insist, that doesn’t help me understand the essence of my experience of willfully typing this sentence.
Slowly, and with much resistance, it’s dawned on me that the pursuit of the nature of consciousness, no matter how cleverly couched in scientific language, is more like metaphysics and theology. It is driven by the same urges that made us dream up gods and demons, souls and afterlife. The human urge to understand ourselves is eternal, and how we frame our musings always depends upon prevailing cultural mythology. In a scientific era, we should expect philosophical and theological ruminations to be couched in the language of physical processes. We argue by inference and analogy, dragging explanations from other areas of science such as quantum physics, complexity, information theory, and math into a subjective domain. Theories of consciousness are how we wish to see ourselves in the world, and how we wish the world might be.
We continue to struggle with those questions that our ancestors struggled with: How did this all come about? Who am I? How do I know all this is for real and not an illusion? What happens after this "I" that I recognize dies?

Science does not have an answer.  We might want to add "yet" to that previous sentence, but, come on, we won't have a definitive answer for a long, long, long time.  Which means, " in the absence of scientific evidence, all opinions about the mind are in the realm of belief and religion."

What amazes me is that the essay does not even casually mention the Hindu philosophical idea of maya.  Yet, the very idea of maya is explored in the following paragraph in that essay:
According to Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University and author of Consciousness Explained and many other books on science and philosophy, consciousness is nothing more than a “user-illusion” arising out of underlying brain mechanisms. He argues that believing consciousness plays a major role in our thoughts and actions is the biological equivalent of being duped into believing that the icons of a smartphone app are doing the work of the underlying computer programs represented by the icons. He feels no need to postulate any additional physical component to explain the intrinsic qualities of our subjective experience.
Illusions. Maya.
For his part, Dennett is an outspoken atheist and fervent critic of the excesses of religion. “I have absolutely no doubt that secular and scientific vision is right and deserves to be endorsed by everybody, and as we have seen over the last few thousand years, superstitious and religious doctrines will just have to give way.” As the basic premise of atheism is to deny that for which there is no objective evidence, he is forced to avoid directly considering the nature of purely subjective phenomena. Instead he settles on describing the contents of consciousness as illusions, resulting in the circularity of using the definition of mental states (illusions) to describe the general nature of these states.
If we want to understand, and argue about, climate change, well, science and the scientific method is what I will go with.  If we want to understand, and argue about, income inequality, I will lay out my preferred values and, therefore, my version of the social contract.  But, when we want to understand those eternal questions, hey, it turns out that your story is as good--or bad--as mine.

I will continue to wander the virtual book-stacks and contemplate on that big question: Who am I?  I know well that I will never find the answer.  But, the fun is in thinking through the question; it is not really about the answer.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Hey, how old are you?

For the most part, I go about the world as if I am an eighty-year old, grumbling about everybody, and complaining that the world has gone to dogs.  Field Marshal Grouch I am!

But then, I also behave like a eight-year old when I crack awful puns--and laugh at my jokes even before anybody else has had the time to think about how awful the jokes are.

So, what is my real age then, right?
How old we feel—our subjective age—can influence how we age. Where age is concerned, the pages torn off a calendar do not tell the whole story.
First, the author of the essay, from where I excerpted those two sentences, has a name that is easily recognizable as a distinctly Tamil name--for those of us from that part of the old country.  Anil Ananthaswamy.  So, of course, I had to check that first:
He studied electronics and electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, India, and the University of Washington, Seattle, and trained as a journalist at the University of California, Santa Cruz
He is now a journalist/science writer, operating from Bangalore and Berkeley!  I suppose there are quite a few of us who mistakenly wandered into engineering programs!

So, back to the aging issue. "Where age is concerned, the pages torn off a calendar do not tell the whole story."
People’s perception of their own age can differ markedly from person to person. People between the ages of 40 and 80, for example, tend to think they are younger. People who are 60 may say that they feel like they are 50 or 55, or sometimes even 45. Rarely will they say they feel older. However, people in their 20s often perceive their age to be the same as their chronological age, and may say they feel somewhat older.
Ananthaswamy's essay has plenty of science--from epigenetics to mindful meditation to chromosomes, all of which are way, way beyond my technical abilities.  But, the overall story-line is easy to understand for any critical thinking person: "our chronological age really is just a number."
“If people think that because they are getting older they cannot do things, or cut their social ties, or incorporate this negative view which limits their life, that can be really detrimental,” says Terracciano. “Fighting those negative attitudes, challenging yourself, keeping an open mind, being engaged socially, can absolutely have a positive impact.”
Yesterday, I was talking with a grandfather and his sixteen-year old granddaughter.  I told the girl that at 87, my father is older than her grandfather.  The grandfather said that his father died when he was 90 years old--he died as a result of a fall from the horse that he was riding.  "At 90, he was still riding a horse" he exclaimed.

The grandfather looked at me and said that I might live until a 110.  "That is such a long time," the granddaughter commented.  "What will you do for all those years?"

I laughed; I did not tell them about my hopes ;)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I mean, think about this!

One of my big problems is this: I can't figure out how to shut the thinking off.  Even worse, because I think about things a lot, I am always shocked that most people don't think.  So much so that I cannot even imagine what not-thinking means!

I recall that when I was in high school, I read somewhere that if a person spent even ten minutes a day thinking, well, the world decided that the person was a philosopher.  That was back then.  Before the web, before Instagram, before trump.  Now, it has gotten worse;  "we live in a culture of thoughtlessness":
The American Time Use Survey found that although 95 per cent of respondents said that they did at least one leisure activity during the previous 24 hours, 84 per cent had spent no time at all relaxing or thinking.
If people are so thoughtless, I suppose we can retire the old saying, "a penny for your thoughts" ;)

So, what if we forced people to think?
A recent study by psychologists at the University of Virginia asked subjects to simply sit in a room and ‘just think’ for 6 to 15 minutes.
Sounds like a great idea to me.  Of course, students are forced to sit in my classrooms for much more than that.  I wonder now how the test subjects reacted.
In the room was a button allowing subjects to electrocute themselves if they wanted.
You can already see where this is going, right?   Will they prefer to sit quietly and think, or will they instead prefer to shock themselves?
The researchers found that the majority of subjects would rather electrocute themselves than just sit quietly and think. One person electrocuted himself 190 times during this short period.

These days, you rarely see humans pondering about something when they are in the public.  It is almost as if we have become afraid of being left to our own selves.
The vast army of electronic devices surrounding us has proven an able ally to our fear of thinking. Only a decade or two ago, everyday life held many small parcels of time in which we would be marooned with our thoughts: queuing, sitting on public transport, idling in a traffic jam, or even just waiting for a friend. Today, the first thing people do when faced with a moment of downtime is to reach for their smartphone. A study by the market research agency Harris Interactive in 2013 found that we use our smartphones when walking down the street, watching films, or while in places of religious worship; 12 per cent admitted to using their phone while taking a shower; 9 per cent had checked their smartphone during sex.
What are they checking their smartphones for when having sex?  Maybe checking the work email when having sex is a turn on for them, eh!

When stopped at traffic intersections, I rarely see drivers these days who are looking up and ahead.  Instead, it is all about the smartphone, as if in that 45 seconds some earth-shattering decision will have to be made by these drivers!

I, on the other hand, need to get out of my head, and live a little! ;)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Do unto others ...

Over the years, I have read plenty of trashy, potboiler, fiction.  I have also read a number of serious works of literature. The past few summers even included syllabi that I carefully constructed (FYI: The 2016, and 2015 lists)

Over the years, the potboiler fiction and cheap movies have pretty much disappeared from my radar.  As I have often remarked in this blog, reading great works of literature, and watching movies that are about the human condition, help me with trying to understand the "other," which is pretty much everybody other than me.  In the process, I begin to understand myself too.

I have also blogged often that my intuitive, personal-observation-based, view is that despite the fact that we are more educated than ever before, we are reading less of literature. I routinely poll  students in my classes about a few classics that I expect to appeal to young readers in particular (like Fahrenheit 451) and the response is always discouraging.  For that matter, even my faculty colleagues seem to be unfamiliar and uninterested in some of the great works.  Yet,  these very faculty can be all high and mighty defending the value of the humanities.  WTF, right?
Many humanists have difficulty in presenting their case because they are used to speaking one way among themselves and another way to outsiders. To the public at large, they still make statements about the value of great books, of the noblest things said by the most brilliant minds and of the need to know the Western heritage. Among themselves, such talk is, at best, hopelessly dated. Perhaps one reason literary scholars make an unconvincing case to outsiders is that they do not believe it themselves.
Students often come to college without having any grasp of what reading great works entails. Their AP and other exams test knowledge of facts about literature, not actually understanding it. Classes teach them to hunt for symbols, to judge writers according to current values, or to treat masterpieces as mere documents of their times. The first method makes reading into a form of puzzle solving, the second allows us to compliment ourselves on our advanced views, and the third misses the point that great literature speaks outside the context of its origin. Tolstoy is not great because he tells us about czarist Russia or the Napoleonic wars.
How unfortunate!
Here’s an alternative approach: Why not approach great literature as a source of wisdom that cannot be obtained, or obtained so well, elsewhere?
Exactly!  This is exactly what I have been talking about, and practicing, for years now.
And great writers present ethical questions with a richness and depth that make other treatments look schematic and simplistic.Moreover, great literature, experienced and taught the right way, involves practice in empathy. When we read a great novel, we identify with the heroine. We put ourselves in her place, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become our bad choices. Even when we do not like her, we may wince, suffer, put the book down for a while. The process of identification, feeling and examination of feeling may happen not just once but, in the course of a long novel, thousands of times. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as this constant practice in ethical thought or that direct sensation, felt over and over again, of being in the other person’s place.
The most important lesson novels teach is not a fact or a message but the skill of empathy and of seeing the world from other points of view. Practiced often enough, that skill can become a habit.
Seriously, isn't it tragic that these are not self-evident, and that the president of Northwestern University and his faculty colleague there have to write a commentary to remind higher education professionals about these?

Empathy does not come easily to us.  We need to learn about it, and experience it over and over.  We learn and experience empathy through the profound works of literature.  I still remember feeling devastated after reading A farewell to arms.  As I noted in a post:
Felt so empty inside when it ended that I had to wait out a couple of days before blogging this.
Hemingway simply sucked everything out of me with the anti-war story where the American protagonist signs up to serve in the medical corps of the Italian army in order to fight the good war, ends up deserting that only to have the military come after him because of his AWOL status as an officer, flees to neutral Switzerland with his British "wife" who is pregnant ... and then Hemingway lets the wife die after a difficult birth of a stillborn child. That is simply too cruel!
Empathy, dear reader, for this fictional character leads to empathy for the real ones in the real world.
What could be more important, for ethical and social understanding, than the ability to grasp what it is like to be someone from a different culture, period, social class, gender, religion or personality type? And one learns why even those broad categories won’t do, because one senses what it is like to be a particular other person. And that, too, is an important lesson: no one experiences the world in quite the same way as anyone else.
If we could more easily put ourselves in the position of others and put on a set of glasses to see the world in their way, we might very well, when those glasses are off, still not share their beliefs. But we will at least understand people better, negotiate with them more effectively, or guess what measures are likely to work. Just as important, we will have enlarged our sense of what it is to be human. No longer imprisoned in our own culture and moment, or mistaking our local and current values for only possible ones, we will recognize our beliefs as one of many possibilities -- not as something inevitable, but as a choice.


Monday, June 12, 2017

On immigrants and refugees in trumpistan

Soon it will be the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  But then, every day has seemed long like the longest day ever since the disastrous November election.

The president campaigned on various hateful themes, including putting an end to Muslim refugees and to undocumented immigrants. Those themes, and more, won him the few votes that made all the difference in states like Pennsylvania where Hillary Clinton got 2,926,441 votes versus 2,970,733 for trump.  A difference of 44,292 votes.  Clinton's share was 47,46% of the votes cast, and trump's was 48.18%  The winner-take-all electoral votes went to trump.

How are things in trumpistan?
Immigration law is being enforced more aggressively. Out in rural Pennsylvania, in a county Donald Trump carried with 66% of the vote, this is already having a devastating effect on the economy and culture.
That is from an uber-left publication?  Nope; it is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal!
Beautiful as it is, York Springs is the sort of place people leave after they finish high school. When I moved here in 2012, real estate was cheap and abandoned houses dotted the back roads. The town was aging and dying, though Mexican newcomers were already bringing green shoots. Over the past five years I’ve seen a steady renewal. Townspeople have fixed up many old houses and are raising families.
There has been a little tension, but York Springs in recent years has developed a vibrant, intersectional culture, insofar as that’s possible in such a sparsely populated place.
And then the elections happened.
This stringent enforcement of immigration law is destroying a rich, new rural culture. It’s likely to destroy the economy, too. The orchards generate over $500 million a year, and, one way or another, most of the jobs. But the local growers, many of whom have been operating the family orchards for generations, worry they won’t have enough manpower this fall to harvest the crop.
Sure, a lot of the white folk out here voted for Mr. Trump. Even then, many of them had reservations specifically about his immigration stance. I heard them expressed by Trump supporters in line to vote at the Latimore Township building. Now as we spiral into a local depression that is personal, cultural and economic, a lot of them are going to regret voting for him anyway.
An hour away from York Springs is Lancaster, deep in the Amish country.  This area too was won by trump.  What I didn't know until today is this, which I came across in my Twitter feed:
The ever doubting me did a quick Google search.  It is true.  Like in this news report from a couple of months ago:
Here in Lancaster County, a politically conservative area well known for its Amish community, traditional Christian values run deep. Since the Church World Service opened a Lancaster office 30 years ago, it has been a favored destination for resettling refugees because churches here easily assemble welcome teams whose members see it as a godly duty to care for those in need.
In the last fiscal year, Lancaster County resettled more than 400 refugees from all over the world, with the largest numbers coming from the Congo and Syria.
For once, I hope that the white supremacist British bastard, aka Churchill, was correct when he said that Americans will do the right thing after they exhaust all other possibilities.  After electing trump, there is nothing worse that we can do.  Here is to hoping that better days are ahead.

But, of course, hope alone won't change the world.  So, I did the next best thing that I could: I donated.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The crisis of scientific authority

When I was a kid, and even into my teenage years, the larger ethos was one of unquestioning acceptance of scientific expertise and authority.  Even back then, jokes were in plenty about accountants fudging numbers or lawyers enabling cheaters. But, scientists and science were nothing to be joked about.

What a difference over the years!

Now, whether it is in India or in the US, the public--even the college educated--seems to pick and choose whatever appeals to them as scientific, while denying whatever they disagree with as unsettled science:
One common story is that this conflict is a societal one, between factions with sharply divergent affinities for science—left versus right, secular versus religious, technocratic versus traditionalist. But there is little stability as to which side proclaims itself pro-science and which the bold challenger to an ideologically exhausted establishment. The capitalist conservative who is skeptical about climate change may have no trouble tarring his environmentalist foes as anti-science for opposing nuclear power. The coastal bobo who sees creationism in Texas classrooms as a harbinger of a new Dark Age may be contributing to keeping childhood vaccination rates in his city below those of Third World countries, owing to beliefs the Texas parent regards as voodoo.
I have blogged in plenty on this (like here or here.)  Many of those continue on without any resolution of sorts.

Consider, for instance, James Hansen.  The American Association of Geographers recently honored Hansen, "known for his climate research and his Congressional testimony on climate change that raised awareness of global warming" as "the 2017 AAG Honorary Geographer."  At the annual meeting, Hansen "Hansen addressed a packed house and talked about climate change."

Caption at the source:
James Hansen received the Honorary Geographer Award.
There is a good chance that a good number of the members of the association, perhaps even a majority, would sharply criticize Hansen--even the extent of practically discrediting him--because of his take on nuclear energy.  Hansen writes in a recent Scientific American commentary:
study after study finds that keeping existing nuclear plants—our largest and most reliable source of clean energy—operating is one of the most important and cost-effective ways to prevent carbon emissions from increasing.
So, here is James Hansen the celebrated NASA climate scientist arguing in favor of nuclear power plants.  Will we accept Hansen's expertise and authority on his bottom-line on nuclear energy?

Hansen even frames nuclear energy against the renewables:
But another reason for nuclear’s woes is that it is excluded from most state and federal subsidies for clean energy, which is why solar and wind have boomed during a time of low natural gas prices.
A recent study by the nonpartisan federal Congressional Budget Office found that renewables received 114 times more than nuclear per unit electricity in 2016, and similarly high amounts since 2005.
And over 30 states, including those whose governors criticized Trump, have clean energy mandates that exclude nuclear.

A few days ago, when a student asked me--in a different context--what my concerns are, I told her that what worries me most is that we do not have honest conversations on various public policy issues.  We engage in all kinds of shenanigans.  I told her that politicians lying and cheating and distorting the truth is not new.  But, when even within university campuses when we refuse to engage in honest conversations, well, it is game over.

Whether it is about nuclear energy or vaccines or GMO, "These are not only political but also philosophical, even metaphysical, disputes far larger than the particular question":
 It seems that what are required are pluralisms not only of norms, interests, psychological orientations, and scientific views of nature, but, much more crucially, an understanding that each of these is intertwined with the other. I am suggesting, in other words, that some revival of the classical understanding of science as natural philosophy is urgently required if we are to extricate ourselves from our current morass. There is little hope that our scientific debates will become coherent so long as we labor under the illusion that our stances can be cleanly partitioned up, made other than the wholes they are.
Of course, I agree with that bottom-line of "science as natural philosophy."  But then, ahem, nobody listens to me! ;)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Smart fools and confident idiots

Way back in November 2014, well before trump even announced his candidacy, I blogged about a Cornell professor's research on "confident idiots":
What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.
As much as this alone goes a long way towards explaining trump and his enablers, in the big picture and in specifics like coal, this post is not about those assholes.

We are quite a few people, other than those assholes, who should be able to do something, right?  Furthermore, with a claim to the intellectual and cultural high ground--which is why trump constantly snarls at us "elites"--we should be able to do better, right?

Not only do we lack the ability, we are further contributing to the education of young people who will lack the ability to make the world a better place:
Our overemphasis on narrow academic skills—the kinds that get you high grades in school—can be a bad thing for several reasons. You end up with people who are good at taking tests and fiddling with phones and computers, and those are good skills but they are not tantamount to the skills we need to make the world a better place.
My high scores and ability to do math and science did not impress me one bit.  I was not sure how I could make the world a better place through that route.  I quit engineering--mentally even during my final year of high school itself, and for good when I came to the US for graduate studies--with a hope that I would get on to the path that would help me become a better person and also help the world a tiiiiiiiiny bit better.

A few terms ago, a student--Bill--remarked something similar when he argued that, for instance, scientists and technologists working in various government and university research that was aimed at destruction to life and property are not engaged in any value-neutral effort.  His hypothesis was that maybe these experts were not asking themselves whether they were using their smarts to make the world a better place.  "I wonder if they take courses in the humanities" he asked.

The older I get, the more I am discouraged by expertise that is devoid of an understanding of humanity.  I care less and less about the SAT and GRE scores and fancy degrees, if the person cannot seem to understand and empathize with the human condition.
What I argue is that intelligence that’s not modulated and moderated by creativity, common sense and wisdom is not such a positive thing to have. What it leads to is people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense. We may not just be selecting the wrong people, we may be developing an incomplete set of skills—and we need to look at things that will make the world a better place.
I am not sure about the "other people’s expense"; otherwise, I am in agreement there.
You know, it’s easy to think of smart people but it’s really hard to think of wise people. I think a reason is that we don’t try to develop wisdom in our schools. And we don’t test for it, so there’s no incentive for schools to pay attention.
And we now have a president who is the antithesis of wisdom!
Not only do we not encourage creativity, common sense and wisdom, I think a lot of us don’t even value them anymore.
Therein lies the problem--a lot of us don't even care about these anymore.  We have met the enemy and ... it is us :(

Friday, June 09, 2017

We can't rewind, we've gone too far

It has been a few days since the president theatrically announced that he is pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate change.  I cannot even begin to understand his (ill)logic!

I am increasingly reminded of my younger days in the old country, when politicians would simply lie through their teeth and say whatever they needed to say in order to get the votes.  As a tween and as a teenager, I would read Thuklak and laugh at the idiot politicians, but fully aware that I--like most others--was being screwed.

It is one thing when a local DMK or an ADMK thalaivar entertains the crowd in the nearby maidan with his lies, but it is another when it is the president of the US--words have global implications in trump's case.

If trump wants to continue believing that coal will come back, whatever happened to the brains of the rest of the GOP leaders?  Are they all zombies now?

Here in the real world, the data and the trends have been so clear for so long:
The coal-mining jobs that President Trump thinks were destroyed by government regulation — adopted to combat air pollution and global warming — were actually lost to old-fashioned competition from other American firms and workers. Eastern coal mines lost market share to Western coal, which was cheaper. And natural gas grew at coal’s expense because it had low costs and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s the conclusion of a new study by economist Charles Kolstad of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research ...
Government isn’t killing the coal industry. “Progress is the culprit,” concludes Kolstad’s study.
How much more clearer and simpler should this message be for the GOP idiots to understand?

Technological progress happens.  And we are thankful for it.  Well, unless your livelihood depended on, say, renting video tapes of movies!  Without the technological progress, trump would not have Twitter, and he would, not have become president either back when coal was king!

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Foreigners for five-stars ...

A couple of days ago, I read this short story in the New Yorker.   It felt so real.  I could easily picture in my mind the characters portrayed there, and their circumstances and emotions.

I then read the interview with the author, Sherman Alexie.  He says:
This story began as a reaction to the Trump election, in general. But, in particular, I was angry that I could be thought of as being part of the “liberal élite.” Even inside the literary world, I did not follow an élite path. I am a poor, public-school kid who got lucky. The only non-minimum-wage job I’ve ever had is writing. And writing is a minimum-wage job for most writers. So, yeah, I grew up in poverty and worked as a doughnut maker, pizza man, dishwasher, secretary, and janitor.
We are all a bunch of angry people now expressing, in our own ways, our extreme displeasure with this president and his 63 million voters.  I rant in my blog, post on Facebook, and tweet, while Alexie channels his emotions via fiction.  I suppose there is nothing new in that fiction is often borne out of real life experiences; but, to understand it unfolding in real time is pretty darn new to me.
I wanted to honor the physical, emotional, and spiritual strength of a blue-collar worker—of a woman in the service industry. I also wanted to write about a poor white person who, contrary to societal assumptions, is a kind and empathetic person. I grew up with tons of poor white Christian conservatives, but I also knew, and know, a few poor white liberals. So, yeah, I enjoy being the Native American writing favorably about poor white liberals in the pages of The New Yorker.
I don't want to write about the story itself, other than remarking that it is about a maid in one of those cheap motels.  Those cheap motels, too, have a hard time with finding workers who will clean the rooms.  In addition to the wage, there is an important reason for why there is this problem: It is hard, menial work.

On top of this being hard and menial, add a layer of seasonality.  Of course, Americans are not lining up to do that work.  Which is why even trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla, hires foreigners to do the job.  Remember this post?

So, now we have a trump administration that is clamping tight the importing of workers.  And it is beginning to affect even the five-star hotels in resort destinations like Mackinac Island:
So at the Iroquois Hotel, a Victorian property on the waterfront where rooms command up to $1,200 a night, the owner is trying to figure out how to maintain its high standards without 30 Jamaican housekeepers. Other hotels are contemplating closing off whole sections. Even those who own the ubiquitous horses are wondering if they will have enough workers.
You remember that in my previous post on these visas, I referred to my experiences in Alaska?  Yes, problems there too: Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, says that a “short-term fix is urgently needed.”  Good luck on that, Senator!

All kinds of businesses, from Alaska to Maine to Texas, are now feeling the trump squeeze on the seasonal labor H2 visa.
Phil Harrington, the sous chef at Yankee Rebel Tavern, has been coming in at noon instead of 3 p.m. to make sure preparations are complete before dinner guests arrive.
“With the shortage of visas, it’s more stress on me and others who have to work longer hours to do more of the grunt work,” he said while chopping herbs, a task usually relegated to foreign workers. Patti Ann Moskwa, the owner and a fourth-generation restaurateur, has been washing dishes herself.
“This is a legal program to supplement American workers,” she said of the visas. “We aren’t taking jobs from anybody.”
I wonder how many of the people complaining voted for trump, who is the very source of the problem. I am sure that trump's Mar-a-Lago is able to get the visas it needs for its temporary workers.  And, I am equally sure that his 63 million voters don't care a shit!

Too bad I don't know how to channel into fiction my anger at trump and his voters!

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Wait for ... 200 years!

Even as I read the tweet that linked to an essay, I knew that I would tweet about that myself.  Which I then did.
As an atheist, I am always amused when the religious folks make fun of "cults."  The other day, a born-again Christian neighbor was having jokes at the expense of Adventists.  Believers of practically every kind routinely make fun of Scientologists.  To me, ahem, I wish I could make fun of the older established cults of all kinds.

Which is also one of the reasons I liked Harari's description that I blogged about a month ago:
 What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).
A cult makes up bizarre rules to play the game as much as any religion has bizarre rules.
The historian J Gordon Melton of Baylor University in Texas says that the word ‘cult’ is meaningless: it merely assumes a normative framework that legitimises some exertions of religious power – those associated with mainstream organisations – while condemning others. Groups that have approved, ‘orthodox’ beliefs are considered legitimate, while groups whose interpretation of a sacred text differs from established norms are delegitimised on that basis alone. Such definitions also depend on who is doing the defining.
It is a power play.
Of course, the uncomfortable truth here is that even true church (large, established, tradition-claiming church) and cult aren’t so far apart – at least when it comes to counting up red flags. The presence of a charismatic leader? What was John Calvin? (Heck, what was Jesus Christ?) A tradition of secrecy around specialised texts or practices divulged only to select initiates? Just look at the practitioners of the Eleusinian mysteries in Ancient Greece, or contemporary mystics in a variety of spiritual traditions, from the Jewish Kabbalah to the Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition. Isolated living on a compound? Consider contemporary convents or monasteries. A financial obligation? Christianity, Judaism and Islam all promote regular tithing back into the religious community. A toxic relationship of abuse between spiritual leaders and their flock? The instances are too numerous and obvious to list.
If we refuse any neat separation between cult and religion, aren’t we therefore obligated to condemn both?
I have no hassles condemning both )

One of the earliest benefits of my decision to bolt out of India came in the form of my friendship with Shahab.  It was from listening to his personal, family, stories, and about their fleeing the Ayatollahized Iran, that I came to know about the religion that they had traditionally practiced--in secret for the most part--for centuries: Mithraism.

The way he broached that topic I remember all too well--because he was terribly disappointed that I had never even heard of Mithraism.  I hadn't.  Why do I bring up Mithraism in this context?  Because, back when the religion of Jesus was a new thing in Rome, Mithraism was rapidly spreading among Romans.  Christianity was a new cult, and Mithraism was an older cult.  They were competing for followers.  Mithraism lost out.  Christianity grew from a cult to a religion.  As kings converted to this new religion, so did their subjects and the people in the conquered territories.
Cults don’t come out of nowhere; they fill a vacuum, for individuals and, as we’ve seen, for society at large. Even Christianity itself proliferated most widely as a result of a similar vacuum: the relative decline of state religious observance, and political hegemony, in the Roman Empire
In the US, we have plenty of new cults: professional football. golf, ... and we pay plenty of taxes to support these cults ;)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The answer is blowing in ... liberal education

It was nearing bed time, but I decided to check my news-feed anyway.  I am glad I did.

I spotted one that referred to Bob Dylan's Nobel lecture.

I pulled up the text that kept my attention focused as I listened to him with the jazzy piano in the background.  It was a delight, as he talked about things that were familiar to me, and to many that were alien to me.  Many that I had no idea about; like this:
John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words, "The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests."
Sestos? Abydos?

I suppose Dylan knew that there would be blokes like me listening.  Which is why adds there:
I don't know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.
Dylan then talked about Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.
I had principals and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally.
In grammar school? We don't do those books, or their equivalents, even in college level these days.  If the learning material is more than two screens of scrolling, well, forget it!

I love how Dylan talks about those classics.  Not merely his interpretations, which are wonderful by themselves.  But, more importantly, about how those classics provided him with "an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by."  Which is also what I often I blog about--how short-stories and full-length fiction help me understand the human condition, and how they give me a frame of reference.  And, yes, "either knowingly or unintentionally" those awesome works find their way into my own teaching and writing.

Instead of grounding ourselves on such a broad understanding, which is what liberal education is all about, we increasingly focus on the tricks of the trade.  We train programmers.  We train statisticians, lab technicians, graphic designers, ... We do not educate anymore, it seems.

Monday, June 05, 2017

What can one do?

trump knows which campaign promises to keep in order to make sure his base is happy.  So, of course, he pulled the US out of the Paris agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions in order to try to keep the world from roasting.

Der Spiegel notes in a lengthy editorial essay:
Trump's withdrawal is a catastrophe for the climate. The U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases -- behind China -- and is now no longer part of global efforts to put a stop to climate change. It's America against the rest of the world, along with Syria and Nicaragua, the only other countries that haven't signed the Paris deal.
But the effects on the geopolitical climate are likely to be just as catastrophic. Trump's speech provided only the most recent proof that discord between the U.S. and Europe is deeper now than at any time since the end of World War II.
Now, the Western community of values is standing in opposition to Donald Trump. The G-7 has become the G-6. The West is divided.
At this point, it seems like only a major volcanic eruption can cool the planet.  The downside to that eruption is, well, the the suddenness of it all will be catastrophic; be careful what you wish for!

So, what can one do on this World Environment Day, right?

Even if you are a New York billionaire--that other guy--there is not much you can do.
Unfortunately, private philanthropy is just not big enough to replace government funding. You can advocate. You can demonstrate.
As much as Bloomberg is putting his own money where his mouth is, we too can do things in our daily lives even as we continue to resist the maniac that 63 million people voted for.  Like, for instance, "You’re better off eating vegetables from Argentina than red meat from a local farm":
Eating local is lovely, but most carbon emissions involving food don’t come from transportation — they come from production, and the production of red meat and dairy is incredibly carbon-intensive.
And, yes, simplify your life:
It’s better not to consume the raw materials in the first place, so you may want to think carefully about whether you’re really going to use something before you buy it.
Oh, of course, continue to protest against the horrible human being and continue to shame the 63 million who voted for him.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Whose life is it anyway?

“If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?”
That is one tough question.

If I give consent to my own death, then I won't even be here after a while to find out what happened; after all, I will be dead!

On the other hand, when the person is "Sue Rodriguez, a 42-year-old suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S." it is not merely a theoretical thought experiment.

 The NIH fact-sheet on ALS is an awfully depressing read.  What a curse to be afflicted with that disease.  Which is why Rodriguez wanted to have a doctor-assisted-suicide. And it was in that Canadian legal battle in 1993 that she said, “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?”

The NY Times piece reports that she lost the case, which was taken up later by other patients and lawyers.  Now, this has become legal in Canada, and "the Canadian system puts doctors and nurse practitioners at its center."

The legal victory made possible 78-year old John Shields to schedule his death well into an incurable and terminal heart disease.  The report can be emotionally challenging to read; imagine then how intensely emotional it would be to watch a loved one die.  Right?

Here in Oregon, it is "20 years since Oregon voters passed the nation’s first death-with-dignity law."
Washington became the second state to adopt a death with dignity law, followed by Colorado, Vermont and the District of Columbia. Montana joined the list by court order. What may prove to be the turning point came in 2015, when the California Assembly approved a death with dignity law, tripling the number of Americans who can choose to end their lives on their own terms. More than 20 other states are now considering their own death-with-dignity laws.
Other states, including California, have patterned their laws on Oregon’s, which allows a patient with a terminal illness who is expected to die within six months or less to request life-ending prescription drugs. The request must be witnessed by two people and approved by two physicians, and the patient must be determined to be mentally sound. Last year, 204 people in Oregon requested the drugs and 133 people used them. That’s less than 0.5 percent of all deaths.
Of course, in Oregon (and in the other states too) patients have to self-administer the life-ending chemical cocktail.  Physicians are not allowed to press the syringe, unlike in the Canadian or Dutch euthanasia procedures.

The letters to the editor reflect the typical concerns and worries that we might have on this extremely difficult topic.  As one letter-writer notes there even when disagreeing with such an exit, "The growing discussion of dying well is a welcome and needed one."  Yes.

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