Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The dumber the better

The small little Orient Vijay television set did not have a remote control to lower the volume or to turn it off.  Channel changing was not even an option because, well, there was nothing to watch other than the government channel--Doordarshan.  A habit of sitting in front of the idiot box began.

No, that is not the dumbing that this post is about.

The old-fashioned dumbing down is nothing compared to the contemporary dumbing down.

In case you have not noticed it, "smart" is all around.  We in higher education have been familiar with the ironical usage of smart for a very long time.  Some "smart" guy decided to refer to classrooms equipped with technology--computer with internet access, audio-video devices, and a projector--as "smart classrooms."  Don't ask my why; to this date, I have no idea why a classroom with gadgets should be referred to as smart classrooms.

Of course, many of us in higher ed also started remarking that as classrooms got smarter, the system started dumbing down the education, which is the very reason why we have classrooms.

So, yes, "smart" has been around for a long time in my professional world.

Now, it is rapidly diffusing into everyday life as well.  A whole bunch of "so-called smart things — everyday devices that are connected to the internet."  It is subtle, right, how "smart" has come to mean being connected to the internet?  You are dumb when you are offline!  Oh, wait, I have already blogged about that ;)

I don't understand the fascination with the latest gadgets that are supposedly "smart."  Why would anybody want an Alexa at home to turn the lights on or off?  Is walking up five feet to reach the switch on the wall a Herculean task?

We seem to be intentionally rushing towards the Wall-E world.  Obese people sitting on their loungers, eating and drinking, while staring at digital screens, and barking commands to robots to get refills of drinks and anything else.

Maybe I am not "smart" enough to understand the tremendous value of these "smart gadgets."  I am proud of my dumbness, and will gladly wear the  badge of the global village idiot!

Monday, February 26, 2018


The answer to that question, my friend, is blowing in the polluted wind.

Jesus elected trump so that we can burn coal and protect the fetus!

Evangelicals know that trump is doing god's work.  Yes, that trump. Doing god's work.

A book is coming out soon on trump's faith.  Yes, that trump's faith.

david brody writes in a NY Times opinion piece about trump being a man of faith.  Yes, dammit, that same trump.
Donald Trump is on a spiritual voyage that has accelerated in recent years, thanks to evangelicals who have employed the biblical mandate of sharing and showing God’s love to him rather than shunning him.
God does not choose to work through people like me, but prefers scumbags like trump.  God's will hath no why, indeed!

brody writes about the “most evangelical-friendly United States president ever.”:
This president’s effect on our cultural norms has been shocking. His critics would call it appalling; evangelicals say it’s immensely satisfying: They’ve seen a culture deteriorate quickly in the past decade, and they’re looking for a bold culture warrior to fight for them. Showing that God does indeed have a sense of humor, He gave them Mr. Trump. Yet in God’s perfection, it’s a match made in heaven. Mr. Trump and evangelicals share a disdain for political correctness, a world seen through absolutes and a desire to see an America that embraces Judeo-Christian values again rather than rejecting them.
I had no idea that god hates political correctness.

trump's religious assistant for the environment, scott pruitt, talked to davod brody about doing god's work at the EPA:
Pruitt believes God commands us to take care of the environment and that also means to use what He has provided. "The biblical world view with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we've been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind."
Drill, baby, drill!  The good lord provided coal and oil for our benefit.

How did pruitt know what god wanted?
"I spent a couple years just earnestly praying, asking the question that I don't think we ask enough, 'God what do you want to do with me?'" Pruitt said. "Really getting into our prayer closet, seeking His heart, asking what He wants to do in our lives."
And what happened?
"It was actually Isaiah chapter one that I was reading through at that time that really spoke to my heart," he continued. "Specifically, in the latter part of chapter one where God says to Israel, 'I will restore your leaders as in the days of old, your judges as at the beginning.' And there was just a desire that welled up in me to say, 'I want to be like those leaders that we had at our founding, at the inception of our country.'"
And these are the same people complaining that Iran is a theocracy!


Saturday, February 24, 2018

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The President of the United States is expected to be the cheerleader who says all the right things in order to inspire people.  We remember and quote, for instance JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."  Even those who didn't care much for Reagan, recall his "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  Or, more recently, with Obama even leading the singing of Amazing Grace.

And then there is trump.

When I read news items that referred to trump reading a poem that compared immigrants to snakes that kill, I thought that perhaps the reports were exaggerating whatever happened at the gathering of conservatives.

So, like I tell students all the time, I went out to verify.

Verify I did.

I have been in distress since then.

Perhaps you, too, read the news item.  And perhaps you chose not to watch the video of him reading it.  But, you need to.  This is no regular American.  This is no president of some caricatured banana republic. This is the President of the United States, in front of a huge audience, with his video telecast live and streamed online to the entire world.

Watch him deliver the verse.

I will remind you, again, that the one who you watched is the President of the United States.

And did the high decibel volume of the cheerful response register in your mind?  They are only a small part of the 63 million who elected him President!

As Vox notes:
Time and again, when Trump is in front of friendly audiences — whether it’s a group of police officers on Long Island or a group of conservative activists at CPAC — he gives speeches about how immigrants are subhuman and violent, and that America needs sufficiently ruthless and violent law enforcement officers to fight against them effectively.
"subhuman."  We are snakes?  We will kill the people who are already here?

I wonder where all this will end up.

Poem for the day!

For a long time, I have noted here a goal of mine.

Today, I find out that there is even a poem about that number, expressing that very sentiment.  I tell ya, I am always the last one to know, the last one to arrive at the party ;)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Let them eat cakes ... the college edition

Conan O'Brien commented that when he was contacted by fundraisers from his alma mater, Harvard, he asked them why Harvard needed more when it already had plenty in the bank. (I am lazy to track down a link; do that yourself, dear lazy reader!)

Harvard's endowment was $37.1 billion back in July.  I assume it has increased in value even more since then.

The university where I teach also has an endowment.  The amount is--sit down before you read this--about $15 million.

Go ahead, and do the math to figure out the ratio of Harvard's endowment to my university's.  You don't have to have a Harvard degree for that simple arithmetic!

Public universities like the one where I teach are rapidly being gutted because of a lack of taxpayer support.  Meanwhile, the uber-rich continue to donate to institutions like Harvard, which is where typically the rich and the powerful pursued their education.
the disproportionate fundraising dominance of the top 20 institutions shows no signs of abating. According to the CAE, these schools—the top three fundraisers were Harvard, Stanford and Cornell—raised 28.1 percent of all 2017 gifts.
Pause for a while to think about it.  Three already phenomenally affluent institutions were the recipients of more than a quarter of all the money that was donated in 2017.
Their success stands in contrast to ongoing divestment in state universities and community colleges, raising recurring concerns about the issue of funding inequality across the higher ed space. And while the discrepancy is rather stark, it should be viewed within a larger context.
The poor students at the lowly public universities and community colleges can go eat cakes!

Meanwhile, the paper that always celebrates competition and the free market applauds the decimation of the small public universities as survival of the fittest in which "U.S. Colleges Are Separating Into Winners and Losers."

Rich people's kids go to good elementary and high schools. They then go to "winning" colleges and universities.  These college graduates go on to make a lot a money, on which they want to pay as little tax as possible.  You know, the taxes that make it possible for poorer students to go to college.  Instead of paying taxes, those wealthy folks would rather donate to their rich colleges and universities.

Like I have always said, choose your parents well! I did--I chose my affluent educated Brahmin parents, thanks to which I lead a comfortable life!  So long, suckers, if you chose to be born to poor and marginalized parents!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Like it or not, the future is coming ... with robots!

I routinely warn students, like I did this week, that we don't really know for certain how all the technological revolution will shape up in their lives.  We deal with probabilities, I like to remind them.  One aspect we can speak with confidence: The rate of change will be higher in the future than we have ever experienced.

"In this coming future, do not think of robots as the cliched robots that you have seen in cartoons and movies," I told them.  "Alexa is, for instance, a robot. which carries out your instructions and also does other things in the background."  Before we know it, there will be plenty of sophisticated robots, I warned them.

I think I saw panic in a few of their eyes.  Good for them. Now they will be alert and plan for their lives.

I am not the only one who says such things.
So let’s stipulate: no one knows for sure what’s about to happen to the labor market. Most observers agree, however, on at least two things. First, the pace of AI discoveries and implementation is accelerating. Robots are now doing things that seemed like science fiction just a short time ago. Was anyone talking about a retail-sector meltdown, driven in good measure by AI-facilitated e-commerce, last year? Second, fasten your seatbelts. Whether you call it “the second machine age”—as MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee do, in a 2014 book by that name—or the fourth industrial revolution, this will be big. Most Silicon Valley honchos, scientists, and economists think that this time is different. Exactly how many jobs will be lost, which kinds of jobs and when, and what to do to prepare for these losses may be matters of dispute. No longer questioned is that a massive disruption in the way we earn a living is coming and that it will transform communities, education—and perhaps even our notion of an America defined by industriousness and upward mobility.
The future won't be a mere continuation of the present.  It will be unrecognizably different.

One of the differences will be this: More jobs will be destroyed than created.  We need to broadcast the truth and have more people engage in the discussions.
These changes are coming, and we need to tell the truth and the whole truth. We need to find the jobs that AI can’t do and train people to do them. We need to reinvent education. These will be the best of times and the worst of times. If we act rationally and quickly, we can bask in what’s best rather than wallow in what’s worst.
But, of course, we won't--people are too busy instagramming their lives and downloading crap!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Extra! Extra!

When I moved to Oregon, the print media was very much alive.  The Oregonian had won Pulitzers; the newspaper from the state capital, Salem, was vibrant; and the Register Guard was still publishing the broadsheet papers that I find only in India.

And then shit happened.

First the newspapers trimmed down their breadth.  Literally, the paper shrank in size.  The number of sheets reduced.  Newspapers were on a diet and they were slimming down fast.  The Oregonian even stopped printing the news on a daily basis, and it became more of an online presence.  The Statesman Journal stopped being a local newspaper after it became a part of the USA Today group.

The Register Guard was the lone one standing, and proud.  The paper celebrated its 150 years of being a family-owned paper that thought big.

And then shit happened.
GateHouse officially takes ownership on March 1 of the company’s media properties, which include the daily newspaper, its companion digital products, the weekly Emerald Valley Shopper newspaper and a commercial printing operation.
GateHouse is part of publicly traded New Media Investment Group. ...
The company, based in Fairport in upstate New York, has publications in 36 states.
What do the new owners say is their approach?
Our strategy is to acquire and operate traditional local media businesses and transform them from print-centric operations to dynamic multi-media operations, through our existing online advertising and digital marketing businesses.
Meanwhile, the NY Times CEO says that its print products might be around for another ten years.  And then ...?

What will happen to all the local reporting?  Who will cover what the local elected officials and corporations are up to?

There are a lot more people worried about this and are doing something. Like Report for America:
a new journalism training corps blending the traditional job-education organization with a model for sustainable reporting. The emphasis is on hiring a diverse group of journalists to cover underrepresented regions of the United States.
Similar to Teach for America. But more than that.
Report for America's pilot program, which launched last month, placed three early-career reporters in Appalachian newsrooms, at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the Lexington World-Herald, and the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The program includes mentorship and training programs, and just like their cohorts in urban newsrooms, the journalists are expected to file stories regularly and will receive a salary equivalent to other entry-level reporters.
Report for America's first class consists of three reporters familiar with Appalachia: Caity Coyne, a recent graduate of West Virginia University reporting for the Charleston Gazette-Mail; Molly Born, a West Virginia native reporting for West Virginia Public Broadcasting; and Will Wright, a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Back when I was a kid in India, I loved how my favorite newspaper covered the news from around the world.  I was mighty proud of that, until a visitor burst that bubble.  One of those in the way, way, way extended family, the kind of connections that only my father can track right in his head, this visitor said that India's problem was that news organizations did not look at their own backyards, but were covering President Carter more.  Until that day, I had never thought about the importance of local news.  I was even mighty condescending towards the local news.  But, my opinion changed.

When I came to the US, I was in newspaper heaven.  In the university library, I read the NY Times and the WSJ, and subscribed to the LA  Times.  After graduating and getting into the real world, when I no longer had the university library to supply drugs to this news junkie, there was a time that I subscribed to the NY Times, the WSJ, the LA Times, and the Bakersfield Californian.  I lugged a lot a newspaper to the recycling bins ;)

Locally, the countdown to that d-day has begun.  We will soon find out how local our local newspaper will be.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

When all hope is gone

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  With that opener, Leo Tolstoy set us on Anna Karenina's unhappy life. (Spoiler alert: She commits suicide.)

Students and colleagues who do not know me might think that I am unhappy camper. A curmudgeon.  But, General Malaise is by and large a happy fella.  I have been extraordinarily lucky that other than a few down phases in life, I have not known what unhappiness is.  The older I get, the more I understand and appreciate what an awesome lottery prize this is!

When talking with a student, I asked about her parents.  Her father is a veterinarian. "I bet he has quite some stories, like ..."  I blanked out on the author's name.  "The British guy who wrote those series of books ... like All Creatures Great And Small."  I couldn't recall the name. Old age :(

After she left, I googled.. James Herriot.  Of course!

Google also told me more about him. He (James Alfred Wight, in real life) suffered from depression. "Melancholy," is how he described it, and once had a complete nervous breakdown.  I would never have guessed that even as a possibility from his cheerful and upbeat books.  It turns out that depression and suicide are way above average when it comes to vets.  I had no idea that animal doctors are an unhappy  family, and unhappy  in their own way :(

It was a day of reading about unhappiness, it seemed. A review of Johann Hari's book popped up in my newsfeed.
Johann Hari took his first antidepressants at age 18, and the experience, he says, was like a “chemical kiss.” The burden was lifted immediately from his whirring brain. He kept on taking the pills for 13 years, at higher and higher doses–until, at one point, the drugs didn’t work anymore. He was still depressed.
In his early 30s, Hari, a journalist, started to question the prevailing wisdom about depression. Was his desperation and anxiety really connected, as he had been told by a succession of doctors, to a chemical imbalance in the brain? Was it genetic, as other scientists claimed? Or were the reasons why so many people are depressed these days really more social? Is the depression epidemic connected to how we’ve chosen to construct the world around us?
What the hell is going on?  

No wonder that the most popular course in Yale's long history is about happinestaught by Laurie SantosThere are too many stressed out and unhappy young people.
Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there.
“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” said Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman taking the course. “The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”
Seriously, is it worth getting into that kind of a stress when one is sixteen or seventeen, and be unhappy to an extent that it becomes a mental health crisis?  There is incredibly more to life than an Ivy diploma!

In addition to the randomness in the universe that messes up our lives, we too do whatever we can to add to our miseries.  I wish we would take up Bhutan's idea of indexing happiness and working towards maximizing that, instead of worshiping the Dow Jones and other indices as a measure of how great we are again!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Jane Austen in 2018

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
A wonderful opening line from Pride and Prejudice.

Whether or not it is an universal truth, for a while now I have been worried about the changing fortunes of single men--many do not seem to be capable of possessing "a good fortune," which then makes it less likely that they will find a wife.

Tyler Cowen provides me with more to worry about when he asks, "Why are marriage rates rising for educated Americans but falling for the less educated?"

At this point, it is tempting to rewrite Jane Austen's opener as:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good education, must be in want of a wife.
But, let's not race ahead.

It is not really about the education alone; "more jobs demand good social skills."  Women are more skilled in this than men are.
How about the polarization of marriage rates across the well-educated (almost steady) and the less well-educated (drastically falling)? Well, if you are an educated, high-earning man with a good white-collar job, you will meet more women at work than before. You are facing less competition from other men with comparable workplace status, and so your marriage prospects may be quite attractive. But lower-status men don't have it nearly as good in the marriage market, and many women may prefer to stay single.
I have been saying all these for years!

Why do women prefer to be single?
You don’t want to marry a man who is in all likelihood not economically viable, because it’s not a free lunch.

Like "Olivia Alfano, a 29-year-old single mother living in Evansville, Indiana":
 The money is pretty good, she told me: She drives a BMW and was able to buy a house last year. Alfano now wants to go into management, which she thinks will give her more security in the long run. When I asked her why she hadn’t married, she told me, “I haven’t run into someone I would consider doing that with.”
The times are changing. Many men have yet to even understand the changes, leave alone respond constructively.  The better educated and prepared women population “creates a surplus of men” at the low end who are not going to get married."  And, therefore, "millions of these less well educated men are not going to get the benefits of marriage":
Married men live longer, are less likely to become alcoholic, take drugs, commit suicide, etc.
The less educated men will, also, kill many in mass shootings, beat up foreigners, and vote for trump!

Thus, the modified Jane Austen opener:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, is not in want of a husband.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Struggle is a solution to the question of who you are

A few years ago, at an academic conference, my spiel was about how we can use the awesome satire of The Onion videos in order to get across important ideas to students.  I played a couple of clips for the audience and demonstrated the embedded intellectual aspects there.

One of the questions from the audience was not what I would have expected.  "How do you find such satire?"

I replied that I have been a huge fan of humor and satire right from when I was a kid, especially the sociopolitical kind.  I owe a great debt to Cho in this context.

Over the years, I have shared many satirical pieces--text and video--with students.  Sometimes--like I did this term--I even make sure to parenthetically note in the syllabus that the material is a satirical one.  I have had instances in the past when students have gotten pissed off thinking that the material is a real news report.

Often, satire is only a few steps ahead of reality.  Like this awesome Onion video from a number of years ago:

I laughed. We all laughed.

And then Soylent happened!
If you’ve ever skipped breakfast after rolling out of bed too late…if you’ve ever missed a lunch because of a busy schedule…if you’ve ever had a guilty conscience over a midnight microwave burrito…Soylent is made for you.
We apparently find food preparation to be a chore, and even eating food that others prepare to be time-consuming, that there is a market for feedbags!

It is now a tyranny of feedbags and other kinds of modern conveniences:
I don’t want to suggest that convenience is a force for evil. Making things easier isn’t wicked. On the contrary, it often opens up possibilities that once seemed too onerous to contemplate, and it typically makes life less arduous, especially for those most vulnerable to life’s drudgeries.
But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear.
If that sounds familiar to you, well, it is because two years ago--almost to the very date--I had blogged quoting the same author, Tim Wu. 

I wrote then:
I worry about technology because I am not entirely at ease with how technologies seems to determine what it means to be human.  I want humans to consciously think about this ongoing redefinition.  Whether it is in what we eat, how we meet up with people, how we have sex, I worry a lot, perhaps unnecessarily, that we humans are not thinking through enough.
In his recent essay, Wu writes:
The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits.
Inside, intuitively, we know that inconvenience is not always bad, and that sometimes we systematically pursue that:
Embracing inconvenience may sound odd, but we already do it without thinking of it as such. As if to mask the issue, we give other names to our inconvenient choices: We call them hobbies, avocations, callings, passions. These are the noninstrumental activities that help to define us. They reward us with character because they involve an encounter with meaningful resistance — with nature’s laws, with the limits of our own bodies
I will wrap this up with Tim Wu's own words:
 we must take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The left behind Venezuela

"What ever happened to the new left in Latin America?" asked a friend when she was over here for dinner with a visiting Peruvian.

Remember those days of the Bolivarian Revolution?  Those were some heady days when Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and the Castro brothers made all the headlines, right?

Caption at the source:
President Nicolás Maduro, of Venezuela, at a rally in Caracas on Feb. 3.
Chavez has been gone for a while, and his anointed successor has been carrying the torch since.  Fidel is gone, with his brother carrying the torch since.  And, of course, Morales is still there.  But, as the Economist points out:
A bigger worry than regress in Latin America is political decay—“when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances” because of opposition from entrenched stakeholders, as Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, puts it. 
Political decay.  Of course, we here in the US have lost any moral high ground from which we can comment on political decay elsewhere.  But, I, who was consistently anti-trump and worried about him winning, and warned that the Berniacs will end up helping trump, have earned my privilege to comment on the decay anywhere!

Do you ever wonder though what the uber-liberals have to say about the disaster that has been the Latin American left?  Especially about Venezuela, after all the praises that they heaped on Chavez?  That left wing embrace of Chavez is why the the left is silent now.  Because, if they open their mouths about Venezuela, then they have to first acknowledge their error. 

As Bret Stephens, who I don't care much for, writes:
the Venezuelan regime was a cause of the left, cheered by people like Naomi Klein, Sean Penn and Danny Glover. Left-wing publications such as Glenn Greenwald’s “The Intercept” have gone out of their way to make excuses for the regime and treat its critics as Washington stooges. Jeremy Corbyn, who could yet be Britain’s next prime minister, memorialized the late dictator Hugo Chávez in 2013 for his “massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.”
It is like how the left tied itself in knots after the Soviet Union came tumbling down.  Search all you want, but you will read practically nothing from those celebrities and intellectuals about contemporary Venezuela.  They have moved on to other topics that bring them fame and money.  Keep in mind that the likes of Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky are in the elite of elite when it comes to wealth that they accumulated from their writing and speaking about the favorite left causes of the day.

Stephens asks a good question:
How many more Venezuelans have to starve or drown before Western liberals do something more than merely shake their heads?
Ask your favorite Naomi Klein fan to answer that question!

Friday, February 16, 2018

New Year Friday

Over the years, a number of new experiences have made me a better person.  While it is impossible to prove any counterfactual of what might have been the case had I never left India, I have plenty of evidence that coming to America has been wonderfully enriching.

And by enriching I am not referring to the mere dollars.  Nope. Not even a penny of it.

Take the event of today, for instance.  It is the Chinese new year.  The pappu face me had no idea about the Chinese new year. 

When I was a mustachioed undergraduate student, Chinese new year did not feature in my cultural awareness in any manner.  For that matter, neither did many others, like Hanukkah.  After all, there was no real world context to create that awareness.

My world suddenly became HUGE the moment I came to America.  All of a sudden, I was in a mixed company of people from backgrounds that were all new.  My bearded face began to appreciate the adage that travel makes a wise man better, and a fool worse.  (Ahem, did you catch my arrogance there--I was pretending that I was wise to begin with!)

A Jewish male fellow student, who was from Canada, was the first one to tell me about the significance of Hanukkah.  A female classmate, who was from Taiwan, invited me to the party that she was hosting to celebrate the Chinese new year.  And more.  I started getting wiser.

After graduate school, when I was working in California, our office secretary invited us to join them for the Chinese new year feast.  Ginny and her husband, Citron, were Chinese-Americans, and only a few years younger than my parents.  Of course, I could  barely eat anything in the multi-course dinner at their gathering.

Anne, the wife of a Jewish friend back in California, was from Hong Kong.  She taught me to say happy new year in Cantonese.  And laughed every time I mispronounced it.

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Aging Thursday

I know I have reached a stage in life where kids and college students might only see me as a balding grey older man.  When we don't know a person from the time they were young, then we are perhaps left with nothing but an image of them being their older selves. As if they were born old.

All of us age.

We go grey, bald.
Our skin dries up and wrinkles all over. 
We return the teeth to the cosmos.
The eyes that were once bright and mischievous become dull and lifeless. 
The ears hear not the faint sounds as if there is no more sweet whispers in life.
The fancy colognes of the youth make no difference to the nose that does not pick up any scent, including our own odor.

When we are young and energetic, we do not pause to think that we, too, would one day begin to look like those at the old-age homes.  And, worse, we fail to understand deep within ourselves that after the appointed hour, we will cease to exist even as the wrinkled, toothless, bald, grey, shuffling, smelly versions.

Near my home--yes, the only home I have, which is in Eugene--is a complex that houses quite a few super-senior citizens.  When I see them shuffling along on the bike path, or in their motorized transport, all I see are the old people.  It is not easy to visualize them as crazy kids diving into the river, or as young men and women in love.  We forget that they also went through childhood, adolescence, and youth, and everything else like the rest of us mortals.

When visiting with the folks over the winter break, I helped my parents get rid of a few things and re-organize a few others.  

"You told me not to throw out the photo negatives," my father reminded me.  "So, I retained them.  You decide."

They were mostly garbage.  Every once in a while, a negative seemed promising.  The garbage piled up as I emptied the contents.

And then I saw a couple of negatives.  I, too, was a kid once.

I brought them with me. 

I followed up on M's suggestion.

"I would like to get prints from these negatives, and also get them scanned," I told the older woman at the shop.  She, too, was young once.  But, all I saw now was an older woman.

She held them up against the light.   

"It is me from my younger days, back in India."

She smiled, as if agreeing with me that we were young once, even though we look old now.

As this wonderful song from Romeo and Juliet put it, 
A rose will bloom; 
it then will fade 
so does a youth; 
so does the fairest maid

A "pappu face" me in 1980!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine Wednesday

Celebrate or celibate, that's the question!

Well, of course, such questions do not  matter to this atheist.  But, Lent coming on the heels of Maha Shivarathri, which I didn't  observe (haha!) provides immense materials for me to ponder.

For one, observant Valentines cannot make their love to be a Shivarathri, if you know what I mean ;)
Catholic bishops have been telling parishioners that Valentine’s Day doesn’t give the more than one billion members of the church worldwide an exemption from the holy requirements of Ash Wednesday: abstaining from meat and fasting. (It’s not a holy day of obligation for Catholics, which means the faithful are not bound to attend mass or receive ashes on their foreheads, a symbol of the Christian belief that God created humans from dust.)
“Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two days of the whole year on which fasting and abstinence are required,” Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo said in an online video.
Abstinence is required ... on Valentine's Day!
The confluence of the events — occurring for the first time since 1945 — has created a dilemma for Roman Catholics and followers of other Christian denominations who observe Ash Wednesday. How can one simultaneously mark a solemn day when foreheads are tapped with a symbol of mortality as a call to humility and repentance, while celebrating one that glorifies the kisses and champagne of romantic love?
This gets even crazier as we look ahead to the end of the Lent calendar: Easter Sunday falls on April 1st, when those among us who love to prank others get all jazzed up to fool others.

So, what's up with all these dates for Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday?  It is all because of the old lunar calendar, which is how most traditional societies kept time.

Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the equinox.  Once this is determined, then the other ones are automatically backtracked from that Sunday. 

Yes, I know, it is kind of strange that this atheist keeps track of major religious days.  But, it should not surprise you one bit.  Even a post marking Lent is not new here.  Most of us folks are way more into religion than most supposedly believing folks are.  We think about our existence a lot more than the "god-fearing" ones do.  After all, the life is an existential struggle for believers and atheists alike, and we atheists are in awe about the mystery of it all!

We non-believers do not have to worry about designated days of abstinence, however.  Every day is a cause for celebration--even for General Malaise ;)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Fat Tuesday!

Back when our ancestors were hunting and gathering, men did not have to worry about their women asking them the now cliched joke, "do I look fat in this?"  And men then could easily see their own penises because they did not have over-sized waists that blocked everything down.

Now, we don't have to worry about hunting and gathering.  We worry about fat though. A lot.  Abundance has become a problem.  A huge problem.  Even in the continent that has long been a poster-child for poverty and starvation!
In Africa, the world’s poorest continent, malnutrition is stubbornly widespread and millions of people are desperately hungry, with famine conditions looming in some war-torn countries.
But in many places, growing economies have led to growing waistlines. Obesity rates in sub-Saharan Africa are shooting up faster than in just about anywhere else in the world, causing a public health crisis that is catching Africa, and the world, by surprise.
Obesity is a not merely a public health issue, it now comes across as a pandemic!

The causes are the same:
Many Africans are eating more junk food, much of it imported. They are also getting much less exercise, as millions of people abandon a more active farming life to crowd into cities, where they tend to be more sedentary. More affordable cars and a wave of motorbike imports also mean that fewer Africans walk to work.
The older I get, the more I am pissed off that a whole bunch of smart and talented people spend their lives creating problems for humans.  "Food scientists" create newer and unhealthy junk foods. MBAs devise devilish marketing strategies to trap especially the young and the poor. And more.  Can't these talented devils use their brain power do something meaningful for humans, instead of being the glorified drug-dealers in lab coats and suits that they are, all in the name of "making money"?

Chile, which was ruined by the Chicago Boys who advised the strongman Pinochet, is on a hyperdrive against obesity:
They killed Tony the Tiger. They did away with Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah. They banned Kinder Surprise, the chocolate eggs with a hidden toy.
The Chilean government, facing skyrocketing rates of obesity, is waging war on unhealthy foods with a phalanx of marketing restrictions, mandatory packaging redesigns and labeling rules aimed at transforming the eating habits of 18 million people.
Nutrition experts say the measures are the world’s most ambitious attempt to remake a country’s food culture, and could be a model for how to turn the tide on a global obesity epidemic that researchers say contributes to four million premature deaths a year.
The modern (junk) food industry goes after kids with all kinds of marketing gimmicks.  They are powerful child abusers, against whom most parents are simply powerless.  I agree with the Chilean politician, Guido Girardi, who "publicly assailed big food companies as “21st century pedophiles.”  Pedophiles in suits!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Moronic Monday!

Today is Charles Darwin's birthday.  Darwin Day!

It is time to showcase the anti-evolutionists. You know, those creationists.

But, it is no fun anymore to write about such ignoramuses in the GOP here in America.  It is so boring.

So, instead, on this Darwin Day, I turn to my old country.

A minister in modi's cabinet created quite some interesting moments a few days ago:
 Union minister Satyapal Singh has claimed that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of man was “scientifically wrong” and it needs to be changed in school and college curriculum.
Mr. Singh, the Minister of State for Human Resource Development, said our ancestors have nowhere mentioned that they saw an ape turning into a man.
Yep, the moron did not come across any reference in the literature of an ape turning into a man.  Ergo, Darwin is wrong.
“Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, have said they saw an ape turning into a man,” he said, adding “No books we have read or the tales told to us by our grandparents had such a mention.”
The moron stood by his profound words of wisdom:
Satyapal Singh stood by his comments on Monday, saying his ministry was ready to host an international conference at which “scientists can come out and say where they stand on the issue”.
“I have a list of around 10 to 15 great scientists of the world who have said there is no evidence to prove that the theory of evolution is correct,” Singh told a crowd at a university in Assam state, adding that Albert Einstein had agreed the theory was “unscientific”.
I know what you are thinking.  This is a moment when we witnessed an Indian politician man turning into a monkey! ;)

What is even more shocking is that this monkey is credentialed:
The Minister is a retired IPS officer, a student of science who has M.Sc and M.Phil degrees in chemistry, and has obtained a Ph.D He is the author of several books and papers and, according to the Lok Sabha website, is working on four more books.
I suppose it is true--at some point, the randomness of this cosmos means that a monkey could end up writing the Hamlet or earning a doctorate in chemistry! ;)

Chances are that the monkey minister has no idea that even the Rig Veda is a lot humbler about Creation:
There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred?
In whose protection?
Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
that was the first seed of mind.
Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
found the bond of existence and non-existence.

Their cord was extended across.
Was there below?
Was there above?
There were seed-placers, there were powers.
There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen
- perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not -
the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps even He does not know.
I will now step outside to see if any die-hard-creationist is evolving from an ape ;)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Barbarians at the gates of the ivory tower

You've come across the following quote, right?
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
Upton Sinclair phrased it so well for all of us.

It does not have to be literally the salary, but can also be other aspects of life. 

I often think about that statement when trying to sort out the troubling aspects of higher education.  For instance, the massive spending on athletics in higher education.  There are a number of people whose literal salaries depend on not understanding how much this is ruining higher education.  Or, the stale curriculum and pedagogy that faculty continue to practice--our salaries depend on the status quo and, therefore, it is difficult for us to understand why we need to change our ways!
Universities and colleges are pivotal to the future of our societies. But, given impressive and ongoing advances in technology and artificial intelligence, it is hard to see how they can continue playing this role without reinventing themselves over the next two decades. Education innovation will disrupt academic employment, but the benefits to jobs everywhere else could be enormous. If there were more disruption within the ivory tower, economies just might become more resilient to disruption outside it.
Ahem, try explaining that to university faculty!

You can also, therefore, understand why I love the GBS quote so much that I made it the title of my blog: Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.  Honest professionals are rare, and honest professional organizations do not even exist.

In fact, the current zeitgeist is all about dishonesty.  trump and his minions make it a point every single day to remind us that lying pays off.  The more outrageous the lies, the higher the payoffs.  In this, they attack honest professionals wherever they might be--in Congress, or in the FBI, or in colleges, or ...

Tragically, these outright dishonest psychopaths are effective in their attacks on higher education.  It is bizarre that two-thirds of Republicans think college is a waste!
A June Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of Republicans believe colleges and universities have a “negative effect on the way things are going in the country.” Democrats overwhelmingly said the opposite.
In an August Gallup survey, two-thirds of Republicans likewise said they have just some or very little confidence in colleges. The chief complaints: Schools are too liberal, they don’t allow students to think for themselves and students are learning the wrong things.
Or as Donald Trump Jr. put it in a campus speech last fall: “We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange we’ll train your children to hate our country.”  

The implications are far-reaching, and makes for a deadly destructive combination: The insiders have steadfastly refused to change, and the barbarians are the gate tearing everything down.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Only the lonely!

A few weeks ago, a student came to get my advice.  I know what you are thinking; what's wrong with the student to ask me, right?

I never really tell students what they ought to do.  Instead, I often ask them whether they had seriously considered options other than the one for which they want my feedback.  I even tell them that my job is to make sure they have looked at their options from multiple perspectives, so that they can then decide for themselves.

Years ago, one student said that she wished for a Hogwart School kind of a situation.  If you recall, (btw, Harry Potter is now 20 years old!) students are assigned to the houses based on what the magic hat senses.  This student said it will be awesome if such a hat existed that will then tell her what she should do.  "What about free will?" I asked her with a smile.

So, when the student asked me for advice, I engaged with her quite a bit.  And one of the questions that I asked her was about how she spends time outside of classes, and about friends.  "Most people value the time they spent in college for the experiences they had," I told her.  "It is not classes and teachers that people cherish later on.  It is all about experiences with people, especially the healthy experiences."

I am not sure what kind of an impact my words had on that student.  I have done my part.

Students have gazillion "friends" in their social media lives, but, are they meaningfully engaging with their peers in the real  world?  I hope they are; else, it is recipe for loneliness, which is one of the increasing health problems.  Which is why the UK has even appointed a minister for  loneliness!

As this essay puts it:
Loneliness is the leprosy of the 21st century, eating away at its victims and repelling those who encounter it.
It may be that affluence is making things worse. We prize space, privacy and independence, and the richer we get the more of these we can afford, yet their corollary is being alone. Our economy works better if people move around to find work, yet mobility stretches and breaks the bonds of family and community. Phillips told me that “capitalism and a mobile labour market make connections between people very precarious and difficult. In so far as people feel that what they’ve got to do is get on, they are, as it were, encouraged to sacrifice relationship and intimacy.” 
But if money can’t shield you from loneliness, poverty can exacerbate it.
I am with this opinion author who cautions against overblowing the loneliness situation.  And I am also in agreement with the author's concluding lines:
In places like the United States and Britain, it’s the poor, unemployed, displaced and migrant populations that stand to suffer most from loneliness and isolation. Their lives are unstable, and so are their relationships. When they get lonely, they are the least able to get adequate social or medical support.
I don’t believe we have a loneliness epidemic. But millions of people are suffering from social disconnection. Whether or not they have a minister for loneliness, they deserve more attention and help than we’re offering today.
I hope the young, including that student, are making healthy choices.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Toga! Toga! Toga!

I have sent this across to the editor ...

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

For years, it has been a struggle to fully fund the state’s public universities. But, it wasn’t always like this. Back in the early 1960s pictured in the movie “Animal House,” for instance, the government typically picked up two-thirds of the in-state tuition expenses, and non-tuition fees were minimal. There was no undue financial burden on students, who could easily manage to pay their share through part-time jobs during the school year and by working full-time in the summers. 

That model has been flipped. Now, taxpayer dollars pay for less than 10 percent of the research universities’ operations, and the regional universities—like Western Oregon University, where I teach—manage with a quarter of the operating expenses paid for by the state. Most of the rest comes from student tuition and fees, for which many students I know work full-time even when attending classes. 

This financing model will worsen when the next recession hits. 

While any recession is difficult to predict, it will arrive sooner than later. Economies go through a period of growth, followed by stagnation. Currently, the entire world is experiencing economic growth, after the disastrous Great Recession of 2008 that hit us particularly hard. Since the end of that recession in June 2009, we have had steady growth in the economy over the past nearly nine years. The average unemployment rate in the US is now at a low 4.1 percent, with 16 states having rates even lower than the average. 

However, growth rates cannot be sustained forever. The nature of business cycles makes investors jittery as we near the peak. This is what we are beginning to see expressed through the volatility in the stock market, when the Dow Jones Index dropped by more than thousand points, not once but twice in the same week. 

The coming recession will make state dollars scarce. When that happens, public higher educational institutions cannot even dream of balancing their books on the shoulders of students. Even now, it is not uncommon for students to graduate from Oregon’s public universities with more than $27,000 in debt—a financial burden that the partying students in “Animal House” did not have to worry about. To subject our students to even higher debt levels will be outright robbery. 

Further, because Oregonians, like all Americans, are having fewer kids, the current K-12 student population in Oregon will not translate to increasing numbers of native students at higher educational institutions. The potential decrease in student population will mean lower revenue from tuition and fees. All these will further complicate the coming budgetary battles at Salem, when the next recession comes. 

One way to bring in additional revenue is by admitting students from other countries. Foreign students pay much higher fees than our residents do, and they are eager to come to the United States for their undergraduate and graduate education. Recent estimates are that there are more than a million foreign students studying in the US, and they brought in more than $39 billion in revenue to colleges and universities.

Even locally, it was a healthy decade of increasing numbers of international students enrolled at the University of Oregon. But, as this paper reported on January 13th, “international student enrollment at the University of Oregon dropped for the second year in a row — representing a more than $6 million decrease in annual revenue.” 

But, the Trump administration is increasingly making it difficult for international students to come to the US. His xenophobic rhetoric, and the government’s denial of student visas, mean that we can expect numbers to further decline in the coming year. To put up blocks against international students does not make any economic sense when they help balance the higher education budget, leave alone the benefits of greater understanding across cultures. 

The final piece that makes for the perfect storm is this—over the past couple of years, the political rhetoric in the country has turned intensely anti-intellectual. “We need more welders and less philosophers” has become a mantra. Politicians have been virulently attacking various fields of inquiry that they deem wasteful. 

Tragically, we seem to be in denial even as the storm is gathering force. This means that when the recession hits, it will result in a destruction of public universities, for which there will be no disaster relief. I hope educators and political leaders will begin to prepare for the coming storm, keeping in mind the best interests of the state’s children and youth who are our collective future.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

No traitors we are. We, too, sing America!

About eight years ago, after the "Tea Party" activists essentially took over the GOP, as the anti-Obama approach became the only guiding principle for that party, and with the intense opposition to Obamacare uniting all factions within that party, I started worrying about the meaning of the "take the country back" that the maniacal Republicans were mouthing off.

It was in that context that for the first time ever I blogged about Langston Hughes' poem.

Since then, Republicans have made it crystal clear what they meant by taking the country back.

Thus, during this Black History Month, it is most appropriate to re-read Hughes.

I, too, sing America.
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

I am a traitor!

"President Trump on Monday accused Democrats who did not clap during his State of the Union address of being un-American and even treasonous. ...
“Can we call that treason?” Mr. Trump said of the stone-faced reaction of Democrats to his speech. “Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
If merely not clapping him is treasonous, then I suppose it is immediate capital punishment for me, who has often referred to him with choice adjectives!

The Dear Leader made sure that it was not any slip of the tongue:
“Even on positive news, really positive news like that, they were like death and un-American,” he said, repeating, “Un-American. Somebody said treasonous. I mean, yeah, I guess, why not.”
 Meanwhile, the Dear Leader has further consolidated his support among the registered party members, with 90 percent of them approving his performance on the job, which apparently includes name-calling people and sabotaging the Constitution!

As always, most Republican "leaders" have opted to stay quiet in response. Because, all they want is power and to get their agenda items ticked!

My favorite public intellectual, thinker, wrote about such leaders and parties and their madness for power.  "The object of power is power," Orwell warned in 1984:
 Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end.
With every step down, people and pundits alike commented that it couldn't get any lower than that.  And then trump went down a step or two even further down.  And the Republican "leaders" continued to support him, the party base absolutely embraced him, and the evangelicals grew even fonder of him. It has been such an iteration over and over.

I, for one, am not ready to say that this cannot go on forever.  After all, it has already gone on like this for more than a year with him in office, and for almost three years since he announced his candidacy.  We are testing the absolute depths of everything that can go wrong.  Let us see when we will hit rock bottom, and how we will climb our way out of the mess that 63 million have created!

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Sweating it out!

M walked in with a bowl of mulligatawny soup from the neighbor.

"It is derived from a Tamil word," I began.  No flu will shut this professor up!

"Milagu rasam is the origin.  Milagu is black pepper." 

I was now on a high temperature rant, and no medicine could stop me at that point.

"In fact, this flu condition is a good time for me to have milagu rasam." 

Was I now delirious about milagu rasam?

"There is no dal, no vegetables, no nothing.  It is just watery.  milagu thanni, which literally means pepper water."

By now, I wasn't even looking to see if the friend was paying attention.  Heck, I didn't even know if M was even around!

"Some British guy heard that milagu thanni and his tongue pronounced that as mulligatawny."  I pronounced "mulligatawny" with a gruff, baritone, British impression and promptly broke into a coughing fit.

M re-appeared.

"Hot milagu rasam promotes sweating, which the old culture thought was a way to control the fever and cool down the high temperature."

Thankfully, those flu days are behind me. I hope.

I now read that there is a word that is applicable to both black pepper and me: Diaphoretic.  Google gives two meanings:
(chiefly of a drug) inducing perspiration
(of a person) sweating heavily.
As in, say:
Diaphoretics like pepper and ginger warm the person from inside and make them perspire.
No wonder sriram is diaphoretic!
Can somebody please prescribe me an anti-diaphoretic!

Monday, February 05, 2018

The American Dream ... not the Saudi Dream!

I think it was in the fifth or sixth grade when a classmate--Rabindranath, according to my memory--gave me a Saudi Arabia stamp.  For free. 

Unlike the usual protocols where stamps were exchanged, here I was getting one for free. What was the deal?

It turned out that Rabindranath was leaving school and leaving town. His father was going to work in Saudi Arabia.

Since then, I have known plenty of people who left for the "Gulf," as the usage was back then.  It meant that they could be working in any of the kingdoms/emirates near the Persian Gulf.  Some of them took their families also along.  The children attended schools there, and then came to India for college or went to other countries for higher education.  When the parents' contract ended, they returned to India or tried to immigrate elsewhere.

People went on work visas, and the end of work was also the end of their visa status.

The US, on the other hand, was highly restrictive.  Back then, a rare few went to the US on work visas.  Almost always, those who went to the US to work settled down there, raised their kids as Americans, and visited India with their American passports.  This was a small number of people compared to the crowds from the Gulf.

Over the years, we have gotten so much used to the idea of American work visas translating into American citizenship that I think we have started making the mistake of equating American work visas to American citizenship. 

And, thus, we have a new battlefront emerging about another group of Dreamers--these are the children of people who are in the US on work visas.
Nicknamed “H-4 Dreamers,” the children were brought to America from India with their parents on H-4, or dependent, visas. Until they turn 21, their status is the same as that of their parents, so if their parents become citizens, they do as well.
Many parents take this approach, coming into the country for a short period on an H-1B visa as a skilled worker and then applying to stay on an immigrant visa.
That’s usually not a problem, unless the family is from India, where there’s a 70-year wait for immigrant visa status because of a large number of qualified applicants.
They are pissed off that their parents came to the US on legal work visas, but are stuck in the Green Card lane forever, while the children of the parents who are here without legal papers are the ones who are getting all the attention.  The H4 Dreamers are not treated as "natives" when they apply for undergraduate education--because they are not permanent residents. And, even worse, when they turn 21, they cannot even continue as dependents on their parents' visas.

So, guess who organized a protest in DC about this?  The Republican Hindu Coalition.  Yes, "Hindu"--not "Indian."
“Trump loves Hindus,” “Trump loves India,” “Trump bringing Ram Rajya,” “Indians love Trump,” said the slogans
This is fucking nuts!  trump and "Ram Rajya"?  Do these people know anything about Ram, and about trump?
The march on Saturday, while endorsing Mr. Trump’s approach to immigration, was to highlight the issues concerning the legal residents who are already in the country. “While the current discussion is primarily focussing on those who illegally entered the country, we are working with the lawmakers to get some attention on this group that reached this country legally but face uncertainty now,” said Mr. Bansal.
The hindutva/modi/trump alliance is unholy as hell!

But then, this is yet another reason why I love this country--even non-citizens can protest here, unlike in the "Gulf."