Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Chewing the cud

During the discussion on the geographic aspects of agriculture and what the future might entail, one student wondered about a particular consequence of lab-grown beef.  "What will happen to all the cows then?  Will they simply die away?"

One other student brought a related point to the discussion: "Maybe it is because this is Oregon, but every other person seems to be a vegan or a vegetarian."  Which means a further lowering of demand for beef.

So, given the distinct possibility of industrially produced beef that will not be a result of killing cows, what would happen to those animals?

I have always believed that the instructor is not necessarily someone who has all the answers.  Nope. As an instructor, my goal is to provide the context for students to think and raise questions.  And, to a large extent, because I am a few steps ahead of them, and on a slightly higher ground, I have even seen and heard those questions before.

Those very questions are tackled by this philosopher, who reminds us that cows as we know them are not products of evolution:
Modern cattle owe their existence to selective breeding by human beings: they are very different animals from the wild oxen from which they are descended.
We created the cows.

We are now working on creating beef in the lab.

So, do we have any ethical obligation to make sure that cows will continue to exist, like how we work on protecting the pandas?

There is no correct answer here.  We can bring in our own sets of different values and reach different conclusions.  The important task here is to ask those questions.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The old man and the C

For years--all the way from my California days--I have been arguing in favor of vocational education in high school and against pushing young people into college.  I have written many op-eds about these issues.

I have also written quite a few op-eds, and blogged over and over, that "higher education" is not vocational education.  While college does involve preparing for the world of employment, it is a lot more than mere job-training.

I have failed, and failed miserably at that, to get anywhere with such ideas.

But, I continue along this path anyway because, well, stupid is as stupid does! ;)

Now that we are well into the term, students have started feeling the pain of college and classes like mine.  "It's all downhill from here till the end of the term," remarked a student in class yesterday, when I asked them about the lack of energy in the room.

It is not me.  Even the best of the teachers face the same issue.  In this interview, the libertarian-economist, Bryan Caplan, quotes  "Steven Pinker, the psychologist at Harvard, who regularly wins awards for his teaching" and says:
Yet he looks at his classroom a couple of weeks into the semester and sees that half the students aren’t there. How can it be that these are the best students in the world, with the best teacher, at arguably the best school in the world, and half the students don’t think it’s worth their while? And they’re getting a grade, so they actually have an extra reason to be there, and yet they’re not. The only thing you can say is that even the best teacher in the world is boring to these kids, compared to what else they could be doing. It’s sad and hard to face, but that’s the truth.
Even at Harvard, many of the brightest students find one of the brightest thinkers/teachers to be boring!  What are my prospects then, right?

Caplan has a new book out, in which he tears into higher education.  He says in the interview:
People who don’t like school rarely write essays about how terrible it was. Instead they just suffer in silence or complain to their friends, and then they go and get a practical job and we never hear their voices again. The whole conversation about education is really driven by people who did enjoy school and who work with students. Part of what I wanted to do is give a voice to the voiceless and say, "They may not talk about it, but they are suffering." It’s not a real mystery if you actually go to a classroom and look at the faces. Students are generally not happy. They’re bored.
Yep, which is also why I have blogged in plenty about how the current system of higher education is nothing but a ponzi scheme run by educators.

I firmly believe that we are rapidly approaching the point of a paradigm shift in the way we do college.  There are forces converging from many directions.  When that shift happens, I will lose my job.  And students will not be subject to my boring classes either. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Shitholes aren't natural. They were created

During my meeting with the dean, who too has personal connections to the old country, she remarked about how unknown the partition of India is to almost all the students on any American campus.  I wanted to add that the partition is unknown to most Americans of all ages--not only the students.

It is not a historical factoid that is at stake.  Nope. When they don't know about that important part of history, chances are overwhelming that they have no idea that three hundred years ago the Subcontinent was one of the richest places on the planet.  And, therefore, when the President refers to the shitholes of the world, there is a good chance that there is no understanding among most on how these shitholes came to be created by white supremacists.

Of course, there are plenty of modern day defenders of the old fashioned colonialism.  These apologists argue that the colonized browns "lacked the social and intellectual resources to transform themselves":
But the reality, at least in some of its colonies, was the opposite. Consider India. At the beginning of eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time Britain left India, it had dropped to less than 4 percent. “The reason was simple,” argues Shashi Tharoor in his book Inglorious Empire. “India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for two hundred years was financed by its depredations in India.” Britain, Tharoor argues, deliberately deindustrialized India, both through the physical destruction of workshops and machinery and the use of tariffs to promote British manufacture and strangle Indian industries.
And that is how shitholes were created by white supremacists!
It was not just India from which resources flowed back to Britain, though in different countries it happened in different ways. Britain’s West Indian colonies were at the heart of the “triangular trade” by which goods from Britain were used to purchase slaves from West Africa who were taken to the Caribbean, and from whose labor great riches flowed back to British merchants in Bristol, Liverpool, and London.
So, when the white supremacists walk around with condescension towards the browns in the shitholes, well, ...
Without the slave plantations, it is unlikely that Britain would have been able to industrialize, or to forge an empire, as it did.
Slaves and almost-slaves created the wealthy European countries and the US.
In 1807, Britain passed a law banning the slave trade. But for three centuries, that trade had been dominated by Britain; three centuries of savage enslavement, pitiless brutality, and casual mass murder. Twelve million Africans are thought to have been transported to the Americas, half of them in the peak years of the Atlantic slave trade between 1690 and 1807. In those peak years, about half of these slaves were taken on British ships. Historians estimate that at least one in ten, and possibly one in five slaves, died on the Middle Passage, the journey from Africa to the New World. This suggests that half a million Africans may have lost their lives while being transported on British ships.
How horrible!  Just horrible!!!
Supporters of the British Empire argue that its rule was far more benign than the terror of the Belgian Congo. That is not to place the moral bar very high.
Indeed.  Whenever the apologists defend those bastards, I quickly refer them to the Bengal famine, which is one of the most well-documented mass atrocities that the white supremacists committed in the old country towards the end of their colonizing years.

I don't expect white supremacists to disappear anytime soon, given how much they have become emboldened in the US, and across Europe.  Which is all the more the reason why we cannot forget the past and let the white supremacists, including the one in the Oval Office, rewrite history.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Forget me now ... er, forget me not

Back in graduate school, there were a couple of classes where the instructors packed way too much reading materials every week.  There wasn't enough time to read them all and--more importantly--for me to think through them and to then break them down.  Soon, I started skipping the readings.

Over the years of teaching, I have learnt to ease up on the quantity of learning materials in my classes.  Especially in these modern times when studies confirm over and over again that most students read very little.  Even when they read, their eyes jump over words and paragraphs.

My worry is that even when students do read and discuss, the new ideas and arguments might not be retained in their memories.  I tell them to be engaged readers.  But, unlike the classroom where I can control the environment by banning digital devices, in their dorms and apartments they are on their own and interrupted by distractions.  Every distraction sets them back.

Not only students.  All of us too.  We read a lot these days, yes.  But, it is almost as if we read to forget!
People are binging on the written word, too. In 2009, the average American encountered 100,000 words a day, even if they didn’t “read” all of them. It’s hard to imagine that’s decreased in the nine years since. In “Binge-Reading Disorder,” an article for The Morning News, Nikkitha Bakshani analyzes the meaning of this statistic. “Reading is a nuanced word,” she writes, “but the most common kind of reading is likely reading as consumption: where we read, especially on the internet, merely to acquire information. Information that stands no chance of becoming knowledge unless it ‘sticks.’”
Or, as Horvath puts it: “It’s the momentary giggle and then you want another giggle. It’s not about actually learning anything. It’s about getting a momentary experience to feel as though you’ve learned something.”
Of course, in this age of access to information, one might wonder what the whole point of remembering is.  For one, this means that we are reduced to being drooling idiots when the access to Google is cut off, right?

Furthermore, as I remind students over and over again, information is not knowledge.  We make the mistake of equating them.  Googling to find something about Nabokov, for instance, is not the same as gaining an understanding of his work or about humanity that he writes about.  It is a false "feeling of fluency":
The information is flowing in, we’re understanding it, it seems like it is smoothly collating itself into a binder to be slotted onto the shelves of our brains. “But it actually doesn’t stick unless you put effort into it and concentrate and engage in certain strategies that will help you remember.”
Yep.  Which is why I remind students to be actively engaged with the learning materials, and not to be passive readers or watchers.

I suspect that people always knew it.  Teachers, back when I was in school, told us to re-read the class materials.  Obviously they knew from experience that merely reading something once won't do it for most of us.  Nabokov himself noted this:
A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

Now read this post all over again!

Friday, January 26, 2018

The ultimate fake news!

I sense a change within me. 

I am a lot blunter compared to two years ago.  Back then, I was a lot more circumspect, and used a lot more euphemisms, when expressing my concerns and criticisms.  In a way, I feel that trump has released me from that yoke.  I can feel that new vibe in my responses to colleagues. I can feel that when I talk with students. I can certainly feel that if any trump-supporting friend ever approaches me.

Free at last!

The tone of the blog, too, has changed.  Not wishy-washy anymore.

Yuval Noah Harari compared religions to video games. Remember that?  If you play the game according to the rules a religion sets, only then do you see the angels and demons and hell and heaven that the game lays out.

Another way to think about all those rules and what the story is about is to think of religions as fake news!

This essay comments on the irony of the Pope decrying fake news:
The Pope writes, “Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.” True enough. And a message that should be broadcast far and wide. But it’s also hard to ignore the irony of the leader of the Catholic religion decrying intolerance and hypersensitivity, when heretics were regularly burned at the stake, and the spread of arrogance and hatred, to which Catholic dogma has contributed for centuries.
The fake news worked out well for the Catholic church.  Fake news works especially well with fear-mongering.  The Church talked about hell and Lucifer.  Which is what trump does, right, with his American Carnage and Hillary Clinton?  I suppose evangelicals being solidly behind this President is an alignment of all kinds of fake news!

Religions have always tapped into this fear and fake news combination to make themselves rich and powoerful:
The Catholic Church also amassed much of its vast following and fortune, still held to this day, on the generation of fear. “Christianity is an eschatological faith,” Harper writes, and “apocalyptic notes run like a constant background music across the history of the church.” The “end times” tune, during the bubonic plague of the 6th and 7th centuries, proved lucrative, because “the plague was a last chance to turn from sin,” Harper writes, and conveniently for the church, “no sin weighed more heavily on the antique heart than greed.”
And, of course:
In the end, what fake news breeds, like religion, is unnecessary uncertainty (“Am I going to Hell?”), a pernicious kind of epistemological gaslighting.
Unnecessary uncertainty.  I like that phrasing.  Every one of trump's words and actions, and his rants about fake news, have seemingly generated unnecessary uncertainty.  It is stormy, according to the book of Daniels ;)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The American Carnage

When visiting with the folks, which typically happens in December, every morning I wake up, have coffee, and head out for a five-mile walk well before six.  As I exit the compound, it is almost always the same time when a group (all-Brahmim?) goes by reciting the Vishnu Sahasranamam.

Most of the words echo deep within my memories--I used to recite those verses when I was an obedient teenager ;)

The sing-song recitation in the pre-dawn darkness when the rest of the city is quiet is a sound that is soothing.

As I walk towards the public park, which is where I walk the laps, I pass by a masjid.  Their sing-song recitation of the Quran in the pre-dawn darkness when the rest of the city is quiet is a sound that is soothing.

I thought about these when I read about mike pence reverently visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  And that reminded me about trump at the Western Wall a few months ago.

Which is when I got to thinking ... Has trump ever been to a mosque?  At least once?  Either as a private citizen, or as the President?  Has pence ever been to a mosque?  Have they ever been to a Hindu temple?

I wonder what the response would be if a journalist were to ask trump that question.  Perhaps he will simply ignore the question.  After all, his base would not want to hear him say anything other than bashing up Muslims as evil.

I wonder how many of the trump voters, including past commenters and neighbors, have ever participated in a religious worship gathering that was not Christian.  I wonder if any of them have any in their immediate or extended families a person who married outside their religion.  Chances are nil, I assume.

In these aspects, too, Obama was truly presidential and one who set a wonderful example for impressionable kids and youth.  Obama even hosted Iftar dinners at the White House!  Imagine trump or pence ever doing that!!!

At the Iftar dinner in 2015, Obama said this about "those who seek to divide us by religion or race or sect.:
Here in America, many people personally don’t know someone who is Muslim.  They mostly hear about Muslims in the news -- and that can obviously lead to a very distorted impression.
We saw this play out recently at a mosque in Arizona.  A group of protestors gathered outside with offensive signs against Islam and Muslims.  And then the mosque’s leaders invited them inside to share in the evening prayer.  One demonstrator, who accepted the invitation later, described how the experience changed him; how he finally saw the Muslim American community for what it is -- peaceful and welcoming.  That’s what can happen when we stop yelling and start listening.  
In contrast, we now we have a President who constantly feeds the yelling and screaming, and actively promotes hate.

In wrapping up that speech, Obama said:
Together, we can overcome ignorance and prejudice.  Together, we will overcome conflict and injustice -- not just with words, but with deeds.  With what a hero of mine, the civil rights icon John Lewis, calls using our feet -- getting out in the real world to organize and to create the change that we seek.  
And we know how trump described John Lewis.

We have fallen a great deal over the past two years, and we continue to descend deep down into darkness with the Republican "leaders" that we now have in the White House and Congress.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Browns not welcome!

First it was my father. Then another day it was a cousin of his. And more from other people. Finally, the day I was flying out, an uncle who called to wish me also asked the same thing as all the rest asked.

They all wanted to know why trump is against immigration.  They were even more curious about why he wanted to end the rule that allowed spouses of those on work visas to also work here in the US.

I wished I could editorialize to them that this is what one got for playing along with the devil, instead of fighting it.  India's proto-trump--narendra modi--sold to the Indian public that he and trump are best friends.  People, therefore, assumed that trump would grant India a whole lot of favors.  Instead, they were being slammed with immigration tightening and harsher approaches to outsourcing, which are India's important economic assets.

What they did not want to acknowledge was that modi and trump were, and are, pals regarding one and only one thing: Their shared hatred of Muslims.

But, I didn't editorialize.

I told them that trump had always made this very clear.  There was nothing new.  He hates the brown-skinned.  His party hates the brown-skinned. And a good chunk of his party hates immigration, especially of the brown-skinned.

The uncle, whose daughter is the CEO of a large telecommunication company in the old country, was not convinced.  He wanted an explanation for why trump and the GOP would adopt such a stand when it was so clear that America benefits from immigrants.

It was the old "cut the nose off to spite the face" madness, I told him.

Cato updates us about Republican bills in Congress that "would have far-reaching negative effects on economic and labor force growth in the United States, instituting the most severe restriction on legal immigrants since the 1920s."
These cuts lack any reasonable justification. Labor force growth is an essential component of economic growth. Immigrants already increase U.S. Gross Domestic Product by roughly $2 trillion annually. For the United States to remain competitive internationally, it needs an expanding workforce. These proposals will harm domestic growth and make it more difficult for U.S. businesses to out-produce their competitors around the world.
Like I said, it is a cut the nose to spite the face approach.  The same approach that, incidentally, the Bernie Sanders people also mostly favor, even though they might use more polite language when speaking of the brown-skinned!
U.S. immigrants who primarily enter under the family sponsorship and diversity categories are the most highly educated in American history. True “merit-based” immigration reform would give these immigrants more opportunities to immigrate, not fewer. In any case, America needs workers at both ends of the skills spectrum to grow job opportunities for all Americans. There is simply no economic justification for banning so many legal immigrants.
Of course, recently trump upped his game by telling his 63 million supporters, and the rest of the world too, what he thinks of the brown-skinned.

The modi-toadies are slowly waking up to the devil's ways. modi himself is beginning to realize that trump might not be india's friend!  Maybe trump will respond to modi in Davos by speaking with an Indian accent, eh!

Monday, January 22, 2018

A mediocre man preaches mediocrity as a virtue?

Nearly eight years ago, I blogged about being in the twilight of a mediocre career.

Of course, I know that my life has not been mediocre.  I have had an awesome life, and an awesome career, mostly thanks to dumb luck and the fact that I chose my parents well.  It is that supreme sense of confidence, arrogance, that also makes me proclaim my mediocrity.

I write all that to preempt criticisms along those lines ;)

What I really want to write about is this: I always tell students that it is alright if they don't earn the highest grades--in my classes or anywhere.  Life is not about excellence.  And even if we are excellent at some small aspect, we are incompetent with the infinity that is the rest is.  I might have gained proficiency in bullshitting, but that is all I am good at.

I tell them that life is about giving the fullest to anything that we do. Whether it is chores at home, or he classes that we take, or whatever ...

I am sure that most students do not care for such a message. For one, all the other "elders" tell them a completely different thing, and I come across as a raving lunatic with a strange accent.  For another, if somebody had told me such stuff when I was twenty years old, I would have immediately dismissed that.  It is with age and experience that we gain such insights.  Wisdom arrives way too late in life!

A history professor at Cornell writes in praise of mediocrity.  "We should learn to give mediocrity the love it deserves. The first step is to rebrand it. I prefer to call it "adequacy."

I agree.
For me as a teacher, to honor adequacy is not to discount the individual excellence of particular students, but to appreciate the collective excellence that can occur even when some students are merely adequate. When I started teaching, I judged the success of a course by how many students wrote brilliant papers — which meant I was always disappointed.
Now I judge it by the quality of the conversation in the room: Did students listen and respond? Did the conversation build on itself? Was there enough disagreement to keep the discussion interesting yet enough common understanding of the subject and questions at hand to keep it focused? In short, did we make interesting intellectual music together?
Let’s drop the exhortations to fail or suck at something and instead cultivate the adequacy mind-set — the feeling of being proud and grateful to be good enough to continue doing something from which we get pleasure and knowledge.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Race is a social construct

Consider the following quote:
"In Arizona, a majority of the grade school children now are Hispanic. That means Arizona's future is as a Hispanic society. That means in effect, the border has moved north."
There is one important aspect that the quote does not even bother to mention.  It is not a "Hispanic society" but American children.

Such is the Republican rhetoric these days, thanks to 63 million racists who voted for their Dear Leader!

In the introductory class that I teach, I provide students with demographic data on Mexico, which shows the important changes there: Sharp decrease in total fertility rate; decrease in mortality rates; and improvements in economic conditions.  Therefore, while in the 1980s plenty headed  el norte, now the net migration is negative--more Mexicans return to their homeland compared to the ones coming to America!

That is the story that another Indian-American, Shikha Dalmia, writes about before she concludes:
America's economy over the last several decades has been built on the backs of Hispanic migrants willing to work their tails off in jobs that Americans simply don't want to do. In a rational world, the president wouldn't be wasting taxpayer dollars on militarizing the southern border to repel peaceful workers from a friendly neighbor. He would be sending them invitation cards to come north and help him Make America Great Again.
But, trump and his white supremacists have made it very clear that this is not really about any logic and evidence.  It is simply about racism.  Norwegians are welcome. Shitholers need to be deported.

Dalmia has been going ballistic for quite some time now.  She is not merely a right-of-center commentator, but a libertarian.  An immigrant.  In another essay, she writes:
The GOP is now fully Trump's party. There is no limit to what principles it'll abandon just to keep immigrants out of the country. Maybe it will deport the Statue of Liberty next.
The 63 million racists may have won the war.  But, they will lose the battle.  The next decade will be completely contrary to what these racists dream about.  We shall overcome!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Ich bin ein ... Shitholer

Technically, trump and his white supremacist enablers did not refer to my old country with the "shithole" reference.

It does not matter to me.

As MLK observed:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
It is also the same emotion that JFK reflected when he stood with Germans and proclaimed his solidarity with them.

Of course, this president, thanks to his 63 million enablers, has been on a rampage against a lot more than shitholers.  It is a long list. A very long list.  Injustice defines his every waking moment and tweet, it seems.

I will join the people who will take to the streets all across the country.

Protesting on the streets is not really my thing.  I am a professorial pamphleteer.  I write balanced commentaries.  I am a subversive professor in the classroom.

But, these are extraordinary times.

So, despite my discomfort with crowds, slogans, jingoism, and everything else, I will be out as a citizen who immigrated from a shithole.


Friday, January 19, 2018

The dystopian social net

The friend always talks up a local organization. For all the good reasons, of course.  I have no problems with the work that they do.

But, I have always maintained that the presence, the need, and the growth of such organizations actually reflects something more serious that I have always been worried about: The breakdown in the social contract.  The big holes in the social safety net.

Consider, for instance, the homeless.  Whatever be the circumstance, there is something seriously wrong when there are homeless people out on the streets and in makeshift cardboard tents. Especially on cold and wet winter days and nights.  What happened to the social contract to take care of them?

Republicans decided a long time ago that this is not a collective problem that we need to address. To the typical Republican, protecting guns and protecting fertilized human eggs are the kinds of "collective" problems that taxes are for, and not to address real, in-your-face, human problems like homelessness.

Homelessness is not a blue-state problem nor a red-state problem.  It is not a problem faced only by fair-weather cities.   It is large-scale, with a whole range of reasons that are largely beyond the scope of any one local entity.  But, the rabid Republicans even stopped talking about these problems.  If they didn't recognize the problem, it does not exist, right?  And they can then press on with real problems like Haitians working with ISIS to steal all the American jobs!

These collective issues are then left to the liberal wusses and the truly religious to take care of them.  Our hearts bleed and we do our best to take care of them.  But, the massive effort requires the machinery of the government, which is exactly what the damn Republicans do not want to fund:
The dystopian social safety net alleviates pain and suffering, so it is necessary in the short term. But the roots of the pain and suffering need to be addressed, and when there are shortcomings (as there will be), the government should be the safety net, not only civil society.
A few months ago, I read about a group that was trying to help poor mothers post bail.  It is not as if these mothers had assaulted or killed.  Nope. It could even be simple scenarios like this: They have a broken brake light in their cars, which they have not fixed because of the precarious economic lives they lead.  The police officer tickets them, especially if the women are non-white. These women don't have the money to pay the ticket because they are dealing with far more pressing issues. And soon, well, the government decides that non-payment is a felony and they are jailed.

I donated money to that group.  That's what we bleeding-heart liberal wusses do.  But, groups like that shouldn't even have to exist in the first place!
But these programs, though wonderful and needed, shouldn’t have to exist in the first place. Of course, they should be praised and supported. But they should also be understood for what they are: temporary palliatives that we should not accept as long-term solutions.
Exactly.  But, guess who has to figure out the long-term solutions?

Such is the state of affairs, which we don't typically see in Scandinavia, for instance.  Why?  Because, the nearly all-white GOP is worried that the beneficiaries will be non-white people.

Is it, therefore, any surprise that the rabid republicans voted for the openly racist white male?  The surprise will be if he does not get re-elected!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Orange swirling flame of days

When you read "orange swirling flame," perhaps you thought this would be a post about trump.

It might as well be; that line is from a poem that is titled, "Burning the old year," which might as well refer to trump's full year in the White House!

The poem was published in 1952.  Well before anybody could have ever imagined a nightmare scenario of a trump ruining America.

But, it comes in handy now, to burn the old year, and to look forward to a better year.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Pointless jobs

Relaxation, hobbies, raising children or reading a book are dismissed as laziness. That’s how powerful the mythology of work is.
It is strange world in which we live; "the nine-to-five feels like a relic of a bygone era."

Life has become so much about work that I feel I have to defend myself when not working, even though the friend assures me that I am all the time "in my head" and that I need to get out of it!

In the bad old days, workers and prisoners were even be chained to their work.  In these modern times, we have replaced those physical chains with digital tethers.  People work, work, and work all the time through their various digital devices.

And, when they are not working in order to earn for themselves, people are working in order to help gazillionaires make even more money--their interactions via Facebok and WhatsApp and everything else are monetized by the corporations.  Remember, you are their raw material that they mine so that you can be entirely replaced by machines!

What most of us do even now is darn useless. PointlessBullshit jobs.  Which is why we refer to some jobs as "essential services" while most of the rest are, ahem, dispensable to varying degrees.

Soon, there will be such a huge number of useless people that there will be "the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable."

The quest for meaning in work, and meaning in life, will become even more urgent than now. Because, when meaning is not to be found, then you can easily imagine any number of things going wrong in a human's life.  Dystopia looms large without a sense of meaning.

I need to get out of my head and stop working for a while.  Bye for now ;)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Hobson's Choice with the shithole President

I called up a neighbor/friend and asked if they were home.

"I am finally over my jet lag and have sorted things out. I have brought a gift for you from my old shithole country," I said.

She laughed.  He joined in. "Oh, are you also one of those people?"

"You are also one of us. We all are," was my response to my fellow-brown-skinned balding man, who, in his youth had one huge afro, he says.

Meanwhile, the friend worries that by repeating "shithole" we are allowing the racist to define the narrative.

True. But he is not one that we can ignore.  The awful human being is the President of the United States, after having been elected to that office by 63 million racists.

We can't ignore his spoken and tweeted words.  We wish we could.

We have all lost.  Big time.  The waters have been muddied. Awfully.

Imagine the hassle that journalists face.  They have to be on the alert from the moment that the racist is up, which could be even at 3:00 am in DC when he gets up to pee and gets on the smartphone!

Not even the nincompoop politicians in the old country degraded the public sphere like how this "Christian" President has.
Trump’s racism isn’t news, and we are very unlikely to learn anything new about the inner workings of Trump’s mind and soul, which seem remarkably uncomplicated. What is news is his public behavior and the way it is changing the country.
Obama's election was supposed to have changed the country towards a post-racial America. Ha!  trump masterfully tapped into the racism that never went away and rode that tiger all the way to the Oval Office.

"Trump’s transgression is twofold. First, his vulgar remark broke a taboo against racist speech." So, what is the second transgression?  "The news is that he insists on dragging the rest of us down with him."
Trump’s “shithole” remark presented the media with a starker version of the daily Trumpian Twitter conundrum. To fail to report his tweets or his “shithole” remark is to fall down on the job of reporting the news. To report it is to participate in the ongoing degradation of the public sphere.
Like I said, we have all lost.

All because of 63 million racist voters.

Monday, January 15, 2018

We shall overcome ... some day

Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity, which is outraged, in the name of liberty, which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery -- the great sin and shame of America! "I will not equivocate - I will not excuse."
That was Frederick Douglass on the "hypocrisy of American slavery."  Yes, the same Douglass whose "by the rivers of Babylon" prompted me to blog a post a few months ago, and has been the featured post for a while now.

As I re-read that, the following line rattles me even more now in the context of trump's explicit racism and his support even among elected Republicans, leave alone his base!
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. 
If I were an African-American who traces his roots to slaves, it would have been a challenge for me not to have been violent when I was young.  The injustice is simply beyond my comprehension. Beyond my understanding.  And then to read that the president refers to the continent, from where the slaves were brought, as "shithole"?
With his latest display, Mr. Trump has pulled deeply from the white-racist imagination. “Shithole” refers either to a toilet or the anus. Then again, in Mr. Trump’s mouth, it could mean both. So, let’s get this right. Places like Haiti, El Salvador and African countries are indicative of places where feces are deposited or places from which feces are expelled. Either way, Haitians, Salvadorans and Africans function, in Mr. Trump’s white racist imaginary, as “dirt,” “crap,” that which “stinks,” is “foul” and “nasty,” that which causes us typically to recoil.
That paragraph is not any unhinged rant.  It is from a compelling commentary in the NY Times by George Yancy, who is a professor of philosophy, and who has been a frequent contributor to the philosophy forum at the paper.

How did we get to this moment in 2018?
There were enough Americans who were willing to accept Trump’s racism to elect him. There are enough people in Washington willing to accept Trump’s racism to defend him. Not only is Trump racist, the entire architecture of his support is suffused with that racism. Racism is a fundamental component of the Trump presidency.
63 million Americans, many of whom are Jesus-loving Christians, supported the racist. Including two white (past) commenters here!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Some like it hot ... only if they are Republicans!

This commentary, which I will send to the editor after a final round of read-through, is an example of how the blog-posts and comments are not mere rants ;)

“The whole world is getting hotter, sir” said the auto-rickshaw driver on a warm December afternoon in Chennai, India, as he drove me to the hospital where my aunt had been admitted to the ICU.

It was not only that auto-rickshaw driver, but everybody that I talked to over the three weeks of my annual trip to the old country seemed to have plenty to say about global warming.

An old high school friend, Ramesh, was blunt when we talked about the unusually warm December. “Only Americans don't recognize the reality of global warming," he complained. It is the Republican Party that does not even acknowledge climate change, I responded. My weak defense of my land and its people did not win me any brownie points.

There is immense concern in India for a reason—the facts of global warming are very much a part of daily life. Newspaper commentaries and television shows reflect nothing but worries. There is no denial of the reality.

Back in the old country, temperatures throughout the year are warmer than usual. In a coastal city like Chennai, the warmer temperature along with high humidity makes life highly uncomfortable, to say the least. “Endless summers,” my father complained. Rains—even the once predictable monsoons—are increasingly erratic. Even worse, every monsoon season is seemingly punctuated by extreme weather events.

In December 2015, Chennai had rains and floods that were far beyond anything that even the oldest living person had experienced. In December 2016, a cyclone ripped through the city. People were, therefore, expecting the worst in 2017, especially after the fake predictions of earthquake and tsunami off the southern coast—rumors that spread far and wide thanks to the extensive use of WhatsApp and Facebook.

Fortunately, the December heat was all the people of Chennai had to deal with. But, the extreme weather did not spare the state of Tamil Nadu, for which Chennai is the capital.

On November 30th, Cyclone Ockhi made landfall in the southern peninsular tip of the Subcontinent. 245 people died, according to official counts, with nearly 700 still missing after more than a month. Thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged, and the transport and telecommunications infrastructure took a beating as well.

Until recently, scientists were not sure whether such extreme weather events can be attributed to climate change, even though their studies predicted such outcomes. We laypeople were left to speculate whether such events could be mere accidents. Not anymore. Scientists have been steadily confirming that if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, then there is no denying that it is indeed climate change!

Examining the extreme weather events of 2016, scientists delivered a firm conclusion about the causation. “Climate change was a necessary condition for some of these events in 2016, in order for them to happen,” said Jeff Rosenfeld, who is the Editor in Chief of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in New Orleans this past December. Climate change was the culprit in approximately 65 percent of the examined cases over the past six years.

Even here in the United States, extreme weather events like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the very late in the season fires in California, caused tremendous damage to life and property this past year alone. And then there were other disasters around the world—like the terrible floods in Nepal. The German reinsurance company Munich Re recently cautioned that “our experts expect such extreme weather to occur more often.”

Yet, America stands alone on the global stage with its vehement denial of climate change and its human causation. My friend Ramesh echoed the sentiments of many when he commented that they cannot do anything about the US. “Countries like India will simply have to suck it and move on.” He continued with, “at least out of sheer self interest, India must drive environmentally friendly energy sources, just as China is doing. If these two do a good job and Europe maintains the high ground it currently occupies, then maybe it might, just, be manageable.”

The rest of the world has seemingly given up on the US when it comes to addressing global climate change. Meanwhile, in pursuing an “America First” approach, we are oblivious to the reality that there is no wall that we can build in the atmosphere in order to create our own climate.

If only we understood how much our lives are intricately connected to the life of an auto-rickshaw driver on the other side of the planet!

Saturday, January 13, 2018


I walk towards the river.

A neighbor, who has been an ardent trump supporter ever since he launched his candidacy, waves out to me.  I barely wave back.

"Long time, no see" she says.

"Yep. I was away for three weeks in a shithole country to visit my folks," I replied with a straight face.

Or, at least, that is the scene that has been playing in my head more than a few times, ever since "shithole" became the latest about this president.

I think about the people from African countries that I have interacted with over the years and became friends with them.  It is a list that starts back from graduate school, with Kayode.  We both had remarkably identical interests and outlook on life.  We always had a great time together.  Seth from Ghana was always a happy guy with a huge grin.  They have had meals that I cooked, and I have had their foods.  And that was from the first couple of years in graduate school. And so many since then.

A few years ago, thanks to the friend, I invited over for dinner two visitors from Haiti. We had a wonderful evening.  Jean AndrĂ© was so refined, professorial, and an elder statesman. The other Haitian was much younger than him and was so respectful of his older and much more accomplished compatriot.

I think of all those people I have known when the president so casually refers to their countries as Shitholes.  It continues to shock and depress me that 63 million voted for this racist, who made his racism clear even before he even launched his candidacy!


Friday, January 12, 2018

Breaking bread

Decades ago in Neyveli, I ended up at lunch time at my friend's home.  His mother suggested that I eat there, and I did.

"My cooking will taste different from your mother's," she said.

It did.

Especially to me, who has been a taste-tester for my mother from since I can remember, of course I could tell the difference.  The rasam was different with the overpowering garlic.   Even the plain rice tasted differently. The thuvaran was the only one that was almost like my mother's preparation.

A few years ago, I was excited when two high school classmates invited me to dinner at their homes. They had both carefully prepared dishes with very little spices to suit this visiting American's tastes. 

A couple of years ago, another classmate invited me and my parents for a meal at his home.  "Your parents will eat at our home, right?" he asked me.  I had to remind him that my father and mother had even visited with him and his wife when they lived in Singapore.

In the "normal" course of events in the old country, all those meals are uncommon for a single reason--those friends and I come from different religious and caste backgrounds.

As Bezwada Wilson noted:
India is a fraternal society. There is a Brahmin society, a Reddy society and a Dalit society. Within each society, there is a sense of fraternity, but they don’t want to come out of that circle.
Sharing food at home with another is a calculated decision for almost all the folks back in the old country.  It is rare, therefore, that a brahmin invites a reddy over for dinner.  Or even for coffee.

My own life in America has been a wonderful contrast.  Right from the first day of graduate school, it has been a pleasure to share meals with people from all over.  The first ever "others" I invited to taste my cooking were a Pakistani and a Taiwanese.  And that was how it all began.

But, the past couple of years have made it clear that the "castes" here don't always mix.  Which is why, in the context of the upcoming holiday, this essay asks:
“Have you or your family ever invited a person or a family of another race to your home for dinner?” ... When is the last time you or your family had dinner in your home with a person or family of another race?
The fact that we have to even ask that question says a lot, right?
We are convinced that we will never get all the issues about race on the table, until we get our feet under the same table and talk like friends. At its core, racial divisions are a heart issue, not a skin-color issue. Our children need to see their parents developing friendships around the dinner table with people who look different, so that the next generation can be different.
Of course, the subscribers and regular readers of this blog are not the ones that we worry about.  But, how do we get this message across to the overwhelming numbers in whose lives the different circles never ever overlap?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

2 + 2 = 5

As I have often remarked here, 1984 was one of the books that made me seriously rethink my commie interpretations of life and how to make the world a better place.  Ultimately, all those books led to the decision to come to the United States as well.

In 1984, Winston Smith holds a minor job in the Ministry of Truth.  He, like other workers there, are engaged in the never ending work of rewriting history in order to make sure that the Party is absolute and never wrong.

After three decades of life in America, I would never have imagined that the US would engage in constant rewriting of history in order to project the infallibility of the Party and its Dear Leader.  Yet, truth is stranger than fiction, yet again!
Climate information has been condensed or excised from the websites of at least six federal agencies under the first year of the Trump administration, according to a report released Wednesday.
The most extensive changes have occurred on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, which has dropped “climate” from various program names and removed hundreds of pages and links to climate resources.
The Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, State Department, and others have also seen changes, according to the report, compiled by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) that’s been tracking website changes since Trump took office.
At this rate, it is only a matter of time before those of us who refuse to accept the "alternative facts" are taken to Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, where, after a few days or months, we will begin to truly believe that 2 + 2 has always equaled 5 and that there has never been anything called gravity.

The Ministry of Truth has also been hard at work:
The Department of Health and Human Services tried to play down on Saturday a report that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been barred from using seven words or phrases, including “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender” and “vulnerable,” in agency budget documents.
MiniTrue also had helpful suggestions:
Instead of “science-based,” or “evidence-based,” The Post reported, “the suggested phrase is ‘C.D.C. bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.’’’
63 million fucking voters!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The constant gardener

Once, way back when I was young, I suggested to my mother that we have white pillowcases instead of the colored and printed ones.

"But the white ones quickly become dirty," she said.

"Exactly.  That way we will always know that it is time to launder them."

If only I had known even at that age that nobody ever listens to what I have to say!  Not even my mother! ;)

My mother had a point.  In the heat and dust of the old world, white pillowcases become ecru and dark brown in no time at all.  Though, it is not any comfort to think that we used pillowcases that were dirty as hell, but we did not know they were that dirty only because they were dark colored to begin with!

It is the law of the universe.  Entropy makes sure that even the white snow gets dirty fast.  Even the white supremacists can try all they want, but sooner or later the world will become beige ;)

In an awesome essay, Siddhartha Mukherjee quotes G.K. Chesterton:
"If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change.  If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. . . . An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old.”
It requires constant work. Unnatural vigilance, indeed.

Everything in life requires constant work and attention.  Life itself mandates constant work.  Sitting around and doing nothing is unhealthy, the medical folks tell us over and over again.  Like hamsters, we therefore keep running and running.  Mukherjee brings in Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: "The world is spinning so fast under her feet, she tells Alice, that “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

This against the cosmic backdrop of every action of ours ultimately amounting to nothing.  The cosmic joke that we have to constantly keep doing things only to make sure we will end up as stardust, again!

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

A Very Stable Genius

I almost fell off the chair when  the computer mouse hovered over the Google doodle:

Har Gobind Khorana.

My generation of people from the old country know that name well.  He was a Nobel Prize recipient.  We boasted about Tagore, and Raman, and criticized the exclusion of Gandhi from the Nobel.  And were always unsure if Khorana was our man because he had become a foreigner--an American citizen.  We counted him anyway.  We consoled ourselves that one of our people doing awesome things elsewhere is, well, awesome.

Google honors him today, on what would have been his 96th birthday.
Khorana was the fifth child born to a Hindu family in 1922 in Raipur, a 100-person village in the Punjab region of what is now Pakistan.
He started his education at a village school that met under a tree and quickly demonstrated an aptitude for science, tempered with humility. He received a scholarship to study chemistry at Punjab University in Lahore, but he was too shy to attend the mandatory admissions interview and considered majoring in English instead.
The admissions committee was still impressed enough with Khorana’s application that they enrolled him anyway.
Throughout his life, Khorana was apparently a humble man.  "Despite his accomplishments, Khorana’s friends described him as a modest man who avoided publicity."

The doodle on Khorana reminded me about an op-ed that I read in the paper in the old country, which asked:
what is still holding our nation back from achieving large-scale global academic excellence which is commensurate with our intellectual heritage and calibre?
A fair question to ask, right?

What I liked about that argument was how the author drew a straight line between that question on the scientific enterprise with excellence as an ethical issue that affects pretty much every aspect of life in India.
Why do we in India accept extraneous considerations that militate against excellence? Of course our political culture is deeply implicated, which makes it ironic when our politicians ask why Indian scientists do not win Nobel prizes. But a part of the responsibility and the power to change lies within the academic community itself. The problem is our collective failure to articulate the goal of excellence and to exert firm pressure on anyone, however important, who blocks the path.
We in the US, on the other hand, have clearly demonstrated  our commitment to excellence as an ethical issue by electing to the highest political office a very stable genius, whose humility and genius far exceeds Khorana's!

Monday, January 08, 2018

Race in the new year!

"Where did you travel to?"


"For how long?"

"Three weeks."

"To spend time with family?"


"All good with everybody there?"

I was stunned by that question from the immigration officer.

In all my years of returning to America after a trip to the old country, I had never ever been asked anything even remotely close to that question.  Not even once.

"Yes, thank you."

"Welcome home."

"Thank you."

As I picked up my passport and walked towards baggage claim, there was one aspect that interested me.  Was that immigration officer so awesome towards me because he was not white?

Perhaps the Chinese-American officer understands immigrants going back and forth between the new and old countries? A simpatico?

I re-checked my bag and then joined the serpentine queue for security check before the final flight segment.  The agent looked at my boarding pass. Then my ID.  She looked up.

I wondered what the problem might be.

She handed back the pass and the ID, and with a smile said, "early birthday greetings!"

I laughed and thanked.

Did she say what she said because she was not white, but was Hispanic (or maybe mixed)?

Have trump and his 63 million voters messed me up so much that I now see whiteness, and acutely feel my otherness, wherever I go and wherever I am?  Is it because of the trump effect that the non-white officers were also extra attentive to non-whites like me?  Have we all gotten messed up by hair fuhrer?

Thus began my new year in America!