Sunday, December 02, 2018

The American Dream

Over the last two years, more friendships have ended than I would have ever imagined.  After thinking about it a lot, I finally wrote to two friends:
trump's election has severely jolted my view of America, and of the 63 million who voted for him. I am sad that our relationship has suffered as a result.
trump's politics of hate, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and lies are very different from everything that I cherish and dream about.  And, as a brown-skinned and  funny-accented immigrant who looks like an Arab from a shithole, these past two years I have even been worried about my personal safety.
I have always had friendly interactions across the political spectrum, except for the far-right and the far-left.  Two of the three grad school professors I worked with were practically libertarians.  Most of my grad school friends were well left of the political center.  I was always happy in a mixed crowd, and worried if I everybody around me thought and believed alike.

In the life after grad school, there were plenty of people I interacted with who were committed Republicans.  One group asked me to join their board after reading my op-eds, and I did.  Many of our board meetings were at the country club where the board president was a member, and I knew I was out of place there with my proletarian car and my left-of-center politics.  But, we worked together without any hassle.

trump has changed everything.  For worse.

It has been ten days since that email; no reply, which does not surprise me.  After all, how might one possibly argue with evidence that trump's politics is not about hate, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, lies, and more?

James Baldwin summarized it well for blokes like me who lack the kind of clarity and power of articulation that he had; he wrote:
Words like "freedom," "justice," "democracy" are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.
trump and his 63 million voters have been systematically working against freedom, justice, and democracy.  There is no respect for the "others."  Thus, for a guy who thinks that the cliched "forget and forgive" is all bullshit, terminating friendships naturally follows--with a great deal of sadness!

PS: See you in 2019, after a break from blogging.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The end of November means it is time to shave?

Not for me, of course!

If I shaved, I will look like this:


Yep, behind the furry mask hides a baby-face ;)

To those men who are thinking about shaving off the beard, well, a reminder that facial hair plays a significant role in a man’s love life:
women said the sexiest men were those sporting heavy stubble, followed by short stubble. Men with full beards and clean-shaven men were rated the lowest on the overall sexiness scale.
Mine is a well-trimmed full beard, which rates well among women choosing a long-term partner ;)
Men with heavy stubble and full beards were the clear winners on this question, suggesting that men who are ready to commit might do better if they shave less often.
So, what is going on?
Barnaby Dixson, a human behavioral ecologist at the University of Queensland and a co-author of the beard length study, has been researching mate preferences for a decade. He explains that both sexes judge men with beards as older and more masculine, and describe them as generous, sincere, industrious and self-confident.
You are perhaps thinking, "hey, don't be heteronormative."  Here's the response for you, too:
It’s not just women who prefer bearded alpha males — men also prefer men with facial hair.
Dr. Dixson and colleagues asked 1,577 men and women from Brazil and the Czech Republic about facial hair. Compared to heterosexual women, gay men had stronger preferences for men with more facial hair.
So, throw away that razor, men.  Get yourself a beard-trimmer, and have a great time!

But, what about men who cannot grow beards naturally?  SOL, as my students would say ;)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

What have I done?

Imagine a bunch of talented kids who are very good in math and science.  They go to college where they learn more about science, and delve deep into science.  They then begin to apply that science and assist in the development of products.

So far, so good, right?

Are you sure?

What if they are not developing products that help humanity, but hurt humanity?

Especially if they do this in democratic societies. Scientists and technologists being pressured by dictators is an entirely different topic.

So, in free societies, if these talented kids grow up and then voluntarily assist in the development of products that hurt humanity, then ... isn't there something wrong with this picture?

Yes, of course, plenty of people have thought about this, written about this, talked about this.  But, I am always at a loss imagining how individuals willingly choose to participate in something that they know will not be the best for humanity.

When I saw photographs of women and children also being tear gassed at the US-Mexico border, I couldn't stop wondering what makes people develop such tools. 

Source

And then the nerd in me wondered what tear gas is; the oracle that the internet is delivers right away: "they’re not gases; they’re powders that billow into the air as a fine mist."

I had no idea.  I thought they literally shot gas into the crowds!

So, what happens when one is on the receiving end?
Before the tearing, the choking and the pouring mucus, tear gas burns. It causes searing pain in the eyes, skin, lungs and mouth—or anywhere it touches. “It can be overwhelming and incapacitating. You can be forced to shut your eyes and cannot open them,” says Sven-Eric Jordt, an anesthesiologist at Duke University. And then comes the coughing and the nausea and the vomiting.
Now, think about this: These are not found naturally, but are manufactured by humans.  A bunch of talented nerds had nothing better to do than to create tear gas?

Tear gas agents activate one of two pain receptors, TRPA1 or TRPV1,
The first category, TRPA1-activating agents, includes the chemical called 2-chlorobenzalmalonitrile or CS gas. This is one of the agents used by U.S. law enforcement and, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson, is what CBP officers fired into crowds of men, women and children at the U.S. southern border on Sunday. “A lot of children fainted. My daughter also got hit. There were pregnant women there and a lot of older men, too,” a witness told the Washington Post on camera on Monday. 
It affects children a lot worse.  Why?
Children are particularly at a high risk for injuries from these agents, Jordt says, because they are so small. “They are shorter, and there are increased concentrations are near the ground. They also have a smaller body surface and lungs so the potential for injury is higher,” he says.
Apparently such a chemical ain't enough!
“More and more, there’s a higher-level version called CS2 or sometimes CX,” she says. “They [contain silicon] so that they can last longer in the environment and don’t disintegrate as quickly.” The result is a more harmful tear gas that can continue to affect an area for several days.
How awful!

Keep in mind the two pain receptors, TRPA1 or TRPV1.  Before we learn about the other one, anything else?
There are two other TRPA1-activating agents used for riot control: CR gas (dibenzoxazepine) and CN gas (chloroacetophenone, also used in bear spray). Both are more potent than CS gas, Jordt says.
Ok, can we move on to the other one?
There are two compounds in common use in this category: OC gas, a concentrated solution of natural capsaicin, and PAVA, a mix of synthetic capsaicin also used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “This has fewer chemical or allergic reactions, but it’s also an oil so it’s much harder to get off and can last longer,” Haar says. “It can also cause corneal abrasions if you’re shooting it directly into someone’s eyes.”
This is insane!  "Haar says that there are almost no scenarios where the use of tear gas makes sense for controlling crowds."

But, worryingly, this is perhaps the new normal :(

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The end of history

Nope, I am not referring to Francis Fukuyama's best seller from nearly three decades ago.  it is the end of History as a subject that we study that I am worried about now.

Back in the old country, if ever a 18-year old said that she was studying history, well, the immediate--and only--interpretation was that she was an academic weakling who could not get into anything better and so was stuck in the condemned majors like history.

Whatever history I have learnt about India or anything has been despite the virulent anti-history educational framework back there.  It has been quite a struggle to learn history on my own, to learn to write on my own, to appreciate poetry on my own, to read up on philosophy on my own, to appreciate the arts on my own ... This listing adds up to something, right?  That something is liberal education, dear reader!

Liberal education is under attack on all fronts, and all over the world.  In this attack, even history is rapidly bleeding students.  As I noted in my reply there, the story is not just about history, but about liberal education.  Apparently, we, too, want to become like China, where higher education is not about the dangerously subversive liberal education.

My, and our collective, failure in understanding history came about in a rather interesting way last night when we watched a Netflix show.  Yes, a show on Netflix.  It was about the history of the people in the present Americas and the Caribbean: John Leguizamo's Latin History for Morons

There were lots that I was already familiar with.  But plenty that I had no idea about.  Especially these two: The repatriation of Mexican-Americans when Hoover was the President, and the lynching of hundreds of Mexican-Americans.

This was a well-prepared one-man show.  I was, therefore, confident that he was not making things up.  How come I never knew about those two things, which are not trivial footnotes by any means?

Late into the night, I read up.  I was shocked.  Mitt Romney's comment during his presidential campaign that the undocumented should self-deport took on a new meaning.

This essay begins with an eerie comparison of the current President with Hoover:
It was a time of economic struggle, racial resentment and increasing xenophobia. Installed in the White House was a president who had never before held elected office. A moderately successful businessman, he promised American jobs for Americans—and made good on that promise by slashing immigration by nearly 90 percent.
He wore his hair parted down the middle, rather than elaborately piled on top, and his name was Herbert Hoover, not Donald Trump. But in the late 1920s and early 1930s, under the president’s watch, a wave of illegal and unconstitutional raids and deportations would alter the lives of as many as 1.8 million men, women and children—a threat that would seem to loom just as large in 2017 as it did back in 1929.
And that is just the beginning!

Now to understand the lynching of Mexican Americans.
Americans are largely unaware that Mexicans were frequently the targets of lynch mobs, from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century, second only to African-Americans in the scale and scope of the crimes.
I was one those unaware.  Not anymore.
From 1848 to 1928, mobs murdered thousands of Mexicans, though surviving records allowed us to clearly document only about 547 cases. These lynchings occurred not only in the southwestern states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, but also in states far from the border, like Nebraska and Wyoming. 
Who cares about history, right?  Close down all the history departments, and put an end to liberal education.  Teach students programming and be done!


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

What if you are not the object of dreams?

About the time that Dream Girl was released was also when I started looking at the world that eventually has brought me to where I am now.

No, I don't mean to suggest in any way that I owe my American life to Hema Malini; be patient and read on!

It was back in my early teenage years, which now seems like it was a previous birth, that I was, as a classmate described much later in life, "besotted" with a girl.  No, not with Hema Malini, dammit!  Why are you so obsessed with Hema Malini? ;)

My feelings were directed towards a smart and beautiful classmate of mine.

It was also about the same time that I started thinking about life in ways that made me question a number of different of things all around me.  Discussing love and life cemented my friendship with a classmate, who later became a wandering Indian in his one way.

One of the challenging questions that we could not understand was why we felt attracted to whoever it was.  And, therefore, the other side of the coin, as far as I was concerned: What if I were nothing but an ugly pile who could not, and would not, attract anyone?

Think about the old historical paintings and sculptures and stories.  Do the wealthy ever pay good money for paintings of unattractive people?  Wait, are there any old portraits of unattractive people?  Full disclosure: No artist or photographer as ever asked me to be a model! ;)

So obsessed we humans are that we make fun of the unattractive!  Like how American comedians routinely joked, and continue to joke, about British teeth.  If you have been to California and looked at all those beautiful men and women with their perfect teeth that are sparkling white, you know why the jokes are always about the Brits.

If all that was back then, the pressure is even worse now in the age of Instagram.

 Plenty of Indian women, and men too, vigorously scrub themselves with creams and lotions that are marketed to make them supposedly beautiful from their less attractive dark selves.  There are hair transplants for us bald and balding men because bald is ugly. We short people are ugly.

We ugly people are then forever trying to fit in, it seems like.

I have always wondered if whether it was  bunch of unattractive people like me, but fortunately endowed with thinking brains, who came up with platitudes like "beauty is skin deep" or "what's is inside is what really matters."  Keep in mind that the patron-saint for us ugly but thinking people--Socrates--was not handsome by any means ;)

Socrates, my man!


Monday, November 26, 2018

Without our traditions ...

As a kid, I always knew it was only a matter of time.  Time to graduate from wearing shorts at home to wearing veshti.  I do not recall when exactly that happened, but it did.

It worked well.  There was something special about it as long as it was clean and white.

When the veshti got dirty, however, there was no way to camouflage that.  Eventually the white became off-white, and then an inevitable yellowish-brown.  The attempts to whiten that and make it look new all over included dyeing it with Robin Blue and that always made it worse.

As the charm of the newness of wearing a veshti wore off, and into the teens, I suppose wearing a lungi was how we teenagers and young men rebelled within this traditional world.  A lungi, also called a kylee, was a horror to the traditional elders.  Disgusted they were with what they considered to be trashy and uncultured.

Which is why it came as quite some shock to me when I came across a photo of my grandfather's--he was wearing shorts in his adult life!

Grandfather during his undergraduate years at Varanasi (Benares)
in the early-1930s.  Notice his socks/stockings? ;)
Imagine that!  No dhoti but in a pair of shorts.

Veshti and kylee and kudumi stand out in a world that has become globalized.

In Neyveli, the town where I grew up, there were a couple of professionals who wore veshtis to work and even to clubs.  A favorite memory is of one gent, with the traditional kudumi rushing around town on his Lambretta.  And, even more surreal the imagery when he was at the bridge table in the smoke-filled cards room at Park Club--apparently he was sharp at bridge.

The older I get, the more I tire of the modern, especially when the world begins to look the same.  I suppose the old rebel in me wants to rebel against this "modernity."  But, don't gasp, dear reader, for I have no plans to wear a veshti to work, or anywhere for that matter ;)  The last I wore one was at my niece's wedding:


When I travel, men and women wearing clothes that reflect their respective cultures and traditions fascinate me.  When in India, I am impressed with the sight of half-sari wearing girls. Or, the women in their traditional outfits in Ecuador.

It will be a sad, sad day when the old traditions die out.  In the clash between the tradition and the "modern," rarely does a tradition survive.  But then we create new traditions as we become modern, which a future generation will slowly and systematically walk away from.

Traditions!


Sunday, November 25, 2018

Into each life some rain must fall

One has to be an Oregonian in order to appreciate the cartoon that rain, er, ran, in our paper:

Source

We had some showers after a long dry spell, with weather stats reminding us that rainfall has been barely a fifth of the normal.

I like the rains.  I often remark, "no rain, no green."  And without the green and the river, well, this will be southern California!

As I kept thinking about the rain, I remembered that way back in high school we studied a poem called "The Comforters."  As my daughter remarked more than once with annoyance, the nerd in me remembers such stuff that we studied decades ago.  Hey, that's the only skill I have--I don't know how to grow crops or change a car tire or even pound a nail!

Hopefully, too much rain is not falling in your life.  If there is something, may this poem ease your mind, in case you live in a place where there is no rain and wind to comfort you, and may you also find comfort in Ella Fitzgerald's song.


The Comforters
By Dora Sigerson Shorter

When I crept over the hill, broken with tears.
When I crouched down on the grass, dumb in despair,
I heard the soft croon of the wind bend to my ears,
I felt the light kiss of the wind touching my hair.

When I stood lone on the height my sorrow did speak,
As I went down the hill, I cried and I cried,
The soft little hands of the rain stroking my cheek,
The kind little feet of the rain ran by my side.

When I went to thy grave, broken with tears,
When I crouched down in the grass, dumb in despair,
I heard the sweet croon of the wind soft in my ears,
I felt the kind lips of the wind touching my hair.

When I stood lone by thy cross, sorrow did speak.
When I went down the long hill, I cried and I cried.
The soft little hands of the rain stroked my pale cheek,
The kind little feet of the rain ran by my side.   


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Today's California and yesterday's Bengal

One of the main reasons that I had a fascination for Calcutta was this: I had been exposed forever to "what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow." 

Though it was in the context of independence struggle to kick the bastards out of India, even after the country became free, it seemed like many of the leading intellectuals came from there.

And, of course, my commie teenage sentiments also favored the principled leftists like Jyoti Basu.

Throughout history, different regions have served as the leading lights, diffusing their ideas through other regions.  Here in the US, in recent years, it has been California.

To outsiders, California might come across as a liberal (as in left-of-center) state.  Which is not entirely true, if one pauses to think about it.  Two easy exhibits that everybody can relate two: Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.  But, there is more.

When I landed in Los Angeles, George Deukmejian was the governor.  He was a Republican.  Yep, a Republican governor, and for two terms.

His successor was also a Republican--Pete Wilson.  By the time Wilson ran for the office, I was well versed in California's and America's politics, and I hated the thought of him becoming governor because of his crazy ideas, and how he and the GOP were beating up on immigrants.  He successfully fueled an anti-immigrant hysteria.  The asshole continued to influence the political scene in the state, and helped another entertainer--Arnold Schwarzenegger--become another (perhaps the final ever) Republican governor.

What California thinks today, USA thinks tomorrow!
The epicenter of 2018’s version of conservatism, and of American Trumpism, isn’t Washington, DC. It’s California.
Breitbart News was founded in Los Angeles, and its headquarters remains in the city’s Brentwood Heights neighborhood. Its founder, Andrew Breitbart, who died in 2012, met former White House adviser Steve Bannon in LA. Ben Shapiro, whom Breitbart mentored and who worked at his eponymous publication, now runs his own conservative media empire, DailyWire.com, out of a nondescript office building in LA.
The Claremont Colleges, located on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, were the birthplace of intellectual Trumpism and the “Flight 93 Election” — an influential essay published in the Claremont Review of Books that stated that electing Trump was the only way to save the country. The author of that missive, Michael Anton, went to the University of California Berkeley and Claremont Graduate University, and then went on to work in the Trump White House, alongside White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, a native of Santa Monica, and Trumpist trade adviser Peter Navarro, who taught at the UC Irvine.
trump and his party are playing the California tunes from two decades ago.  Since then, California has moved on.  Its current demographics, economics, and politics, appear to be the key to the future.  Which means, if California continues to think today what the rest of the country will think tomorrow, well, the party of Reagan will die the same way that the party of Wilson has died in California.  And that is one hell of an awesome thing to celebrate! ;)

Friday, November 23, 2018

I could be wrong, ... but ...

To a large extent, I felt  smacked around into being intellectually humble when I started graduate school. I was amazed at how much had already been said and written about, and I became convinced that I had nothing to offer.  What the heck could I think about that the great minds had not already thought about?

I was an easy convert to "I don't know a damn thing!"

I became convinced, very easily, that my work would not be about uncovering anything dramatic.  No patent or copyrights.  My intellectual ego was quickly deflated.

In addition, I also became suspicious of people who came across as intellectually arrogant, as if they knew it all.  I started staying away from them.

When I started teaching, this understanding that we know very little is one that I have tried to get across to students without making that explicit all the time.  The subversive that I am, it has been mostly an implicit message.  Sometimes, through humor--like joking that the genius Einstein had no idea how to communicate in Tamil when even a three-year old kid in Tamil Nadu can do that ;)

Intellectual humility has always fascinated me.  I have even blogged about that here.  Like this one in 2012.  Or, like when I quoted MontaigneQue sais-je?

A couple of years ago, I decided to offer a seminar on this subject.  I titled the course as "Intellectual boldness through intellectual humility."  In that, I essentially channeled my philosophy on education and life--to admit that I don't know.  The key, however, is to rise beyond that "I don't know."

Had I known about Benjamin Franklin's approach, I would have adopted that too: "whenever he was about to make an argument, he would open with something along the lines of, “I could be wrong, but…”

I offered that seminar in 2016 and, therefore, had no idea about this systematic attempt to understand intellectual humility:
in 2016, professors from Pepperdine University broke the concept of intellectual humility down into four components and published an assessment to measure them:
  1. Having respect for other viewpoints
  2. Not being intellectually overconfident
  3. Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect
  4. Willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint
An intellectually humble person will score high on all of these counts.
I am not sure whether boasting that I will score highly on these will be intellectually humble ;)

The author notes that "certain activities generally correlate with higher intellectual humility across the board":
Traveling a lot — or, even better, living for extended periods in foreign cultures — tends to make us more willing to revise our viewpoints. After all, if we know that it is perfectly valid to live a different way than we do, it makes sense that our brains would be better at accepting new approaches to problems at work. This aligns with recent research on the neuroscience of how storytelling helps us build empathy for other people. (Read neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s HBR article on this fascinating subject here.) Fiction readers tend to score higher in intellectual humility, perhaps because their brains are a little bit better trained to seek out stories that vary from their own, and see characters’ experiences and opinions as potentially valid. Preliminary research is also showing us that practicing mindfulness meditation, learning about the ins and outs of your own ego using a framework like the Enneagram, and learning about Moral Foundations Theory through programs like Open Mind Platform can each help us operate with more intellectual humility.
Readers of this blog, or the rare person who has paid attention to my remarks in the classes, will notice that these activities are also the activities that I talk up and practice.

I cannot understand how one could be anything but intellectually humble.  But then, to use Franklin's wise words, I could be wrong ;)

Thursday, November 22, 2018

All alone in this vast universe that I cannot comprehend

My grandfather left his village (which my mother claims has always been a small town and never a village!) deep in the southern part of India to go study in Varanasi.

This was back in the early 1930s, in an India where most people hadn't even seen a light bulb and where outdoor dry toilets and manual scavenging were the norm.

After days of train journey, grandfather would reach his student quarters.  If he didn't send a telegram informing his parents about reaching Varanasi, he wrote a letter that would take days to reach his parents.  This was the practice through all the years of his undergraduate studies in metallurgy.

Two decades later, my father, an engineering graduate in a newly independent India,  decided that exciting industrial projects were beginning in places far, far away from his village (which was and is a village, he agrees) and went to join the dam construction projects, modeled after the US' TVA.

Typically, it was four to five days of travel time from the village till father reached his bachelor quarters.  Upon reaching, he penned a letter that typically took a week to reach grandma.

My father and grandfather did not even pause to think that these were nightmarish conditions.  After all, had they thought that way, they would not have ventured out at all to places far, far away from their homes.  Often alone by themselves, and in places where the language, foods, and almost every aspect of culture was different from what they were used to.

Yet, they did.

Now, we live in a world that is hyperconnected.  We Facebook where we are, what we eat, what we do, where we travel. We tweet where we are, what we eat, what we do, and where we travel. We Instagram where we are, what ... well, you get my point.

Loneliness is no longer a part of life anymore, it seems.  

Loneliness makes us think about life and our own place in this universe.  In the old country, those bent on this inquiry went into the forests so that they could be alone to contemplate about existence.  Of course, such meditation was in the contexts of god and prayers, but there was a conviction that loneliness helps.

If we are hyper-connected, then when do we have the time to think about our own existence?  After all, even when we are "alone", we are no longer alone, it seems.

There is something seriously wrong, don't you think, when all these decades of "progress" has only led us to how we are afraid to be alone because, if alone we might have to think about important questions like who we are and why we exist?

My grandfather and father used their alone time to reflect on life.  They read, listened to music, and communed with their gods.  This atheist believes that was a far better existence than the current way of being afraid of inquiring about the human condition itself.

Whether or not one believes in any god, surely there is more to life than posting a Facebook status update, right?!

Source: seriously, you can't recognize this as from the New Yorker? ;)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Off the top of my head ...

"Any Thanksgiving plans?" she asked as I sat down for a haircut.

Yep, we balding men also need haircuts every once in a while, even if nobody notices the difference between the pre- and post-haircut!

She was a new one.  I had not seen her before, leave alone getting my hair cut by her.  Her hair had a fluorescent color.  I am always impressed with the courage that people have to walk around with strange hair color.  I can't even bring myself to wearing trousers that are in colors other than the mainstream.  What a wuss I am!

It is not an easy question to answer.  For one, I don't know if she is for or against all the hype over Thanksgiving.  What if she has Native American blood and she detests the genocide of her people that resulted from the interactions with the white folk?  Or, if she has no family and events like Thanksgiving makes her depressed ... life for others is never the same as anything comparable to life as we might experience it.

"Oh, just a low key thing ... just by ourselves," I replied. 

Note that I gave nothing there.  Nothing about who is included in the "ourselves."  What "low key" meant.  Small talk can involve a whole lot of back-and-forth without saying any damn thing; something that took me a while to figure out, and which always baffles most visitors from other countries.

"Me too.  My sister and I go have a buffett at ..." I couldn't catch the name of the place that she mentioned.  But the details don't matter in such small talk.  It is, instead, all about the contextual  back-and-forth.

"Oh cool!"

"Yeah, I am a Native American, and I am not much into Thanksgiving."

I would never have guessed that she is Native American.  But, the intermixing means that even people looking white can have a good deal of native blood.

"My mother is from here.  She belongs to the ... tribe."  Again, I couldn't clearly hear the details.  "My father lives in the reservation in Oklahoma."

A simple haircut for a balding man.  The five minutes reveal a huge world behind the person cutting my hair.

"Drive safely.  Too many people rushing," she said as she dusted me off.

One of my many favorite topics this is--people rushing madly.  "I know, I have no idea where everybody is rushing to."

The haircut and the chat cost me ten dollars.  I added a two dollar tip.

"I appreciate you," she said.

A few minutes into the drive, the car ahead of me came to a complete halt.  An accident that had just happened, with smoke rushing out of the scene.  A damaged car smack in the middle of the road.  A dented car on one side, and another dented car on the other side.

After a couple of minutes of waiting, I, like other drivers, turned around towards alternate routes.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Hare Krishna!

I had no idea about Leonard Bernstein until I came to the US for graduate school.  I watched West Side Story on a rickety old television set, and was hooked.

Bernstein, whose centenary was this year, was a music giant, and a public intellectual and a social activist, who spoke up on important issues of the day.   A deep thinker he was, as much as he was a musician.  When artists like him, with their broad and deep knowledge, speak, society listens.  Even when they point out to the uncomfortable truths.

Back in the old country, TM Krishna continues with such a tradition of the public-intellectual-musician.  He is not new to this blog, of course.

As a musician, Krishna is one of the best; even my father, who after listening to the jambhavans of old the days rarely ever elevates any of the contemporary young artistes to the stratosphere, has a favorite story about how Krishna moved him to tears at a homage to Musiri.

As a public intellectual, Krishna is turning out to be equally accomplished.  From the other side of the world, it seems to me that Krishna's activism are about injustice, of which there is plenty in India.  The latest incident was no exception; he has pumped up his activism:
"Krishna sings, Krishna is heard", reports The Indian Express.  "A soiree on the art of politics," reports another outlet.
The political overtones of this musical soiree are surely difficult to miss. Ranged on one side are dogged opponents of the values and politics Krishna and AAP stand for. This fusion of politics and music – Carnatic music and north Indian politics – sends out a signal of the political direction that could take place in the days and months ahead. ...
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are just five months away. If the routine silence of the ruling BJP is a way of endorsing the intimidation and threats made by right-wing social media trolls, swift retaliatory tactics by its opponents are also a way of getting back at the party.
Critics telling Krishna to shut up and simply focus on his music are no different from the right-wing nutcases here in the US who tell football players to shut up and simply play ball.  Krishna is ballsy; a lesser man would have quit being an activist a long time ago.

Again, one can learn from Bernstein's life:
Bernstein was named in Red Channels, a publication from 1950 that targeted people in the entertainment industry who were suspected of having Communist affiliations. Since he was prominent, and a lot of people around him had leftist affiliations, the FBI paid attention to him. He kind of slid past the McCarthy hearings. Copland and Robbins were called to testify, but he was not. He lost his passport for a time in the 1950s, but that was it.
I am thankful that there have been, and are, people fighting these good fights.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Blue ketchup?

Like me, you too have surely seen kids reach for blue-colored drinks, right?  The blue colored Gatorade or one of those semi-frozen drinks from the convenience stores, ... And haven't you had kids come to you and extend their tongues out to show you the blue streaks there because they sucked on candies that were blue?

While you are not as regimented as I am, chances are that as adults you don't gravitate towards blue sweets, unlike kids.  Because, you and I are old!  Seriously, because back when we were kids, they didn't have blue sweets for us:
several decades ago, it was a truism in the food industry that you couldn’t sell blue foods, given their rarity in nature. Yet now, shelves bristle with “cool blue” Gatorades and “blue raspberry” Icees. Those associations, he says, were taught—and it helps when the flavor is novel, or indeed invented. Candy and beverages seem particularly amenable to color experimentation, suggests Delwiche. “They are like the evening wear of the food world—not what you wear to the office.” But strange colors have also crept into food marketed to children
Why do kids go for those strange colors?  Simple.  "Learned associations" are less rigid when we are kids.
There is little evidence that color-flavor relationships are hard-wired. We are all born liking sweet things, but we are not born knowing what sweet things look like.
Interesting, right?  We slowly program our brains to associate colors with tastes.  And, once programmed, well, no wonder those blue-crazy kids avoid the green veggies!
“The primary taste cortex is one of the first stops after the tongue,” says Spence. But “even activity there is modulated by your expectations.” Where the thinking used to be, notes Spence, that “all this information comes from outside through our eyes, ears, and tongue and works its way up through the cortical hierarchy, at each stage being condensed, it turns out that there are more pathways going from the inside out.”
The brain acts like a prediction engine: If bright red fruits usually taste sweeter, the next time you eat a fruit that looks bright red a top-down “back projection” might be, as Spence suggests, “constraining the activity earlier in the neural system closer to the outside, to your eye or tongue.”
I am tempted to bring into this discussion the old Hindu philosophical idea of maya. What you think you see is not real, and is an illusion ;)

Are you sure seeing is believing?  Do you really want to have your eyes tell you what you are eating and tasting? ;)

Source



Saturday, November 17, 2018

Getting older

I often punctuate my comments in the introductory course that I teach with statements like, "if, like me, you pause to think about all these, you will be amazed at how much everything has changed in a very short period of time."  It boggles my mind.  Based on these changes, I tell them that we have no idea what further changes await.

I don't think many people pause to think about all the changes.  They are so busy rushing around that they have no idea about it all.

As they rush around, people don't even realize that they have long lives ahead of them, for which they are unprepared.

A decade ago, researchers proclaimed that half of the babies born in wealthy countries in this new millennium will live to 100 years, or even more.  They will live through this entire century!

Most of the students in my introductory course are in this category.  Many of them, unless they get into some really bad habits, will perhaps celebrate the new year as the Big Apple descends on December 31, 2099.

I tell them to pause to think about these.  Of course, nobody listens to me!

Japan is already struggling with these changes.   Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, talks of “designing the 100-year-life society”.  Good luck with that!

To deal with the 100-year life society, Japan needs to "persuade current workers to labour longer, encourage more women to enter the workforce and let in more immigrants."  More immigrants because women there are having very few kids, which is rapidly escalating into an acute labor shortage: "Japan’s population is declining by almost 400,000 a year and there are a stunning 1.6 vacancies for every jobseeker."

If only we paused to think about what all these mean here in our own countries.  But, of course, we don't.  When was the last time you heard an American politician discussing such urgent and complex issues related to demographics and aging?
By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million (previously 76.4 million) under the age of 18



To deal with these changes will require the US also to "persuade current workers to labour longer, encourage more women to enter the workforce and let in more immigrants."  But, we already have high participation of women in the workforce, compared to Japan.  And we are forever increasing the age at which seniors can tap into the benefits.  And, of course, under trump, we are making sure that we won't let in more immigrants.

Iceberg alert.  Never mind; full steam ahead!

Friday, November 16, 2018

The is the point of this post

It wasn't until I came to the US for graduate school did I know that I was not using "the" when I had to, and was overusing it when I didn't need to.  It ain't easy to learn English as a second language!

It goes back to the Tamil language that was, as we used to say in the old country, my mother tongue.

Even with that usage--"mother tongue"--I recall this hilarious incident from my elementary school days.  Our math teacher--the maths master, as we said then--was a quirky, funny, old man.  Well, he seemed old to us when we were kids and, for all I know, perhaps he was the age I am now!  "PK Master" was how we referred to him.

PK Master would suddenly ask a student something interesting while seemingly looking at another.  And, at the same time tap yet another on the head with a long ruler that he always seemed to have in his hand.  We knew that we always had to be on the alert in his class.  Every once in a while, he would intentionally make a mistake in the problem he would have worked out on the blackboard in order to check whether we were merely copying things down or if we were thinking for ourselves.

One of our old classroom buildings

Where was I?  Yes, the mother tongue. So, one rainy day PK Master was walking around while we were trying to solve the problems he had assigned when he asked one of the girls, Madhulika, what her mother tongue was.

I bet she was petrified as much as any of us were whenever PK Master asked us anything; she blurted out, "it is pink."

It is funny as hell now.  But, if you had been in PK Master's class, you would have blurted out even worse things, I tell ya!

Anyway, English is a funny language to learn, with its rules that make no sense.  One of the rules that apparently I hadn't mastered was about "the."  When to use it and how to use it.

For instance, if one were to think in Tamil a statement "நான் லைப்ரரிக்கு போறேன் " and then translate that into English, the translation would be "I am going to library."  Note that the translation does not include "the."

We have to systematically learn to add "the" and say in English "I am going to the library."  Once we pick up such bad habits, well, it takes a lot of effort to unlearn the incorrect ways and learn the correct ones.  I wonder why the English teachers back in my school never pointed this out to me; can't blame them when there were forty kids in the class, eh!

As I started re-learning the English language as a graduate student, I spotted this craziness in all kinds of casual contexts too, not merely in grad school work.  One of the instances in which the "the" issue came up was about the Philippines.

My apartment-mate's father was working in the Philippines at that time--with the Asian Development Bank.  He was also a Tamil.  I noticed that the country was "the Philippines" when a bunch of us Tamil folks spoke in English. But, it was "Philippines" if we spoke in Tamil--there was no "the" there.

So, what is "the" deal with the Philippines?  Here is Wikipedia to "the" rescue:
The official name of the Philippines has changed several times in the course of its history. During the Philippine Revolution, the Malolos Congress proclaimed the establishment of the República Filipina or the Philippine Republic. From the period of the Spanish–American War (1898) and the Philippine–American War (1899–1902) until the Commonwealth period (1935–1946), American colonial authorities referred to the country as the Philippine Islands, a translation of the Spanish name.[25] Since the end of World War II, the official name of the country has been the Republic of the Philippines. Philippines has steadily gained currency as the common name since being the name used in Article VI of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, with or without the definite article.[35]
It is not because of the bizarre grammar rules in English, but all because of Spanish?  Oh the crap! ;)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

To find one's place in this beautiful world

When I was in high school, the old country was a long, long way from becoming the world's digital back office.  Even landline telephones were a luxury back then.  In that old India, professional opportunities were scarce and, thus, most kids who were academically smart were encouraged, pushed, and even shoved into engineering or medical colleges.

I didn't need teachers or parents to tell me that I had enough and more in me; every subject came easily to me, especially math and physics.

Though, there was one--and only occasion--when my father commented, indirectly, by drawing on the story of Hanuman.

In the Hindu mythology, as a child, Hanuman gets enamoured of the orange ball that the sun was in the sky and he takes off--as in flies--to grab the ball. And as a young one with way too much energy and immense superpowers, Hanuman plays too many pranks on the sages.  All these result in a curse that Hanuman would remember his powers only if and when he were reminded about them.

My father, perhaps respectful of my off-the-beaten-track ways towards education and life, suggested that I was capable of achieving a lot and that he was reminding me of that as much as Hanuman had to be reminded.

Without any real enthusiasm, I agreed to my classmate and neighbor, Kiran's suggestion that we could prepare together for the IIT entrance exams.  He was very keen on it.  I faked it as much as I could.  We split the cost of the test-prep tutorials that came in the mail.

He became one of the very few who knew well that I didn't care for IIT and that I didn't care for engineering either. 

One day he expressed his concern that we were splitting the cost but that I was not making use of the tutorials.  He suggested that he pick up the entire cost of the remaining tutorials.  Kiran was such a nice guy, even at that young age.  Of course, I did not let him repay me.

Decades later, an email or two after informing me about Kiran's tragic and fatal accident, his sister recalled, among other things, my anti-engineering sentiments that she had gathered from her brother and how I had stopped preparing altogether.  I can imagine that Kiran shared this with his family.

A friend who did rush to IIT with awesome achievements withdrew from that institution halfway through.  And he has withdrawn from the world too :(

I wonder why the elders, who should know better, don't advise their kids that there is a lot more to life than credentials from some elite institution. 

The world has gotten only more competitive and maniacal about "credentials" since my high school years.  In India and here in the US, and in the rest of the world too, students are finding it more and more difficult to understand who they are and what they might want to do with their lives, even as they rush towards the prestigious colleges.  The competition has become so intense that the elite of the elite colleges in the US have eye-popping rejection ratios.

Which is why the admission process at Harvard has come under such intense scrutiny.  Qualified students not getting admitted there complain against the affirmative action practices there.  Of course, any systematic discrimination is a bad practice; but, it does not seem like Harvard discriminated in that sense.  I can understand a 17- or an 18-year old thinking that "Harvard or bust" is the bottom-line.  But, seriously?

It is like with love and marriage.  My grandmothers always claimed, believed, that there is always a match for everyone--this was in the old traditions of "arranged marriage."  When it comes to colleges, too, "there is very likely a place in the best schools for you."  The key is not to worry about the "best school" but the idea of "for you."

Life is one long struggle to find our respective niche in this cosmos.  A struggle that begins at high school.  It is a never ending struggle, which is all the more why life is beautiful and exciting.

May you find a comfortable corner to enjoy it all!


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

I want to say one word to you. Just one word

You guessed that word: Plastics.

Fifty years after that famous scene, plastics are now only a tad more popular than trump!

What happened?

First, just because of the backlash against plastics, do not assume that they are unimportant.
You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that today’s cars and planes are, by volume, about 50% plastic. More clothing is made out of polyester and nylon, both plastics, than cotton or wool. Plastic is also used in minute quantities as an adhesive to seal the vast majority of the 60bn teabags used in Britain each year.
Add this to the more obvious expanse of toys, household bric-a-brac and consumer packaging, and the extent of plastic’s empire becomes clear. It is the colourful yet banal background material of modern life. Each year, the world produces around 340m tonnes of the stuff, enough to fill every skyscraper in New York City. Humankind has produced unfathomable quantities of plastic for decades, first passing the 100m tonne mark in the early 1990s. But for some reason it is only very recently that people have really begun to care.
What a revolution it was!  Once gadgets started appearing at home, plastic was everywhere.  In the "mixie" and the "grinder."  Women felt some relief, if not liberated, from their kitchen chores. Television. Phone.  Fridge. ...

Despite all that the plastics have done for us, we now hate plastic!
The United Nations has declared a “war” on single-use plastic. In Britain, Theresa May has called it a “scourge”, and committed the government to a 25-year plan that would phase out disposable packaging by 2042. India claimed it would do the same, but by 2022.
Yep, it is now a war on plastic!

An uncomfortable truth in this war?
To take on plastic is in some way to take on consumerism itself. It requires us to recognise just how radically our way of life has reshaped the planet in the span of a single lifetime, and ask whether it is too much.
Our consumer culture has been made possible by plastic.  Plastic is not the problem, but is a symptom.  Our consumerism is the real problem.

Is plastic the biggest issue?  Nope. I would claim that climate change is a way bigger threat.  So, why so much of attention on plastics?
unlike climate change, which seems vague, vast, and apocalyptic, plastic is smaller, more tangible, it is in your life right now. “The public doesn’t make these fine calculations – this is X times worse than that,” says Tom Burke, a former director of Friends of the Earth. “A moment crystallises and people see that other people feel the same way they do about an issue, then you get a push. People just want things fixed.” Or, as Christian Dunn, a fast-talking ecology lecturer from the University of Bangor, who has spent the past year helping to turn his hometown of Chester into one of Britain’s most anti-plastic cities, put it: “It’s something we can just get on with.”
The manner in which we people establish priorities is strange!

But, there is some good coming out of this war on plastic:
Our obsession with plastic has registered. In the much larger battle over climate change, the plastic backlash could end up being a small but energising victory, a model for future action.
This means facing up to how interconnected the problems are: to recognise that plastic isn’t just an isolated problem that we can banish from our lives, but simply the most visible product of our past half-century of rampant consumption. Despite the immensity of the challenge, when I spoke to Richard Thompson, the oceanographer who coined the term microplastic, he was upbeat. “At no time in the past 30 years have we had a convergence like this, with scientists, business, and government,” he said. “There’s a real chance to get this thing right.”
At least we can feel good about ourselves for launching this war.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Elections and consequences

Ever since Robert Mueller was assigned the task of investigating the Russian interference into the 2016 elections and the trump team's dealing with them, the President and his toadies have attacked Mueller.   Especially because the assignment included "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." 

trump and his toadies tried everything possible to undermine the investigation.  All in plain sight.  So worried that a few--a tiny few--Republican senators were that they, along with their Democratic counterparts in a committee voted to protect the investigation.

The Senate majority leader simply refused to take the bill to the Senate floor for all the senators to vote on.

What can one do then?

All the stalling and maneuvering by Republicans remind us this: We can have all the laws in the land, yes.  But, "the law is no protection," as George Orwell wrote.  It depends on the public opinion, he argued.

Meanwhile, that kind of a question was answered in the House, where the Republicans playing similar games have lost their majority.  In a few weeks, Democrats will get to decide what will be done.  Orwell's public opinion.

While Orwell wrote that in the context of freedom of speech, the thesis that it all depends on the public opinion is valid in every way.
The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.
The law by itself does not guarantee any damn thing, especially when the executive charged with carrying out those laws couldn't care about them.

As I wrote a few days ago, participating in the resistance in order to counter this President's propaganda to corrupt the public opinion has been simply exhausting.  I am not the only tired one, of course.  There are lots of others, including Charles Blow.  He reminds us that it is ok to rest a little:
Don’t beat yourself up if you need to tune out every now and then and take a mental health break. There is no shame in it. This is a forever fight.
Forever fight!

Looks like the public opinion is that we are ready for this forever fight. Bring it on!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Computers and efficiency: Here's my middle digit!

The curriculum proposal process at my university is now paperless and all electronic.  We upload documents, which are then routed through the process and the personnel ... all in the name of efficiency.

Is it really more efficient?

When it was time for me to submit proposals, I ran into dead ends, one after another.  And every time I had to email two people, who then spent time fixing the problems.

Another colleague wrote to me about his experience:
I was just about to email you that any frustration in my last email isn't directed one bit towards you but rather to this new "more efficient" process. What used to take me five minutes of behind the scenes paperwork will now take 30 mins of emailing and portal submission, plus waiting on the CC to meet etc. And that's going to be true for every dang term going forward. You and I both like reading articles about automation and the future of work, and this new process reminds me that just because a computer process can be programmed doesn't mean it's an improvement.
As if I needed more evidence that "digital" does not always mean more efficient.  I am all set to extend my middle digit to those who claim otherwise ;)

At least my work is not about life and death, which is the case in healthcare.  Atul Gawande writes about this in "Why Doctors Hate Their Computers."
Something’s gone terribly wrong. Doctors are among the most technology-avid people in society; computerization has simplified tasks in many industries. Yet somehow we’ve reached a point where people in the medical profession actively, viscerally, volubly hate their computers.
Welcome to the club, Dr. Gawande!
Questions that doctors had routinely skipped now stopped them short, with “field required” alerts. A simple request might now involve filling out a detailed form that took away precious minutes of time with patients.
Doesn't this sound similar to the experiences I described about the curriculum process at my university?

Gawande talked to others, like Susan Sadoughi, who is a primary care physician.  What was her experience?
Early on, she recognized that technology could contribute to streamlining care. She joined a committee overseeing updates of a home-built electronic-medical-record system we used to rely on, helping to customize it for the needs of her fellow primary-care physicians. When she got word of the new system, she was optimistic. Not any longer. She feels that it has made things worse for her and her patients. Before, Sadoughi almost never had to bring tasks home to finish. Now she routinely spends an hour or more on the computer after her children have gone to bed.
Efficiency,my ass!
The software “has created this massive monster of incomprehensibility,” she said, her voice rising. Before she even sets eyes upon a patient, she is already squeezed for time. And at each step along the way the complexity mounts.
“Ordering a mammogram used to be one click,” she said. “Now I spend three extra clicks to put in a diagnosis. When I do a Pap smear, I have eleven clicks. It’s ‘Oh, who did it?’ Why not, by default, think that I did it?” She was almost shouting now. “I’m the one putting the order in. Why is it asking me what date, if the patient is in the office today? When do you think this actually happened? It is incredible!”
Seriously, how and why do people so fervently believe that digital means more efficient?

Gawande reviews the research on computers and productivity and writes that "one of the strongest predictors of burnout was how much time an individual spent tied up doing computer documentation."

This is awful!  And we let this happen!
We can retune and streamline our systems, but we won’t find a magical sweet spot between competing imperatives. We can only insure that people always have the ability to turn away from their screens and see each other, colleague to colleague, clinician to patient, face to face.
Face to face, yes.

Recently, I met with a student who was trying to get transfer credits for a course he had completed elsewhere.  I told him to meet with the person in-charge.  "Email to set up the appointment, but discuss the issue in person," I advised.  He did.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

War is hell

Back in high school, one of the essays that we read was an excerpt from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.  It made an impression on me--enough that I am blogging about it forty years later!  The horrors of World War I and the anti-war sentiments in that essay appealed to the pacifist in me.

Much later in life, I read Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.  This too was set in the context of World War I.  And, a lot more emotional and moving anti-war statement it was, as I have blogged here.

Tomorrow--the 11th--will be the 100th anniversary of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month when fighting ended with an armistice.  The world has witnessed a lot more wars since that war to end all wars.

Hemingway channeled through his characters about the insanity of wars:
"There is nothing as bad as war. ... When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy.  There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them the war is made"
"I know it is bad but we must finish it."
"It doesn't finish.  There is no finish to a war."
"Yes there is."
Passini shook his head.
"War is not won by victory. ... We think. We read. We are not peasants.  We are mechanics.  But even the peasants know better than to believe in a war.  Everybody hates this war."
"There is a class that controls a country that is stupid and does not realize anything and never can. That is why we have this war."
"Also they make money out of it."
Catch 22 was another anti-war work, though it was set during a war that happened a half-century later, in a completely different geographic and political context.
... Outside the hospital the war was still going on.  Men went mad and were rewarded with medals.  All over the world, boys on very side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all he boys who were laying down their young lives.  There was no end in sight. The only end in sight was Yossarian's own ...
Here's to hoping that peace will soon prevail--well before the proverbial eleventh hour--in places like Yemen and Syria where wars have been ongoing for a few years now.


Friday, November 09, 2018

There is no business like ... the news business?

Our local newspaper is practically dead.  When I first came to town, it was one of those old-style large sheets, with plenty of local, national, and international news.  It was an excellent family-owned newspaper, just like the one that I was used to in my previous hometown.

The death of this newspaper has been swift.  It is now an unrecognizable shrunk version of its former self, with overlords from far away.  I have decided to let the subscription expire when Movember ends.

But, the news business itself has been highly profitable for those who have tapped into the zeitgeist.  Like the New York Times, for instance.  trump has made the NYT great again! "More than three million paid digital-only subscribers."
Perhaps more important to shareholders, the company reported that it continued to be profitable. Net income reached $24.9 million ... Operating profits, the company’s preferred measure, rose 30 percent to $41.4 million in the period.
Including this sucker!

The more trump pisses off the media, the more profitable these big time media companies get.  The more the media piss off trump, the more popular he gets with his base.  It is a twisted relationship that they have.
What worries me is the wider question of how Trump and the media interact.
When you watch the US morning shows - and evening shows come to that - what you notice is how things have changed.
Even those who were not originally taking sides are now nailing their colours to the mast. Fox and MSNBC have always played to their own bases. But now CNN, too, has editorialised its evening slot with Chris Cuomo - who gives us an essay, a comment piece, on whatever is getting him fired up.
It's a good watch actually. And makes you engaged.
But make no mistake - it's the same game that Trump is playing. The one they pretend to despise. If DJT can rally his base - then - goes the logic - why shouldn't TV do it too.
It works for viewing figures in the same way it works for electoral success. It works, in other words, for those who like their chambers echoed - but it's an odd place for news to sit.
So, is the US media doing its job?

I leave it to the critic-extraordinaire, Noam Chomsky, to answer that question:
It depends on what we think their job is. They are businesses, so by accepted standards their job is profit. By other standards, they have a duty to the public to provide “all the news that’s fit to print,” under a concept of “fitness” that is as free as possible from submission to power interests or other distorting factors. About this there is a great deal to say – I’ve devoted many words to the topic elsewhere, as have many others. But in today’s strange climate of Trumpian “alternative facts” and “false reality,” it is useful to recognize that with all their flaws, which are many, the mainstream media remain an indispensable source of information about the world.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

‘Je suis excité’ ... Non!

A visiting Pole was unusual in one way.  The same way that a visiting Czech was a while ago.  And a visiting Ukrainian too.

What was unusual about them?

They were quite extroverted.  And did not hide their excitement.  They even laughed loudly.

A contrast to the melancholic poker-face that I have come to expect from the population there.

I know, I know.  I am a guy whose smile does not get across to people.  But, this post is not about me, dammit! ;)

The Pole talked about his friend who immigrated to Australia, became a citizen there, and decided to return to Poland.  Why?  Because Australians were always too happy for him!

Americans are also way too upbeat all the time, he said.

I agreed with him.  But, chose to keep my critiques within.

And then later shared my dissenting views with M. "I would think that only white Americans will come across as upbeat all the time.  Similarly in Australia.  You think the indigenous people in Australia or Native Americans here will be that way?"

Once you take away from the discussion the white American and Australian population, I would think that the Americanisms of "Awesome!" and "I am so excited" rarely show up in other cultures, including the one in which I was raised.  Heck, even in France and in the French language.
“I think it's safe to say I express excitement often and outwardly,” said bilingual Australian Dr Gemma King, who teaches French language and cinema at the Australian National University in Canberra, noting that when she speaks French, it is another story entirely. “My students and I often joke that our cooler, calmer, more reticent sides come out when we're speaking French,” she said.
When speaking and thinking in French, even the Aussie excitement dies down ;)
“[The French] don't appreciate in conversation a kind of positive, sunny exuberance that's really typical of Americans and that we really value,” Barlow explained. “Verbally, ‘I'm so excited’ is sort of a smile in words. French people prefer to come across as kind of negative, by reflex.
My French husband agrees.
“If you’re too happy in French, we’re kind of wondering what’s wrong with you,” he said. “But in English, that’s not true.”
You see, I am the normal one when I come across as an unsmiling person!

So, is there a philosophy of life that all these distill to?
“You Americans,” he said, “live in the faire [to do]. The avoir [to have]. In France, we live in the être [to be].”
Oui!

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

On the road again ...

The Grand Old Party is becoming whiter, older, and racist by the day, and that demographic delivered a strong Senate for trump and the party.

They will soon start talking about the most important national security issue.

No, not North Korea.  Not Russia.

You know that other one.  The huge army that has been blitzkrieging its way to the southern border.

Yes, the "caravan."
On Tuesday, Vox’s Dara Lind reported that “[a]s soon as this week, the Trump administration is expected to issue a new asylum policy — ostensibly in response to the migrant ‘caravan’ — that could have the effect of barring people who enter the US between ports of entry from asylum.”
Because, hey, the manufactured brown-people crisis is the only thing that works for these 63 million racists.

It is not as if the migrants are having a jolly good hike through the territory:
The journey is gruelling and poses a number of challenges for those who decide to join the caravan. The hot weather means sunburn and dehydration are a constant risk.
The migrants have mainly been sleeping on the streets or in makeshift camps and there is a lack of clean water and sanitation. At times, food has been in short supply.
As the caravan has progressed, the towns they pass through have become more organised about providing shelter and food.
The racists have conveniently forgotten that this country was founded by people risking it all and fleeing their homelands in search of a better life and liberty. 

All they see is that the brown people are coming.  From shitholes.

The old, white, racists will ring the alarm bells soon.


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Life without sex can have its downsides

Do not let the title of this post allow your imagination to run wild.  You are on a slippery path, dear reader!

The sex that this post is about is not about humans or porn.  Ditch that thought.  But, wait, don't go away.  You can always watch porn later.  Read this post, which will do you good ;)
Sex is nearly ubiquitous, but it hasn’t been easy to explain its ubiquity. ...
While sex may be a bit of a mystery to us all, it has been the grand enigma of evolutionary biology for decades.

No, it is not about humans.  It is about bananas and corn.  No, I am not using them as metaphors but literally.
Of the important global crops, the banana is the most genetically uniform. A single cluster of nearly identical genotypes, the Cavendish subgroup, nearly monopolizes the world’s banana groves and banana trade. In contrast to the riotous rainbow of genetic diversity that lends sustainability to natural plant and animal populations, the world’s banana industry has the stability of an upside-down Egyptian pyramid balanced on its tip.
That fact leads to another superlative: The commercial banana is the world’s most endangered major crop. The future of the intercontinentally traded banana was once, and is again, precarious.
Talking about the precarious state of bananas is not new here.  But, in that post, I didn't go into the importance of sex.

What about sex and bananas?

Domesticated banana plants are self-copying machines.
With the emergence of the 20th century, the confluence of the Industrial Revolution with plantation agriculture led to the propagation of a single globally favored banana genet (descended from a single instance of sperm-egg fusion) for export from the tropics to waiting markets in the industrial north.
So, why would I want you to think about sex when eating a banana?
Because most important crops reproduce only by sexual seed, they cannot be clonally propagated. Not surprisingly, the genetic variation generated by sexual reproduction is an obstacle for many folks looking to deliver a better crop product. For the past quarter century, some plant biotechnologists have argued that future crops should follow the banana, dispensing with sex entirely. Specifically, they are titillated by the idea of varieties that replicate the maternal plant via reliably uniform, asexual, apomictic seed.3 One proposal is that the plant breeders would maintain sexually fertile lineages that, when crossed, would create apomictic offspring. A second approach would be to genetically engineer plants to be apomictic. The seeds produced by either method could be delivered to farmers, who benefit from the crop’s uniformity.
So, is it a good thing, or a bad thing, to dispense with sex entirely?

It depends.
The explanation for sex isn’t straightforward. Sex is a hassle. To reproduce without sex, an organism can dedicate a cell toward creating a new individual, pump it up with some resources, and eventually set its baby free. The organism that uses sex to reproduce has a greater challenge; it has to create gametes that have to find other gametes. The process of seeking or attracting those other gametes typically involves allocation of resources to special structures and, in the case of animals, allocation of resources and time to special behaviors.
Why not let technologists work it out in the lab?
The original Cavendish-resistant Panama disease culprit has now been named Race 1. Panama disease fungi have evolved; the Race 1 genotypes are being replaced by one known as Race 4, which first appeared in 1965. Cavendish has no resistance to Race 4. The evolutionarily new and improved Panama disease organism has wiped out thousands of Cavendish acres in Southeast Asia. Since then it has been identified in the Pacific, Australia, Africa, and the Middle East. Worse yet, in 2011 Cavendish bananas in India started succumbing to what appears to be a new genetic variant of Race 1. The bad news is that Cavendish is fully sexually sterile.
Sex might be a hassle, messy, and needing resources.  But, it is key to survival. 

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