Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Conservative in the morning. Liberal the rest of the day.

When we were kids, the typical breakfast at home was idli or dosai.  Freshly made.  By mother, of course.

One day, my brother, who was perhaps seven or eight at that time, stuck a hand-written note on the kitchen wall to voice his protest.  The note read: "இட்லி தோசை ஒழிக" (No more idli, dosai.)

Every time we get together, the family has a good laugh recalling that.  He vehemently argues that it was my father who put the thought in his head and that as a good kid he carried it out.  We laugh about that too.  Interestingly enough, he is now a dosai expert, and his kids love, love, love his dosais!

Idli and dosai were all what most of the kids in that part of the old country ate back then.  Or, uppuma.  That was the culture.

Bland, salty, savory is the tradition, not only in the old country culture but in old cultures practically anywhere on the planet:
“The idea that children should have bland, sweet food is a very industrial presumption,” says Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University who grew up in India. “In many parts of the world, breakfast is tepid, sour, fermented and savory.”
Years ago, I told my grandmother that in her cultural context, idli every morning with yogurt is the healthiest way to start the day, and no wonder the old cultural belief is that idli plus yogurt is the best food even for the sickest patient.
Children begin to acquire a taste for pickled egg or fermented lentils early — in the womb, even. Compounds from the foods a pregnant woman eats travel through the amniotic fluid to her baby. After birth, babies prefer the foods they were exposed to in utero, a phenomenon scientists call “prenatal flavor learning.”
What an easy excuse then for chocaholics: "hey, it was my mother's fault that she ate all that chocolate when she was pregnant with me!" ;)

Actually, chocaholics don't need to blame their mothers at all:
Sugar is the notable exception to “food neophobia,” as researchers call that early innate fear. In utero, a 13-week-old fetus will gulp amniotic fluid more quickly when it contains sugar. Our native sweet tooth helps explain the global popularity of sugary cereals and chocolate spreads like Nutella: Getting children to eat sugar is easy. Teaching them to eat slimy fermented soybeans, by contrast, requires a more robust and conservative culinary culture, one that resists the candy-coated breakfast buffet.
What we eat, especially when we are kids, is so much culturally determined.  Almost always, that also sets us up for the rest of our lives, unless we consciously make choices about what we eat.  Cultures are conservative when it comes to breakfast.  Whatever one gets used to becomes the daily breakfast routine.  Why?
People are at their most vulnerable first thing; the day has not yet properly begun and breakfast needs to be safe and reassuring. It is the most conservative meal of the day in all cultures, says Kaori O’Connor, an anthropologist who has written a book about the English breakfast. “We have fusion global food. But in all cultures there remains breakfast. It’s a sacrament with which you begin the day. You can go wacko later,” she continues, “but you want to start ‘right’ whatever that may be. You want to gird your loins; you’re emerging from sleep…You want to know that you’re getting a good start.”
We like that re-assuring rote in the morning.

When I am in the old country, I enjoy my favorite breakfast items there: Poori with potatoes, and idli with vadai.  Whoever invented these combinations deserves a bright star named after them!

Daily life in the adopted home is a routine that fits my dull and boring personality.  No idlis or dosais. No packaged cereals, no donuts, no nothing.  It is bland breakfast day in and day out, and I am happy with it.

I don't post any protest signs in my kitchen! ;)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

To "Sir" with crap!

When I was a rebellious teenager, which did not always outwardly manifest itself because I was a quiet fellow, there were many aspects of life that I routinely criticized.  One of those was about those who served with distinction in the Bastard Empire.  I could not understand how eminently qualified people could have licked the bastards' boots and claimed that  the act was something superior.

Thus, when people in the extended family boasted about "he was an ICS," I snickered within.  Had I known the phrase that I later came to know, I would have yelled--only within me, of course--a huge "fuck you." ;)

I couldn't care about the Indian government's honors as well.  The "Padma" awards.  Who cares!

Even funnier and incongruous is the UK continuing to hand out its various titles that refer to the British Empire.  Talk about people in denial, who can't even accept that the sun set on the empire a long time ago!

Anyway, back to the Bastard Empire.  The rulers figured out that it might to be their advantage to bestow honors on some of the colonized as well.
The British Crown used honours in the empire as a way of ranking and appealing to the local elites. The Crown particularly bestowed them in South Asia to the puppet rulers of the Indian princely states. The expansion of honours began to include more members of middle-class elites from the mid-19th century.
And, hence, people like "Sir" Rabindranath Tagore.

Of course, as the independence movement gained strength, the browns started tossing back the honors.  Including Tagore.  But, the bastards refused to recognize this.
Tagore paired ‘badges of honour’ with shame, and elevated humility above special distinction. British-Indian honours and titles, Tagore implied, were worse than worthless because they highlighted the shame of India by patronising and coopting individual heroes. The fact that he remained ‘Sir Rabindranath’ in the eyes of the imperial state was an embarrassment. Indian nationalists later used the knighthood against Tagore, for they too agreed that British honour could not be separated from Indian shame.
MK Gandhi, who perfected the non-cooperation movement as a powerful political weapon, launched his own battle against these fake honors.
Gandhi was one of the 20th-century’s great masters of political symbolism. He understood that the dismantling of the British system of social distinction amounted to a step toward disengagement with imperial rule. The symbolism of British imperial honours mattered. It reinforced a deferential, hierarchical relationship that bought consent from Indians to the ‘will’ of the empire with a shallow currency that lacked true value.
Shallow currency, indeed!

The practice of handing out shallow currency continues in the old country.  The government bestowed the highest civilian honor of "Bharat Ratna" (Jewel of India) on unqualified people like MGR and Rajiv Gandhi!

I continue to snicker.  But no longer within--I blog about it ;)

Monday, October 29, 2018

"A bad hair day" in Pittsburgh!

Way back in May 2016, in writing about the looming dark clouds, I worried:
It starts with a swastika and 1488 etched on a bench on a bridge over a river :(  Here is to hoping that we will end it all before it even takes hold.
It has taken a firm hold!

A mere two weeks ago that I wrote in this post:
When the President says all the horrible things that he says on a daily hourly basis, it reflects an utter lack of an ability to "fancy with the sufferer"--a complete and total lack of empathy
It is not any surprise when he makes even tragic situations only about himself. Or, talks about the most nonsensical things like how a boat ended up in some guy's yard.  A lack of empathy means that the asshole-in-chief can never behave like the comforter-in-chief that Presidents are expected to be in the face of tragedies. 
Through his incendiary rhetoric, this President created the monsters who marched around shouting "Jews will not replace us" and shooting at the faithful who had assembled for Shabbat prayers.

True to his personality, which he never hid from the 63 million who voted for him,he could not be bothered with being presidential:
Now, after a week of fear, with pipe bombs being sent to a list of people whom President Trump has said horrible things about, and to CNN, which he consistently targets, 11 Jewish citizens were slaughtered in their place of worship on the Sabbath. Trump’s response? He joked that he almost canceled an event because, after having to speak to reporters about the shooting in the rain, he was having “a bad hair day.”
I agree with the author:
This president will never offer comfort, compassion or empathy to a grieving nation. It’s not in him. When questioned after a tragedy, he will always be glib and inappropriate. So I have a wild suggestion: Let’s stop asking him. His words are only salt in our wounds.
Instead, "Let’s instead remember that the people in our daily lives are hurting too."

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

trump reveals who we really are

Blogging serves me in many ways.  It helps me think and learn.  Sometimes, the posts are also bookmarks for me to use the materials in my classes.  And, yes, in the lonely life, the possibility of having substantive conversations in the cyber-salon ...

Above and beyond that, blogging, like any kind of writing, is therapeutic.  If not for the writing, I would have become a wreck from all the internal struggles.

Even when I have plenty of time, I usually post only once a day here.  It is all a part of the regimented life.  But then there are exceptions.  Like today.

I want to let go of an issue that has been bothering me for a couple of weeks.  Ever since trump shrugged away the brutal murder of a Saudi journalist, who was a permanent resident here in the US, by talking about the billions of dollars of arms trade with the Saudis.

Like many people, I too found that equation to be disgusting.  And tweeted in plenty.

But, there is more to it. 

America looking the other way is not anything new.  The US has a long and dirty track record of supporting thugs who abuse, torture, and kill their people.  We even affectionately called it the our-son-of-a-bitch policy, as in, "“He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

trump merely makes that SOB approach public.  As with everything else, he is the most transparent politician we have ever had, except when it comes to his own taxes!

When it comes to important trading partners, or allies in some strategic geopolitical arrangements, the US has more often than not looked the other way when those partners commit horrible abuses.  We have always done that, as a government and as businesses.

We were crass then, and are crass now.  trump has merely revealed who we really are.

I have blogged in plenty here on this issue. My favorite is about how we treat the Dalai Lama.

Because we "value" the trade with China, we have always prostrated before the Chinese and obeyed their commands on how we dealt with the Dalai Lama.  Back in 2009, I even authored an op-ed on this.

Remember who the President was in 2009?  Yep, the "liberal" and "principled" Obama.

I wrote there about "the remarkably under-reported news that President Obama has “quietly postponed an audience with the Dalai Lama until after he visits China in November.”

Why did Obama postpone his meeting?  Because he wanted to keep the Chinese leaders happy.  The very leaders who were making life miserable for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans, the Uighurs, and, heck, the entire country.  Human rights and freedom were not what the Chinese leaders cared for.  And Obama said ok to them.

I wrote there: "The postponement of the meeting confirms, yet again, the triumph of realpolitik over principles."

That was a mere meeting.  With somebody who does not even have an army.  Whose only "weapons" are words of kindness and humanity.  Yet, Obama wussed out and did not want to stand up to the Chinese leaders.  Tell me again why trump's comment on the Saudi arms sales is different from Obama's behavior?

We have always played fast and loose with moral principles.  We were selective about morality.  trump takes that to a logical conclusion by revealing the stark nakedness of our situation.

Of course, the torture and murder of an individual is atrocious. Of course, we should rise in protest.  But, keep this in mind whenever a Democrat is in the Oval Office too.  Do not give her a pass just because she is from your party!

Like I said, getting all these out is therapeutic.  I can now go on about my day!

Divide and rule!

It has been clear for a while that in the US, there is one major political party that is all about expanding the tent and including people.  And then there is another major political party that is always on a mission to win by excluding people.

But then this country as we understand it was founded on excluding people.  The politics of exclusion is, thus, not anything new by any means.  However, it does not mean that I, like tens of millions of my fellow Americans, am no longer shocked by the rhetoric and politics of exclusion.  It is simply revolting!

The Democratic Party welcomes into its big tent transgender people.  Something like this video now in a trump era feels like it never happened, or that it happened in our dreams, right?

trump and the Republicans, on the other hand, want to erase their existence by redefining the sex of people in America.
for transgender and intersex people, having rights taken away is just not a return to a time before those rights were gained. It is worse. It is traumatic. It can have the effect of leaving people exposed because they don’t have a closet to return to. It can create absurd legal situations—if, for example, state-issued identity documents are not recognized by the federal government. The revocation of rights feels violent because it is violent, in part because the effort is aimed at preventing the rights from being reclaimed. It is probably for this purpose that draft changes to the law include a proposal for genetic testing to determine sex, according to the Times. James Hamblin, a writer for The Atlantic, interpreted this provision as “proposing widespread genetic testing and keeping records of citizens’ genitals.”
Awful. Atrocious. Inhumane!

But, again, not really new to the party loyalists.
But the Republican Party has been telling us all along that it would rather trans people did not exist. It should come as no surprise that the Trump administration is trying to erase us altogether.
In every thing that trump says or does, you can pretty much trace the line back to the same or similar things that the GOP has always been trying to say or do. The real difference is that trump does that crudely,while back in the pre-trump days, the GOP did that less crudely.
Even after Trump announced a total ban on transgender people serving in the military, they did not recognize the conservative push to erase our identities altogether, to outlaw a legal transition from one gender to another. The news of Trump’s legal redefinition of sex proves just how wrongheaded that assumption always was. Conservatives are now saying, loud and clear, that they will not be content as long as transgender people exist.
You recall that old line?  First they came for the gays ...
It’s a difficult time to be a progressive. The fundamental American values we’ve long used to measure progress are suddenly under attack. Trump and the GOP have shown that they do not believe in human rights at home or abroad. The rights of asylum seekers and children of migrants have been illegally done away with. Our rhetorical commitment to supporting human rights abroad no longer obtains. In light of this dramatic shift away from upholding human rights, the rights of transgender people may feel secondary, dispensable.
But whenever the left agrees to a compromise on basic principles, whenever we accept that some groups’ rights are more equal than others, the message we’re sending is that human rights are ultimately negotiable. The GOP didn’t stop with demonizing Muslims or Hispanics. It won’t stop with trans people, either.
63 million people wanted such exclusion, and they proudly support it!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

This constant life

Way back in school, when we learnt about atoms and molecules, I had a tough time imagining that there were atoms inside me.

Atoms? Electrons?  Inside us?  For my punny mind, it gave me new meanings to be shocked ;)

When in biology we learnt about cells, it was difficult to imagine the red blood corpuscles with iron atoms.  Education and learning are perhaps also about stretching one's imaginations.  It is easy to walk around with a limited view of the world, but is a challenge to expand that view.

One of the many baffling ideas that we were presented was the Avogadro Constant.  Here's a refresher:
The number 6.02 x 10²³ is also called Avogadro’s number. Amedeo Avogadro was an Italian physicist. In 1811, he proposed that equal volumes of any gas at the same temperature and pressure contain the same number of atoms (or molecules). The number is named after him to honor his work.
One of the fundamental constants.  What would the universe be if any of these constants were even slightly different in magnitude?

I lack the imagination to think of such an alternate universe. 

Interestingly, a similar one was in the qualifying exam for doctoral students in engineering; at least, that is what I was told back when I was a graduate student.  They were asked to explain at least one effect if the mass of an electron were a value other than what it is.  All I could think was, hey, everything will change.  I lacked the imagination to explain.

Why this scientific autoethnography?

Thanks to Avogadro, "On Oct. 23, between 6:02 a.m. and 6:02 p.m., chemists celebrate Mole Day."

Get it?  6.02 on 10/23.

Why "mole"?  It is a measure of small amounts.  Here's an example: "One mole of water with all 6.02 x 10²³ molecules of H₂O occupies slightly more than a tablespoon."

Decades have gone by since those Neyveli days when I first learnt about these concepts.  I have forgotten the calculations that we used to do involving moles and grams, and the pleasure in cracking them before others in the class did. 

At this point, it is almost like, "who cares!"

We should.  Because, if it were not 6.02x10²³ you and I will be very different.  Life itself will not be anything as we now experience.  Everything in the universe will be different.

How different?  I don't know; I lack that level of imagination!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

In trump's America, women will have lots of kids, right? Hahahaha!!!

When discussing population dynamics, I have often asked students about the number of children of the recent US presidents.


The president before him?
Bush. Two.

Before him?
Clinton. One.

I then ask them if they didn't have more kids because they could not afford too many children.
Of course not!

They didn't keep trying until they had a boy?  I mean, all girls?  A chuckle.

I would then ask them if they know how rich Bill Gates is.  We would laugh.  I would follow up with a silly question: Is he rich enough to afford to have, say, twenty kids?  But, he does not, right?

The point the exercise would lead to is this: Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton, had careers independent of their husbands.  And almost always, the world over, as women get educated and start working outside their homes, well, they don't have too many kids.

I have stopped doing this routine. For an obvious reason.  President donald t. rump!  I don't ever want to talk about him or his children!

I am not sure if trump understands such things, and whether his base does either.  Because, if they did, they will seriously worry about their tough stand against immigration.  But then, 63 million voters for this guy.  I mean, this guy!

The latest reports are that fertility rates are continuing to fall in the US.
Fertility rates have been dropping for all race and ethnic groups, with the largest drop occurring among Hispanic women.
Yes, Hispanics, too, that trump and his base love to beat up on (literally?)

With such a trend, of course the white supremacists come out in full swing.  Iowa's steve king goes full blast white nationalist and talks about the "great replacement" of whites with, gasp, browns.  And that too Muslims.
He talked fearfully of falling fertility rates in the West and spoke at length about his belief that Europe and America are threatened by Muslim and Latino immigration.
“If we don’t defend Western civilization, then we will become subjugated by the people who are the enemies of faith, the enemies of justice,” King said.
The interview is remarkable, capturing a sitting U.S. congressman completely fluent in modern white nationalist talking points just weeks before an election he is favored to win
Yes, he is "favored" to win.  Despite, or because of, such white nationalist hatred in, you know, the heartland, where real Americans live!
king, who represents one of the reddest districts in America, has beaten his Democratic opponents by more than 20 points in the past five elections.
Like I have said for a while, trump's language of hatred directed at non-whites and non-Christians is not new; the GOP has been at it for a long time.  trump merely removed the euphemisms and mainstreamed it.

I suppose he has done his part to "save" the whites and his civilization by having five children that we know of, with three different women, of whom only one was born in America.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Have you ever seen the rain?

We are nearly a month into fall.

A month into autumn, if you prefer that word instead.

But, it doesn't really feel like fall here in the valley.


It has been way too pleasant.  Gorgeous day after gorgeous day.  Plenty of sunshine. Heavenly day time temperatures.  Pleasant evenings.

And no rains!  Not a cloud up above.

By now, we would have had quite a few rainy days.  The overnight lows should have started trending towards the low 30s.

Even as we enjoy this, there is a worry in the back of many of our heads: This does not feel right.

Maybe climate change? Maybe el nino?

Whatever the reasons, when it does not rain during the time it is supposed to rain, one does not have to be farmer to worry.  Even this city-slicker is worried.

Because, to everything, there is a season.

I know that the day is not far away when I will complain about the rain, the always overcast sky, the never to be seen sun, the cold temperature ... but, that behavior, too, is a part of life. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Best Way Out Is Always Through

The following is a copy/paste from my essay at Inside Higher Ed.

I wish I had learned a number of things that I didn’t in graduate school, including what it means to be a faculty member advising students. If only I had been told what I know now: faculty advising and office hours are not really about the classes, per se!
I started teaching economic geography at California State University, Bakersfield. When students came to my office, it was not to talk about agglomeration economies, central place theory or international development (my favorite). Instead, they often talked about their own lives. Earl, a United States Army veteran, talked about his experiences as a homeless person sleeping under bridges. I still recall Frank getting teary as he spoke about his homeland, Sierra Leone, which he had to flee. (I have replaced real names of students in this piece to protect their identities.) And there were more, whose names and faces are fading away in my memory.
It did not take long for me to understand that advising would involve dealing with the anxieties, vulnerabilities and emotions that students struggle with. I was unprepared. I had to quickly learn and improvise. And I did.
I became a listener.
All through my life as a student, and until I became a member of the teaching profession, I had never had such experiences. In my undergraduate years in India, I found no equivalent of “office hours.” Other than during classes, when I tried my best not to fall asleep through the lectures, I rarely saw my professors, let alone talked with them. It is not that I did not walk around with emotional baggage of my own; at times, the weight of my baggage seemed unbearable. But I had no one to talk to about my anxieties that included an acute fear of public speaking, worry about my family’s financial stress due to my father being unemployed and -- the biggest one of them all -- my intense feelings of unhappiness and depression about my electrical engineering program.
Perhaps my formative years would have been less anxious if India had continued with a variation of the old tradition of gurukula. In the gurukula system, the student (shishya) almost always lived in the home of the teacher (guru) and his family. The guru and his wife were, for all practical purposes, a second set of parents, and provided a home -- a remarkable alma mater -- that made possible the shishya’s intellectual andemotional development. In complete contrast to the gurukula, my college professors and I were total strangers in India’s modern higher education system.
Though not operating a gurukula in Oregon, which is where I have been living and teaching for the past 16 years, I am convinced that faculty members can -- and should -- play an important role in students’ emotional as well as intellectual development. News reports empirically validate the struggles of the students whom I come across in my teaching. The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, which has been surveying first-year students across the country since 1966, notes a significant decline in the emotional health of college students. Life has apparently become even more complicated than it was when I was a teenager worrying about my future.
At the surface, it might seem like the three-legged academic stool -- teaching, scholarship and service -- does not include dealing with students’ feelings. But teaching does have a place for it. After all, we are not dealing with automatons but human beings with emotions. The life of the mind, which serves as an unofficial motto for higher education, includes anxiety and sadness.
I fully recognize that I am not a counselor. I suggest to students to meet with the counseling professionals on the campus if they are not able to work out their problems. One student, Valerie, who does work with counselors, wrote to me recently: “I don't plan on being broken for the rest of my life though. Well, it is not like I am planning it now, but things will be better soon.”
It seems like students want faculty members like me simply to hear them out and not necessarily solve their problems. Listening to students in my office, when they engage me about their life concerns, compels me to walk a fine line -- fully engaged and relating to the person yet detached enough from the emotions and the person so that I don’t get entangled in their lives. Depending on what students tell me, I sometimes share with them some of the anxieties that I experienced as a college student. Always, they are surprised to learn that I, too, was once a walking bundle of nerves.
A few days ago, I met with a student, Gina. As we discussed her classes and the need to look for summer internships, I sensed that something was troubling her. Thanks to the years of working with students, I knew that I should not force the issue, and that if a student really wanted to share their troubles with me, they would. The more we talked about her academic plans, the more I could see her gaining confidence that she could trust me.
She paused and looked away. And then Gina slowly talked about her problems dealing with anxiety and depression.
I listened. We talked about her worries and her interests. I latched on to her mentioning poetry. I told her about a line from Robert Frost that is comforting and encouraging when we struggle with problems: The best way out is always through. “I love Frost. I will look it up,” she replied with a smile.
But then, all of a sudden, her facial expressions changed. With her fingers covering her mouth, and looking deeply apologetic, she asked, “Is it OK to talk with you about these? These are my personal problems, right?”
“Of course, it’s OK,” I replied. She relaxed more when I added that advising and office hours are not merely about classes but -- and more important -- about such issues. And that’s a profound truth that I had not known as a graduate student when I was excitedly looking forward to a life as an academic.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Progress Report

If everything goes well, I will have to shed my General Malaise persona, and step into the the role of Mary Poppins next year, when I engage with college freshman students about how awesome the world is! ;)

I am forced to play the optimist in the classroom because I worry that all through the k-12 years, and in college classes too, it is more likely than not that students are presented only with the negative stories.  Like how population growth is a problem. Or about the polar bear. Or about the wars.  And how the country of Africa is messed up. How corporations have ruined lives. ... the list is endless.

I tell ya, if I were a college freshman, after listening to such stuff over and over and over, I will simply drop out and move to Montana and live in a cabin waiting for the end of the world as we know it.

My General Malaise personality is with a clear understanding that the world now is a much, much better place than the ones that the people who preceded us experienced.  Smartphones, internet, abundance of food, all the entertainment that people want, long lives, eye glasses, varieties of food, ... why do we so conveniently forget that the world in which we live is a fabulous place?

I suppose whether it is in the news media or in college education, only bad news is sexy.  Nobody wants to talk about the number of planes took off and landed.  It is one crazy way we humans operate.

Consider, for instance, the following graphic of the progress in India since the time I was born:

In case the chart is not clear:
Life expectancy at birth: An increase of 56 percent
Infant survival: Increase of 76 percent
Personal income: Increase by 457 percent
Food supply: 23 percent increase

Notice a zero growth in democracy level.  Because the country was democratic even when I was born.  Only for two years was the country under a strong leader with individual rights suspended--the kind of a political system that the modi-toadies would love to re-create now!

BTW, income and food supply are all per capita numbers.

The following chart shows the improvement in life in the US, since my birth in the old country:

So, why do I complain?  Simple.  I want even better conditions and I want them to come about faster.  My complaints are not because I think this is a crappy world that is inferior to some good old days. 

Further, it is not just about me and my welfare.  For me, the neighborhood does not stop with my yard.  As I look around, I recognize that we humans are also fully capable of screwing things up. Exhibit 1: Syria. Exhibit 2: Yemen. Exhibit 3: .... you get my point that we humans can intentionally make things worse.

We do all that even when we are fully aware that we have come a long way!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

There is no crying in baseball?

A few days ago, I asked a colleague if everything was ok because the colleague was not looking all good.

The colleague motioned me to close the door.  And broke down.  Tears down the cheeks.

It was all related to workplace stress.

I listened.  As I have noted many times in the past, I learnt a long time ago that when people share emotions it is not because a problem has to be fixed.  Instead, it is about having somebody to listen to.

The colleague thanked me for listening.

A couple of days later, the colleague said, "I am sorry for having been unprofessional.  And I am glad you didn't roll your eyes ..."

"Whether it is at home or at work, I don't roll my eyes in such contexts" I said.  "We are humans, and we have emotions.  We can't be robots at work.  Sometimes the emotions overwhelm us."

Quite a coincidence that a leading peddler of fake news has a piece about crying at work and why you shouldn't feel bad about it.  It is an interview with "Alison Green, who runs the career advice blog Ask a Manager and whose latest book, which has the same title, published earlier this year."

The bottom-line there is no different from what I told the colleague:
We’re human! We have emotions! Good managers will know that, and it’s not the end of the world if you occasionally show that at work.
I don't understand why this should be news to anybody.  Right?

So, why the tears at work?
If you’re really invested in your work and care deeply about doing a good job, you’re more likely to experience the sort of disappointment or frustration that can result in teariness. And of course, employers want us to be engaged in our work and to care deeply about it — and it’s hard to do that but also be detached enough that you never have a strong emotional reaction. So again, it goes to context and frequency. If it’s occasional and relatively private, you’re probably fine. If it’s frequent and/or public, if I’m your boss I’m going to be more concerned and trying to figure out what’s going on.
Which is also exactly what I told the colleague: The emotions were because the colleague was so involved and invested in the work and the people.  If this investment and involvement occasionally brings out tears, hey, we are human.  "The key word there being “occasionally.”"

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Trend lines, not headlines

First, read the following:
If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn't know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be, what time would you choose? Paleolithic? Neolithic? Ancient Greece or Rome? Medieval times? Elizabethan England? Colonial America? The 1950s?
Think about it.

Think again.

Remember, that in this thought experiment "you didn't know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be."


So, which moment in time would you choose to live?

My answer is no different from the one the questioner himself provided: I would choose today.

What if I were one of the struggling plebes and did not inherit millions from his father?
 “We are fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,” he opined, adding that “it's been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies. We're wealthier and healthier and better educated, with a global economy that has lifted up more than a billion people from extreme poverty.”
I agree with him.  This is the best of times all over the world.  It is phenomenal.  

I have proposed to teach a freshman seminar course in which I want students to verify for themselves how much we are all better off today compared to decades and centuries past.  The title of the course that I have proposed, which is the title of this post also, is from one of the talks that Bill Clinton gave years ago, Clinton suggested that people should understand the trend lines and not simply be glued to the headlines.

So, if all is well, then "why the doom and gloom heaped on us by politicians and pundits"?

Micheal Shermer, from whose column in the Scientific American I excerpted those quotes, gives a few explanations.  To me those explanations are rather immaterial.  I am amazed at how much we can't seem to think about the big story of the phenomenal success on various fronts that we humans have achieved over the past two hundred years.  Our inability to situate an unfortunate event against a an appropriate measure over time blows my mind.

BTW, the questioner who posed that thought experiment with which I began this post?  Another former President. Thanks, Obama!

Monday, October 15, 2018

Trading places

Over the years, I have come to appreciate John Rawls's "veil of ignorance" a lot.  I mean, a lot.  (Click here if you need a ninety-second briefing.)

Unlike Rawls's theoretical structure of an original position, we have the real world to deal with.  It is this world, not a hypothetical scenario, that we have to work with.  Which means, we need to figure out how to understand what it might mean to be a person of the type that we are not.  The "other" could be a different gender from us.  A different religion.  Different skin color.  Different upbringing.  Different whatever.

If we begin to understand the circumstances in which the others might find themselves, then, well, we are beginning to have that wonderful aspect of what it means to be human: Empathy.

It is not the emotional empathy that I am referring to, like when we see the stereotypical photo of a fly buzzing around a poor kid with a runny nose.  Nope. As Roman Krznaric explains in the video that I have embedded in this post (or you can watch here) it is cognitive empathy.

We imagine what the people in Aleppo are going through.  We imagine what the homeless in the nation's capital experience when they are only a few blocks away from the President's palace.  We imagine what the hijab-wearing Muslim is worried about as a result of the elections.

Krznaric referred to Adam Smith, which, of course, intrigued me.  Smith, is often hailed by the free market and the pro-business people.  (Pro-business is not the same as being pro-market.)  However, that is cherry-picking from what Smith had to say.

Smith not only wrote about the invisible hand and the power of self-interest, but was a moral philosopher.  Krznaric quotes Smith about empathy.  The think-tanks and the business lobbies conveniently forget that Smith was quite a philosopher.  Either they forget, or they are not even informed about it--perhaps the latter!

Krznaric quotes from Smith's other book, A theory of moral sentiments: " ... by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels."

By changing places with the sufferer ... in our imagination, not literally.  We then imagine what it might mean to be that other person.

When the President says all the horrible things that he says on a daily hourly basis, it reflects an utter lack of an ability to "fancy with the sufferer"--a complete and total lack of empathy.

It is not any surprise when he makes even tragic situations only about himself. Or, talks about the most nonsensical things like how a boat ended up in some guy's yard.  A lack of empathy means that the asshole-in-chief can never behave like the comforter-in-chief that Presidents are expected to be in the face of tragedies. 

When he lacks empathy ... progress will stall.  Huge steps backward as we hopefully wait for the long arc of the moral universe to bend, again, towards justice.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Kinder Kinder

I want to draw your attention to two meanings in the words that repeat in the title of this post. 

The English language meaning of kinder.  And then kinder as in the German word for children.


Consider this:

It is a photograph of a child. A five-year old. Her name is Helen.

Here's a question for you.  Would you throw that kid in jail?  Would you separate Helen from her family?  Would you compel Helen to sign on the dotted line and use that piece of paper as a legal document?

You wouldn't.  Because, if you are that kind of a person, you would have stopped visiting this blog a long time ago after you voted for the asshole-in-chief.

Here's the "mug shot" of Helen:

What happened?

63 million racists voted for a guy who lacks even a tiny drop of empathy.  Elections have consequences, like this one.  His administration forced Helen to waive her rights away because she illegally entered this country from Honduras with her family.
According to a long-standing legal precedent known as the Flores settlement, which established guidelines for keeping children in immigration detention, Helen had a right to a bond hearing before a judge; that hearing would have likely hastened her release from government custody and her return to her family. At the time of her apprehension, in fact, Helen checked a box on a line that read, “I do request an immigration judge,” asserting her legal right to have her custody reviewed. But, in early August, an unknown official handed Helen a legal document, a “Request for a Flores Bond Hearing,” which described a set of legal proceedings and rights that would have been difficult for Helen to comprehend. (“In a Flores bond hearing, an immigration judge reviews your case to determine whether you pose a danger to the community,” the document began.) On Helen’s form, which was filled out with assistance from officials, there is a checked box next to a line that says, “I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing.” Beneath that line, the five-year-old signed her name in wobbly letters.
Re-read this part:
On Helen’s form, which was filled out with assistance from officials, there is a checked box next to a line that says, “I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing.” Beneath that line, the five-year-old signed her name in wobbly letters.
A five-year old is asked to sign on a legal document, which itself is abhorrent.  And then that signature is used against her!

Read that report on how this current administration is treating Helen--and a number of other kinder--without any kindness.

The Bible-thumping, pro-life, pro-Jesus, Republicans are demonstrating that they don't care a shit about the English and German meanings of kinder. Maybe because it is not their own children, they don't care.  That lack of empathy is a complete annihilation of Jesus' words and actions.  As an atheist, I can claim that I am more Christian in my life than these awful people are! 

Brutus is an honourable man;. So are they all, all honourable men.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Resistance is exhausting!

These days, I often feel like throwing down that proverbial towel and giving up.  Resistance seems futile.  It is exhausting.

And then I think about how we reached the place where we are.  The rights that we enjoy today came from those who fought for it.  Against great odds.  Sometimes they literally gave their lives for the cause ... so that we can be where we are today.

Which means, I have no grounds to complain about feeling exhausted.  As mentally tiring and challenging as it is in this political climate, active resistance is required.

Two days ago, for instance, I emailed my District Attorney to ask her why she was silent on a controversial measure on which we Oregonians will vote in the next few days.  In that lengthy email, I wrote:
Your silence on this is unacceptable. This is not a time for silence. It’s a time for leadership. Getting into an elected office requires you to demonstrate leadership, and to let your constituents know where you stand on important and critical public policy initiatives. 
The DA replied. Which itself was a shocker to this Rodney Dangerfield.  And offered to also meet with me.  And then sent me a draft of her statement that she said she would release to the public.

After reading that, I sent another lengthy email to the DA, in which I wrote:
But, at least you have revealed your colors to us voters, which will help us evaluate your performance as the elected DA.
All these years, I have never cared to even know my DA is.  If anybody had asked me about district attorneys in America, I would have only talked about Hamilton Burger.  You know, the character in the Perry Mason series that we read as kids.  Now, the asshole-in-chief has made me find out who my DA is, and to then repeatedly email the DA!

The strange email conversation with the DA has not ended.  She wrote:
I haven’t issued the statement yet.  I will take your remarks, and the remarks of others who have replied, into consideration before putting the statement out to the public.   
Take it from this I-don't-get-no-respect guy, dear reader, if you live in America.
Keep fighting.
Especially at the local level.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Temporary inanity

Apparently USA Today published an op-ed bylined by trump (some bootlicking sycophant of his wrote that piece.)  Surprise, surprise that it was full of lies and misleading statements!

While real journalists (not like the faux news and wsj folks) were all up in arms, the President merrily carried on with his loud lying. Say some shit loudly and boldly, and while the sane ones are trying to sort that out, move on to other stuff where you shit loudly and boldly.  That seems to be his MO.

What a contrast to the old-fashioned idea that the loud ones are not necessary the correct ones and, therefore, to be quiet and humble!  We have various expressions from the past, like "empty vessels make noise."

But, this loudly and boldly is not really a new approach.  The explanation comes from centuries before modern communication technologies were even invented!
उच्चैरुच्चरितव्यं यत्किंचिदजानतापि पुरुषेण ।
मूर्खा बहु मन्यन्ते विदुषामपि संशयो भवति ॥
- सुभाषितसुधानिधि
One must talk loudly even when talking about whatever little you know.
Fools will think you are right and the wise may also be put in doubt.
- Subhashitasudhanidhi

I like how the couplet notes that "the wise may also be put in doubt."

While I am far from being one of the wise, I can certainly relate to being put in doubt.

A few years ago, The Atlantic had a regular column about words and grammar.  The editor/columnist, Barbara Walraff  featured an interesting question from a reader who was at a loss for words that could best describe the situation that the reader was in.  All the words in the dictionary didn't work and a word had to be invented.

I was terribly excited when they ran my question (thanks to "googling" myself, I found out that mine even made it to the book--it is there in the collection that Barbara Walraff has put together):
“I wonder if there is a word for what happens when teachers, like me, grade papers at the end of terms: the incorrect information in students’ papers makes me begin to question my own knowledge. For instance, after grading quite a few papers I begin to ask myself if it is effect or affect; does Switzerland really border a sea? Is there a word to describe this acute sense of ‘unlearning’?”
—Sriram Khe, Eugene, Ore.
It really doesn't take much to get me all excited about life!

As if my question featuring there wasn't enough excitement for me, they also mailed me four books autographed by the respective authors!  Hey, I might not have accomplished much in my career, but there has been enough and more excitement to make it more than a pedestrian existence ;)

The structure was that readers sent in their creative solutions to the grammar/word question, and the editor then published the best:
Temporary inanity is what college English teacher Laura Zlogar, of River Falls, Wis., calls the malady. Deborah Carter, of Walkersville, Md., wrote, “I’m a teacher too, and I’ve always thought of this phenomenon as wisdumb.”
Various people suggested factigue, examnesia, and misleducation— also amissgivings (Anutosh Moitra, of Sammamish, Wash.), bogmindling (Eunice Van Loon, of Biloxi, Miss.), contaminotion (Jim Lemon, of Gladesville, of New South Wales, Australia), errattled (Lisa Bergtraum, of New York City), nonsensery overload (C. Bernard Bar-foot, of Alexandria, Va.), numbleminded (Doug and Kay Overbey, of Maryville, Tenn.), and righter’s block (Carol DeMoranville, of Steward, Ill.).
Tom Dorman, of Sedro-Woolley, Wash., had yet another idea, and he knows whereof he speaks. He wrote: “As a high school teacher, I can sympathize. My ninth-graders have recently convinced me that the Norman Conquest took place in 1951, that Samson and Goliath had a torrid affair (don’t tell the school board), and that car pedium means ‘seize your movement.’ Correct tests like this late into the night to meet your grade deadline and you, too, will feel doubt-witted by your students.”
Be confident. Be bold. Say it like you believe you know it well. Let the others sink in their doubt.



Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Doctor means never having to say you're sorry?

My father, like all fathers perhaps, had his list of favorites among his pet peeves.  One of them was about doctors.  "They always say things like, the surgery was a success but the patient died.  If the patient died, how was the surgery a success?"

He often contrasted that with his own profession of civil engineering, where any construction flaw, however small it was, meant that the engineer in charge would be targeted.  Even fired.

Back then--I don't know how it is now--India didn't have a system for suing doctors for malpractice.  At least, nothing that I knew of.  There were atrocious stories-maybe most of them untrue--of physicians and surgeons screwing things up.

In graduate school, I came to an intellectual understanding that errors are always likely in the medical profession.  After all, given the number of variables in the healthy functioning of the human body, a small error can sometimes get amplified into a fatal mistake.

The question then is this: When have you ever heard your doctor tell you that she might have erred?

When my daughter got to medical school, I understood from her more about the “Morbidity and Mortality” meetings that people like Atul Gawande had written about.  The discussions among themselves is different from the conversation with the patient or the patient's family.   Right?

A neurologist writes:
We don’t talk about the emotional trauma of hurting a patient. Instead, most physicians cope with guilt, self-doubt and fear of litigation in private. After our patients, we become “second victims” of our mistakes.
I know I would not be able to function in such a setting.  It ain't easy.
Apologies are difficult for doctors, not only because we have to cope with hurting someone, but also because we are scared of the legal implications of admitting culpability. Early data suggested that apologizing for mistakes decreases malpractice costs, but recent research has called that into question. Although most states have laws preventing medical apologies from being admitted in court proceedings, statements of fault are still admissible in most places. We can say, “I’m sorry this happened,” but not “I’m sorry I did this to you.”
I have often questioned myself on how many lives I have affected through my teaching.  But, my consolation is that the harm that I might have inflicted will be minimal compared to the possibilities in many other professions.  But, there is always that possibility.  I sometimes tell students that--we are not perfect teachers, and that they will have to work with, and through, the imperfections.

Nobody's perfect.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Our Sterile Pursuits

Consider this:
Does anyone, for instance, believe that tax accountants contribute to national wealth or to productivity, and altogether add to society’s well-being, whether material, physical or spiritual?
Perhaps you are thinking that it is so typical of this left-of-center blogger to beat up on tax accountants.  If that is what you are thinking, ahem, you don't know me at all ;)

The writer also follows up with another comment that we are wasting well-educated human intellect on such "essentially sterile pursuits.”

So, who was that person who beat up on tax accountants?

Peter Drucker.

Yep, that Drucker.

It is bizarre how in a liberal democracy we continue to add taxes and tax-breaks, which almost always end up making creative work for tax accountants and attorneys, while making even more money for corporations, when the whole idea of government collecting revenue is for the "public interest."  Thanks to the government and tax accountants, we now have a President whose fortunes were built on shell games! 

It is a fine mess that we have created, and even an Alexander cannot handle this Gordian Knot!

To some extent, the tax attorney/accountant jobs that we have created are not that different from the textbook case of paying people to dig holes and have them fill those hole back.  We pass laws that create all those tax loopholes, and then these highly educated folks get paid to needle the thread through those holes.  One hell of a Keynesian jobs creation scheme, except that the ones who benefit from it usually attack Keynesian ideas.

But, back to Drucker's point on highly educated people following sterile pursuits.  I wish I had known this phrase back in my undergraduate days, because all I knew then was that I didn't want to waste my life in sterile pursuits.  But, it took me a while to also figure out what might be a worthwhile pursuit.

I am yet again reminded of the observation on "bullshit jobs" that I have blogged about.  That same author--David Graeber, who is as far from Drucker as can be possible in the political economic spectrum--notes:
A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble. But it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish
Of course, that is a a little exaggerated.  But Graeber's larger point is no different from Drucker's.

Like many, I too worry that more and more are being led into into sterile pursuits, instead of liberating us to pursue activities that will add meaning.  My father commented a while ago, "everybody says they are consultants.  But I don't understand what they are consulting about."  The next time he says anything like that, I should perhaps tell him that most are sterile pursuits--only because that sounds more decorous than saying "bullshit jobs."

Monday, October 08, 2018

We kill because we are pro-life

My induction into following the American national politics, especially the presidential election, was when Michael Dukakis ran against George HW Bush.  Dukakis's ideas matched my preferred positions, and if I had a vote, I would have voted him in.

And then came the big one at the debates.  CNN's Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis that famous question related to the death penalty.  Dukakis articulated his progressive ideas.  And Republicans wasted no time to call him a wuss because he was not in favor of capital punishment.  Of course, the GOP racialized the election, as they always do. 

I cannot ever understand why a party faithful that so cherishes the right-to-life and quotes Jesus all the time would be so manically supportive of killing people.  It is insanity!
While 72% of Republicans say they favor the death penalty, as compared to 58% of Independents and 39% of Democrats, death-penalty support among Republicans fell by ten percentage points, from 82% just before the presidential election in October 2016. Death-penalty support has plummeted 26 percentage points among Democrats—a 40% decline—since 2002, when 65% told Gallup they favored capital punishment.
Look at that divergence.  72% of Republicans favor the death penalty, while only 39% of Democrats do.

That strong Republican support then translates to a slight overall majority in the country.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in April and May 2018 found that 54% of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 39% oppose it. That was up from 2016, when 49% of U.S. adults said they favored the death penalty, compared with 42% who opposed it.
And, this too: "A majority of whites (59%) favor the death penalty, compared with 36% of blacks and 47% of Hispanics, according to the Center’s 2018 survey."

Such a strong support for the death penalty is also why we have ended up with a strange, Twilight Zone, situation: Alabama wants to kill Vernon Madison, a 68-year-old death-row inmate.  The problem that the blood-thirsty, Bible-thumping, pro-lifers, have is this:
The 33-year veteran of death row—in solitary confinement for all that time—cannot “fully orient to time and place”, his lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, told the justices. His acute vascular dementia brought on by strokes “has left his cognitive abilities greatly diminished” with “intellectual functioning in the borderline range” and a sharply compromised memory. He is legally blind, slurs his speech, walks only with assistance and cannot recite the alphabet past the letter G. He is, Mr Stevenson said, “bewildered and confused most of the time”.
He is the guy they want to kill.

Nobody denies that Madison is a murderer.  That is not the issue.  The issue before the Supreme Court is whether this dementia patient with greatly diminished cognitive abilities ought to be murdered by the state.  The great state of Alabama contends it has the right and duty to kill him.  It has "a strong interest in seeking retribution for a horrible crime."
In his rebuttal, Mr Stevenson noted that the “awesome” power of executing someone must be exercised “fairly, reliably and humanely”. The Eighth Amendment’s constraints on punishing “really fragile, really vulnerable people” aren’t just a window into political justice. They are “a mirror”, he told the justices, on ourselves.
The mirror shows that we are cold, calculating, murderers!

Sunday, October 07, 2018

When day is done

I scan the obituary notices in the local paper.  Not because of any morbid curiosity.  Not because I want to know if anybody I know is dead.

I scan them for three important reminders about life.

One: We all die.

Two: I will also die.

And, therefore, three: we all age, if we are lucky enough to live long.  Our youthful years recede farther and farther in our rear-view mirrors.

I have blogged in plenty, like here, about how when we see old and frail people, we see them only as old and frail people, and forget that they, too, were once young and lively and energetic.  If we paid attention, then we will understand that the old and the frail are also constant reminders of what is coming our way.  We see the future every day, yet we so easily dismiss what we see, as if that future will never be our own stories as well.

Of course, this is nothing new.  It is very much a part of the story of the Buddha himself.

Remember that story?  Siddhartha was raised in a bubble where the misfortunes of life were hidden from him.  Siddhartha did not know anything about the human suffering,  And then, one day, he ventures out and finds a dead person.  A corpse.  Siddhartha meets an old man, and now worries that he too might become old and wrinkly.  The metamorphosis of Siddhartha to the Buddha began. 

"Life is suffering and to live is to suffer," the enlightened later revealed to us.  We might try our best to defeat aging and death.  We share a desire to be free of suffering.  But, resistance is futile. Resisting it also means that we lose the wonderful opportunity that we have to enjoy the here and the now.

If only we understood carpe diem and YOLO along these lines!

No, I did not wake up thinking about all these. I think about these all the time!

Enjoy, before the day is done!

Saturday, October 06, 2018

No more taxes. Period!

The older I get, I find that the rules for being and doing good seem to be getting simpler by the day.  The problem of persuading others, however, has gotten to be increasingly difficult.  As Aziz Ansari says, “Everyone weighs in on everything. They don’t know anything. People don’t wanna just say, ‘I don’t know.’”  And the loud voices of idiots drown out the truth!

Today's exhibit: Tampons.

Yes, tampons. And sanitary pads. And, yes, real men talk about this too!

Almost three years ago, I blogged about the idiocy of taxing feminine hygiene products.  I wrote there:
To me, well, there is no argument here: the sales of tampons and sanitary napkins should not be taxed.  But then who listens to me anyway!
The rule is so simple, but persuading others is damn difficult.  Especially to us Rodney Dangerfields who thought our mothers had the best approach to life!

In responding to comments--yes, in those pre-trump years, there were commenters--I became blunter than I was in the blog-post:
Feminine sanitary products are necessities. I would argue that even birth control pills are necessities for that same reason--it is not like women *choose* to have periods and, therefore, it is a luxury. Unlike with shitting, which all of us do, it is a segment of the population that has to deal with menstruation. Which is why tampon tax is a remarkably stupid idea. I am surprised that it has continued this long--I am sure it is because politics is dominated by men, in the discussions and in the decision-making bodies.
This NY Times piece reports on the development in Australia, where from January 1st, tampons won't be taxed.  The report adds:
The fight over a tampon tax goes beyond Australia’s shores. In the United States, there is no tax in nine states for products like menstrual cups, pads and tampons. Five other states have no sales tax at all. Washington’s mayor signed an exemption into law last year. But 36 American states still tax sanitary products, according to the group Period Equity.
It is just bizarre that 36 states here continue to tax them.  (BTW, menstrual cups? What the hell is that?)

There are countries around the world that are a lot wiser compared to the US. Even the less "developed" countries:
Kenya was among the first countries to eliminate the tax on tampons and pads in 2004. India ended its 12 percent tax on sanitary products in July last year, and Canada abolished its goods and services tax completely in 2015.
It was a 12 percent tax in India?  Twelve percent?

Here in the US, politics is dominated by men, in the discussions and in the decision-making bodies, even more now compared to January 2016 when I blogged about tampon tax.  The outright misogyny surprises and shocks me.  As if to put the icing on the cake, the chairman of the all-male Republican membership of the Senate Judiciary Committee has this to say about why their group is all-male:

Even "intelligent" Republican women vote for such assholes!  I tell ya, persuading people about the truth is way more difficult than it should ever be.

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Conceptual Penis in Breastaurants

So, yet another gotcha! moment in the academic world of "research."

In case you missed it, because you were preoccupied with the teetotaler pussygrabber defending a beer-drinker by claiming that Jews were ruining the country, well, you are correct in ignoring the latest tempest in the academic teapot.

But, we shall address that here.


To me, this is merely yet another dog bites man story.

Note that in the opening sentence I wrote "yet another" ... because the one that really should have alerted academia was the original--by Alan Sokal.  That was more than two decades ago.

However, academe couldn't be bothered.

Academe didn't change because of the entrenched publish-or-perish culture.  Publishing intellectual masturbation as "scholarship" is a requirement for promotion.  These days, it is a requirement to even get the first job in higher education--in contrast to the old days when intellectual masturbation began after getting hired!

Does it bother you that I repeatedly refer to intellectual masturbation?  It should.  I am being intentional here.  As I wrote in an essay in the Chronicle Review, 17 years ago, almost to the very date, most of the academic "research" is pretentious work that will not sell even for penny, or for a kopek according to Anton Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" that I quoted in that essay.

I had always hoped that the financial urgency will force higher education to review its bizarre facade of scholarship, before the public figured it out as much as Uncle Vanya figured it out.  But, academic "scholars" could not be bothered with all that.  The intellectual masturbation continues with cries of orgasmic pleasures within the walls of the ivory towers!

In this essay in The Chronicle Review, the authors note:
We need policy makers and grant makers to focus not on money for current levels of publication, but rather on finding ways to increase high-quality work and curtail publication of low-quality work. If only some forward-looking university administrators initiated changes in hiring and promotion criteria and ordered their libraries to stop paying for low-cited journals, they would perform a national service. We need to get rid of administrators who reward faculty members on printed pages and downloads alone, deans and provosts "who can't read but can count," as the saying goes. Most of all, we need to understand that there is such a thing as overpublication, and that pushing thousands of researchers to issue mediocre, forgettable arguments and findings is a terrible misuse of human, as well as fiscal, capital.
The authors list a few suggestions for reform.  What is their bottom line?
Best of all, our suggested changes would allow academe to revert to its proper focus on quality research and rededicate itself to the sober pursuit of knowledge. And it would end the dispiriting paper chase that turns fledgling inquirers into careerists and established figures into overburdened grouches.
Here is the ultimate kicker: the authors are, implicitly, referring to the research universities.  If this is their set of observations on the happenings at research universities, then one can easily imagine the state of "research" at the vast number of universities that are not research universities but teaching universities, like the one where I teach.

In another essay, Arthur Levine noted that rapidly widening gap between "Digital students, Industrial-era universities" :
[It] is important to ask how much colleges and universities need to change. In 1828, facing industrialization and a Connecticut legislature that disapproved of Yale’s classical curriculum, the Yale faculty responded with a report which asked, in part, whether the college needed to change a lot or a little. This, Yale’s faculty said, was the wrong question. The question to be asked, they argued, was: What is the purpose of a college? This remains the right question today.
What is the purpose of college, and what is the role of "research" that faculty do?

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

There goes the neighborhood!

It is very difficult, extremely difficult, to make most of us accept something that we wish we did not have to.  Which is why I have, for instance, stopped even attempting to reason with trump supporters--even if they might have some modicum of decency within them. 

But, just because we don't like a truth, well, that truth does not simply disappear. Instead, it keeps raising its head over and over again, despite our attempts to ignore it or to whack it down the hole. We don't like our views upended and we will do our best to resist the truth.

No, this post is not about trump; though the latest detailed NY Times report might as well be a classic example of what this post is about.

For a long time, I have been blogging that choosing your parents well makes one hell of a difference. (you can now see why that NY Times piece on trump also fits here.)  But, we resist the idea that so much of our future depends on that accident of birth.  Providing evidence that researchers have gathered, I continue to point out this out.

Way back in 2011, for example, I quoted Branko Milanovic (via Catherine Rampell)
an astounding 60 percent of a person’s income is determined merely by where she was born (and an additional 20 percent is dictated by how rich her parents were)
That goes against the idea that we prefer to believe--that individuals can and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and they can and will succeed. “I built what I built myself.”

More evidence on this: The American Dream Is Harder To Find In Some Neighborhoods

Note it says neighborhoods.  Now check back with that Milanovic statement.

So, what does the latest piece say?
A new online data tool being made public Monday finds a strong correlation between where people are raised and their chances of achieving the American dream.
Harvard University economist Raj Chetty has been working with a team of researchers on this tool — the first of its kind because it marries U.S. Census Bureau data with data from the Internal Revenue Service. And the findings are changing how researchers think about economic mobility.

Like with climate change, here too we can have researchers do study after study.  Like with climate change, people will dis the studies just because they don't support their preferred view of the world.  The truth doesn't depend on what we prefer though.
Chetty found that if a person moves out of a neighborhood with worse prospects into to a neighborhood with better outlooks, that move increases lifetime earnings for low-income children by an average $200,000. Of course, moving a lot of people is impractical, so researchers are instead trying to help low-performing areas improve.
If Mohammad can't go to the mountain, then we have to explore ways in which the mountain can get to Mohammad.  This is where public policies come in--policies that can address this accident of (mis)fortune.  Policies on  "early childhood development, college and career readiness, family stability and strong social networks, ... segregation, ...pre-K programs and affordable housing."

Those are exactly the kind of issues that trump and the Republicans love to talk about, right?  As in how they can kill such programs and policies!  There is, according to them, a miracle drug that cures all: tax cuts for those who were born in the correct neighborhoods!

I built what I built myself.” My ass!

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

To “feel the pain of others, help those who are in misery”

On the occasion of Gandhi's birthday, I am re-posting here a column

The United Nations marks Oct. 2 as the “International Day of Nonviolence” for a very good reason — it is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi, who was born in 1869, led the independence movement that, in 1947, resulted in the creation of two new countries of India and Pakistan and, with that, the end of the British Raj. The struggle for freedom, in which Gandhi passionately urged his followers to observe non-violence even against the colonizer’s brutal force, inspired many others, including Martin Luther King Jr.
Life is full of tragic ironies — Gandhi and King, the champions of peace and nonviolence, fell to bullets aimed at them. Unlike Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948, King had not lived long enough to live in the promised land of freedom.

Albert Einstein summed it up best for all of us when he wrote about Gandhi that “generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” On Gandhi’s birthday, it certainly will help us all to be reminded, as the U.N. puts it, of the human desire for “a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence.”

In the contemporary United States, any talk in the public space about peace and nonviolence is rare. Politicians of all stripes want to prove how much tougher they are than the other, out of a fear of being labeled a wimp. This has been especially the case since the fateful events on Sept. 11, 2001. At the national level, the “tough” ones smell blood when an opponent does not talk of war. At this rate, even those running for the office of dogcatcher will have to prove their toughness.

Of course, violence is more than merely engaging in war. The political rhetoric during the past year seems to have been anything but peaceful and nonviolent. A new day begins with attacks on yet another person or group of people, based on whatever cultural trait is deemed to be the “wrong” one for the moment. Even I, as insignificant as one can be in the political landscape, have been a target for those who are seemingly at ease with offensive words and rhetoric.

While words, unlike sticks and stones, do not break bones, the violence conveyed through words causes plenty of harm. In the noise and confusion of the violent rhetoric that surrounds us in the real and cyber worlds, we seem to have lost a fundamental understanding of what it means to be human.

One of Gandhi’s favorite prayers says it all about being human: It is to “feel the pain of others, help those who are in misery.” Unfortunately, the rhetoric and practice these days is far from that interpretation of humanity.

When it comes to the terrible humanitarian crises, like the situation in Aleppo, Syria, it is depressing and shocking to see how quickly we closed ourselves off from the “pain of others” and how easily we refuse to “help those who are in misery.” We have refused to budge even when the screens all around us flashed the images of Aylan Kurdi — the toddler who was found dead, face down, on a beach — or the five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, whose dust- and blood-covered face looked dazed and confused.

Meanwhile, all around the world, the number of people displaced from their homes continues to increase. The United Nations estimates that by the end of 2015, the number of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes reached 65.3 million. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, noted that “at sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.”

As I write, peace and nonviolence seem to be evaporating even in Gandhi’s old lands of India and Pakistan. Tension between the two countries is at such high levels that commentators wonder, and worry, whether the neighbors are getting ready for yet another war. As often is the case with these sibling countries, this time, too, the fight is over Kashmir, but with plenty of nuclear bombs on both sides of the border.

We shall certainly overcome, in the long run. In the meanwhile, on the International Day of Nonviolence, like the stereotypical beauty pageant contestant, I, too, wish for world peace.