Saturday, August 31, 2019

One consumer at a time is the wrong approach

Welcome to today's episode of "If only people listened to me!"

For years, I have been ranting writing and saying that mantras like "recycle" or "become a vegetarian" is nothing but individuals feeling good about how they are helping the natural environment, but is really nothing more than, well, like peeing on oneself on a cold night to feel warm for a couple of seconds!

And this rant is from a nature-loving (mostly) vegetarian who is conscientious about his trash and recycling.

The rant against feel-goodism is because it means that "we have accepted individual responsibility for a problem we have little control over."  We consumers have been brainwashed into believing that we created these problems and that we can solve these ourselves, if only we behaved "correctly" in our homes.

Awful bullshit that is.

And that's what this review of  Inconspicious Consumption: The Environmental Impacts You Don’t Know You Have points out about the book's message:
[Tatiana] Schlossberg says, “it is not the fault of the consumer that cashmere is cheap, and it’s not wrong to want nice things or to buy them, sometimes. ... It’s not within your control how some company sources and produces its cashmere, or the size of the herd that they got it from. That should be the corporation’s burden … or governments should make sure they act responsibly.”
Like I said earlier, welcome to today's edition of "If only people listened to me!"

So, does it mean that we individuals cannot do any damn thing?  We merely come up with ideas like Extended Producer Responsibility and circular economy that seemingly go nowhere?

Well, yes, as individuals who recycle and reduce trash while being a vegetarian, we are powerless.  But, get a few of us together and ...
Governments and corporations, of course, don’t do such things automatically — they need citizens to push them. But it doesn’t require every citizen to push in order to make change (since apathy cuts both ways, social scientists estimate that getting 3 or 4 percent of people involved in a movement is often enough to force systemic change, whereas if they acted solely as consumers that same number would have relatively little effect). You can obviously do both, and all of us should try — but fighting for the Green New Deal makes more mathematical sense than trying to take on the planet one commodity at a time.
You want an example?  I can give you plenty from my own blog.  But then who cares for sriram's rants, right?  Here's from the review:
[Instead] of trying to figure out every single aspect of our lives, a carbon tax would have the effect of informing every one of those decisions, automatically and invisibly. The fuel efficiency standards that the Obama administration put forward and Trump is now gutting would result in stunningly different outcomes. And so on.
In a democracy (call it a republic if you are one of those rightwing nutcases!) we collectively deal with these issues via elections and the government.
We aren’t going to solve our problems one consumer at a time. We’re going to need to do it as societies and civilizations, or not at all.
Elections have consequences, as 63 million people reminded us!

BTW, who is the reviewer, you ask?  None other than Bill McKibben.  

Friday, August 30, 2019

Social connection and community in these "modern" times

Early in my life in Bakersfield, when I was impressed with the public-minded work a much older couple was doing, I decided to invite them for dinner at a local restaurant that served fantastic food.

The restaurant, incidentally, was a lucky outcome for us locals--it was a failed business that brought the man and his family to what Johnny Carson called the "armpit of California."  And boy did they know how to make tasty food in an awesome ambiance!

We did dine with this older couple.  And that is when I noticed something for the first time ever in my life.

The couple often looked around the room to see if they knew people there, and they did.  After having been public figures for a while in town, of course they knew people and people knew them.  I felt letdown though that they were not focused on the people with them.

In all fairness, I should also note that despite me initiating the dinner meeting, the older couple insisted on paying for the dinner, which they did.

The more I became a real adult, the less I became keen on meeting with people at restaurants.  For that roving-eyes-reason and more.  It is difficult to have meaningful conversations with all the noise in the background. And then the constant interruptions by the waitstaff.  And, finally, the reality that we cannot linger on, even if the conversation gets to be mighty interesting--the restaurant tables are very short-term rental units.

Most restaurants are open only from early evening through the night.  They have plenty of unused space for a good chunk of the day, even when the prep work happens in the back, right?

Which is why we apparently have a new format:
Restaurants are taking this to the next level as tech apps like Spacious, Reset and WorkChew turn their dining rooms into co-working offices during off-hours. Most participating restaurants only serve dinner, so they function as workspaces from 8 or 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., at which point workers must leave.
N.Y.C. Czech restaurant Bohemian Spirit has been using Spacious for about three months. It didn't take much work on their end — Spacious brought in high-powered WiFi, copious extension cords, and manages the crowds.
If you are like me, you are wondering who might ever want to use that kind of non-office as office.
About 41 million Americans (approximately 13% of the population) work as freelancers, consultants and contractors, which equals more people seeking temporary workspaces.
Why don't they simply work from their homes then?  For "the sense of community established while working alongside others."

We live in strange times.  People looking at their electronic screens sitting next to others looking at their electronic screens, and this provides them with a "sense of community."
"This points to our social nature and the fact that many feel isolated and just want to be around others," he explains. "The alternative would be working alone at home. So the mismatch idea that our modern environment is very different than that which we evolved in has led to people feeling isolated and desperate for 'social connection,' even if it's merely sitting around others."
Surely there are other more productive, constructive, and fun-filled ways to feel less isolated and more connected.  Even this hermit knows of a few.  Like hosting a few people for dinner that was cooked at home. Lively conversations. Laughs. Good times.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Rat Trap

Years ago, I wrote a commentary piece that no newspaper wanted to publish.  Maybe in my CV I should have listed the essays that were rejected along with the listing of the published pieces.  I bet that the rejections easily outnumber those that were found fit to be printed!

Anyway, this particular commentary was in the context of the Oscars--the Academy Awards.  The argument that I offered there was this: The Oscars are perhaps the easiest way that we can all understand "market failure."

If the forces of the marketplace were to prevail, then the best picture is the one that earned the most at the box office.  As simple as that.  As this NY Times piece put it more recently, you can rarely have both box office hits and best picture winners at the Oscars.  Rarely ever.  The market, where consumers exercise their preferences, rarely ever picks the best picture.  The market does not always know the best.

I learnt this young--well before I knew anything about the basics of microeconomics--back in the old country.  I loved the movies made by Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shyam Benegal and ... I didn't watch any of these awesome films in the movie halls because, well, they were never screened there.  The market was saturated with formulaic movies, of which I saw a few too.  These awesome movies that lost out in the marketplace I watched thanks to the government's television channel.  The market, as I later understood in graduate school, knows the price of everything, but never the value of anything.

We need arbiters of quality. Of value. People who know serious shit who can make aesthetic judgments.  Once upon a time, academics were integral to this process.  Not anymore.
In the early 20th century, the critic I.A. Richards already perceived the tension between equality and judgment. “The expert in matters of taste is in an awkward position when he differs from the majority,” he wrote. “He is forced to say in effect, ‘I am better than you. My taste is more refined, my nature more cultured, you will do well to become more like me than you are.’”  By the waning years of the 20th century, professors concluded they needed to reframe their expertise in order to align it with egalitarianism. Therefore, they bend over backward to disguise their syllabi as value-neutral, as simply a means for students to gain cultural or political or historical knowledge. 
We have become wimps. Wusses.  Especially in the postmodernist discourse, we academics have actively pursued the opposite of making aesthetic judgement--we seem to grant every view, every preference, an equal status!  A Marvel comic-book on superheroes is as valuable to humanity as is the Ramayana or Crime and Punishment.
Many professors believe they are trying to contest that intrusion of markets into every sphere of life that goes by the name “neoliberalism.” In my experience, the professors most strident about refusing value judgments are also most committed to resisting neoliberalism. But they can’t have it both ways. 
Indeed.  I am not a huge fan of neoliberalism, nor am I a fierce critic of it either.  Which is also why many of my colleagues view me with suspicion that I am an enemy in disguise.
There’s a basic problem with the capitulation of cultural education to consumer preference. Dogmatic equality tells us: There’s nothing wrong with your taste. If you prefer a steady diet of young adult novels or reality TV shows, so what? No one has the authority to make you feel bad about your desires, to make you think you should want something else.
Such statements sound unobjectionable, even admirable. But if the academy assimilates this view — as it largely has over the past three decades — then a possibility central to humanistic education has been lost. The prospect that you might be transformed, that you might discover new modes of thought, perception, and desire, has been foreclosed.
I am always shocked with the number of students who have ever read any serious piece of literature--in high school literature classes and then in the humanities courses in college.  And then we wonder why the mind has not been opened yet.  Imagine if we had a parallel curriculum in the sciences, where we ... oh well, you get the point, I am sure.
Our work as educators is to show students forms of life and thought that they may not value, and then to help them become the kind of person who does value them. 
In a recent conversation with a guy about my age, I asked him how he became who he is after having grown up in a highly fundamentalist Christian family.  "I came to Eugene and met a whole bunch of people who thought differently," he said.  And then he read Greek and Latin classics in college. Since then, he has charted out for himself who he wanted to be.
David Hume wrote: “Many men, when left to themselves, have but a faint and dubious perception of beauty, who yet are capable of relishing any fine stroke which is pointed out to them.”
I have enormous trust in the arbiters of aesthetics.  I skip movies that Anthony Lane disses, for instance.  I am yet to watch any of the box office champs this past decade.  Yes, dammit, I know better!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Know thyself ... through your own stories

It was the photo that really drew me to the essay.

An older woman holding up a photograph of her younger self.  And Indian looking.

The older woman looked like my mother. Her younger self in the photo that she was holding reminded me of a cousin.

I wanted to know more about the woman in the photograph.  I googled for "dirkmvp41" that was in the "Photograph by".

It led me to the description here:
My grandmother has lived with me for fifteen years, my whole life. If I had to name three of the most influential people in my life, she would definitely be one of them, and this shot is a tribute to her. The picture she is holding was taking by my grandfather in 1959; she was 25. In the near half-century between then and now, my grandmother moved from India to America, had two sons, two grandchildren. I hoped to capture the essence of this wonderful woman in this photograph and display her life story. And even today, at 73 years of age, she still teaches little kids, and still continues to touch many people around her.
That was in 2007.

The essay itself is about narrative identity and how aging shapes and changes it.
It’s a story you’ve got about how you came to be, who you are, and where your life’s going. That’s not your whole identity—there are a lot of other things that are part of your identity—but it’s a really important part, and it’s a neglected part.
It is different from autoethnography, which is "a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings".  Narrative identity is simply about the person--"the story of who we are and where we’re going."  Readers of this blog can immediately see why I am drawn to this!

When telling our stories, are the memories that we use to construct our narrative identity always true?
So you live your life and you collect material as you’re going along for your life’s story and you’ve always got this material, but you could reshape it—you can rewrite it. It could be a problem, but it’s also an opportunity. I think we’ve evolved not to have perfect memory but to have strategic memory, memory that helps us accomplish our goals and so forth. We all grow up in a certain culture and we learn how to tell stories, and what’s a convincing story. Cultures differ on that.
The "strategic memory" is perhaps what I have often referred to as "selective amnesia" when trying to figure out why I don't remember events and people that my siblings or cousins bring up.  As I noted in a different context--a very different context--"The nerd in me remembers a whole lot of ideas and concepts, while maintaining a selective amnesia about people and events."

Now, about the woman in the photograph.  If she was 73 in 2007, and 12 years have gone by ... The photographer was "a junior in high school" back then, in Coppell, Texas, which according to Google maps is adjacent to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.  Practically a neighbor to my grandmother's sister, who lives in another Dallas suburb!

The world makes a lot more sense through such stories.  This requires a lot of reflection on how we came to be, who we are, and where our lives are going.  Why wouldn't we want to do more of this before the narrative ends?

Monday, August 26, 2019

Be a man ... and cry a little?

Remember that old Pepsi ad featuring MC Hammer?  I still remember that commercial not because of any fondness of Pepsi over Coke, but because of "feelings" that the macho rapper starts to croon.  I thought that the ad did young boys a huge disservice by suggesting it was not hip to sing about, to talk about, feelings.

I was raised with phrases like "don't cry like a girl"--like almost all kids were back in those days in the old country.  Anger I could display. Fight I could--because boys will be boys.  But, crying was unmanly. I see that attitude even now, even in the adopted country.

We seem to forget that feelings bring people together.  Women cultivate their sisterhood through talking about their feelings, whether it is about their husbands or mothers or colleagues or kids or ... it is a long list of people about whom we have feelings and women seem to unreservedly talk about them.  Men, on the other hand, talk about sports and politics and the weather and everything else that is not about one's own feelings. 

All these despite plenty of men singing about feelings.  Like even that "feelings" song that MC Hammer sings because he drank the "wrong" soda.
Feelings, nothing more than feelings,
Trying to forget my feelings of love.
Teardrops rolling down on my face,
Trying to forget my feelings of love.
It is also the case that men who sang about feelings were immensely popular with women, from Frank Sinatra to Marvin Gaye to ... recall Rebecca's weak spot in Cheers?

Yet, "vulnerable emotions are coded as not masculine."  But, men's emotions are not merely about women.  It is a world of emotions.  The inability to share emotions means men have difficulty with friendships too, unlike women and their sisterhood.
Normalize it. Normalize the desire. Normalize the fact that all humans need these relationships to thrive. Charles Darwin said that our social abilities and skills is the reason why we've thrived as a species. I mean, we've known this for over a century - that these relationships are critical to our mental health - and we need to stop having a culture that says, somehow, you know, a certain gender doesn't need them and only another gender and sexuality needs them.
It's human to want friends - close, deep ocean friends, friends you love with an exclamation point, friends who know your deepest weirdness and your favorite emoji.
It is strange, bizarre, and tragic that this is talked about even in 2019!  Am not at all surprised that of the students who come to my office, only female students ever are honest with their emotions and seek my assistance.  With a couple of male students, I have even mildly attempted to convey to them to sort out their issues, but ...

Some day, we will get past these false gender norms and become healthy.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Fire and Ice

Nope, this is not about Robert Frost's poem.  Though, it might be a good time--actually anytime is a good time--to read that.

Fire and ice--in addition to hate that tRump has been spreading--are very much defining the hell that we are currently in.  Glaciers and ice sheets are melting.  The Amazon is on fire.  The end of the world is nigh!

What if climate scientists had been underestimating the pace and impacts of climate change?
When new observations of the climate system have provided more or better data, or permitted us to reevaluate old ones, the findings for ice extent, sea level rise and ocean temperature have generally been worse than earlier prevailing views.
For a moment, set aside any views that you may have about climate change.  Do not pause to think about the science and the complexity of understanding climate change.  Ask yourself a simple question.  Over the years, have you read any news item that makes you feel that there has been deluge of good reports that the natural world around us is getting healthier and better?

What if the story is that scientists have been underplaying the climate change issue all along?  And not because of any conspiracy, but because the scientific methods compels them to be a lot more cautious and conservative in their estimates?

Almost four years ago, during the monsoon season, Chennai experienced rains like it never has.  The reservoirs filled up fast and water had to be released in order to prevent any damage to the dams.  This sent more water into the already flooded canals and rivers and the city was flooded.  Most of the city was cut off.

A few weeks after that, in the column that I wrote, I linked this to climate change, and that the Chennai flood was a result of climate weirding.  Pat came a response from an old high school friend, who is a climate scientist.  He wrote to me that scientists were working on this attribution and that they did not have conclusive evidence, yet. (Update: His reaction was to a column later--after the Cyclone Vardah that I wrote about.)

That is how scientists work.  While their personal feelings might allow them to make the leap similar to what I did, professional integrity requires them to seek the evidence first.

Which is also why I have always felt that maybe climate scientists have been underestimating the impacts.  In a class for freshman students this fall, I  planned to make them think about this aspect--that the news about climate change is telling a wrong story, and that it really is worse than what we think it is.

This is also why the Scientific American piece appeals to me.
Among the factors that appear to contribute to underestimation is the perceived need for consensus, or what we label univocality: the felt need to speak in a single voice. Many scientists worry that if disagreement is publicly aired, government officials will conflate differences of opinion with ignorance and use this as justification for inaction. Others worry that even if policy makers want to act, they will find it difficult to do so if scientists fail to send an unambiguous message. Therefore, they will actively seek to find their common ground and focus on areas of agreement; in some cases, they will only put forward conclusions on which they can all agree.
Primarily because the overwhelming majority of the population is not scientists and it is difficult for us to wrap our minds about ideas like statistical significance and confidence limits and probability and ... so, "The drive toward consensus may therefore be an attempt to present the findings of the assessment as matters of fact rather than judgment."
Consider a case in which most scientists think that the correct answer to a question is in the range 1–10, but some believe that it could be as high as 100. In such a case, everyone will agree that it is at least 1–10, but not everyone will agree that it could be as high as 100. Therefore, the area of agreement is 1–10, and this is reported as the consensus view. Wherever there is a range of possible outcomes that includes a long, high-end tail of probability, the area of overlap will necessarily lie at or near the low end. Error bars can be (and generally are) used to express the range of possible outcomes, but it may be difficult to achieve consensus on the high end of the error estimate.
Underestimation happens.

And, therefore, this: "They may also consciously or unconsciously pull back from reporting on extreme outcomes."  Which is exactly how my friend responded to my column on the flood in Chennai and climate change.

So, in case nobody ever warned you ... lemme do this for you.  After all, I am General Malaise!  The pace of climate change is far worse than you think it is.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

It is not you. It is ... him!

Until tRump's election, most of us went about our days, getting our news in bits and pieces from the newspapers, the news segments on television, and from radio.  We had no idea how much time we had to spend on our own lives.  We were practically selfish in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

And then came tRump.

He has taken over our lives.

A year ago, I wrote that resistance is bloody exhausting.

A couple of days ago, when remarking on a NY Times report on Syria, I commented that "We used to read about the rest of the world, too, until #tRump came and sucked all the oxygen from us!"

I am relieved, and glad, that I am not alone in feeling so.

Matt Ford has written an essay on this!
Wasting time is a defining feature of Trump’s presidency. He is fairly adept at frittering away his own days, spending an indeterminate number of hours languishing in front of the television, simply to watch cable news coverage of himself so he can then offer comments about it on Twitter. But when it comes to wasting the time of everyone around him, the president is without peer. Trump’s haphazard style of governance forces journalists, lawyers, and government officials to expend innumerable hours on doomed initiatives and errant tweets. His corrosive effect on American politics forces Americans to devote far more hours of their life to thinking about him than they should. All of this amounts to a tax of sorts on the national psyche—one that can never be repaid.
Human lives are bounded by time and attention. Every moment that’s spent focused on one thing can’t be spent another way.
We can't ignore him--he is, after all, the President of the United States.  Which is why now even tiny Denmark is miffed!  And now even the Danes have to be ever more watchful for what the dictator tweets.

He talks. He tweets. And then he is off golfing while the rest of us are writing to our elected officials, or helping sue the government, or participating in marches while making sure we won't get shot, ...
Trump, of course, pays his own tax freely. He largely spends his days as president in unstructured “executive time” where he fields calls from outside advisers and ingests massive quantities of raw Fox News coverage. The work of solving the nation’s problems, except insofar as it rallies his supporters and keeps him in office, is a largely secondary concern. Soon after Trump took office, White House aides tried to persuade him that the national debt would become unsustainable in the future. “Yeah, but I won’t be here,” he reportedly replied. Trump’s time may be limited, but so is ours.
To use Wayne Tracker's words, what a "fucking moron!"

Dahlia Lithwick, who has been working in an overdrive these past couple of years, warns us (and herself too) against yielding to the "tRump fatige syndrome" because "the real jeopardy of authoritarianism starts with fatigue."
Moral seriousness seems to require being aware enough of the chaos everywhere that you accept being punched in the mouth with it every day.       
The email I have received most often this summer goes something like this: “I am doing too much. I am not doing enough.” The same can be said for all of us. Self-care in the form of manicures and time with the kids isn’t making a dent in it. And if one stops to think about the cumulative effect of gerrymandering, election interference, vote suppression, and a president signaling that he will not concede even if he loses in 2020, pinning all hopes in the next election feels one notch more sanguine than we can afford to be.         
I want to look away. I want to live like how I did before the 63 million gave the nuclear codes to a psychopath.
Cold comfort perhaps, but if you don’t feel that you are losing your damn mind, something would be profoundly wrong with you.
We are all doing too much. And we are all also not doing enough. And there is nothing wrong with you, beyond being a human being in categorically insane times.
And then I read this essay.  I am now wondering whether I should write to my Senators about this.  I need to remind myself that  "the real jeopardy of authoritarianism starts with fatigue."

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Arsenic and old lace

My people are showing up in many places, far away from Silicon Valley.  Of course I am referring to people from India.

Today, it is another. Niranjana Krishnan, who has authored this Aeon essay.

Krishnan has a good argument there: How afraid should we be of the synthetic chemicals that permeate our world?

At one end, we might have people who reflexively are opposed to any synthetic chemical.  At the other end, there are those who are ready to embrace and ingest anything that is unnatural.

Most of us occupy the vast space in between these two ends.  How do we respond to synthetic chemicals, and how should we?

Consider water.  Natural, right?  But, As they say in my part of the old country, "அளவுக்கு மிஞ்சினால் அமிர்தமும் நஞ்சு" (the idea translates to "even the divine nectar can become a poison if one exceeds the limit.)  Even water can become toxic, which is what happened a few years ago to a contestant:
On January 12, 2007, KDND's morning show, the Morning Rave, held an on-air contest entitled Hold Your Wee for a Wii, in which contestants were asked to drink as much water as they could without urinating. The contestant able to hold the most water would win a Wii video game console; at the time, the Nintendo console was a very popular and sought-after item, but was nearly impossible to find in stores in North America. A 28-year-old contestant, Jennifer Strange, died of water intoxication hours after taking part in the contest.
Krishnan refers to "the adage ‘the dose makes the poison’."  An example  that she gives is this:
Take the example of botulinum, the most poisonous substance on Earth. Just 50 grammes of the toxin spread evenly worldwide would kill everyone. But, in very minute amounts, it is safely used for cosmetic purposes in Botox.
Eliminate Botox and the entire entertainment industry collapses!

When it comes to something new, something synthetic, one could always ban it out of an uber-precautionary principle.  But, that does not account for a fundamental fact of life--"risk exists in nearly everything."  Recall that old joke about a mother writing to her son that she and her husband moved residences because they read that most accidents happened near one's home?  Risk surrounds us everywhere.
We therefore need to understand probability: is the chemical exposure high enough for a high probability of adverse effects? We also need to know the risks of using an alternative chemical – or no chemical at all.
It is this risk and probability that tRump does not understand when he talks about most issues, especially when it comes to wind turbines. 

Or consider arsenic.  A natural chemical, right?  Not synthetic.  May I give you a glass of water spiked with only a dash of arsenic? ;)
Ultimately, though risk and uncertainty exist on all sides, people seem to be averse only to certain kinds of risks. And while we should undoubtedly work to reduce harmful chemical exposure and come up with safer alternatives, we also need to realise that our excessive phobia of chemicals, particularly synthetic ones, can often be unwarranted. 
Which is why we have the EPA and the FDA.  My worry is that the tRump administration has been rapidly gutting these agencies, and practically forcing the scientists out.  While we won't return to the bad old days of large-scale arsenic poisoning, the worry is real that synthetic chemicals might be allowed at doses that will be harmful.  This is a real risk that we should all worry about.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

How to make friends

I was a teenager when I went along with my family to visit with my father's cousin and her husband--a relatively newly wed couple.  Their home was in a part of Madras, as Chennai was known then, that seemed like a mosquito factory from where the terrible creatures were unleashed on to the world.

Anyway, as one who has always had a nearly obsessive compulsive disorder to check out the title of any book that I come across--and to quickly scan through if possible and even pretend to know about the book--my eyes stopped roving when I came across two books there.

The first was Dale Carnegie's How to win friends and influence people.  The other book was the one that made my heart skip a beat or two.  The title blew the mind of the teenager: The joy of sex.

I spoke about neither book with my aunt and her husband.

This post it is about my greatest failure in life.

No, it is not about sex.  But, please, read on ;)

My inability to make friends ...maybe I should have read Carnegie, instead of ...

The introverted me had a tough time making friends right from a young age.

And, of course, as it happens with anyone, the older I got the more difficult it became to make new friends.  Meanwhile, plenty of old friendships withered away.

So, when I come across an article on how to make friends--and keep them--of course I had to read it, whether or not the theoretical knowledge ever gets translated into practice!

To retain friends, the article gives these tips:
We have a few tips for being present and engaged with your friends:
1. Listen and notice things about your friend.
2. Take notes! It will help you remember your conversations and allow you points of connection later.
3. Remember the names of folks in your friends' lives.
Tell me something that I didn't know!  I suppose all these are like swimming--theoretically, I know and am an expert! ;)

Oh well ... let me tell you about my real expertise then--the joy of sex ;)

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A 400-year old sin

A few days ago, I got a heads-up on Twitter that the Sunday edition of the NY Times would include The 1619 Project.

I told M that we had to buy the print copy because I knew that it would be a treasure for years to come.

A while ago, I worried about the possibility of the hateful, racist tRump presiding over the union as we mark the 400th anniversary of one of the country's original sins.  63 million Americans made that nightmare possible!

Slavery was integral to Jill Lepore's single-volume narration of the history of the United States.  Lepore set out with a clear agenda:
The American experiment rests on three political ideas--"these truths," Thomas Jefferson called them--political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. ...
Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?
Jefferson was "an egregious hypocrite, who willfully betrayed the ideals he espoused."  As I noted in that post more than three years ago--a time when the fans of fascists in the old and adopted countries frequently commented at this blog--"If Jefferson had set a better example by freeing his slaves, and as a legislator and president if he had championed the rights of blacks, perhaps our history would have been different."

As always, Frederick Douglass was on the point:
Slavery lies in this country not because of any paper Constitution, but in the moral blindness of the American people.
After going to New Orleans, which included visiting the Whitney Plantation, I wrote in a column in the newspaper:
We as a country have never truly come to terms with the true horrors of the buying and selling of human beings and the atrocious treatment of slaves and, therefore, the racial dimensions of contemporary America.
The 1619 Project gives us more educational opportunities.  But then tRump and his white supremacist toadies believe that the NY Times is fake news and is a propaganda publication.  I don't imagine that they will ever see the errors of their path.

All we can do is continue to fight the good fight.  We shall overcome ... some day!

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Exclusion and cruelty

Almost a year ago, with "The Cruelty is the PointThe Atlantic's Adam Serwer phrased it clearly and succinctly that tRump and his supporters rejoice in the suffering of those they hate and fear.  Such sadism and cruelty is the stuff of dystopian movies, with the difference that this is no movie.  Serwer wrote:
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
That was back in October 2018.

Since then, tRump has only amplified his cruelty, and his loyal officials are eager and energetic to implement cruelty.  If they can't, well, either he fires them via tweets or they quit.

In many ways, the cruelty is all about the core question of who gets to be an American.  To him and his base, non-whites don't pass the test.  The brief 50-year easing of the racist immigration laws is being rewritten, rapidly.

I often remark to white anti-tRump Americans, if we get into such conversations, that at least they have only country to worry about.  I follow the events in the old country, too, and get doubly depressed.

Back in India, mOdi and his toadies, who constitute a much more overwhelming percentage of the population than tRump and his base do, are charging full-steam ahead with their efforts to classify who is a real Indian.

No, this is not about Kashmir.

In about two weeks, "as many as 4 million people may soon be excluded from Indian citizenship."  Four million.  Almost the population of Oregon!

This all stems from the “National Register of Citizens" (NRC), a log that is supposed to contain the names of all Indian citizens in Assam. The list, based on the 1951 census, was created to determine who were Indian citizens and who were migrants from neighboring East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The government is now seeking to update it, deciding that all those who can prove they were Indian residents before midnight on March 24, 1971 — just before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan — will be considered citizens, as will their descendants. Those who cannot are to be excluded from the register, detained and, if unable to prove citizenship before a “foreigners tribunal,” subject to deportation.
The cruelty!
It comes hard on the heels of a surge of virulent nationalism, including the use of the term “termites” in reference to immigrants from Bangladesh, leading to concerns that it will be used as a tool for persecution.

The situation is worsening:
Devastating stories are already emerging of those entangled in the process, including reports of suicides due to exclusion from the list. Men, women and children are already in detention centers, with little hope of emerging unscathed from this legal maze. They face the prospect of indefinite detention and could even end up stateless, with no place to be deported to, given Bangladesh’s position that this is an internal Indian matter.
What's happening in Assam could be extended to the rest of the country too:
After Assam, the BJP has promised a citizenship test for all of India’s 1.3 billion residents – part of a plan to make India a Hindu rashtra, nation. The number of Indian Muslims is almost equal the population of Brazil, the sixth most populous country in the world. A nationwide citizenship test would be an unimaginable tragedy, and would plunge India into chaos.
Why all this cruelty?
Caption at the source:
The BJP has promised a citizenship test for all of India’s 1.3 billion residents – a part of the plan to make India a Hindu nation’ Muslim men queuing to check the National Register of Citizens in 2018.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Fantasy Soda

I would think that I am not the only one from India who loved Fanta when I was young.  It was a special treat to get to drink Fanta.

And then, just like that, it was gone. 

We had no Coca-Cola products in India thanks to the government kicking the company out of India.

In its place came some godawful soft drinks--one was even called the "Double Seven", the "77" was a reference to 1977, which was the year that Indira Gandhi lost the elections and the urine-drinking Morarji Desai became the prime minister.  At least he didn't sell that bottled pee as cola, eh!  But, that is a different story by itself.

I suppose Fanta also was appealing because I was a kid.  I tried one much later, well into adulthood, and it was not the same.  And then, a decade ago, I had Fanta when I was in Tanzania--but only when the absolutely wonderful ginger beer, "Stoney Tangawizi," which is also a Coca-Cola product, was not available.

Oh, I could go on and on about the Stoney.  It was even better than what had until then been my best ginger beer--Bundaberg. I wish they would sell Stoney here in the US.

Even though a product from the Coca-Cola company, Fanta was originally created because of a very bizarre situation in wartime Germany:
The soft drink Fanta was invented by Coca-Cola, an American company, inside of Nazi Germany during World War II. Developed at the height of the Third Reich, the new soda ensured the brand’s continued popularity. Fanta became a point of nationalistic pride and was consumed by the German public, from the Fraus cooking at home to the highest officials of the Nazi party.
Something like India coming up with "Double Seven" cola!

And what went into the making of Fanta?
The drink was technically fruit-flavored, but limited wartime resources made that descriptor not wholly accurate. Its ingredients were less than appetizing: leftover apple fibers, mash from cider presses, and whey, a cheese by-product. “[Fanta] was made from the leftovers of the leftovers,” says Mark Pendergrast, who, as the author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, revealed this hidden past.
If you are like, you begin to wonder why Coca-Cola was doing business in Nazi Germany. It has always been that way--profit-making rarely ever stops to pause to think about morals!

And then Pearl Harbor happened.
The U.S.’s entrance into World War II meant that American companies had to immediately stop all business activities with the enemy. In addition, the German government was threatening to seize “enemy-owned” businesses. General Motors pulled out of Germany (though, Opel, a fully owned subsidiary of GM, still operated there). IBM’s operations were seized by the Third Reich, though controversy exists on how much they contributed to the German war effort. Coca-Cola HQ in Atlanta also cut off communications with Keith in Germany and halted the export of Coca-Cola’s 7X flavoring (the long-mythicized, top secret formula for Coca-Cola syrup).
The name Fanta? "Joe Knipp, a salesman, pitched “Fanta,” shorthand for the German word for “fantasy.” It stuck."

So, if Fanta was invented in Nazi Germany, then Coca-Cola could have easily discontinued that name, right?  Wrong. Have you already forgotten that profit-making rarely ever stops to pause to think about morals?
In April 1955, Coca-Cola reintroduced Fanta with a new recipe, this time as an orange-flavored drink. It debuted in Italy, before making its way to the United States in 1958. According to Pendergrast, they revived the name largely because it was convenient. After all, Coca-Cola already had the copyright. “I don’t think anyone [at Coca-Cola] cared that [Fanta] had roots inside of Nazi Germany,” says Pendergrast, “I think they thought no one would pay attention.”
Such is life in these modern times!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

To become the Path itself ...

When I was young teenager, which I was once upon a time, a couple of cousins referred to me--appreciatively and not mockingly--as Buddha, all because I offered highfalutin thoughts that were perhaps a tad out of the normal for that age.  I refer to the "mockingly" because it was also true that we used to mock people who came across like they had suddenly realized their mistakes--as if they became enlightened like the Buddha. (புத்தருக்கு ஞானம் வந்திருந்து)

Perhaps because of all these kinds of influences, or otherwise--who knows!--I have always had a fascination for the Buddha, as any number of posts in this blog reveal.

Buddhism has largely vanished from the India.  Once, I had a spirited argument with a friend, which went nowhere and ended with a agree-to-disagree, on how Adi Sankara led the charge to wipe out the rapidly growing Buddhist influence.  In the marketplace of religious truths, Buddhism lost!

My folks, like many devout Hindus, have visited Bodh Gaya and the tree (well, its descendant) where Siddhartha became the enlightened one.  Some day, I will visit those parts of India too.

For now, it is all vicarious.  Like by reading this fantastic piece in The New Yorker, in which Paul Salopek writes about waking the Buddha trail, in his Out of Eden project.

Caption at the source:
The Out of Eden Walk is an experiment in slow journalism, retracing the pathways blazed by the first Homo Sapiens
The author writes:
In the Buddha’s day, northern India’s religious landscape was in a time of spiritual crisis and social upheaval. Disillusioned, rudderless, Siddhartha renounced his gilded life—a childhood with thirty-two nursemaids, a kingdom with seasonal palaces and private gardens, and his princess wife and their child—to join other ascetics meditating in forests along the Neranjara River.
Today, plastic trash spangles the river’s sandy banks.
Such is life.  When even the Buddha has become irrelevant in this pale blue dot, how utterly foolishly arrogant of us to think that our egos and desires matter the most!

Fair goes the dancing when the Sitar is tuned.

Tune us the Sitar neither high nor low,
And we will dance away the hearts of men.

But the string too tight breaks, and the music dies. 
The string too slack has no sound, and the music dies.

There is a middle way.

Tune us the Sitar neither low nor high.
And we will dance away the hearts of men.

More here

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sign here

It has been almost 18 years since we got into a military conflict in Afghanistan.  Eighteen years!  College freshman students have no personal experience and understanding of our country at peace.  To them, we have always been at war :(

A pacifist that I am, I have always hated wars.  Well, except for a brief time in my teenage years when I thought that violence and revolutionary wars could overturn the choking status quo.  And then I got older.

At least going to Afghanistan was logical enough, with the country then being home to the dangerous combination of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  But, the invasion of Iraq?  I was completely against it.  I was opposed to it.  Yet, as I noted in this post a while ago, I did not sign on to a campus petition.

As I explained in another post, it is not that I don't sign petitions.  I do.  But, I run far, far away from "we, the academics" petitions.  The ones that I add my name to are typically "not merely from academics and are, instead, open to anybody from any walk of life. It does not matter if I am an academic or a ditch-digger or a filthy rich capitalist; those petitions are from "we, the people."

I don't want to pretend that I know it all.  I am fully aware that what I know is minuscule.  On public policy matters, by signing on to "we, the people" petitions, I am only participating in a democratic process, and not because I am an "expert."  And that seems to be the overall point in this essay too, where the author notes that "Our job is to persuade by argument, not by wielding influence."

However, I disagree with the author's absoluteness:
I believe that petitions, regardless of their content, compromise core values of intellectual inquiry.
Come on!  Be a philosopher and add the necessary qualifiers, woman!  "regardless of their content"?  Really?

The author's essay is otherwise carefully phrased, and she even notes this: "I am not saying that philosophers should refrain from engaging in political activity; my target is instead the politicization of philosophy itself."  And yet she disses all petitions "regardless of their content."

Take action, philosophers, but as "we, the people"!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Learn. Think. Repeat.

Engaged students in my intro class have often told me that my class almost always overturned many of the ideas that they had.  And they had believed many of those ideas to be established truths.  Some of my favorites include these:
  • Students came into class believing that human population growth would continue forever and lead to huge problems, and in my class they had to think through the fact that women are having fewer children than ever before and, therefore, population growth is slowing down.
  • Students would passionately defend the importance of buying locally, and then through the materials they had to think through the complex global interdependence and how we benefit from trade.
The second one--buying locally--is one that I had to even explicitly explain to, and argue with, a few Berniacs, who, like tRump supporters, parroted the rhetoric of how we in the US do not manufacture stuff anymore and how we, therefore, need to do something.

Both the examples clearly conveyed the link between content knowledge and critical thinking.  One has to know something in order to think through that content.  Critical thinking is not something as a standalone skill.  Critical thinking requires asking a lot of questions, which we cannot intelligently do unless we know about the content to even phrase a question or two.  I often tell students that in this age of access to information right from the small little device that fits into the palm of one's hands, we are only as smart as how smart we are in asking questions.  The ability to ask interesting and meaningful questions is, I believe, more important than before.

Typically, some time in the term, when a context comes up, I quickly slip in my advice to students that they need to seriously think about what they want from their four or five or six years of college.  I suggest to them that a broad introduction to as many ways of understanding the world will serve them well.  And, if they combined that with thinking and communication skills, they will be set for the rest of their lives.  Content plus skills.  Never about the skills alone.  And never about the content alone.

Johann Neem writes along these lines in his essay.
Cognitive science demonstrates that if we want critical thinkers, we need to ensure that they have knowledge. Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge.
Neem adds:
We can only think critically about things about which we have knowledge, and we can only make use of facts if we know how to think about them. As James Lang writes in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, “knowledge is foundational: we won’t have the structures in place to do deep thinking if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge related to that thinking.”

Neem echoes my thoughts here:
One has to know things to answer things. This is true even in the age of Google. If one looks up something online, one needs to know a lot of background information to make sense of the definition and explanation—and given how unreliable many online sources are, without that background knowledge, one might be led astray. But perhaps most surprising, those with more knowledge can learn more when they look something up on Google. That’s because if they already have background knowledge, they can add to it the new information and insights from what they are learning. This means that someone who understands political science and has some knowledge of how parties function will learn more from an online news story about elections than someone lacking that knowledge. Those who know more learn more than those who do not.
In other words, intellectual skills and knowledge are not two distinct things. They must work together to produce critical thinkers.
A mighty challenge it will be to get these ideas across when we live in an era of a President who prides himself on his gut instinct and with his party on an anti-intellectual crusadeThink about that, too!

Friday, August 09, 2019

What makes America great?

Back in February, I blogged about writing to Jill Lepore asking her if she had written such an essay somewhere on what makes America great.  Lepore replied: "I think my answer to that question is in my next book, which is called "This America: The Case for the Nation."

I read her op-ed in the NY Times.  I liked what she was arguing for:
I suppose I could have made the book a part of my summer reading.  But, this is the first summer when I have taken off from any serious work.  After years of M suggesting that I get out of my head, I implemented it.  It feels like I have put down a huge weight that I had been carrying on all these years.  I have no idea how people like Lepore keep going!

But then even when I don't read books, I do read plenty of book reviews.  This essay reviews Lepore's "This America: The Case for the Nation."  Well, it is a twofer that also reviews "This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto," whose author is an Indian-American--Suketu Mehta.

I haven't read Mehta's book either; but, I have read his op-ed and have heard him articulate his argument.
So, the review essay is not about books that will be unfamiliar terrain.
Nationalism is currently thriving, she believes, because the discourse of American liberalism is deficient. First, that discourse undervalues the radicality and relevance of the country’s founding ideals; second, the preoccupation with the rights of subgroups is essential, certainly, but politically inadequate; third, and here I put the matter much more crudely than Lepore would, liberals must in some sense do battle for possession of the Stars and Stripes. However gauche or complicit it may seem, they must understand and unapologetically frame their values—which currently have a niche, somewhat subversive emphasis—as our core national values:
This America is a community of belonging and commitment, held together by the strength of our ideas and by the force of our disagreements. A nation founded on universal ideas will never stop fighting over the meaning of its past and the direction of the future…. The nation, as ever, is the fight.
I am struck by the reviewer's blunt statement that "liberals must in some sense do battle for possession of the Stars and Stripes."

"The nation, as ever, is the fight."

Right on, Professor Lepore!

"I claim the right to the United States, for myself and my children and my uncles and cousins, by manifest destiny.”

That was not me, but it is from Mehta.
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.
We certainly are not letting the bastards take it back.  No way, Jose!

But, for us liberals and immigrants, the challenge is huge when it comes to fighting for the nation. Fighting for our nation.
If Lepore is right and the nation is indeed the fight, liberals must understand what a fight involves. That is, 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.
Fight on!

A Himalayan Blunder!

It is not that I have forgotten Kashmir after blogging this post.  Not.At.All.  It continues to preoccupy me so much that I have two different threads going on Twitter.  (One and two.)

Ten years ago--yep, in 2009--I quoted from an article:
the use of religion for political ends has substantially increased during the last few decades. Such a development has serious implications for a secular state and society. Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.
To which I added this as an example of how this affects the functions of the state: "The rabidly open anti-Muslim rhetoric of the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who oversaw the worst communal violence."

Here we are in 2019.  In the ten years since, mOdi not only became India's Prime Minister, but also recently won a landslide majority and secured a second term, which gave him enough political capital to revoke Kashmir's special status in the federal structure.

Soon after mOdi became the Prime Minister, when the nationalists decided to spend a fortune on a colossal statue, I wrapped up that post with:
Maybe I should simply give up on my old country and avoid the heartaches altogether.  Oh well, easier said than done!
It is easier said than done!

I wrote in a work email to a colleague who wondered if a lack of response from me was because I was in India: "I am very much here in the US, and following with a heavy heart the unfolding of events in Kashmir, and the tragic mass shootings."

It is like the line from Brokeback Mountain: "I wish I knew how to quit you."

I am not at all surprised that most of India's Hindus support this mOdi move to annex Jammu and Kashmir in one sweep.  Most of the extended family, the old school mates, and even the "worldly" former commenter at this blog, are mOdi supporters, like how many among my neighbors are tRump voters.  It is strange that I find myself in such company!

Pankaj Mishra, who wrote extensively about India's militarization of Kashmir in his younger years, connects the political dots between Brexit and this Kashmir situation (and tRump too.)  Drunk on power, they blithely smash up fragile constitutional arrangements, Mishra writes.

I wish I were still in touch with an old graduate school acquaintance, who was from Kashmir.  "G.P.".  Unless I want to forget, I suppose I never forget people and their names.  She was a couple of years ahead of me in the doctoral program.  Her brother then came to the US for his graduate schooling in engineering.  Even then--three decades ago--they talked about how they could not live and prosper in Kashmir and slowly the extended family was emigrating away from Kashmir.  Perhaps they also often utter the same line:  "I wish I knew how to quit you."

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Meet and talk?

I maintain office hours during the academic terms.  Faculty announcing office hours was something new for me when I came to the US for graduate school--I don't recall faculty giving us their office hours when I was an undergraduate student.  Heck, for that matter, we didn't even have syllabi for the courses that we took.  We went to class, doodled, and it was exam time when the term ended.

We faculty are required to maintain office hours--essentially to tell students that we will be available in our offices, waiting for them to talk to us about whatever it is that they want to talk about.  Students do not show up though.  Rarely ever do students walk in during that appointed time.

Increasingly, if they want to contact me, they email.  Almost always, their emails are like text messages to their friends.  No salutation. No grammar. No signing off.

I have often pointed out to students that a great deal can be easily accomplished in a couple of minutes of real-time face-to-face conversation in the real world.  But, I can't seem to convince them about that.

It is the same way with colleagues too. Once, I walked over to a colleague's office two buildings away, and told her that I preferred this to email exchanges.  She was shocked, as if it was the most unnatural thing to to!

Emails have messed us up for good. Yes, there are immense advantages--but, we seem to misuse that tool more than putting it to productive use.
As e-mail was taking over the modern office, researchers in the theory of distributed systems—the subfield in which, as a computer scientist, I specialize—were also studying the trade-offs between synchrony and asynchrony. As it happens, the conclusion they reached was exactly the opposite of the prevailing consensus. They became convinced that synchrony was superior and that spreading communication out over time hindered work rather than enabling it.
The very people who birthed the concept of emails were beginning to see that real-time communication was superior and more productive!
It was in the nineteen-eighties that business thinkers and computer scientists began to diverge in their thinking. People in office settings fixated on the organizational overhead required to organize synchronous collaboration. They believed that eliminating this overhead through asynchronous systems would make collaboration more efficient. Computer scientists, meanwhile, came to the opposite conclusion. Investigating asynchronous communication using a mathematical approach known as algorithm theory, they discovered that spreading out communication with unpredictable delays introduced new complexities that were difficult to reduce. While the business world came to see synchrony as an obstacle to overcome, theorists began to realize that it was fundamental for effective collaboration.
If you want an example, here you go:
As the distributed-system theorists discovered, shifting away from synchronous interaction makes coördination more complex. The dream of replacing the quick phone call with an even quicker e-mail message didn’t come to fruition; instead, what once could have been resolved in a few minutes on the phone now takes a dozen back-and-forth messages to sort out. With larger groups of people, this increased complexity becomes even more notable. Is an unresponsive colleague just delayed, or is she completely checked out? When has consensus been reached in a group e-mail exchange? Are you, the e-mail recipient, required to respond, or can you stay silent without holding up the decision-making process? Was your point properly understood, or do you now need to clarify with a follow-up message? Office workers pondering these puzzles—the real-life analogues of the theory of distributed systems—now dedicate an increasing amount of time to managing a growing number of never-ending interactions.
The next time a very serious person talks about email overload, maybe you can send them the link to that essay?

At work, I have even joked with colleagues that I sometimes intentionally ignore bureaucratic emails--if it is truly important, either I will get another email or the person will walk over to my office.
We must, therefore, develop better systems—ones that will almost certainly involve less ad-hoc messaging and more real-time coördination.
I am all for it!  You know where to find me in the real world ;)

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Immigrants gave England their favorite foods. Yet, Brexit?

Way back, a long time ago, when Tony Blair was Britain's Prime Minister, his foreign secretary, Robin Cook, made a comment that was heard around the world.  Cook noted that the chicken tikka masala had become Britain's favorite food that qualified it as the national dish.  He added that it epitomized Britain's involvement with the world and how it adapts to global influences.

The colonial origins of the chicken tikka masala aside, it indeed is remarkable that Britain has been bowled over by curry.  It is a global story to which even the insular Japan is no exception.

The chicken tikka masala displaced fish-and-chips as the national dish.  Was fish and chips truly a "national" dish?

Chips are from potatoes.  Ahem, potatoes did not get to the island, which is becoming increasingly irrelevant, until very recently, well after the white man's not-so-friendly first visits to South America.

So, the chicken tikka masala is recent.  Chips are only a tad older in the English cuisine (yes, an oxymoron!)  How about the fried fish itself?

It turns out that even the fried fish is not particularly English!

Whaaaaat?  Don't tell me that the Pope is not Catholic! ;)

Apparently this fried fish concoction is from the Sephardic cuisine that Jews brought with them after they were expelled from the Iberian peninsula.
As religious violence worsened, many fled Portugal and resettled in England, bringing with them culinary treasures founded in Sephardic cuisine—including fish.
Peshkado frito (in Andalusian dialect, pescaíto frito) was one of them. The dish of white fish, typically cod or haddock, fried in a thin coat of flour, was a favorite particularly among Sephardic Jews, who fried it on Friday nights to prepare for the Sabbath, as the Mosaic laws prohibited cooking. Allegedly, the batter preserved the fish so it could be eaten cold, and without sacrificing too much flavor, the following day.
What a fascinating and complex story about a relatively simple food!

Once it was introduced, well, the rest was history.
It was a hit. Fish prepared “in the Jewish manner” was sold on the streets of London on any given day. And at the end of the week, eating fish on Friday was a part of religious observance for Jews and Catholics alike—as “fish fasting” to avoid consuming warm-blooded animals has been a part of the Catholic tradition for centuries.* Though both groups were religious minorities at the time, fried fish became a popular secular dish, too.
Here's another interesting twist to this globalization story: The writer who provides us the fish-and-chips story is Simon Majumdar.  That last name is a dead give away about the Bengali origin.  Wikipedia offers the details:
Majumdar was brought up in Rotherham near Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England[3] by his Welsh mother and Indian father, a middle child out of four children.[4] His father Pratip "Pat" Majumdar was born in Kolkata
Even the guy who explains the globalization story of fish-and-chips literally owes his life to globalization!  Oh, he is now an American citizen!

If only the narrow-minded, racist, xenophobic people around the world paused to think and appreciate it all!

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

The art of manipulation

A long time ago, back in my California days, a colleague who was older by a decade made a comment that made an impression on me.  He said something like this: "Sriram, everybody wants to grab whatever you have in your wallet. It is up to you to protect it."

Who are they?  Not your kids. Well, sure, your kids want your wallet.  But, you can easily fend them off.

"They" are the vendors of various goods and services.  They tempt you in ways that you won't even imagine that you are being manipulated by them, all because they want to get every dollar and cent that you have.

In the movie halls, for instance, they sell popcorn.  Now, you have already been brainwashed into thinking that you should always watch movies while feeding your mouth with salty and buttery popcorn.  So, you stand in line.  You notice that the price difference between the smallest size and the huge tub of popcorn is not that much.  You begin to wonder if you are a loser when you spend money for the small size when the person in front of you got a giant tub of popcorn for just a little bit more money.

Your mind races at dizzying speeds.  It is now your turn at the counter.  The young woman asks, "what size?" You blurt out uncontrollably: "The tub, please."

They grab your wallet.

Your first mistake was to allow yourself to be brainwashed into thinking that your movie experience will be sub-par if you didn't have popcorn.  Your wallet is already out of your control.

Then, you could not manage to stay focused on ordering the small serving.  You have been robbed.  After the movie ends, you go home and it slowly dawns on you that you overspent.
 “If you frame options in a certain way, you can nudge people in the direction of higher-priced products,” says Linda Chang, a psychologist at Harvard University.
Unless we are clear about what we want, they can easily manipulate us to do whatever they want us to do.  "Marketing ethics" might as well be an oxymoron!

So, what can you do to fight them?
Just don’t be a victim of it yourself. Whether you are buying headphones or deciding on a retirement plan, deliberately ask whether you are really choosing the option you need or want, with the attributes you were originally seeking, or whether you were distracted by a deliberately unappealing alternative. Like an expert sniper trained to avoid false targets, you may find that your judgement suddenly becomes a lot more incisive.
Be very clear about what you want.  The moment you show confusion and reveal your weakness, well, they mug you and your wallet is gone!