Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Fire and ice

When I came to interview for the job that I have now been at for 17 years, one of the questions that I asked around had nothing to do with the job itself.  I asked the interviewers and the people at the B&B this: Does it snow here, and how much?

Having grown up in a tropical landscape, and after having lived in Southern California, I knew well that I had no skills to live and work through snow and ice.  Rains I could manage.  Cold I could bundle against and turn the heater on.  But snow and ice I couldn't.

The responses were unanimous.  Rarely ever it snows, and even then it is just a dusting that quickly melts away.

I felt reassured.

Turns out that they were all wrong. 

Not that they lied.  Times they are a changin. The climate ain't what it was.

Now, every winter we have come to expect a snow dump. And then the snow freezing over. Life stalls. We can't do anything because the natural world and the infrastructure do not have a place for snow and ice.  Trees tumble. On homes. They drag down power lines. Roads become treacherous.

Climate change is the greatest threat ever.

Yes, the climate has changed before--naturally. This time it is different--we humans have caused it.  In any case, we need to remember this from history:
Many historical events have happened against a backdrop of natural climate change. Drought in the steppes east of Hungary pushed marauding Huns west and toppled the Roman empire. Volcanic activity suppressed crop yields in pre-revolutionary France, leading hungry, desperate peasants to take drastic action.
But, it is not the climate change by itself:
But climate is almost never the only factor in human history. The Roman empire was overextended and tenuous, torn apart as much by infighting and poor governance as outside enemies. The French underclass starved under the policies imposed by the overclass. ...
 the adversity brought by climate change caused societies to break apart, magnified pre-existing divisions, and made desperate people easy prey for dangerous people.
The human-environment relationship will dramatically change, leading to many acts of desperation.

The climate crisis has already sparked an exodus from Central America to the US.  We are perhaps even downplaying the role of climate change this crisis. This is merely one of the contemporary responses to the climate change underway.  A humanitarian challenge that the current administration, which wears the blinders of racism and climate denialism, does not even want to understand.

I can't do anything about those big problems. Nor can I stop the snow and ice here in the valley.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

You still think that the 2016 election was about economic anxiety?

Back in May 2016--six months before the fateful election that upended liberal democracy here in the US and throughout the world--I wrote about an important milestone that will come up in 2019: "we will mark a very dark anniversary--four hundred years since the first Africans were sold as slaves in Virginia."

I ended that post on this note: "I shudder thinking that it could be President Donald Trump addressing the nation in 2019, marking the tragic anniversary!"

The two commenters, who later revealed themselves to be supporters of the strongman in their respective countries, couldn't care about the worries that I expressed there regarding bigotry and racism.  In response, I added:
The one president who could have compelled us to engage in a deeper and nuanced understanding of race issues pretty much chose not to for all the political reasons. Yep, I am referring to Obama. As much as his election to the presidency was one heck of an achievement for this country that was built on the backs of slaves, I have worried that this also fueled a complacency that we are now past the race issues ... which is also why I am not that surprised that racism and hatred of all kind have been exposed during this campaign season--it was always there, hidden in plain sight :(
Honestly, as much as I worried like hell that things would get awful under tRump as the President, I never imagined it getting this worse.  The current situation is wildly beyond my wildest worries!

Here we are in the summer of 2019 when tRump has made it clear that he intends to win again by explicitly campaigning as a white supremacist.
[Look] at how Trump speaks and acts, and there’s no question he’s working with the spirit of the Dixie demagogues as he re-enacts and recapitulates the worst of our nation’s history. He’s drawing on their awful contributions to American life, to restore something of the country as it once was.
As Speaker Nancy Pelosi remarked tRump is on a path to Make America White Again.

Where do we go from here?

I suppose at this time, we can only rant as we wait for November 2020:
Finally, while we would not sink to name-calling in the Trumpian manner — or ruefully point out that he failed to spell the congressman’s name correctly (it’s Cummings, not Cumming) — we would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are “good people” among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post. Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity. Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Real Americans, and real Indians

A few days, in responding to the fascist's atrocious "go back" tweet and more, I shared with the world my own experiences with that kind of a response from a largely anonymous public, with the exception of one woman who sent me a typewritten two-page letter.

To which, an old classmate, who was also a lifer like me in that wonderful school we attended in that magical industrial town, responded with his usual sarcastic humor:
We brown people, who cherish the freedom to express ourselves, are increasingly considered to be "fake" citizens of our countries!

In the old country, the fascist is on an overdrive to make India a Hindu nation.
The rot may have set in decades ago, but it has taken Modi only five years to dismantle the idea of India as democratic and secular.
As if that were not enough, "Modi’s latest assault is on truth itself."

A few weeks prior to the elections, I had an emailed another classmate, who, is Muslim.  In that lengthy email, I wrote this: "I hope you are not feeling jolted, threatened, and anxious, in this current socio-political climate in which loud Hindu nationalist voices yell against Muslims."  It has been months now, and no reply!

And here in my adopted country, the ship of democracy "may be about to hit the iceberg."  But, we browns, in particular, aren't anywhere close to abandoning the ship even though the fascist and his toadies want to toss us overboard:
This land is your land, this land is our land, it belongs to you and me. We’re here, we’re not going back, we’re raising our kids here. It’s our country now…. We’re not letting the bastards take it back.
It’s our America now. 
It is my America, too!

It is clear that we liberals, long been caricatured as wimps, need to fight this good fight.
[You] can’t fight performatively when the other side is fighting to win: that kind of fight simply won’t go on for very long. You have no option but to fight to win, too. You want to win because you are right and they are wrong; because you have a moral right to power and they don’t; because you are real Americans and they’re not.
To which I will add this: When they go low, do not go high.  Instead, kick them even harder!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

tRump and his toadies are obsessed with the wall.  That is not news to you or me.  What surprised me was the intensity with with some of his toadies in my neighborhood brought that "wall" to the very fences that mark our community.

Wrote one in an email to the 'hood:
"Have you looked at some of the fences ... lately? What is the point ... when ANYONE ... can WALK into a backyard area, through a broken fence. It’s embarrassing; it’s ugly; and it does not show respect for the other neighbors living here."
A wall or a fence is a statement about ourselves as much as it is about the others.  This is what Robert Frost wanted us to think about in the layers of human complexity that he presents in Mending Wall.  He writes there:
Before I build a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.
Neither tRump nor his toadies care to think about "what I was walling in or walling out / and to whom I was like to give offense."

I would like to email Frost's poem to my neighbors.  And for all of us to bring to a neighborhood meeting our understanding of the lessons that we learnt from the poem.

But then I need to remind myself that I am a brown-skinned immigrant with a funny accent, and who looks like an Arab.  For all I know, the toadies might rally outside my home and chant "send him back!"

So, instead, I will end this post with Robert Frost's Mending Wall.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down. 'I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'

Friday, July 26, 2019

A devil in disguise

As a kid, I had one heck of a sweet tooth.  All day long, I could eat nothing but sweets and I was happy.  Even into my undergraduate years.  Like the one occasion when I had 22 gulab jamuns in one sitting.  And this was after having a heavy lunch!  I can't ever figure out how I was so skinny despite all that sugar and ghee ;)

And then I became an adult. 

My sugar intake gradually decreased. 

People who knew me in the old country are shocked when I say "no, thanks" to sweetsEspecially when the sweets are from a store, saying no is easy for me.  My grandmother drilled it into my head that restaurants and sweet-shops often make things tasty in unhealthy ways, unlike the stuff made at home by women like her.

I have also come to understand what a dangerously sweet thing sugar is.  As I quoted in this post, "Sugar is the driving force behind the diabetes and obesity epidemics. ... The problem is all of the processed sugar that has snuck into the modern diet. It’s so prevalent that you need a strategy for avoiding it.

Sugar is a devil in disguise!
In fact, recent reports have found that regular consumption of sugary drinks heightens the risk not only of tooth decay, obesity, fatty liver disease and Type 2 diabetes, but also of heart disease and premature death, even in people free of other risk factors.
Whatever happened to people drinking water?  Rare is a meal--lunch or dinner--where people have water.  Instead, they have sugary sodas, or sugary fruit juices, or sugary ...

If only people truly understood this:
the health risks associated with sugar relate to overeating so-called free sugars, not those naturally present in whole foods like fruits, vegetables and milk.
I rarely ever buy fruit juices.  But, I buy fruits all the time.  Lots of fruits, actually.   One of my favorites is to peel a regular orange and a blood orange; slice them up; then artfully scoop them into glass cups; sprinkle Demerara sugar on top; plastic wrap and refrigerate.  A couple of hours later, it is heaven on earth!

Sugar is not merely delivered in the liquid products that we over-consume:
Sugar-containing processed foods are ubiquitous and can add up quickly for unsuspecting consumers. In the documentary “That Sugar Film,” the filmmaker quickly developed health problems after eating “healthy” foods like cereal and juice containing 40 teaspoons of sugar a day, the average Australian’s intake. (Americans average 42.5 teaspoons of sugar a day.) The film noted that if all sugar-containing food items were removed from supermarket shelves, only about 20 percent of products would remain.
Think about what a lean-mean supermarket that would be.  Guess what?  Isn't that how grocery stores were before the explosion of processed food?

If you are like M, then you always want some kind of a constructive takeaway. Tell me what to do, right?
[The] advice to consumers is to cut their sugar intake by two-thirds: Reduce the current 15 percent average daily calories from added sugars to 5 percent, as recommended by the American Heart Association, easiest if done gradually. Learn to routinely peruse packaged food labels for the kinds and amounts of sugars they contain. 
But then the writer notes this: "a half-cup of Talenti gelato can contain 22 grams of sugar."  To which I have only one response: I'll give you my Talenti when you pry it from my cold, dead hands ;)


Thursday, July 25, 2019

Are you a Parrhesiastes

Record high day time temperatures. Record high night time low temperatures.

But, the damned Republicans won't even allow the two word phrase "climate change" to be uttered!  How fucked up are they?  Don't they have children and grandchildren whose futures they worry about?  Do they believe that they can somehow live in a bubble, like how they lead lives insulated from us browns and non-Christians?

Scientists being scientists, well, in their reports they don't use words like "fucked up."  Instead, they carefully phrase it like this: "natural causes are not sufficient from our data to actually cause the spatial pattern and the warming rate that we are observing now."  And what we are observing now is unparalleled.
The speed and extent of current global warming exceeds any similar event in the past 2,000 years, researchers say.
They show that famous historic events like the "Little Ice Age" don't compare with the scale of warming seen over the last century.
The research suggests that the current warming rate is higher than any observed previously.
If only the fucked up party, aka, the GOP, would read and listen!  And if only 63 million hadn't voted to power a mad sociopath!

Even if the sociopath is removed from the White House through impeachment, 2020 becomes a critical time:
The sense that the end of next year is the last chance saloon for climate change is becoming clearer all the time.
"I am firmly of the view that the next 18 months will decide our ability to keep climate change to survivable levels and to restore nature to the equilibrium we need for our survival," said Prince Charles, speaking at a reception for Commonwealth foreign ministers recently.
Why so?
One of the understated headlines in last year's IPCC report was that global emissions of carbon dioxide must peak by 2020 to keep the planet below 1.5C.
Current plans are nowhere near strong enough to keep temperatures below the so-called safe limit. Right now, we are heading towards 3C of heating by 2100 not 1.5.
As countries usually scope out their plans over five and 10 year timeframes, if the 45% carbon cut target by 2030 is to be met then the plans really need to be on the table by the end of 2020.
We all remember how the sociopath withdrew from the table, thanks to 63 million irresponsible people!

Speaking truth to power--which is where the big word in the title of this post comes in--has made very little impact.  Despite the track record of defeats, a few activists like Greta Thunberg soldier on.  Good for them, and for us.
Earlier this month Opec declared Thunberg, and with her the other young climate activists, the “greatest threat” to the fossil fuel industry. Thunberg tweeted them her thanks. “Our biggest compliment yet.” Hers is a voice totally unlike the world’s usual power-cacophony: clean, simple, inclusive, the voice of someone refusing to beguile. She talks ethics to politics without flinching. She cuts through the media white noise and political rabble-rousing to get to the essentials. This is a communal voice and Thunberg is its lightning conductor, and no wonder: when you hear her speak or you read her speeches you know you’re in the presence of the opposite of cynicism – of a spirit, in fact, that rebuffs cynicism and knows that the way we act, every single one of us, has transformatory impact and consequence. “The real power belongs to the people.”
I hope that we the people will quickly and decisively demonstrate that we have the power.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

tRump is not the only international emergency!

The first ever reference that I made to Ebola was back in September 2014.  It was in this post.

A week after that, I wrote about the "ice bucket challenge" (remember that?) and how I refused to participate in it:
How would I justify contributing to ALS as a higher priority compared to a contribution to fight any one of those neglected diseases that affect millions and kills millions?
Ebola is back in the news.  And not in a good way.
The deadly Ebola outbreak in Congo is now an international health emergency, the World Health Organization announced Wednesday after a case was confirmed in a city of 2 million people .
An international health emergency.
WHO had been heavily criticized for its sluggish response to the West Africa outbreak, which it repeatedly declined to declare a global emergency until the virus was spreading explosively in three countries and nearly 1,000 people were dead. Internal documents later showed WHO held off partly out of fear a declaration would anger the countries involved and hurt their economies.
A reminder that we live in a political world, in which even declaring a health emergency is not simply based on facts!

Don't expect any sense of empathy from the current American President.  Not only because he is a sociopath with no sense of empathy.  But also because he has tweeted like this in the past:
The sociopath didn't support Obama's decision to send troops to help with the crisis. I wrote an oped applauding it, and quoted a commenter from back then:
A few days after the president's decision, an old high school friend, who has returned to India after a career that took him all over the world, commented on my blog: "The U.S. action of committing troops to fight the disease is probably one of the finest acts of the Obama presidency. Your government didn't have to do it, but it did. That is the best of America on show." The best, indeed!
63 million, including former commenters, elected to power the sociopath, and we can now be assured that the US will only try to insulate itself by building walls, closing flights, ...

This commentary by a former USAID administrator notes how important the American effort was:
when America did lead, the rest of the world followed. The United States rallied technical experts and leaders from governments all over the world to launch a coordinated response to the Ebola crisis in Western Africa. Together, we leveraged American investments to yield new commitments from others and reminded the world that when there’s a moral imperative to act on global health, we will.
And now?
As someone who has helped fight this ugly disease before, my experience compels me to speak out to Republicans, Democrats and anyone who is in a position of influence about the steps we can take to help control this outbreak. Right now, we’re watching a crisis turn into a catastrophe. We have the tools to defeat Ebola. What we’re missing is the political will. The time to start caring about Ebola isn’t when it reaches the shores of the United States or Europe, it’s now.
If only somebody can talk about this to tRump during his golf outings, which have already cost us taxpayers $106 million!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

It was 30 years ago today ... almost

One of the strangest aspects about When Harry Met Sally is this--I have no idea when and where I first watched the movie!

Wikipedia states that the movie was released in July 21, 1989.  I was in India that summer.  It was my first visit home after coming to the US in 1987.

In the summer of 1988, I went to Venezuela, which profoundly changed me--for the better.  To be in an alien country, where people spoke a language that I could not understand, and yet everything seemingly familiar ... I wanted more of those experiences, which, thankfully, I have been able to have over the years.

By the time I went home in 1989, I had changed a lot.  I wonder if it was after that trip to India, when I started the PhD program, that I decided to grow a beard.

Struggle as I do, I simple cannot recall the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally.  All I know is that I have watched it a gazillion times.  Every single time, the movie is charming, clever, funny, and absolutely human.  Every single time.

I like movies like that, which help me understand what makes us think and do the way we do.  They rarely make those kinds of movies anymore.  It is almost as if most people do not want to understand others.

When Harry Met Sally was all about conversations.  The guys talking, even when doing the wave at the ballgame. The gals talking over food. Harry and Sally talking.  Harry and Sally and Jess and Marie talking.  It is a lot of talking, and every word there is a gem!

Whether it is biological or cultural, or a combination of both, men and women are different.  When Harry Met Sally doesn't merely tap into the differences for cheap laughs.  Instead, Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner plumb those differences for a brilliantly funny and insightful commentary on who we are.  I wish they had also included in the movie the line that Rob Reiner says in his conversation with Nora Ephron, as they recall how they made the movie: "women fake orgasms; men fake listening" ;)

Over the years, I have come to not only acknowledge the differences between men and women, but also appreciate the differences.  Differences makes life interesting, exciting.  It will be a dull and boring world otherwise.

I wonder what a contemporary equivalent might be of When Harry Met Sally

Monday, July 22, 2019

Trend lines, headlines, and politics

One of the two brand new courses that I will teach in the coming academic year will be about how much the world has changed--for the better--and yet the news headlines will have us believe otherwise.  (Instead of working on the syllabus, here I am "wasting" away my time!)

Consider one of the many awesome things that we have accomplished--thanks to every government in the world advancing literacy and spending money on education, children from any background can now attend school. (Sadly, there are countries where girls are not educated.)

What a fantastic cause for celebration!.  It is phenomenal an achievement that of all the humans who are 15 years or older, only about 13% is illiterate..  We humans deserve credit for making such a world happen.

However, to look at that kind of progress and to merely engage in self-congratulations is, well, not what I do.  To begin with, that is not my job--I am a critic, by choice and by profession.

But, the change for the better does not mean that we can rest easy; after all, there are a gazillion ways in which we ought to work towards improving the state of the world, for humans and non-humans alike.  In this context, if we were to merely engage in rah-rah about literacy even for the disadvantaged, we begin to overlook the serious troubles there.

Does one imagine, for instance, that a government school in rural Uttar Pradesh is anywhere near the quality of the school that I (and the commenter) went to?  Why are the kids in rural Uttar Pradesh condemned to those godawful schools where teachers might not even come to class, leave alone being horrible teachers in the classroom, while kids in Neyveli get much better education?  Not the kids' fault that they were accidentally born to their parents who live in a certain area, right?

Now, think about how education is merely one out of the gazillion ways in which the accidental birth makes a huge difference in one's life.

Most of us in the political left-of-center always worry ourselves to death that such inequality that arises for no fault ought to be addressed via public policies.  Even while celebrating the fantastic reductions in extreme and absolute poverty, we worry about the uneven competition that exists only because of the accident of birth.

My go-to-expert on these topics, Branko Milanovic, has written in plenty about these issues.  One of his recent empirical analysis showed how "the entire world’s economy is lifted by the open exchange of goods, but this growth is unevenly distributed. The “global upper middle class” — that is, working class individuals in wealthy nations — take it on the chin as less skilled jobs move to poorer nations. Meanwhile, the global middle class and the very wealthy benefit tremendously."

Some of us--yes, I have conveniently inserted myself into an excellent company!--have argued for years that this calls for a new social contract in which we can appropriately compensate the people and communities who lose in this global win.  I yell about this at other places too ;)

"The sensible solution for a wealthy nation is to open its borders to as much trade as possible, but to tax the beneficiaries of free trade to lift up those who lose out."  It is so obvious.  But, apparently obvious only to a few of us who have no political power to make this happen :(


Sunday, July 21, 2019

நன்றிகெட்ட நாயே

Perhaps most visitors to this blog post will be stumped by the indecipherable title.

It is a Tamil expression that perhaps is not used that much anymore compared to years past--in my trips to the old country, I haven't heard anybody yell out even in the streets.

நன்றிகெட்ட நாயே (nanrikketta nāāye) means "a gratitude-lacking (or ungrateful) dog."

A language that has such a wonderful phrase that packs a ton of emotion in it, well, it lacks an easy way to say "thanks."  Which is why often we end up saying the English word instead.  It is like how there is no equivalent for "I love you." 

But then, there might be some deeper reasons behind why Tamil, which clearly values gratitude, does not offer simple ways to express thanks:
[In] societies, like the Tamil one, that are based on reciprocity as a fundamental social principle, morality and etiquette are inextricably linked. In the modern West, by contrast, etiquette and morality are distinct domains, and although gratitude might be a moral question, thanking someone is frequently just a matter of good manners. Apparently similar kinds of awkwardness might therefore conceal dramatically different moral assumptions about the appropriate currency for the giving of thanks.  
Etiquette and morality as distinct domains versus them inextricably linked.  That explanation easily convinces me.

No, this is not yet another post on Tamil related to something authored by David Shulman.  Though I cannot pass up the opportunity to quote from Tiruvalluvar, who had plenty to say about gratitude too, including this:
      நன்றி மறப்பது நன்றன்று நன்றல்லது அன்றே மறப்பது நன்று.
Which I would loosely translate to: It is not good to forget the good things; but, it is good to immediately forget the bad (thoughts and deeds.)  While I am all in favor of the first half of the couplet, I disagree with the second half--I don't care about forgive and forget!

This post is about how cultural differences shape your gratitude.  "Americans say thanks a lot, but other cultures may have a deeper understanding of gratitude."

It was through that article that I ended up reading the essay from 1985, by Arjun Appadurai, from which I excerpted the comment about etiquette and morality.  That article notes:
What’s clear is that gratitude deeply intersects with a culture’s attitude about the self and its relation to others. Are we individuals forging our own paths, or members of a larger whole? 
And then makes this point:
Gratitude is, after all, ultimately a skill that strengthens our relationships—and it arises when we pay more attention to our relationships and all the gifts they bring us. “At a time when the society seems to be more about me me me, we really need to get people thinking about connections”
I like this notion of gratitude being about relationships, about connections.  It is not merely about mouthing a "thank you."  As Appadurai wrote in that 1985 essay, it is not a mere etiquette,  but one that it inextricably linked with morality. It makes sense to, therefore, think of gratitude as "a moral virtue: a repayment and paying it forward of kindness that are part of being a good human being."

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Searching for water on the moon!

By the time I came along, humans walking on the moon had already become a part of school textbooks.  During my teenage years, it was all about the space shuttle.  I recall telling my grandmother that it might just about be possible that, well into my years, I will be able to travel to outer space and come back to earth.  She didn't care for that though!

There was the science and technology aspect that I was fascinated with, yes.  But, I was also troubled by the deprivation and injustice that was all around.  The rebellious teenager ended up not caring about science and technology, and became increasingly worried about the misplaced priorities of a society that was not addressing the fundamental and basic needs of people.

I continue to worry about the misplaced priorities.  More than five years ago, I blogged about the colossal waste that results.  In my post, and in most of my complaints about India's awful resource allocation decisions, my question has always been along the lines of why the fundamental issues--like toilets--don't get the priority they deserve.

Or, consider water.  Chennai, a "city of nearly 10 million — India's sixth largest — has almost run out of water."

Without water we are doomed.
Piped water has run dry in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and 21 other Indian cities are also facing the specter of “Day Zero,” when municipal water sources are unable to meet demand.
Middle- and upper-middle-class people in Chennai are paying twice as much as before the crisis for water from tankers, and they can afford to drill new wells twice as deep as would have been needed 15 years ago. “We are on war footing,” one of my cousins, who lives there, remarked. As with most environmental crises, the poor are affected disproportionately.
As always, it is the poor who suffer the most.

Yet, it is the same old democratic ways of resource allocation--the government of India is getting ready to launch yet another spacecraft to the moon.  Like the previous one, this mission will also search for, among other things, water.  What a tragic irony!

The US, too, is no exception to this rule.  In the context of the 50th anniversary of the first ever human footprints on the lunar surface, think about the US in the 1960s when JFK launched this mission.  Life in the US was brutal for anyone who was not white.  By the time NASA was getting ready for the launching of the Apollo 11 rockets, MLK had been assassinated.  There was injustice all around.  Yet, the government was not investing resources in order to address the injustice.  We were a lot more enthusiastic about spending gazillions to go to the moon.

Which is why there was a protest.  A symbolic one.  But, a protest nonetheless:
They must have been a sight: around 150 Americans, mostly black mothers and their children, walking with two mule-drawn wagons through light mist and rolling thunder. Led by Ralph Abernathy, the caravan arrived at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in advance of the Apollo 11 launch. Unlike many thousands more, however, they hadn’t come in celebration and awe. They came to protest.
The reasons were real.  The protesters were no snowflakes!
The contrast was dramatic: mules and rockets, rambling wagons and a vast sky to be conquered. The S.C.L.C. argued that one-fifth of the American population lived in poverty, without adequate food, shelter and health care, and therefore it was indecent for the nation to spend billions on the dream of spaceflight. Abernathy said, “I am here to demonstrate with poor people in a symbolic way against the tragic and inexcusable gulf that exists between America’s technological abilities and our social injustices.” 
"They exposed the essential tension at the root of the nation."
America’s ambition persistently stopped short of the equality creed, and yet it seemed to always demand a self-effacing patriotism from even the most vulnerable, including the poor folks who marched with Abernathy on Cape Kennedy.
Back in India, the injustices seems insurmountable.  A couple of months ago, during my winter visit with the family, I met a vocal activist.  I asked him how he keeps going. "I am a rabid optimist," he replied.

In writing about the water crisis in Chennai, he writes:
Our dominant economic model, with its blind faith in technology, is doomed.
Chennai's struggles with water - be it flooding or scarcity - cannot be addressed unless the city re-examines its values, and how it treats its land and water. 
Injustices cannot be addressed without examining the values behind our collective decision-making.

Yes, celebrate the anniversary of a phenomenal human achievement of going to the moon and returning.  But, let's also pay attention to the injustices all around us.  As MLK noted, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

I forced myself to end this long Twitter thread with a tweet from Ilhan Omar:

The following is a re-post from May 2016--almost six months before the fateful elections.  It was also about when the fascists-loving commenters started dropping off--good riddance to bad rubbish, as we used to say in the old country!

There are somethings that I would way prefer that I did not ever know.  But, the cosmos couldn't care.

It was a pleasant evening when the friend and I walked up to the bridge over the river.  Spring time in the valley is simply beautiful.  But, then so is the summer.  And the fall too.  Anyway, it was a pleasant evening.  We stood looking at the river.  It just flows. Couldn't care for anything as it rushes to join the mighty ocean.

Which is when I spotted it.  A Nazi swastika etched on the bench.  Not very big.  Small or large, well, it is awful.  And, even stranger were the numbers that were fainter.  "1488."  1488?  What did that mean?

I checked with Google.  It led me to the Anti-Defamation League website:
1488 is a combination of two popular white supremacist numeric symbols. The first symbol is 14, which is shorthand for the "14 Words" slogan: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." The second is 88, which stands for "Heil Hitler" (H being the 8th letter of the alphabet). Together, the numbers form a general endorsement of white supremacy and its beliefs. As such, they are ubiquitous within the white supremacist movement
I did not need to know that.  Damn the person who had etched that on the bench!

The ADL adds this:
Some white supremacists will even price racist merchandise, such as t-shirts or compact discs, for $14.88.
How sick is that!

This graffiti is recent, I would think, because that is a spot that I frequent and I am usually observant of the places and people in my life.  My mind wants to jump to conclusions that it might have been after the visit of the hate-spewing fascist candidate for the White House; but, I have no evidence, of course.

A tad too unnerving given that only a couple of days earlier we had watched "Look Who's Back" (the  German title is "Er Ist Wieder Da")
Before shooting the dramatic film, [the director, David Wnednt] took the actor who plays Hitler all over Germany, dressed as Hitler and in character, to find out. The result is a mockumentary that makes you laugh and then it makes you feel uncomfortable that you're laughing. 
People knew that it was an actor.  Yet:
Oliver Masucci, the actor who plays Hitler, spent nearly a year traveling around Germany completely in character. He said it was a disturbing experience.
"The first thing they did was take selfies. I took about 25,0000 selfies. First [people] laughed and asked why I was dressed as Hitler," Masucci said.
He explained that he was Hitler and told them he was shooting a movie so people could tell him what they really think about today's Germany. "Then people started to talk to me. This was really awful."
Masucci says Germans told him they thought democracy wasn't working, that Germany needed another strongman, that refugees should be sent home and the unemployed should be put in labor camps.
Democracy not working. Needs a strongman. Refugees should be sent home. Sounds familiar as the hate-spewing fascist candidate's platform as well?

Meanwhile, this Slate essay argues that Trump is "the most prominent Aryan warrior of the modern age":
Trump’s vulgar, unvarnished manner of speaking and his penchant for favoring extreme measures—the very characteristics deemed unpresidential and dangerous by his critics—are seen as not only refreshing but also as essential for the rebirth of the Aryan nation-state. When Trump calls Hispanic immigrants “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” and vows to “take our country back” from those “taking our jobs” and “taking our money,” white nationalists hear Trump telling the same uncomfortable truths about the sorry state of white society they have voiced for decades. Every time he eggs followers on to forcefully confront detractors or swears to “take out the families” of terrorists, he projects a muscular approach to protecting the white republic. 
Back to the Hitler movie; the director, David Wnednt, adds:
It was just normal people who elected [the Nazis], normal people who followed orders, and normal people who could've stopped him. And that didn't happen
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.


If only it had all ended that November!


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Focus. Focus dammit!

Back in the old country, when we were kids, my sister--who is the eldest--studied and did her homework while playing music from the radio in the background.  And for whatever reason, she listened to Hindi movie songs, which is how I got hooked on to those old melodies.

My grandmother often commented on this habit of studying while listening to music.  A rather gentle woman that my grandmother was, she merely suggested that my sister do one thing at a time. The grandmother and the granddaughter continued to say and do what each said and did ;)

I never had this problem though.  Primarily because I rarely ever did any school work at home!

But I have pretty much been only a do-one-thing-at-a-time guy.

In this modern day of multitasking,  I joke about my inability to do more than one thing at the same time.  But, the jokes aside, I am always confident that my work quality is better because I pay attention to what I do.

Increasingly, it is a rare young person who seems to do only one thing at a time.  In my classes, I don't want to come across as a fuddy-duddy who tells the youth what not to do. Especially when I am brown-skinned and with a funny accent.  Instead, I channel humor to remind them about the virtues of focusing on the task at hand.  I ban the use of electronic gadgets when the class is in session.

It is a losing battle, I know.
But people don’t multitask solely because they see no harm in it; they perceive benefits. They say they multitask for efficiency, to fight boredom or to keep up with social media.
I don't understand why people prefer these routes.  "Instead of multitasking, take more rest breaks, and get your social media fix during a break."  Exactly!
We need to pay attention to how much — or how little — we are paying attention.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Carrots, sticks ... and doing the right thing

I often think to myself that life is simple if we followed one rule--make sure we do the right thing.

That's it.  As simple as that.

Of course, doing the right thing is not really simple.  For one, how do I know that "x" is the right thing to do and not "y"?  It becomes a challenge.  A challenge that forces me to think about options "x" and "y" and conscientiously arrive at a decision.

And even if I have decided that "y" is the right thing to do, well, I still have to do it.

All these are hard work.

There are plenty of other easier routes that one can take.  Like grabbing something that does not belong to me.  The President even boasts about grabbing pussies!  In these times, doing the right thing has apparently become way too tough even for a good chunk of the religious people!

In this loud thinking about "do the right thing," I am, of course, channeling a thought from the Bhagavad Gita.  Many kids like me grew up with elders, teachers, and preachers making references to "Do your duty, but do not concern yourself with the results."  The dharma that the Hindu philosophers refer to.

Secular research also reaches the same conclusions.

Easier said than done, of course.  But, to me, life is not worth it if I don't at least ponder about the right thing to be done.

The awesome thing for an atheist is that there is no hell or god's fury to worry about if I chose not to do "y."  Yet, unlike those hypocritical white evangelicals, I--as an atheist--end up trying as much as possible to do the right thing.

It is worth quoting Steven Weinberg, again:
 Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God.  
A wonderful satisfaction, not a grim satisfaction, that I thought and did the right thing.  And then for the chips to fall where they may.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

"To him, your celebration is a sham"

The Dear Leader has messed up the Fourth of July, too!

The following is a post from two years ago, which I have only slightly edited:

Back in high school, my friend and classmate, Chandru, had a record player, in which he played for a couple of us who had gone over to his home an LP of a music group called ABBA.  And soon after that, I came to know the music of another group, Boney M.

Those were the days when nobody was ashamed of disco music and were actually joyously singing along.  Among the many Boney M. songs was one that began with "By the rivers of Babylon ..."

What I did not know until yesterday--yes, literally yesterday--was that this Boney M song, the opening lines that I was so familiar with, is from "a biblical Psalm – Psalm 137."

It is amazing how ignorant and ill-informed I am.  Every single day, this blog serves me well as a confession booth!

That tidbit is merely the starting point for my ignorance.  The essay begins thus:
On the anniversary of America’s independence, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass made a biblical Psalm – Psalm 137 – best known for its opening line, “By the Rivers of Babylon,” a centerpiece of his most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”.
Douglass told the audience at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, that for a free black like himself, being expected to celebrate American independence was akin to the Judean captives being mockingly coerced to perform songs in praise of Jerusalem.
Not only did it inspire the famous abolitionist; this 2,500-year-old Hebrew psalm has long served as an uplifting historical analogy for a variety of oppressed and subjugated groups, including African Americans.
Wait, what?

After that essay, I read the New Yorker and David Remnick also refers to Frederick Douglass, this Psalm, and Douglass' speech.  Seriously, am I the only one who is always stumped by own ignorance?

I decided to read Douglass' speech. Or, at least most of it.

It is powerful. It is moving. It is a must-read.

It will be a gross injustice to excerpt even a single sentence from that speech.  With all the apologies, and my ignorance as an excuse, I will wrap up this post with the following lines from Frederick Douglass:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Loser lines and fast lanes

I was perhaps 10 or 11 years old when the family, including paatti (grandmother), went to Tirupati.  For a visit with the presiding god.  We stayed in one of the cottages owned and operated by the temple trust.

It was a carefully planned trip--as it always was the case with anything that father did--that included special and expensive tickets for us to bypass the long lines of the faithful, and head straight into the temple to spend quality time with the god during a pooja.

I could not understand how a god could allow such separate and unequal treatment of people. His own followers were sifted through the sieve of affluence?  I mildly voiced my question, which went nowhere.

And when paatti twisted her ankle and could not join us for the special pooja, I wondered if it was a lesson from god. Ah, yes, those were the early years when I was a true believer--teenage and rebellion hadn't kicked in yet ;)

The practice of paying for the privilege of getting quickly to the temple gods, and even boasting about it later on, continues in the old country where privileges such as caste never ever seem to go away.  For instance, I read in the newspaper, The Hindu, that there are special tickets that the faithful can buy in order to catch a glimpse of the idol that is brought out every forty years at the Varadaraja Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram.

If one can buy the access to god through money or influence, well, the market can easily take care of that in everyday life, right?
The concept is thought of as an American phenomenon but is now spreading worldwide. Queues can effectively be skipped everywhere from airport security to music festivals. Just buy a fast-track ticket or “VIP access” pass.
An "American phenomenon"?  Did the writer even bother to check the conditions in India's temples? ;)
Does the phenomenon dictate a two-tiered society? It seems the answer is “yes” – but as columnist Baggini points out, that two-tiered society always existed.
Yes, it has always existed.  And it will continue on. After all, even the gods don't care!

At the Varadaraja Perumal Temple (Kanchipuram)

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Let it go ...

Frank Sinatra famously sang in My Way:
Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
Too few to mention?  Really?

I have had a mediocre life and I have plenty of regrets.  Sinatra with too few regrets?

Given his life, Sinatra was no saint.  Which means:
“People who say ‘I regret nothing’ are either saints or stupid, in my view. Regret based on flexible attitudes is the hallmark of mental health. It is a sign that you are engaged with life.” Without regret, we cannot learn from our mistakes, and we are destined to repeat them
Humans that we are, all of us walk around with regrets.  (Unless it is this guy, but then he is a sociopath!)  The question then is what to do with those bags and bags of regrets.

Use them to understand who you really are. Know thyself!
It is the ability to accept yourself, to recognise that there was a wider context to your actions and to understand that you made the decisions you made based on the values and the information you had at the time, that leads to remorse and self-knowledge. Dryden says: “Take the psychological equivalent of cod liver oil, which doesn’t taste nice but will do you good: accept the point, difficult to swallow though it may be, that yes, it would have been nice if you had made a different choice, but you could only have acted as you did at that time in those circumstances.”
And, therefore,
“regret, though it’s very painful, can be a gift. It can be the doorway to a better way of living, of being with others.”

Monday, July 01, 2019

Why blog?

If ever I wonder about the utility of blogging, the cosmos always delivers without fail and assures me that the posts will be useful.  In ways that I might never expect.

The evidence today?  A student wrote about a book that she had recently read.  By Richard Dawkins.  And she writes there, "What are your thoughts?"

I wrote back a looooooong reply, in which I linked her to two of my posts here, including this one in which I even bring in a Dawkins video segment from a C-Span interview!

Blogging pays off.

Reading and writing is all I can do. They are part of who I am.  And I find comfort in reading the great writers and then blogging about them!

In "Why I Write" Joan Didion notes:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
It makes sense, when you think about any writing that you read.  Whether it is a piece in the Economist or whether it is Lolita or Fifty Shades of Grey, the writers want you to listen to them and change your mind.  (Teaching too is no different, to a large extent.)

Didion remarks in that essay:
Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell.
Orwell opens his essay with this:
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
That is not my story though; up until I got to graduate school, I did not know how to write and--even worse--I had no clue that I sucked at writing.  I was not born to write, unlike what Orwell and most other writers apparently felt.

Orwell writes that all writers are "vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery."  The motives are many:
I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.
The first of those four motives?
Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grownups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.
Only Orwell could have put that so bluntly.  And he makes it clear that money is not the motive--"less interested in money."

Of the other three, I like the "political purpose" that Orwell writes about:
using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.
Thus, I write.  Knowing fully well that I am no Joan Didion or George Orwell.