Friday, March 29, 2019

Who needs the humanities?

We do.

In an oped a few years ago (I am unable to track down the post here for me to link it) I wrote that we will worry a lot in the future about various technological features that will become a part of our lives.  One of the examples that I mentioned there was genetic editing--designer babies, as we colloquially refer to them.  There are plenty of examples that we can easily think about, in which we need to systematically pause and ask ourselves how the new ways are redefining what it means to be human.

Of course, nobody cares for what I say or write; the story of my life!

While I didn't know how to articulate such concerns back when I was an undergraduate student, these are the kind of issues that led me to ditch electrical engineering in order to do what I do now.  The disconnect between technology and humanity bothered me, and it still bothers me.  In the contemporary academic world, to argue in favor of inquiring into the humanity is a losing proposition.  And this is in the US--it is way worse in the old country!

Philosophy departments are now an endangered species.  History and English are rapidly shedding their faculty.

While pushing science and technology, we forget that "science and technology aim to assist humans."  Yet, we do not want to understand humanity?  We ignore that "interface between humans and advanced technologies is a frontier where the humanistic perspective is indispensable"?

The author, who chairs the astronomy department at Harvard, writes that "the future belongs to the incorporation of liberal arts into science and technology."
A few contexts immediately come to mind. First and foremost, the study of ethics. There are major ethical questions regarding genetic engineering: Which revisions to the genetic making of humans should be engineered? Should we design the qualities of people that we wish society to have?
Yep.  Recall the oped that I referred to?

Or, how about this from the author:
Another area involves the implications of big data sets: How can we employ the vast information that is collected daily on people, and analyze it for the benefit of psychology and social science? Can we use these data to construct computer-based models that would forecast human behavior to guide policies or political decisions?
Recall all my posts on Facebook and algorithms and big data, thanks to which I even deleted my Facebook account a while ago?

Or, hey this one:
There are also existential questions about the purpose of human life: Will robots and AI replace human labor across the board from construction sites to scientific research? How will future economies adjust to a new reality in which humans have less to do? Will humans take a permanent “vacation”, and if so, what will the meaning of their life be if their dignity is not associated with mandatory labor?
The number of posts where I have worried about robots and what it means to be human!

Yet, inquiring into what it means to be human is not a major part of higher education.  Not even an afterthought.  What a shame!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The madness of rock-climbing walls

It is March Madness here in the US, and this means nothing to the rest of the world--as it should be.  In fact, I would rather that there were no March Madness even here in the US!

March Madness is when people can engage in betting in their work places.  It is when even the uber-left professors* will forget how the system screws the folk.  It is college basketball championship rounds.  Supposedly an amateur event, there are billions to made by corporations, the NCAA, the coaches, and the universities.

Apparently having good sports teams and athletics facilities are all that really matter in the part of higher education to which people really do not have to engage in fraud in order to get admission!  Because, once you have those, then students come in even from afar, from outside the state. And, getting those out-of-state students is a big moneymaker for publicly-supported universities, which otherwise won't be able to fund the multi-million dollar compensation for coaches!

So, these universities fall over each other in order to recruit students from other states.  Often, these out-of-state students are also less-capable ones who "had been rejected by their home flagships."; the more capable are able to find seats in their own states, which makes tuition more affordable.

And, what exactly are these less-capable students looking for?  Ahem, ""What these less-than-top-notch scholars may be most interested in ... are amenities like rock-climbing gyms and lazy rivers."

Such is the state of "higher" education in the country!

Even our small school spent a nauseating amount of money in order to build a flashy new gym with a rock-climbing wall and an indoor pool.  I blogged about this back in 2011--eight years ago.

A few months ago, I wrote to the university's budget committee that the university should rethink its allocation for athletics.  Guess what happened?  They did not consider it worth discussing.

* Years ago, in a newspaper op-ed I included a comment on how even leftist faculty are all in support of college sports.  Ooooh, I touched a raw nerve ;)  A loud leftist faculty wrote in a campus distribution list (which included me) linking me and Faux News' glenn beck ... hahahahaha

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Stress Valley

Despite a booming economy, pleasant climate and natural treasures, nearly two-thirds of Bay Area residents say the quality of life here has gotten worse in the last five years, according to a new poll.
No wonder people working there get paid a lot as compensation for the misery.

Apparently people love money and fleeting fame so much that they have made quite a deal with the devil!  And even the people who don't have money don't want to leave, which makes no sense to me.

Meanwhile, The New York Times notes that the Silicon Valley's very-important-people seem to be obsessed with the virtue of suffering.
They sit in painful, silent meditations for weeks on end. They starve for days — on purpose. Cold morning showers are a bragging right. Notoriety is a badge of honor.
Madness, my friends, madness this is!

I have often joked with students that if I wanted to starve and not have hot showers, well, I could have easily stayed back in a poor village in India ;)

So, the Valley's very-important-people are turning to ... Stoicism?  WTF?
Stoicism has been the preferred viral philosophy “for a momentfor years nowor two decades, by one count. The topic of Stoicism usually comes up in the Valley in terms of the maintenance of the personal life. Start-ups big and small believe their mission is to make the transactions of life frictionless and pleasing. But the executives building those things are convinced that a pleasing, on-demand life will make them soft. So they attempt to bring the pain.
“We’re kept in constant comfort,” said Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, in an interview on Daily Stoic, a popular blog for the tech-Stoic community. Mr. Rose said he tries to incorporate practices in his life that “mimic” our ancestors’ environments and their daily challenges: “This can be simple things like walking in the rain without a jacket or wearing my sandals in the December snow when I take the dog out in the mornings.”
Seriously, these are the nutcases that are shaping our collective future through hi-tech?

Why Stoicism?
Ada Palmer is a professor of early modern history at the University of Chicago and a novelist. Her books are popular in Silicon Valley, and she often visits for dinners with tech workers.
“It’s very interesting to see their sort of sad lethargy,” Dr. Palmer said. “When you’re 37, rich, retired and unhappy, it’s very perplexing.”
"Sad lethargy." There is a cure for that--go do something that connects you with real humans.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The virtual is for the poor?

It was in 2011 that I first came across a reference to EM Forster's The Machine Stops, and since then I have quoted from that masterpiece many times.  I will quote from that story again in order to get you warmed up for what this post will deal with:
"You talk as if a god had made the Machine," cried the other.  "I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind." 
She replied that she could scarcely spare the time for a visit.
A century ago thinkers like Forster were worried about the potential for human-human face-to-face interaction to be replaced by human-machine interactions. We are now living that science-fiction!
Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.
"For anyone but the very rich."

Consider online classes, for instance.  I have taught online classes from the bad old days when we used dial-up modems.  Even though I teach online classes, I have always argued that students are being shortchanged.  And here's how I often make that argument: Students do not go to Harvard to take online classes there.  So, if Harvard's students, who are, on an average, way more talented and able to learn with very little guidance, go to college for a learning environment that is guided by real humans and in the company of real humans, then how is it that we market online classes only to the less privileged?

Online classes are an example of contemporary life that is "increasingly mediated by screens" for those who are not rich enough. This contrast between the rich and the rest begins from a young age:
In Silicon Valley, time on screens is increasingly seen as unhealthy. Here, the popular elementary school is the local Waldorf School, which promises a back-to-nature, nearly screen-free education.
So as wealthy kids are growing up with less screen time, poor kids are growing up with more.
As it turns out, the wealthy even resort to fraud in order to get their children to colleges where real humans with real intellectual prowess will engage with students.  There is a reason they don't commit fraud in order to get their kids to my online classes!

I particularly like this point that the author makes: "Human contact is becoming a luxury good."


Monday, March 25, 2019

Food is not about calories

For years, I have told anyone who would listen to me to eat fruits and not merely drink fruit juice.  For multiple reasons: Juices typically have added sugar; fruits supply fibers too; and eating fruits make the jaw and teeth work.

Of course, rare is a person who listens to me.

Food (and ill health) is not merely about calories.  It is about a whole lot more.  It is about sugars. It is about timeliness.  It is about fiber intake.  It is about, ... well, you get the point.

However, people seem to want some kind of an easy bottom-line, and "calories" meet that want.  I have  even reminded students, a lot, that all calories are not created equal.  The calories from a soda are not the same as calories from an apple.  Yet, the focus is increasingly on calories.

It is well past the time to kill the idea of food calories! Consider, for instance, how the calorie calculation messes things up:
Calorie counts are based on how much heat a foodstuff gives off when it burns in an oven. But the human body is far more complex than an oven. When food is burned in a laboratory it surrenders its calories within seconds. By contrast, the real-life journey from dinner plate to toilet bowl takes on average about a day, but can range from eight to 80 hours depending on the person. A calorie of carbohydrate and a calorie of protein both have the same amount of stored energy, so they perform identically in an oven. But put those calories into real bodies and they behave quite differently. And we are still learning new insights: American researchers discovered last year that, for more than a century, we’ve been exaggerating by about 20% the number of calories we absorb from almonds.
If people listened to me, then they would systematically think about what they eat, and also think about the cultural culinary traditions that sustained people.  Like the green jackfruit, for instance.
Food researchers are trumpeting the potential for jackfruit to become a staple crop on a warming planet. “The thing about jackfruit is that it’s huge – one of the biggest tree fruits in the world,” said Danielle Nierenberg, president of the Food Tank, a Washington DC-based food study institute. “It’s large enough that families can eat one fruit for a long time. It takes relatively little care, doesn’t need a lot of irrigation and is resilient to pests and disease. So if we’re thinking of foods for the future, jackfruit is what we should be thinking about.”
In the global existence of ours, imagine incorporating into our lives the food traditions that have sustained cultures throughout the world.  We could easily have healthy foods that are also tasty, and we could at the same time have a remarkable variety of foods.  Instead of adopting such good things from around the world, we seem to be hell bent on getting hooked on to the bad habits that the modern food industry brainwashes us about. What is the point of being "educated" when we cannot seem to take care of our own selves?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Learn to embrace uncertainty

In graduate school, it seemed like the faculty expected me to go the quantitative route, because of my background in electrical engineering. Statistical modeling and, more importantly, GIS, which was in its infancy back then.

I couldn't care about those data-based inquiries.

Because, I was convinced that the human condition that I was interested in learning and thinking about was beyond mere data.  Further, I even made fun of how the data were used in the publish-or-perish academic culture: Faculty and students were more often than not playing with data and seeing if anything would come out of it, instead of thinking through the issues and then using the data.

As with everything else, I chose the losing route.

Graduate students who specialized in data-based research techniques and GIS moved on to good jobs in academia and outside.  I struggled to find a job!

I did continue to criticize the publish-or-perish culture that encouraged fooling around with data and statistical software, which was getting to be more and more sophisticated.  All these were before "big data."

I now feel vindicated.  Phew!

Pissed off scientists have risen up in their opposition to the abuse of statistical significance:


The authors--"more than 800 signatories"--want researchers to quit categorizing:
The trouble is human and cognitive more than it is statistical: bucketing results into ‘statistically significant’ and ‘statistically non-significant’ makes people think that the items assigned in that way are categorically different ...
On top of this, the rigid focus on statistical significance encourages researchers to choose data and methods that yield statistical significance for some desired (or simply publishable) result, or that yield statistical non-significance for an undesired result, such as potential side effects of drugs — thereby invalidating conclusions.
Note how they phrased it? "encourages researchers to choose data and methods that yield statistical significance for some desired (or simply publishable) result" is exactly what I did not find appealing back in graduate school!

More from the authors:
The objection we hear most against retiring statistical significance is that it is needed to make yes-or-no decisions. But for the choices often required in regulatory, policy and business environments, decisions based on the costs, benefits and likelihoods of all potential consequences always beat those made based solely on statistical significance.

And even more important is this point from the authors on what will happen if we got rid of our focus on statistical significance:
Decisions to interpret or to publish results will not be based on statistical thresholds. People will spend less time with statistical software, and more time thinking.
More time thinking.  What a concept!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The life of an amateur

I wanted to be an academic who was actively engaging with the public--the old-fashioned public intellectual, even if I could not ever be at the high quality. After all these years, whenever I look at my CV, well, frankly, I am impressed with myself.

I really did not think it would work out this well.  Especially because I am always worried that people might find out that I am an impostor.  I have always felt like I am an amateur who was dangerously close to the edge.  It is, therefore, comforting to know that such a thought of being an amateur is a good thing:
Being an amateur is nothing to be ashamed of. Edward Said embraced the term. For him it was the mode of the intellectual. Amateurism, he said, is "the desire to be moved not by profit or reward, but by love for an unquenchable interest in the larger picture." It is a desire, he continued, that lies "in refusing to be tied down to a specialty, in caring for ideas and values despite the restrictions of a profession."
As an amateur you are naturally anti-instrumental. You’re largely indifferent to extrinsic rewards or status. When doing research, you’re not interested in gaining an elevated position among your immediate academic peers. You’re just interested in keeping your job, making sure not to get fired.
I like that description: "you are naturally anti-instrumental,"  I do what I do not because I am chasing "extrinsic rewards or status."  I care for the ideas that I explore, for the students I serve, and as long as I continue to have the job that I have, all is well.  As simple as that.
As amateurs we need to be open. And we need to experiment with different outlets, and work on how we get our ideas across.
Exactly.  In doing so:
Are we writing about topics worth caring about? Topics that move us? Topics that move other people? All too often we seem to write about topics that move no one and have no resonance to anyone, anywhere.
In my early years of engaging with the public, it was always a struggle trying to figure out how to convince the reader that what I write is important.  Where was the hook for the local reader if I wanted to write about India or Tanzania?  Why is that relevant to them?  The only thing I knew was this: I did not want to come across to a reader that I write because I am an expert and that they ought to read my stuff because I am an expert.  That, to me, was an unequal partnership that would never work.  I detest the tone of "listen to me, because I am an expert who works at a big time place."

I am willing to bet that this meaningful op-ed writing and engaging with the public has also made me a better teacher.  Or at least a less-horrible teacher.  After all, it is the same mentality that I take to the classroom: How do I convince the audience--even if they are captive--that the content is relevant to them and their lives?
When writing for academic journals, you’re lucky to be read by more than a handful of people. With teaching, however, it’s different. Not only can we reach many more, but, as Russell Jacoby wrote in The Last Intellectuals, we "have students who pass through and on to other things." And with students passing through the university each year, you might have an impact after all.
As an unapologetic amateur you should like to experiment with form.
It is a pleasure, and perhaps quite an ego trip, when students do make those connections.

At the end of it all, I find more meaning in what I do.  There is no unbearable burden of calculations towards professional advancements.
Many aspiring intellectuals have put their professional careers at risk in favor of something more meaningful. They’ve cared less about their careers — and more about the world. Which, we think, is laudable.
In the meanwhile, there are students to serve.  After the spring break, which even wannabe intellectuals need ;)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

If only the world had listened to me!

Many moons ago, when about this time of the year I had started planning for the migration northward to Oregon, I was scanning the local, downtown, community newsletter of sorts--I think it was called the Village News, perhaps modeled after the Village Voice.

In that, and unexpectedly, I received one of the best compliments that I have ever received.  The editor had noted my departure from the university and the town with a comment that the area was losing a public intellectual. I was pleasantly shocked.

It was all the more wonderful because it came from a person whom I had never met. This meant that she had based her comment strictly on my op-eds in the local newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian.

I knew even back in my teenage years that my life would be in the intellectual arena.  Further, I knew that I wanted my intellectual activities to be in the public, and not in some obscure office, not because of a need to be in the spotlight but because of an obsession of sorts to understand social issues and to discuss and debate with others my understanding.

But, of course, I had no idea then of a phrase "public intellectual."  It was one of the many new ideas that came to understand over the course of six graduate school years.

A couple of years ago, a student told me that he wanted to engage in the kind of public discussion of ideas like how I do, and asked me for suggestions on how he could go about it.  That stumped me.  I had no idea what the formula is.  I agree with the author here:
The phrase has come to mean an academic who occasionally addresses a general audience, as if all academics were intellectuals, and some of them were also public ones. In fact, academics and intellectuals are antithetical types. An intellectual is not an expert, and a public intellectual is not an expert who condescends to speak to a wider audience about her area of expertise. An intellectual is a generalist, an autodidact, a thinker who wanders and speculates. As Jack Miles puts it in a stellar essay on the question, “It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual.”
I love that description of "years of undisciplined preparation."  I might never have come up with that phrasing, but that has exactly been my life until now.  Undisciplined preparation. 
The intellectual’s job is to think past the culture: to question the myths, metaphors, and assumptions that limit our collective imagination. The founder of the breed was Socrates. As Kazin also said, an intellectual is someone for whom ideas are “instruments of salvation.” Becoming one requires a little more than setting up a blog.

Engaging the public has been far more productive in terms of creating and sharing knowledge, than my formal scholarship can ever be.

Back in graduate school, I was cautioned against gong this route by one of my graduate school professors.  Jim Moore applauded my passion for this approach, but warned me that academia would care only about the formal academic inquiries via the publish-or-perish peer-review process, though they would certainly get jealous about any notoriety that I gained from my approach.  Jim was, and is, correct.  But, it would not be me, and not my life, if I did anything other than what I wanted to do.  I carried on with my Quixotic tilting at windmills.

Every time I visit India, my father asks why I don't write for the Indian newspapers.  I have found it difficult to explain to him that the op-eds in the newspapers there are not the kind of the public intellectual discussions that I favor.  Often they are filled with jargon, written by experts and not by intellectuals.  The writings often seem to have an undertone of the specialist having decided that the ignorant public needs to be educated with his/her expert opinion.  As if the public policy issue would be solved, and solved easily, if and only if the public listened to that expert.  That does not strike me as the role of the public intellectual. 

There is so much to talk about ... never has there been a better time.  It will also be nice though if people listened to me! ;)

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

There's something in the air!

After deplaning and exiting the jet-bridge, we were in the terminal of the fancy and modern airport in India's capital city.  But, even the inside of the airport was polluted.  My eyes started watering even before we exited the terminal ... and the outside was infinitely worse!

Such is life in India, where a suburb of Delhi--Gurugram--has the notoriety of having the world's dirtiest air.  India, whose prime minister chanted the mantra of "India First" well before tRump started yelling and tweeting about "America First," is perhaps not too thrilled that India is first, indeed, when it comes to air pollution!

Worldwide, air quality seems to be worsening.  Even in places like Oregon, the summer wildfires, brought on by extreme weather events that are related to climate change, make the air un-breathable sometimes.

The worse this gets, one would think that the world's billions will rise up and demand an end to pollution.  We would think that humanity would want to breathe free and look up at the blue sky.  Right?


Instead, we are apparently creating fashion out of the masks that we need to wear to get through the choking pollution!  Yep, masks!!!  If you build a better mask, the capitalistic world apparently will rush to your door and flatten it and you in a nanosecond!
Enter the face mask, an accessory ripe for the market in these dystopian times. People who live in desert areas have long known to cover their mouths and protect their lungs from dust. But in the past few years, a handful of companies have started making air filtration masks engineered specifically for both fashion and function. In California, a company called Vogmask has all but cornered the market with its brightly colored designs. And abroad, companies like Airpop and Respro are entering the fold, hoping to provide an attractive alternative to the standard white painter’s mask.

I mean, come on, look at this photo:



And the logic for why this is a "fashionable" add-on?
And there’s an accessory these brands can look to as a historical example. “If sunglasses didn’t exist today and you were going to pitch an investor on sunglasses, you would sound insane,” Hosmer says. “‘Hey, we’re gonna put this thing that covers, like, the window to your soul, the most communicative part of your body; we’re gonna put something in front of it so that you can’t see it, and that thing is gonna essentially be able to protect you from your environment.’ They would be like, ‘What? That’s stupid. No one’s gonna do that!’” Masks are no different, he says.
Xu also pointed to sunglasses when I asked her about the issues Americans might have with covering up their faces. “I’m not actually someone who likes to wear sunglasses,” she said. “And I’m struck by how common it is for people to cover up one of the more expressive parts of their face all the time.” How different are masks, really?
In the future, these masks may be outfitted with tiny sensors that detect everything from hazardous chemicals to the electric fields nearby. And with all that additional data, Hosmer thinks people will better understand the kinds of risks our environment might pose. “So there will gradually be a familiarity with, if not an acceptance of, knowing what the invisible threats to your and your family’s health and well-being are.”
I hope I am gone before that day arrives when people are walking around with hi-tech fashion gear that covers their nose and mouth.  Oh the humanity!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

We work. The other animals live.

For the longest time, we humans were no different from other mammals in that we hunted and gathered to feed ourselves, and over the rest of the hours of the day, we played, fought, mated, and scratched ourselves.  And we slept.

Some stupid humans proposed that we simply stay put, raise some animals, grow some crops, and our problems began.  From that moment on, we were destined to reach the point where we are now.  Growing crops and raising animals meant that we could no longer simply hunt and gather when we felt the hunger pangs, but now had to start planning towards the next meal.  We had to start worrying about the crop going bad, or the animals dying on us.  It was only a matter of time before we played less, mated even less, slept a whole lot less, and stressed out a lot!

I assume that sometime soon after that, as humans became "civilized," we started cleaning up after we defecated.  When that happened, it must have been one hell of a "aha" moment!

Of course, it is all tongue-in-cheek.

The process of "civilizing" that began 12,000 years ago has led us to the world today in which we do not hunt and gather our food--well, with a few exceptions, that life is impossible for us anymore.  Instead, we work in order to get paid, which we then use to buy the food and more.  The question then is how much do we want to work.  Not much work is needed for mere survival, and a lot more is needed if we want to lead a materially prosperous life.

We begin to interpret the options very differently.  Increasingly, most find the work they do to be meaningless--even when it pays them a lot.

If only students paid attention to such stuff that I freely dish out!  If they did, they will rejoice that nobody has ever talked about such stuff!  Which is a shame:
Studies show that this generation of students cares deeply about purpose, meaning, and happiness at work. In reference to millennials, one recent Chicago Tribune article notes that they ask themselves: “Is my work meaningful to me? Do I have a cause? Do I have influence, purpose, and alignment?” If higher education does not teach students how to explore these issues at the college level, students graduate at a disadvantage.
If only the world of higher education worked according to my rules!
Some colleges are already implementing course work, advising, and seminars to create a platform for students to use their college years to figure out not only what they are good at doing but also what they are passionate about. However, more should join the movement.
During his farewell speech in January, President Barack Obama urged young people to find their passion and “hitch your wagons to something bigger than yourselves.” The truth is, today’s young people already expect to do exactly that. Colleges and universities across the country must help our students meet that expectation. For the sake of our students and the future of our country, we must reinvent ourselves to help students explore meaning and purpose.
Imagine the narcissistic trump giving advice to students about "something bigger than yourselves." For all I know, trump perhaps believes that his asshole produces only gold!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Cheeseburger Ethics: Our Lives of Moral Mediocrity

By now, from the many posts, it will be clear that one pet peeve of mine is that for almost all--including me--the action does not match the rhetoric.

It seems like an overwhelming majority of us mortals lead lives of moral mediocrity at best, and often practically immoral lives, all based on our own individual moral codes--not even somebody else's code.
Suppose it’s generally true that we aim for goodness only by relative, rather than absolute, standards. What, then, should we expect to be the effect of discovering, say, that it is morally bad to eat meat, as the majority of US ethicists seem to think?
Imagine that--we don't aim to be good for goodness sake, but only for relative goodness?  If a whole bunch of people around are crappy, then I need to merely be slightly better than them and I am satisfied with this relative goodness?
You might hope that others will change. You might advocate general societal change – but you’ll have no desire to go first.
Hmmm ...

The author of the essay that triggered all these thoughts writes that lengthy piece in order to discuss:
Are professional ethicists good people? According to our research, not especially. So what is the point of learning ethics?
Professional ethicists apparently are no different from you and me, who are not professional ethicists.
Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort – logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.
If even professional ethicists do not make sure their actions are consistent with their talk, then why complain about the everyday person who does not get paid to, for instance, think about killing animals for food or whether the rich should donate to the poor.
We aspire to be about as morally good as our peers. If others cheat and get away with it, we want to do the same. We don’t want to suffer for goodness while others laughingly gather the benefits of vice. If the morally good life is uncomfortable and unpleasant, if it involves repeated painful sacrifices that are not compensated in some way, sacrifices that others are not also making, then we don’t want it.
I’d be suspicious of any 21st-century philosopher who offered up her- or himself as a model of wise living. This is no longer what it is to be a philosopher – and those who regard themselves as wise are in any case almost always mistaken.
Such disconnect between the talk of moral code and action is what we see when Bible-thumping tRump's toadies gladly vote for tax cuts for the super-rich while taking away food stamps from the poor!
Genuine philosophical thinking critiques its prior strictures, including even the assumption that we ought to be morally good. It damages almost as often as it aids, is free, wild and unpredictable, always breaks its harness. It will take you somewhere, up, down, sideways – you can’t know in advance. But you are responsible for trying to go in the right direction with it, and also for your failure when you don’t get there.
Yep, it is up to you.  You are responsible for trying to go along the correct path.

(ps: Why "cheeseburger ethics"? Read the essay!)

Monday, March 11, 2019

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

I was a vegetarian by accident, having been born into those circumstances.  Over the years, I have largely stayed off animal proteins because I am increasingly uncomfortable with killing animals for food, though I fall off the proverbial wagon once in a while.

If we humans were truly beastly, apes that we once were, then like other animals, we too would be engaged in a predator-prey existence.  Eat or be eaten, as a high school classmate once phrased it.

But, apes we are not.  Unlike other animals--and tRump--that rely on their instincts and reflexes, we humans use reason. We think through, and plan ahead and behave in ways that animals do not.  In such a non-beast existence, when we have laid down laws against killing humans, how is it ok for us to kill animals?

How can we justify this "false contrast between the values of human and animal lives"?

It is a tough question.  I have also come to believe that this is a moral issue, and I lack the capacity to explain to others why I prefer one set of morals over another.  A set of morals in which I see no way in which I can justify killing an animal for food, which is also why I get uncomfortable chewing on animal protein, which I do once in a while.

"So the lives of humans and of other animals are very different. But does that mean that human lives are more important or more valuable than the lives of animals?"

Of course, this is a non-issue to tRump and his toadies, to whom the lives of some humans--if they are melanin-deficient Christians--are more important than the lives of humans from "shitholes."  But, to the rest of us, with empathy and feelings, it is not easy to declare that human lives are more important.  Why else would, for instance, tree-hugging liberals fight on behalf of spotted owls that most Americans have never seen ever!

And in case you think that we humans are better than animals because we can fly to the moon or create music, well, consider the fact that not all of us do those things.  Just because one human merely punches in and out of a low-level office job, while a cancer researcher is on a mission to find the holy grail of a cure, "most of us do not think that one individual is valuable simply because more good things happen in his or her life."

There are wusses like who merely talk, and then there are others who practice without bothering to talk about it.  Like these wonderful people who "offer water, love and comfort" to truckloads of pigs that are on their way to being slaughtered.  (Watch the video at that link.)  "As people at the vigils give the condemned pigs water, the connection they feel with the animals, often instantaneous, is understandable."
Around 7:30 p.m., the lead organizer for the night gets on a microphone and goes over the few rules: Obey all commands. No flash photography, because that’ll startle the pigs. Look both ways before crossing the street.
“Come up nicely, calmly,” said Benperlas during a recent action. “The pigs feel your energy, so be kind and show love. Try not to be too sad in front of them.”
The trucks’ routes are familiar: They always head east on Vernon Avenue after making a left from Soto Street, about a football field away from the plant’s gates. Their diesel engines, wide turns, and tall, distinctive trailers announce their arrival.
Someone yells, “Truck!” and attendees quickly prep. Bottles are distributed; jugs are filled. The leader that night stands in the middle of Vernon Avenue; the officer on patrol directs bewildered drivers around the stopped rig.
Everyone else tends to the pigs.
Perhaps only technology can deliver us from this moral dilemma:
Moral disagreement is a constant feature of the human condition, as we struggle to find the right way to live. Whether we should kill animals for food is one of the deepest disagreements of our time; but we should not be surprised if the issue is rendered moot within the next few decades, when cultured meat (also called clean meat, synthetic meat, or in vitro meat) becomes less expensive to produce than meat from slaughtered animals, and equally palatable. When that happens, I suspect that our present practices, being no longer gastronomically necessary, will suddenly become morally unimaginable.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

I am not unusual?

A few years ago, I figured out my lunch at work, and even when I am at home.  And I have been eating variations of that lunch ever since, as long as I am the one responsible for my own lunch.

I buy ciabatta bread, which even comes in a nice sandwich size at the local grocery store.  I grill both the halves.  Drizzle olive oil. Grind black pepper on it.

That's the basic.  The variations come from:
Cheese--Swiss or Pepperjack?
Greens--lettuce or mixed greens?
Add capers? Or olives?
A few fresh rings of onion?
How about pepperoncini?

And then the accompaniments.  Potato chips? Baby carrots? Orange? Apple? Banana?

Thus, while it might seem like my lunch is always a ciabatta sandwich, the reality is that the taste is different, every single time.

And it works.

Apparently I am not the only one who has a great time with variations of the same lunch combo.  And, hey, it is a good habit, given the variations and the well-roundedness of the meal:
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and the author of several books about nutrition and the food industry, says the consequences of eating the same lunch every day depend on the contents of that lunch and of the day’s other meals. “If your daily lunch contains a variety of healthful foods,” she says, “relax and enjoy it.”
So there is nothing wrong with this habit. In fact, there are many things right with it.
That's what I say.

When people were not affluent, which means pretty much all through human existence, food would have been very similar day in and day out.  The more the affluence, the more the spread. (And, the human figure also started spreading!)
When I asked Krishnendu Ray, a food-studies scholar at NYU, about dietary variety, he said: “Newness or difference from the norm is a very urban, almost postmodern, quest. It is recent. It is class-based.” So, when accounting for the totality of human experience, it is the variety-seekers—not the same-lunchers—who are the unusual ones.
Makes sense to me.

But, I thought I was one of the unusual ones! ;)

Friday, March 08, 2019

Cars and owners

When I went to buy a new car, to replace the aging horse that had served me well, I, like most Americans did not buy it cash down.  To get the loan approved, I had to get my credit checked.

The sales guy came back with the print out.  He had a huge smile on his face.

He sat down on this chair across from me, and slid the paper across and pointed to the credit score.

I asked him what that meant.

I remember his reply even now, almost a year later: "It means you can buy whatever you want at the best rates. That good."

But, of course, the party-pooping General Malaise that I am, I never buy whatever I want. 

Most Americans typically behave the other way around.  Despite their less-than-awesome credit histories, and not saving for the rainy days and years, they buy.  They buy big, and lots of it.  So much so that:
Car debt has risen 75 percent since the Great Recession in 2009, reaching an all-time high of $1.2 trillion, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
This is a worrisome piece of statistic.  It is a danger sign because "car buyers could run into trouble if the economy takes a turn for the worse and their income drops, especially because they’re locking themselves into long-term loans."

Consumers did a similar thing before the Great Recession--they bought homes that they could not really afford, betting that there will not be any downturn in the economy.  And when the economic conditions took a dive, well, you know what happened!

As the global economy seems to be slowing down, one should take a note of this: "More than 7 million Americans are now at least three months delinquent on their auto loan payments, the benchmark for many lenders to trigger a repossession."

Imagine if the economy contracts over the next few months.  Jobs will be cut.  Paychecks will decrease.  But, the payments have to be made.  Or else.

The silver lining, if at all, is this:
The market for car loans is just a fraction of the size of the one for houses. “This isn’t going to be the next 2008,” said R.J. Cross, a policy analyst at the Frontier Group, a research think tank that co-authored the U.S. PIRG report. But these trends still spell trouble for individuals and families, and point to an enlarged economy pumped full of bad loans.
But, seriously, why can't people buy well within their affordable range?  They don't have to be General Malaise, but at least Major Buzzkill or, heck, even Captain Killjoy, right?

Thursday, March 07, 2019

To flow is to live

Much to my own disappointment, I have stopped thinking that I am still the dashing young man with a whole lot of hair on my head.  I know well that I have become a part of the "old" generation.  In the old country, strangers and relatives alike who are younger than me address me as "uncle."  The next thing I know, they will talk sloooowly and LOUDLY to me with the hope that I will understand them!

I now have become old enough that there are children of my undergraduate classmates who seek my advice!  Of course, as always, I never advise them on what they should do.  

Whether it is students at my college who make the mistake of coming to me for advice, or the youth from the other side of the planet, my approach is no different: "What do you want to do, if there were no restrictions?" is what I typically ask them.

Almost always, it is a confused, stunned silence as an initial response.  Because, most never think about that.  If at all, their responses will be a whole bunch of general ideas.  "I want to travel." "I want to help other people." "Whatever I do, I want to own a nice car."  Yep, I have heard such responses, which can never get anyone any feasible plan of action.

Even you--yes, you--too perhaps did not think about that when you were young.  When you were 17, or even 21, did you think long and hard about what you wanted to do in life, if there were no restrictions and constraints?  Did you use that as a starting point in order to attempt to define the rest of your life?  Chances are that most people do not.  At that age, we are busily dealing with our emotions, or dutifully living out the elders' definition of whatever the right thing is.

What you and I, and almost everybody else, did not realize on our own, nor did elders take the time to tell us, is a fundamental aspect of life: At 21, we have barely begun the marathon.   It is a long life.

Life is a marathon, I now tell students.  And life is not easy.  In fact, for the most part, life gets harder in many ways as we grow out of our childhood.  As life gets increasingly challenging, imagine doing something that you really, really, really do not want to do, and having to do that day in and day out.  It will be a miserably long life, I would think.

A Cornell University economics professor writes about such matters and more in this piece, where he has a clear bottom-line:
Resist the soul-crushing job’s promise of extra money and savor the more satisfying conditions you’ll find in one that pays a little less.
Before reaching that bottom-line, he writes:
The happiness literature has identified one of the most deeply satisfying human psychological states to be one called “flow.” It occurs when you are so immersed in an activity that you lose track of the passage of time. If you can land a job that enables you to experience substantial periods of flow, you will be among the most fortunate people on the planet.
Have I told you enough times that I am one of the most fortunate people in this regard?  

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

A season to reflect

For the atheist that I am, following the news means that I am always updated on some of the major religious observances.  Thanks to the Mardi Gras parties in New Orleans, for instance, I know that we are in the season of Lent.  Oddly enough, Fat Tuesday nearly coincided with Mahashivarathri--one could have combined both the religious/social practices and had parties throughout the night ;)

I wonder how many serious Catholics gave up anything tRump for Lent ;)

Soon after the Easter yard signs--with evangelicals reminding even non-believers that he died to save us--are put away, it will be Ramadan.

Of course, this year, too, we can expect the fake-Christian-in-chief, tRump, to stay away from saying anything about the fasting and god, or, at best, he will use that as an opportunity to remind his base that Muslims are terrorists.

But, this year, he will have at least two women across from the White House to remind him that there are Muslims in America.  And one even wears a hijab!

Bush junior, who now in contrast to tRump comes across as the grand old sage of the Grand Old Party, took the higher and correct road even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11:
Former President George W. Bush’s Ramadan message, delivered just months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, didn’t mention terrorism at all. Instead, it focused on the diversity within the American Muslim community, whose members “serve in every walk of life, including our armed forces.”
What a contrast now with the evil simply oozing from the Oval Office and through his 63 million voters :(

And when Ramadan ended last year? No iftar!
Despite events held by previous administrations from across the political divide, this year’s Ramadan – which began on 26 May – passed nearly unobserved by the White House. It was marked only by a statement published late on Saturday afternoon, coinciding with the end of the holy month.
The first White House iftar dinner is said to have been hosted by President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. Guests included a Tunisian ambassador to the US.
Hillary Clinton, when she was first lady, resurrected the event in February 1996, hosting about 150 people for a reception for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month.
Muslim-loving Crooked Hillary; Lock her up!

For all the non-believer that I am, I consciously think about my existence, and worry about what it means to be human.  "Shit happens" I tell myself.  After all, it is not as if the entire cosmos exists only to serve me!  The cosmos is.  Yet, I seem to consciously mark the passing of time as memorialized by religious days like Ramadan, Lent, Deepavali, ...

Whether it is Lent, or Ramadan, or whatever, I am not ever sure that most of the believers really use that designated time in order to reflect on our fleeting existence on this "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam," as Carl Sagan so poetically put it.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The impossibility of the pursuit of happiness

Ahab was in pursuit of the white whale.  Javert was in pursuit of Jean Valjean.

What does it mean to be in pursuit of happiness?

The older I get, the more I think that the phrase "pursuit of happiness" is screwed up.  Why did the white, rich, slave-holding founders of the United States refer to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  Instead, why didn't they go for a full fledged alliteration, for instance, of life, liberty, and love?

One cannot pursue happiness.  It comes from within.

We ought to enjoy the very limited time that we have.  But, we should also recognize that the external pleasure that we seek and enjoy, which we often falsely equate to the happiness that we are pursuing, is fleeting. Momentary.

The Buddha made that simple for us to understand through his Noble Truths.  The point of departure is the truth that "life is suffering and to live is to suffer."  Of course, as humans we share a desire "to be free from suffering."  However, the humans that we are, we not only do not want to acknowledge this, we even actively engage in denial.  We refer to our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

The pleasure and happiness that we seek are often wrong goals.
Happiness arises and ceases based on external conditions that are often beyond my control. What I was really seeking was equanimity, a calm and resilient state that is beyond happiness, and that emerges from internal conditions that are often within my control.
From internal conditions, within my control.  Within you.  It does not come from the number of likes in Facebook or the number of retweets in Twitter, nor from psychedelic drugs, nor from traveling to exotic places ...

One cannot pursue happiness.  It comes from within.

From within, and in the here and in the now, means "to spend time living meaningfully and sharing life experiences with the people we love."
The single most important factor for human flourishing is the cultivation of loving and enduring relationships. The depth and quality of our loving relationships determines how we feel about our lives.
Whether we love or hate, at some time or another, life comes to an end.  Inevitable, as humans have always known.  If at all, we are then in pursuit of death, from the moment that we are born!  The challenge in life is to find that inner happiness when we pursue the end.

May you find happiness and contentment, without pursuing the metaphorical white whale.


Monday, March 04, 2019

Don't save the last dance for me! Heck, any dance!

I grew up in a context in which we listened to a lot of music.  At home, it was a whole bunch of classical stuff.  And devotional too.  Then there were film songs that we listened to--Tamil and Hindi.  And then the pop music from the West.  The high school years were musicals ;)

While the films had a whole bunch of song and dance, and we even did our versions of singing those songs, especially the glorious bathroom singing, dancing we did not do.  Yes, of course, there was that rich heritage of dancing, from the stories of Siva's cosmic dance to even street performers.   But, dance we did not.

In graduate school, when friends got together, for the first time I was in a room when people started dancing.  Even if they couldn't keep time with the music.  People shaking their legs and hands and gyrating out of beat was quite a sight for this fresh-off-the-boater.

I neither drank nor danced.  Often people tried to get me to do both.  My personality has been the same throughout--nobody can make me do anything unless I wanted to.  The more they pressured, the more I wanted to say "get lost" but never did.  I wish I had said that, or more!

Even now, I don't understand why plenty of people think that everybody needs to dance.  Not everybody likes the movies that I like.  Not everybody likes the jokes that I like.  Why then do they think that everybody needs to dance?

I practically hate it when all those people say crap along the lines of "dance like there is nobody watching you."  Why don't they every say "do math like nobody is watching you"? ;)  What is this obsession with dancing?

Face it, there is lots to complain about it, including this stupid idea that everybody should dance!

The author of this essay expresses similar sentiments:
Why do people get so angry that you won’t dance? There’s a desperation in their pleas — no, their commands — which says far more about them than it does about you. No one gets this het up about other activities. Imagine if you were round at someone’s for dinner and declined their offer of coffee after the meal. Should they start yelling, ‘Come on, you’ve got to have coffee!’ while forcing a cup to your lips, you would run from the house as fast as possible and never see them again. Yet bullying someone into having a dance is seen as normal.
Exactly.  As a coffee drinker, I love that situation he writes about ;)

Thankfully, I don't even socialize anymore.  No more being asked why I am not up and moving my ass.  If anybody does, I think I might just about go the essay author's route:
So what’s the solution? Could I take the dance Nazis to court? After all, the manhandling they subject you to would, in any other situation, count as assault. I might give it a go next time. ‘Get back on the floor, or I’m calling the law.’
Just beat it!

Sunday, March 03, 2019


"His father has Alzheimer's, and doesn't recognize his own son," she said.

Getting old is not for the faint-hearted!

Ever since I read Sherwin Nuland's How We Die, I have always worried about falling victim to Alzheimer's.  I keep reassuring myself that there has not been any case of dementia in the family, including the extended family.  But then I don't want to be the first either.

When I drafted a will more than two decades ago, my attorney laughed off this worry of mine.  Because, he said, I won't know anything as an Alzheimer's patient--the problem will be somebody else's.  But then, I don't want to become somebody else's burden.

"It is a bleak picture."
There is no known cure. Some medications can reduce memory loss and aid concentration, but these merely alleviate the symptoms or boost the performance of those neurons in the brain that remain unaffected. They do nothing to stop or slow down the killing-off of brain cells by this neurodegenerative condition.
Yes, there is a great deal of research being done to treat, if not cure, Alzheimer's.  But, ...

Especially for someone like me who believes that my memories are all that I will take with me, the loss of memories will be terrible. But, then is any ending any more pleasant than another, really!

Perhaps even my blogging is an extension of creating memories.  A modern day version of how through the ages we humans have told each other stories enough and more times. Most of the old stories that we talk about are heartwarming. But then there are those that make us dwell on the unpleasant tastes that life leaves on our tongues.

I remember coming across a wonderful line by Haruki Murakami:
Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.
May you create your memories that will warm you from the inside, about which you can then talk and blog about--and keep Alzheimer's away, forever.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

The market speaks. But the deniers can't hear!

One can be in denial forever.  But, eventually, one has to face the truth, and accept it.  Such a day of reckoning for the deniers of climate change, aka tRump's toadies, might arrive sooner than they think.

This reckoning will not happen because they will voluntarily admit to the reality.  Nor will the message be delivered to them by their churches.

Instead, their almighty dollar will beat the crap out of them.
If the coming climate-related business crises will have one positive side effect, it’s that acute financial losses are likely to force policy changes in a way that environmental damage on its own has not. As one commenter on a recent Wall Street Journal article about PG & E. put it: “When capitalists decide the scientists are right, then the free market will adjust accordingly.”
They can complain all they want about science and government and Europeans, but the market will make them see Jesus!

California's PG&E is already suffering from the consequences and "would be filing for bankruptcy protection as a result of costs related to recent wildfires in the state."  It is the mere beginning.  The reality of climate change is also reflected in the real estate industry:
“The market is already reacting,” First Street Executive Director Matthew Eby said. “There’s no longer a conversation of what sea-level rise will do in 2050 or 2100.”
How is it reacting?
Sea-level rise has cost homeowners on the East and Gulf coasts nearly $16 billion in property value as floods and the threat of flooding drive some buyers away, according to a study released this week.
Analysts at the nonprofit First Street Foundation in Brooklyn studied millions of residential home sales in 17 states from Maine to Alabama and found that coastal property values were rising at a slower rate in flood-prone areas than in areas that did not flood.
What is holding the market back from a full-fledged reaction to climate change and, therefore, from delivering a blow to denialism? A "focus by policymakers in Washington on making changes that could actually turn things around."
“People in this field say, ‘We know what the problem is, and we know how to solve the problem,’ ” Usher said. Our politicians, however, “don’t have the willingness to do something. That’s where we are.”
There are a few politicians willing to do something; cue the Green New Deal!

Friday, March 01, 2019

Are you average?

Years ago, during my California days, when talking about teaching and students, a colleague--who also moved out of the state--described the challenge this way: we need to target the "average student."  That means there will be students who will be above average, and there will also be students who are below average.  To make things worse, odds are that most faculty were consistently above-average students, which means that we have no idea what it means to be an "average student" leave alone the below-average.

My conclusion has always been one additional step--this is all the more the reason why the factory-style mass education system won't work.

So, of course, I am always delighted when more important people say stuff that appeals to me.  Like when a Harvard professor, Todd Rose, says this about higher education:
In higher ed we have a brutally standardized system. It doesn't matter what your interests are, what job you want, everyone takes the same courses in roughly the same time and at the end of the course you get ranked.
A brutally standardized system.  A system that even developed the idea of the "average" grade, even when we insiders know all too well that grades are useless!  Especially the grades via the puke-inducing bubbling approach!

To make things worse, we blame students!
our system of judging people according to their deviation from the mean (faster, slower, stronger, weaker) is smothering our talents. The sweeping generalisations of averagarians, as he labels them, cannot but gloss over the multifaceted nature of an individual. The effect is pernicious in the extreme. Schools, for instance, rate pupils largely on their ability to learn faster than the average, and design curriculums to suit the speediest. Yet learning slowly does not preclude a student from ultimately mastering a subject.
So, what can we do?
There's plenty of ways we're making smaller units of learning to combine in ways that are useful to you. To me, competency based education is nonnegotiable. I don't think you can have fixed-time, grade-based learning anymore. I don't see how you justify diplomas.
I am all in favor.  Oh wait, who cares about the students, right!