Thursday, October 31, 2019

The end of Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir ceases to be state in India.  The mOdi government's fiat takes effect.
India on Thursday formally implemented legislation approved by Parliament in early August that removes Indian-controlled Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and begins direct federal rule of the disputed area amid a harsh security lockdown and widespread public disenchantment.
The legislation divides the former state of Jammu-Kashmir into two federally governed territories.
As my old country newspaper put it, "The bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir into two Union Territories came into effect at midnight on October 30."

Three months in and conditions are not looking better.  Especially for kids:
At least 1.5 million Kashmiri students remain out of school. Virtually all private schools are closed, and most government schools are shut — one of the clearest signs of the fear that has gripped Kashmir since the Indian government locked down the disputed territory and separatist militants began carrying out attacks to disrupt its control.
How terrible!
This generation of Kashmiri children has been among the hardest hit. They have known nothing but conflict. For the past 10 years, huge protests and clashes keep erupting. Many young people have seen friends killed, maimed or hauled off by security forces. Their schools are constantly closing, sometimes for months at a time.
What did the kids do to deserve this, right?

What is the rest of the world doing?

The world’s apathy — and the apathy of many Indians — is only perpetuating a climate of fear, silence and repression the region hasn’t witnessed in decades.
And that merely emboldens the fanatical Hindu nationalists.
More of us need to speak up. The world must hear the deafening silence from Kashmir. Looking the other way for strategic relations is not an option. Kashmir and her children are waiting for justice.
But, what can one do?  My government is far more interested in a mafia hit on Ukraine in order to get anything on a political opponent.  And, it was the President who lit the proverbial match with his irresponsible remark (not that he ever makes any responsible remark!)

Back in Kashmir:
The children, meanwhile, are desperate to get out of the house and go back to school. They want to see their friends. They want to learn new things. They know their futures depend on it.
“You should either burn my books and my uniform or send me to school,” Reyan, the fourth grader, grumbled to his father on a recent day as they sat in their house in Baramulla, a town in northern Kashmir.
His father, Pervaiz Ahmad Sofi, a forestry professor, threw open a window and pointed toward a group of soldiers in riot gear, stationed just outside their house, guarding a highway.
“Now tell me, do you still want to go to school?” he said. Reyan looked down and walked away, back to the TV.
This is a fucked up world!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Hamilton ... before he became a musical

Thanks to tRump and his toadies, we are all being compelled to learn civics and government all over again.  One of the tweets in my feed referred to Hamilton and the Federalist Papers, which then reminded me of one of my many commentaries that never got published ... here it is, from ten years ago.

Aware that I would be without internet access during my stay in the southern highlands of Tanzania, I took with me the book that I have always wanted to read but kept postponing—The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers is a collection of essays that analyze, defend and, in a way, sell, the American Constitution.  The essays were intended to be along those lines because the principal author, Alexander Hamilton, was deeply worried that the Constitution might not get the backing of enough votes, which would have then brought the revolutionary democratic experiment to a premature end. 

So, in fall1787, soon after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Hamilton, with considerable contributions from James Madison and John Jay, authored a series of essays advocating the ratification of the Constitution.  Looking at it from 2010, when we continue to operate with that original constitution and with only 27 amendments to it over the more than 200 years since, it does sound strange that Hamilton was so concerned.  But, I suppose this is yet another evidence of the thorough job the founders did and left no stone unturned.

Perhaps it was meant to be that I delayed reading this classic treatise all these years until I was in Tanzania.  For one, it meant reading it under conditions that were not far removed from Hamilton’s times.  After sunset, electricity was available at the Tanzanian village only through a local generator, and that too for a restricted three hours between 7 until 10.  Therefore, most of the reading that I did was while sitting up inside a mosquito net and with a LED headlamp on—instead of candles or oil lamps that Hamilton might have used after sundown.

From a political perspective, of course, Tanzania has been one of the fortunate countries in Africa with a relatively high degree of stability.  In contrast, half the sub-Saharan African countries are authoritarian regimes, according to The Economist magazine’s report on democracy, which classifies countries into full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes.  Thus, reading this classic while in Africa, in a continent where democratic governance cannot be taken for granted even in the year 2010, was quite a reminder of how much the 18th century thinking of the framers of the Constitution continues to be way ahead of a great part of the contemporary world. 

Yet, as much as they were blazing a new political trail, the authors of the Federalist Papers were no dreamy idealists.  For instance, Madison notes that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” He then masterfully reminds us that government is a reflection of human nature, which then logically underscores the need and structure for checks and balances. Unchecked governments, which seem to be in plenty around the world, certainly do prove that they are no angels.

Lest anybody mistakenly conclude that the Constitution is the perfect model without blemishes and where no ideal was compromised, Hamilton observes in the final—85thFederalist paper, “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.”  Yes, we need this reminder in the 21st century America, too, as we continue to renegotiate the social contracts at the federal and state levels in order to correct the old imperfections and to mitigate the new ones we introduce.

The fact that the cogent arguments that are offered in the Federalist Papers are as applicable now as they were back in the 18th century is more than a testament to the clear vision of the founders and their belief in the virtues of democracy.  I now have that much more of an appreciation of my good fortune in having spent all my life in democratic societies, one-half in America and the other, earlier, half in India. 

Finally, reading the Federalist Papers was highly encouraging for a personal reason—these were published as a series of essays in the newspapers in New York.  In other words, discussing policy issues with fellow citizens through the pages of the newspapers is an American tradition that predates even Washington’s presidency.

Which is why I now have a simple explanation for writing these opinion columns—it is an absolutely American thing to do!  Thank you, Alexander Hamilton.

Women carrying water from a common hand-pump, in Pommern (Tanzania)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Every small and local thing matters?

In the city where my parents live, there is litter everywhere.  Plastic bags are one of the many eyesores.  More than an eyesore, for instance, when they clog the storm water intakes and add to urban flooding during the monsoons.

A few years ago, my father, who likes cleanliness and order, thought that perhaps he would do something at least right outside his own yard.  He talked with the "watchmen" at the neighboring buildings and told them that they could at least keep their own respective street-fronts clear of waste. People do not generally litter a clean place, but are always quick to add crap if there is a pile of waste.

It worked for a week or so.  And that was it.

In our own ways, many of us try to do what we believe are the right things in the tiny bit of the world over which we might have some say.  But, such feel-good acts do not really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things.  Does it mean that we should stop doing them?


"Acting at the local level feels good because the results are visible and tangible."  However, we need to keep in mind that "the world is more complicated than that."  So, yes, go ahead and clear your street of plastic bags. Fight to ban single-use plastics.  Ban plastic drinking straws, if you think that is the right thing to do.  But, keep in mind what Humphrey Bogart said in a different context--they "don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

The world is intricately interconnected for our small acts in our backyards to make a huge difference.
"Everyone who is concerned about the environment knows that large-scale solutions are important."
Engaging with the environment at multiple scales is what thoughtful people do, all the time, whether they want to or not. There is no place or scale to escape to. And the question of which level of encounter is the best for the environment – or the human soul – has no easy answer.
Everything local is global, and vice versa. It’s a matter of continuing to participate, to question ourselves and our behaviors, to assess and reassess the needs of the planet, and hold dearly the tensions that come with trying to make positive environmental change.
I have blogged in plenty along these lines.  For instance, when it comes to recycling, I practice it--but all the while pointing out that this feel-good act doesn't make a damn difference. As I wrote a couple of months ago, I rant against feel-goodism is because it means that "we have accepted individual responsibility for a problem we have little control over."  We 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.

We need to go after the big time changes and I worry that feel-good local and individual behavior might even distract us form the urgency to press for huge systemic changes.

So, yes, go ahead to do what you can.  Feel good about it.  The tangible effect is important.  But, don't ever let go of the big changes that we need to fight for, beginning with throwing out tRump and his toadies who are doing everything they can to ruin life for all of us humans on this wonderful and unique pale blue dot.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Friday, October 25, 2019

My teaching practice

A long time ago--that's what it feels like--my daughter was half way through medical school and she decided that neurosurgery was what she wanted to do.

While I am familiar with many aspects of higher education, I know nothing about the intricate details of these professional schools.  So, I asked her about the process.  How does one become a neurosurgeon?

Without rolling her eyes at me, thankfully, she gave me the details.  The shocking aspect was the 7-year residency.  Seven years after medical school, which itself is four years after the undergrad.

I expressed my shock at it being 7 years.

She barely paused.  And I remember verbatim her response.

"Would you want any Tom, Dick, or Harry to work on your brain?"

That put her dad in his place ;)

As she worked through the residency--like a dog, she used to say--I was impressed that many of her mentors were older than me.  Much older than me.  The curious me asked her about it.  And, she had an immediate answer to that, just like she had answers for everything ;)

She said something like this: "You really begin to hit your stride a few years after you start working. While to others it might seem strange, it is common for neurosurgeons to be on the top of their game through their 60s, even into the 70s."

No wonder they call it a practice--it gets better and better with practice!

But then that is no different from the teaching practice too.  It is not uncommon for people to complete their PhDs as they turn 30.  The lucky ones in a track that gives them a permanent job, work with a focus and intensity to get tenured.  By the time this happens, and with the sabbatical break, one begins to hit the stride at about 40.

But, here is the major and real difference.  My daughter did 7 years of residency to get trained to do what she does.  We faculty never go through any residency program to do what we do--teach.  We are lucky if we are given any pointers about teaching when we go through the doctoral program. (I was unlucky, like almost everybody else.)  We are lucky if we get to teach with faculty mentoring us. (I was unlucky.)  Yet, we are hired to teach!

Luckily, neither the faculty nor the university are sued for malpractice, despite us being the least prepared to practice our profession.

Way back in my early years, a full-professor once told me, as we were nearing the restrooms: "we all have PhDs and we know how to teach. Nobody needs to tell us how to teach." 

I so much wanted to explain to him that having a PhD doesn't say anything at all about our teaching skills, but I followed Socrates' advice not to argue with fools.  I told him that I had a restroom emergency, and was thankful he didn't follow me into the stalls :)

It is depressingly ironical that most of the faculty rarely want to even engage in any serious discussion of teaching and learning.  They think it is useless. My attempt to engage with faculty on what it means to be a professor in the 21st century was a dud.  A big dud.

Here I am well into my middle age, and I continue to practice, with hopes that I am like the neurosurgeons making things better and not worse. I hope.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Killing the Ganga

I don't recall when it happened during my early years, but it happened.  I read about the Ganges River.  I was confused. Ganges?

It turned out that they were referring to the Ganga.  Had I known the expression "WTF!" I would have used that over and over.  Ganges?

In the old Hindu traditions, the Ganga is more than a river.  It is the holiest of rivers.  Holiest as in every river is holy, and this was the holiest of them all.  How holy?  Here is an example: There is an "exquisite rock-cut relief showing the fall of the Ganges that was carved in the seventh century AD at Mahabalipuram, well over one thousand miles south of the basin." That holy, even back then!

(BTW, what's the deal with "AD"?  We have long ago switched to the "CE" usage.  Such a usage in the revered NYRB?  WTF!)

If only such a worship of nature had continued.  But, we humans got on to the treadmill.  And the colonizers whose religious framework encouraged them to dominate nature switched the treadmill to a different model and speed.

The Ganga is now a mess.
To anyone who surveys the Ganges from one of the industrial towns along its course—Moradabad, for example, or Kanpur—humankind can seem peculiarly negligent of its own long-term interests. The exposed banks run with factory effluents while pigs snuffle untreated sewage and India’s poorest people pan for metal in the toxic shallows. Partially cremated corpses and devotional sculptures that have been committed to the waters drift downstream alongside vast quantities of plastic and the odd dead dog. In the plangent words of Sudipta Sen, a history professor at the University of California at Davis and the author of Ganges, the river has become endowed with a twofold character: “one as the immaculate and eternal deity of the flowing waters, the other as a mundane river, repository of accumulated human misdeeds.”
I don't understand how even the faithful Hindus willingly poison the holiest river!
Who is the world for? Me and you? Or all its organisms in perpetuity, as the dominant species abstains from further wanton destruction, exercising foresight and restraint? These are the questions that latent history tells us we should be asking as India’s population grows with extraordinary speed and the country’s water stocks are spoiled or depleted.
Well, not only should people in India ask those questions--we all should, wherever we live.  Who is this world for?

Very few seem to ask such questions anymore.  And we think that traditional cultures and peoples who live consistent with that framework are not "modern."  Is modernity worth killing the Ganga?  And here I use "Ganga" as a stand in for the living and non-living natural world all around us.
The final carve-up of the Himalayas is underway. Between them, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan have planned some four hundred large dams that would make the Himalayan rivers the most heavily dammed in the world. Inevitably, the brunt of the dams’ impact will fall on the rural poor as they lose their homes and livelihoods and in many cases join the drift to the cities, where they will meet more extensive environmental degradation.
No number of holy dips in the holy rivers will be able to absolve us of our sins :(

(Yes, I am aware of the contradictions in me blogging about this from unimaginable comforts that modernity has provided.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

That nagging pain ...

For a few weeks (gasp!) I have been dealing with discomfort, which has compelled me to learn a tad about human anatomy.  Anytime I engage in such learning about the human body, I am reminded of my daughter, who, after her first exposure to learning about anatomy in medical school, remarked that it is a surprise that we don't drop dead like crazy. 

Our complicated anatomy itself is evidence that no intelligent god designed us--anybody with half my intelligence could have put together a better Lego model!  Then there is the remarkably complex biochemistry.  And then the mind, which is beyond our analytical understanding.  Seriously, how do people sincerely believe that a god designed and created all these?

Such a highly complicated system means problems of various kinds.  One of those is chronic pain.  All I have is discomfort.  Not even pain.  And then there is chronic pain, which is "estimated to affect a fifth of the global population, or 1.5bn people."

Even reading that sentence is enough for me to consider myself lucky.  A while ago, I stopped asking my mother about her pain because there is no point.  "It is always there," she said a couple of years ago.  More recently when my father asked my mother about her pain, my sister cut him off with "stop asking her everyday."  I did joke with my mother that if she lived in Oregon she will be able to use marijuana.

I suppose as long as we humans have been around, we have also been bothered by pain.  And we have searched for remedies.
Our instinct when in any kind of pain, acute or chronic, is to make it stop. We reach for drugs, typically one of two groups: anti-inflammatories such as aspirin and ibuprofen, or opioids. Both types of drug are blunt, ancient instruments that have been around in various forms for thousands of years, a fact that would be quaint if the pills weren’t also potentially lethal. Aspirin derives from willow bark, whose first-recorded use as a painkiller was in Egypt in 1500BC. The opium poppy is known to have been cultivated in Mesopotamia in 3400BC (the Sumerians apparently called it the “joy plant”) and opium was recommended before surgery from at least as early as the second century AD, when the Greek philosopher Celsus recorded its use as an anaesthetic.
The prolonged use of drugs is, obviously, one hell of a problem.

Developing the miracle painkiller drug is not easy:
Pain medication faces distinctive problems that don’t apply to other drugs. Unlike cancer, for example, pain doesn’t have clear biomarkers: you can’t measure the effect of a drug that treats it by counting white blood cells. Instead, researchers rely on patients giving their pain a score on numbered scales, from one to ten, say, or on a visual scale, where the individual marks the level of their pain at a point on a line between two extremes. But pain is infuriatingly subjective. The placebo effect is significant: give someone a sugar pill and they’ll report an improvement in their pain just because it has been noticed and apparently treated. There is no way of knowing if one person’s report of their pain means the same as another’s. “Your nine is different to my nine,” said L’Huillier, who looked somewhat despairing at the thought of such a crude measure being used to determine the efficacy of a drug in which his company had just invested hundreds of millions of dollars. “I have no idea what your nine is versus my nine. And that’s what we’re using in trials.”
Which is what my daughter told me after he early years in medical school--there is no way to compare pain.  Your pain is your pain.

May you have a pain-free life!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Stuff it!

A couple of days ago, I blogged that we are addicted to stuff. I added that getting rid of this addiction is impossible.

I continue to think about this and, frankly, it scares the life out of me.  Yes, as I wrote there, there are the awful impacts on the natural environment that sustains our existence.  But, there is more to worry about.  Something more existential.  If we are working long hours primarily because it is not about mere survival but to get more stuff, then "today’s discussions need to move beyond the old point about the marvels of technology, and truly ask: what is it all for?"

The metaphorical tasting of an apple from the forbidden tree is about this aspect of our existence.  Through our curiosity, over the hundreds of thousands of years, we have essentially become people running faster and faster on a treadmill.  What is it all for?

It doesn't have to be this way though.
If we wanted to produce as much as Keynes’s countrymen did in the 1930s, we wouldn’t need everyone to work even 15 hours per week. If you adjust for increases in labour productivity, it could be done in seven or eight hours, 10 in Japan (see graph below). These increases in productivity come from a century of automation and technological advances: allowing us to produce more stuff with less labour. In this sense, modern developed countries have way overshot Keynes prediction – we need to work only half the hours he predicted to match his lifestyle.

But, such short work weeks did not happen, nor will it ever happen.
Globally, people enjoy a standard of living much higher than in 1930 (and nowhere is this more true than in the Western countries that Keynes wrote about). We would not be content with a good life by our grandparents’ standards.
We humans are a strange species!

To complicate things, there is this:
If the pace of increase in life expectancy in developed countries over the past two centuries continues through the 21st century, most babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, and other countries with long life expectancies will celebrate their 100th birthdays.
Have we paused to consider what this will mean?  How long will those kids who grow up to be adults be on treadmills so that they can get more stuff?

It is also not the first time that I have blogged about the implications of a 100-year life.  But, it simply sucks to be in the minority worrying about all these things.

I know I don't want to be on a treadmill for ever.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Science is political

In high school physics, I came across the meaning of the word "transistor"--transfer signal across resistors.  I was impressed that there was a lot more to the "transistor radio" than I would have imagined.

Even though I hated the undergraduate program in electrical engineering, I continued to be impressed with how humans had figured out so many fascinating aspects of electrons that we cannot even see.  i mean, it is one thing to observe the world in which we are able to see things, it is another to deal with aspects that we simply cannot see.

I was in graduate school when one of the main brains behind the transistor, William Shockley, died.  Many reports of this Nobel laureate's death provided details on his racist views that he claimed were  based on science.  Neither in my high school years nor in my undergraduate study of transistors was I made aware of the racism that Shockley spouted as science.

Yes, I had some vague understanding of how Nazis abused science in order to "validate" their views on racial superiority.  But, an American researcher who created the transistor? Naive and uninformed I was!

John Horgan reviews Angela Saini's book on scientific racism, in which he writes "scientific racism--an oxymoron if ever there was one--is a relatively recent, localized phenomenon. It emerged in Europe during the so-called Enlightenment and accelerated after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species."

It is an important issue that Horgan and Saini bring to our attention. "Race science has nonetheless recently re-emerged, heartening white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other bigots."
Those who espouse this ideology call themselves “race realists.” They insist that racial injustice and inequality “isn’t injustice or inequality at all,” Saini explains. “It’s there because the racial hierarchy is real.” Race realists claim that “they are challenging the politically correct wider world by standing up for good science and that those who oppose them are irrational science deniers.”
Scientists like Shockley and Watson and others want us to think that it is scientific to ask questions about race, and that their conclusions about the supposed superiority or inferiority of races are based on science.  And to deny their questions, research, and conclusions mean that we are deniers!

But then, one might say that there are some real benefits into investigating differences between races.  Like hypertension among African-Americans.  Right?

Saini presents evidence that environmental factors—including stress and poverty resulting from discrimination—are the primary causes of African-Americans’ elevated hypertension. Rural Africans, she points out, have low levels of hypertension The claim that black Americans’ hypertension stems from their genes “lays the blame for inequality at the feet of biology,” Saini writes.
It is like with diabetes that I often complain about.  There is nothing genetic among Indians or Chinese for them to have such significant numbers of diabetic patients.  I am now compelled to re-think this "masala" project!

Horgan adds:
Superior left me pondering hard questions: Can scientists study race in a way that doesn’t exacerbate racism? Or does all such research, no matter how well-intentioned, subtly reinforce the idea that an individual’s race matters? If scientists do research with the explicit goal of countering racism, are they really scientists, or are they social activists?
Do they systematically and consistently engage with science students about these?  I hope so, though I think not.

I agree with Horgan's concluding remarks:
I once suggested that, given the harm done by research on alleged cognitive differences between races, it should be banned. I stand by that proposal. I also agree with Saini that online media firms should do more to curb the dissemination of racist pseudoscience. “This is not a free speech issue,” she writes in Scientific American, “it’s about improving the quality and accuracy of information that people see online, and thereby creating a fairer, kinder society.”  

(Check out the comments at that YouTube clip--the racist language will shock you!

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Less is an enabling agent of more?

I got a hefty increase in my salary.

What will I do with the additional income? Consume it in many new and expanded ways.

Consumption is practically what the modern economy is all about, once we got beyond basic survival.  And, oddly enough, even those concerned and worried about the natural environment--including me--love to get salary increases so that we can consume more, even though this additional consumption will have negative implications for the natural environment.  How twisted are we!

Such a worry about consumption and economic growth is not new.  In graduate school, I learnt about the Club of Rome's Limits to GrowthThis report came out when I had barely started elementary school!  Almost 50 years later, we continue to worry about the consequences of growth and consumption.

Could it be different this time?
Now the focus has turned from scarcity to excess—specifically, of carbon dioxide in the air. In the past 50 years the burning of fossil fuels has more than doubled its concentration, accelerating global warming with its potentially calamitous consequences.
Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere 50 years ago versus now should truly worry all of us.  The industry, increasingly because of consumer feedback, and despite the maniacal and wrong-headed tRump and his toadies, is actively reducing its environmental impacts.
Fearing a backlash from eco-conscious consumers, firms are striving to lower their carbon intensity. So long as this brings down costs, CEOs happily oblige and society reaps the benefits of higher efficiency and better resource allocation. But if that leads to higher sales, companies’ overall environmental impact may rise.
What can be done then?
They should not be shamed—or required to urge customers to buy less of their wares, as some activists who glued themselves to corporate headquarters in London seem to demand. Governments can make citizens want less by making consumption pricier, with carbon taxes or other regulations. Until they do, firms will try to sell more stuff—because most people want more of it.
Yep, even most of us environmentalists want more stuff--we are addicted to stuff.  Getting rid of this addiction is impossible.  Well, an individual could, but most of us cannot.  Reducing consumption is, therefore, not in the mix of actions that we would like.  Which means, are we looking at an impossible task of squaring the proverbial circle?

Friday, October 18, 2019

A pacifist in America

Back in 1987, it was my first flight out of the country.  It seemed never-ending.  I was one of the many passengers who couldn't sleep, nor did I find the movie to be interesting.  It was not a pleasant journey, even though it was one hell of an exciting one.

I wandered over to the magazine/newspaper rack.  I don't remember now whether it was Time or Newsweek that I picked up.  I started leafing through that issue.

I was shocked when I read one report.  It was about freeway shootings in Los Angeles.  I was headed there.  Los Angeles was the city where my graduate school was located.  

Shooting on a freeway?

That, too, was my "welcome to America."  

The land of guns and violence.  The wild, wild, west of the movies was also a real thing.  Cue the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Well, alright, I didn't know about this movie until after I had arrived in America.

My friend picked me up from the airport.  It was a long drive to his home, mostly on freeways.  I asked him about the shootings.  He laughed.

I was excitedly looking all around.  I was impressed with everything.  I had never seen such an uninterrupted flow of traffic. In India, cows and goats and humans all claimed the road at the same time.  But, not here.  And, all the vehicles were speeding in one direction, and across the barrier on the other side there were vehicles speeding in the other direction.  A gazillion lanes and everybody stayed within their lanes too!

And then the big trucks.  I had never seen such humongous trucks on the road.  Well, except the couple of monstrous heavy-engineering trucks used in the mines in Neyveli.  Whenever those trucks appeared on our street, my brother and I rushed to look at them.  And we always counted the number of tires that rolled past us.

But, here were trucks speeding at sixty miles an hour, and plenty of trucks as well.  Every truck that we passed, I kept staring at it and I always tried to get a view of the driver.  How could just one human drive such a giant with ease!

At one point, my friend mildly suggested that I stop doing that.  "Don't make eye contact with the truck driver."  Ah, yes, the shootings on the freeways of Los Angeles!

A few weeks after my arrival, there was buzz among the Indian students about a group called the dotbusters that had killed an Indian on the east coast.  They shot an Indian?  Was it a continuation of the wild, wild, west, in which they found a new kind of an Indian to kill?

In those first few weeks, I came to understand the American fascination with guns, and about the status of the browns.

Years have gone by.  32 years!

Meanwhile, the American fascination for guns has ramped up with deadlier weapons.  Violence continues against non-whites.  The president says that they are "fine people" and 63 million cheer him on.

This, too, is America!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Sweet life

Soon it will be Deepavali.

For a guy who lives a secular life, it seems to be quite a preoccupation with tracking the major religious observances--even of the Jewish kind.  Maybe I need a therapy of sorts to bring out my inner, repressed, religiosity.  And then maybe I, too, will become a "sadhguru" but without having killed anyone.  Nah! ;)

There was one thing about Deepavali that was heavenly for me--the sweets that my mother made.  When we were kids, my brother and I were hell bent on figuring out where mother had hid the Deepavali sweets from our greedy eyes and mouths.  We always succeeded, and enjoyed the sneak-previews of the delights that awaited.

My favorite was the phenomenally awesome sweet that mother made with cashews.  And, those days, it was pretty much home-grown cashews--most of the nuts came from the tree within our compound. I could--and did--eat them all day long.

But then, somewhere in my growing up, I became duller and more boring than I have always been. I became the party-pooper.  The killjoy.  Major Buzzkill.  "No, thanks" became my middle name, and my consumption of sweets dropped! ;)

The more I live and learn, the more I am thankful that such an attitude change happened, and that I became sweet- and food-conscious.  Else, there is a fair chance that I would have become a part of the ever growing reports on obesity and diabetes.

Sugar is a major cause of this pubic health issue.  Not only in the United States but all over the world.  Sugar in the traditional sweets, which one can buy every single day, unlike the rarity of the old days.  And, sugar is seemingly an additive in everything that we eat and drink.  Which is why the evil industry is trying to get more sugar into baby foods too.  Bastards these companies are, yet again demonstrating that market and morals rarely ever intersect!  Like this:
A yogurt-based Happy Baby snack for children contains a teaspoon of sugar per serving, with four servings per pouch. Happy Tot’s organic bananas and carrots fiber and protein bar contains 2 teaspoons of sugar per serving.
In order to truly understand the seriousness of this, go to the kitchen and measure out 2 teaspoons of sugar.  That itself will shock you.  And then put all that sugar in your mouth, and imagine what that might do if a 2-year old were given that much sugar.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that nearly 14 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds are obese (above the 95th percentile for body mass index), a percentage that is higher for African Americans, Hispanics and low-income Americans. A new study says that in the United States, childhood obesity alone is estimated to cost $14 billion annually in direct health expenses.
If your defense at this point is that parents should know better, and that we should not blame the industry, it means that you are a big part of the problem.

Caption at the source:
A milk-based "toddler drink" contains 3 1/2 teaspoons of sugar per serving. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Oh well ... General Malaise will do what he can--continue to blog and rant!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The way to a foreigner's heart is through their stomach?

"There are Thai restaurants all over," said M as we passed a window that announced the opening of a restaurant at what was previously one of those Mongolian grills.

"All because of the Thai government that saw the benefit in this," I said, as a smug know-it-all.  Sometimes, the know-it-all stumbles.  But, is mostly on the correct path, mostly thanks to reading across a wide range.  And, thankfully, not forgetting them.  Of course I forget the particulars, but I do remember the big-picture.  Thanks to Google, I can always hunt down the details.  Did I say I am a know-it-all? ;)

Which is what I did even about this Thai restaurant diffusion, so that I can blog about it ;)

Way back in 2002, The Economist, which used to be a regular source for me until they went all out with the paywall, reported about the Thai government's ambitious plan:
The Thai government has discovered that foreigners quite like Thai food. There are about 5,500 Thai restaurants around the world. In a plan ambitiously called Global Thai, the government aims to boost the number to 8,000 by 2003. This, it is argued, will not only introduce deliciously spicy Thai food to thousands of new tummies and persuade more people to visit Thailand, but it could subtly help to deepen relations with other countries.
The government aimed "to make it easier for foreign restaurants to import Thai foods, to help them to hire Thai cooks and sometimes to benefit from soft loans."

It is amazing that there are so many Thai restaurants now!
[According] to a representative from the Royal Thai Embassy in DC, there are just 300,000 Thai-Americans—less than 1 percent the size of the the Mexican-American population. Yet there are an estimated 5,342 Thai restaurants in the United States, compared to around 54,000 Mexican restaurants; that’s ten times the population-to-restaurant ratio.
That's impressive!
Using a tactic now known as gastrodiplomacy or culinary diplomacy, the government of Thailand has intentionally bolstered the presence of Thai cuisine outside of Thailand to increase its export and tourism revenues, as well as its prominence on the cultural and diplomatic stages.
Has worked out well, don't you think?
The Ministry of Commerce’s Department of Export Promotion, most likely run by bureaucrats rather than restaurateurs, drew up prototypes for three different “master restaurants,” which investors could choose as a sort of prefabricated restaurant plan, from aesthetic to menu offerings. Elephant Jump would be the fast casual option, at $5 to $15 per person; Cool Basil would be the mid-priced option at $15 to $25 a head; and the Golden Leaf prototype would cost diners $25 to $30, with décor featuring “authentic Thai fabrics and objets d’art.”
Systematically creating the "authentic" ;)

Success spawns imitation.
Though Thailand’s efforts may have been the most extensive and successful, this initiative to gain soft power through food has been utilized by other governments as well. Inspired by Thailand’s success, South Korea, for example, has earmarked tens of millions of dollars beginning in 2009 for its Korean Cuisine to the World campaign. Taiwan has followed suit, as has Peru with its Cocina Peruana Para el Mundo (“Peruvian Cuisine for the World;” quite creative) initiative, as well as Malaysia (“Malaysia Kitchen for the World 2010”—clearly there’s a pattern here).
I am ok with this kind of a foreign influence in America, unlike the tRump supporters who prefer the illegal and immoral kinds!

Of course, as with most foreign foods, the foods at the Thai restaurants here are not what most Thai folks eat in Thailand.  It is like with the Indian restaurants here.  But, does "authentic" matter more than how the food tastes?

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Why the poor, too, focus on the here and now

The news reported the names of the recipients of the grand prize in economics.  I immediately recognized two of the three joint recipients: Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee.

The first thing that I did after reaching my office was to pull up their book that I had purchased years ago.  I remember reading it from cover to cover, and then even using it in a class. 

A couple of sticky notes were still there, and I opened one of those pages:

I immensely appreciated that book primarily because they were doing such on-the-ground work, instead of the highfalutin theorizing that drove me far away from development economics.  Over the years, I have watched quite a few interviews with the couple--who were not a couple when their research collaboration began.

I was sure that I have blogged about Duflo and Banerjee, and I have.  It seems like I bought the book after I read that essay.  The following is a copy/paste of my blog-post from May 17, 2011:
The essay by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo has lots of observations that might challenge conventional wisdom.  Like this one, for instance:
If there is any chance that by eating a bit more the poor could start doing meaningful work and get out of the poverty trap zone, then they should eat as much as possible. Yet most people living on less than a dollar a day do not seem to act as if they are starving. If they were, surely they would put every available penny into buying more calories. But they do not. In an 18-country data set we assembled on the lives of the poor, food represents 36 to 79 percent of consumption among the rural extremely poor, and 53 to 74 percent among their urban counterparts. 
So, where else do they spend? On other basic necessities?  Not so, they add:
The poor seem to have many choices, and they don't choose to spend as much as they can on food. Equally remarkable is that even the money that people do spend on food is not spent to maximize the intake of calories or micronutrients. Studies have shown that when very poor people get a chance to spend a little bit more on food, they don't put everything into getting more calories. Instead, they buy better-tasting, more expensive calories....
All told, many poor people might eat fewer calories than we -- or the FAO -- think is appropriate. But this does not seem to be because they have no other choice; rather, they are not hungry enough to seize every opportunity to eat more. So perhaps there aren't a billion "hungry" people in the world after all....
We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don't invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.
Life is complicated, as much as it is beautiful.

How awesome that their work has been recognized at this level!

Monday, October 14, 2019

General Malaise takes a break

Rarely does a day seem to pass without a politician or an opinion‐maker commenting about the dim prospects for the younger generation to lead a life that won’t be as bright as their parents’. Such a perspective is only partially correct, at best.

The future‐being‐bleak commentary is in the context of employment and earnings. That is, indeed, not off the mark. 

Thanks to competition that is now global, merely being born an American is neither necessary nor sufficient in order to lead a materially rich life, which is a shocking contrast to the old dominant narrative of a home with white picket fences being possible only, and anywhere, in America.

However, this dim view of the future is only partially correct. 

Not because of a proposition that the US will continue to be the most dominant economy—whether or not it will be is immaterial. But, we need to keep in mind that this paranoia over the future is merely about the economic aspects. 

Life is a lot more than merely economics. When we talk about the life that the youth have today—and will face in the future—and contrast that with the life in the decades past, we are conveniently overlooking many important non‐economic issues that will tell a completely different story.

Consider, for instance, the rights that people have now and compare that with those in the fabled Eisenhower era.  MAGA overlooks how life back then was typically difficult for anyone who was not born with a privileged skin tone and into a privileged religious category. 

In contrast, the country is now, for the most part, “free at last, free at last.” We have had a non‐White as the President, who was even re‐elected to that post.  General Motors, whose CEO proclaimed in the Eisenhower days that what is good for GM is good for the country, has a female CEO—Mary Barra--who is now playing hardball with the union. There are plenty of female business leaders now compared to the generations past. 

One can think of many, many more examples that are phenomenal evidence for how much freer we are as a people and, therefore, how much more possible “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is. Is this not a much better country that the youth are inheriting, which they can—and will—make it even better?

Sure, there is a great deal of economic activity going on in China—our economic competitor that apparently makes us tremble with fear—but a mere reminder of the smog in many of the cities there will send you gasping for air. 

One could list plenty of examples here to further the idea that the youth are inheriting a world that is in a good shape compared to centuries past. Should this not be a cause for celebration, instead of simply moaning about a perceived loss of global economic domination?

I wish we would look at the future through a comprehensive framework. We need to recognize and understand how awesome the present is and then focus our efforts on how to make the future even more awesome.

In my profession, I focus on the economic aspects and make sure that students gain an understanding of the rapidly changing economic global landscape. However, even in those classes, I often remind students that there is more to life than a pursuit of material happiness. Even the students who sleep through my monotonous monologues get the message that economics is merely one part of life, whose importance is dictated only by the values we ascribe to it.

My point is this—despite all our shortcomings, we have somehow managed to create a world that the younger generations will certainly improve upon. 

The future does look challenging, no doubt, when it comes to jobs and economic competition. And immensely more challenging when one thinks about how tRump and his 63 million are preventing us from doing the right things for a sustainable economy and environment.

But, imagine trying to put a dollar value on the fact that people are immensely freer than ever before, or that we don’t choke when we breathe in the air, or that we don’t die from drinking the water--despite all the attempts by a powerful few!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Nepreryvka is killing humanity!

If you are like me, you, too, until today, have never ever come across the word nepreryvka.  What does that mean?

Glad you asked.  Because I want us all to pause a little and think about it.

In 1929, Stalin--yes, that Joseph Stalin and not this guy--introduced a staggered schedule that was known as nepreryvka, "or the “continuous workweek,” since production never stopped."
The government divided workers into five groups, and assigned each to a different day off. On any given day, four-fifths of the proletariat would show up to their factories and work while the other fifth rested. Each laborer received a colored slip of paper—yellow, orange, red, purple, or green—that signified his or her group.
Oh, why five when there are seven days in a week?  Because his governemnt "downsized the week from seven to five days. Saturday and Sunday were abolished."

Anything introduced by Stalin ought to be the worst for humanity, right?  What was awful about this continuous workweek?
People had no time to see friends; instead they associated by color: purple people with purple people, orange with orange, and so on. Managers were supposed to assign husbands and wives to the same color but rarely did.
You are perhaps thinking, "hey, that was back in the godawful USSR."  Think again.

How many people do you know in the working age who truly do not work on Saturdays and Sundays?  Do they leave at a reasonable hour in the morning and return home about the same decent hour in the evening?  Are they checking their work emails during their "off" time?  Do you hear people complaining that it is increasingly difficult even to plan dinners with family and friends because of conflicting work schedules?

Remember that we are talking about people in the working age.  Think about 25 to 55.  Those of us over 55 are lucky that we are mostly done, as long as we are able to hang on to whatever we are now doing.

We seem to have created for ourselves a nepreryvka in a market economy, without a Stalin dictating it,?
Whereas we once shared the same temporal rhythms—five days on, two days off, federal holidays, thank-God-it’s-Fridays—our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers. Nearly a fifth of Americans hold jobs with nonstandard or variable hours. They may work seasonally, on rotating shifts, or in the gig economy driving for Uber or delivering for Postmates. Meanwhile, more people on the upper end of the pay scale are working long hours. Combine the people who have unpredictable workweeks with those who have prolonged ones, and you get a good third of the American labor force.
Why does this matter?  "A calendar is more than the organization of days and months. It’s the blueprint for a shared life."

Without a shared life, there are no shared memories either.  Shared memories are what we are left with, yes?
It’s a cliché among political philosophers that if you want to create the conditions for tyranny, you sever the bonds of intimate relationships and local community. “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” Hannah Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She focused on the role of terror in breaking down social and family ties in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. But we don’t need a secret police to turn us into atomized, isolated souls. All it takes is for us to stand by while unbridled capitalism rips apart the temporal preserves that used to let us cultivate the seeds of civil society and nurture the sadly fragile shoots of affection, affinity, and solidarity.
What good is a smartphone and "progress" if we can't get together consistently and create memories?

Friday, October 11, 2019

When Columbus discovered America

More than a decade or so ago, I met my cousin's son for the first time. (The only time too--our paths have not crossed since.)

He might have been about eight or nine years old back then.  He hesitantly walked up to me and asked, in English, "you live in America?"

"Yes. I have been there for a long, long time now."

The kid was now feeling a tad more confident. "We learnt in school that Columbus discovered America."

I could not let go off the teacher within me.  "Oh, really! Terrific!" And then I added, "so, Columbus discovered America?"

"Yes. That is what the teacher told us."

That's how I, too, was told when I was a school kid his age.

"So, before Columbus discovered America, there were no people there? He was the first person to go to America?" I asked him.

"No. Our teacher said there were people there."

"So, if there were people there already, then it means that somebody discovered America before Columbus did, right?"

The kid was stunned. He hadn't thought about it.  Here he was trying to impress his uncle, and little did he know that I am Captain Killjoy Major Buzzkill General Malaise ;)

Thanks to Columbus, who originally set sail to India, we have ended up referring to as Indians a whole bunch of different peoples with different cultures and traditions in an entirely different part of the world! I joke with students that "I am an Indian from India, and not an Indian from here" whenever I want to highlight this insane historical accident.

Columbus Day is a federal holiday and in some of the states.  No holiday for us here in Oregon.  (We memorialize Columbus Day in our own strange ways!)

Seriously, why are we celebrating Columbus?  I don't have anything against Columbus per se.  He was merely an explorer, who was a product of the times.  But, it is not as if he accomplished something spectacular.  Magellan or Vasco da Gama were far better explorers.  And then the baggage related to Columbus.  So, why honor him with a special day?

Yes, there is the history behind the origin of Columbus Day.  But, the question is how this day has come to mean to us in these contemporary times.  In these tRumpian times, are we really confident that "Columbus Day is for all Americans"?

I like how some of the progressive cities mark that day as Indigenous People's Day.  Perhaps can be observed in many, many countries around the world too.  India, Australia, New Zealand, all the countries in North and South America, ... it is a long list of countries where the original inhabitants have been pushed aside--to say the least--to make space for the newcomers.

Wikipedia says so too.

ps: Given that "America" is derived from Amerigo Vespucci, shouldn't we celebrate Vespucci Day instead of Columbus Day? ;)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Gratitude and the good life

Of course this is not the first time ever that I am writing about gratitude.  In this post two years ago, I quoted this excerpt:
Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.
Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying.  And paying it forward.

Gratitude is not merely mouthing "thanks."  Not at all.  People often seem to mistake the "thanks" that is often the lubricant in social interactions with gratitude itself.  There is the etiquette of "thanks" and then there is gratitude.  In another post, more recent, I included another quote:
[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.
Which then led to this:
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?
If all that didn't make you think about gratitude, I will add this to the mix:
In considering moral character, the Roman orator Cicero said: ‘Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.’ And while I think it’s an overstatement, Cicero’s view does offer up the tantalising prospect that, simply by cultivating gratitude, other virtues will grow.
As a simple exercise, think about any of the people in your own lives who are virtuous according to your own definitions.  Forget a Gandhi or a King or any of the larger-than-life people.  People from our daily lives. A genuine sense of gratitude plays a part, right?  And this is not something you see in the current President of the United States, correct?

In Pondicherry, the hotel where we stayed was--yes, you guessed it--Gratitude.  The spiritual connection is obvious there.  One does not need to go to a spiritual leader in order to understand how gratitude can guide one's life.  But, humans that we are, even the religious often forget this and instead fight to live a life of "me, me, me."  They will have to sort that out with their own gods.  I want to make sure that I repay my debts, and pay forward as well in this only life that I have.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Old and Wise

The news from the old country was that another aunt was in the hospital.

"It all started with the youngest sister," father said as I readied myself for a long narration.  "Then your mother. And then the other. And now her."

Four sisters taking turns for medical treatment, some more near-death experiences than others.

"We have so many in our families who are over 70. And over 80."  Said my father who is only a couple of months away from turning 90.  "With so many at this age, somebody or the other will always be in the hospital."  There are a number of seniors and super-seniors even back in the old country.

This contemporary life of aged folks is quite a contrast to how the stories began.  One grandfather died in his mid-20s.  Compared to him the other grandfather lived a long life--he died when he was 51.

Here, the oldest President alive, Jimmy Carter, suffered a fall, was sutured up, and he showed up to do his work at the Habitat for Humanity project. The man is 95 years old, even a black eye and 14 stitches couldn't stop him!  His wife, Rosalyn, is no spring chicken either at 92 years.

And many of them here in my adopted country continue to work too!
About 1 in 4 adults age 65 and older is now in the workforce. That number is expected to increase, making it the fastest-growing group of workers in the country.
Of course, some do because of their financial situation:
Baby boomers have median savings of a little over $150,000 to get through what could be a 30-year retirement.
Median savings.  Which means that half of them--I don't consider myself to be of that generation!--have less than $150,000.

Back in the old country, whether or not the seniors and super-seniors saved for their retirement years, there is the tradition of children taking care of their elders.  And their considerable hospital expenses too.

"All normal post operation," said my sister's message about the aunt who had to be rushed to the hospital.

I sit thinking a lot about getting old.

Monday, October 07, 2019

The fucked up Chinese "model"

Even occasional visitors to this blog know all too well that I am not a fan of the Chinese model.  I don't care for money if that means humans and the natural environment will be damned by decisions made by a few who are more equal than others.  Btw, in China's case these few are all men

I continue to be shocked that, for instance, China openly runs a prison complex to brainwash and torture Uighurs, and the world couldn't care as long as the products that they import from China are inexpensive.

More recently, the news that tRump offered a deal to Xi that he would not say anything about the Hong Kong protests should not shock me given that we are talking about tRump and China--yet, I am shocked that this is the state of the world.

One relatively unknown American with a wee-bit of a prominence said something about the protests in Hong Kong, and from across the ocean came China's thundering response to fuck off.
Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet supporting protesters in Hong Kong, upsetting the Chinese Basketball Association led by the Hall of Famer Yao Ming.
Or, as tRump and his toadies like to tell ball players--"shut up and dribble."
In addition to Chinese sponsors such as the shoe company Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Card Center, which both announced that they were pausing their partnerships with the Rockets, team officials faced an immediate backlash from the Chinese Basketball Association and the Chinese consulate in Houston. The basketball association announcement Sunday that it was suspending cooperation with the Rockets was particularly jarring, since the federation president is the Hall of Fame center Yao Ming, who starred from the Rockets from 2002 to 2011.
It is always shocking to me that when it comes to a choice between money and morals, the business folks and politicians always tend to run away from morals into the welcoming slimy arms of money!

China has one hell of a choke hold on its people.  How awful that there are supporters of the China model all over the world!

China is also the most successful in controlling the internet in its territory.  But that is not any standalone thing; it is a part of the complete control the government has:
But their stranglehold on society is also the result of their largely successful push in the past decade to ban nearly all bookstores, books, authors and academics that do not adhere to the Communist Party’s line. Even before the current Hong Kong protests, there was a crackdown on Hong Kong publishers. In the fall of 2015, associates of the Causeway Bay Books store disappeared, later discovered to have been detained on the mainland, accused of trafficking in “illegal” books critiquing leading members of the Communist Party. In 2017, the Communist Party formally took control of all print media, including books.
Fucking authoritarians!!!

These authoritarian bastards are particularly focused on books and print.  Why?
Regimes are expending so much energy attacking books because their supposed limitations have begun to look like strengths: With online surveillance, digital reading carries with it great risks and semi-permanent footprints; a physical book, however, cannot monitor what you are reading and when, cannot track which words you mark or highlight, does not secretly scan your face, and cannot know when you are sharing it with others.
They want to know what you read, when you read, and with whom you share what you read.  "The ghostly absence of books, and the freethinking they seed, is the nightmare."

And, yes, shut up and dribble the damn ball!


Sunday, October 06, 2019

Pull down a few statues

Years ago, I was absolutely delighted with a statue that my grandma's town had installed in the town's center.  A statue of Vanchi.  The freedom fighter from the village who shot dead the British administrator for that region.  As I noted in this post a while ago, "The old teenage emotions on colonialism and anti-Britain have never gone away inside me."

Of course, the Raj ended more than seven decades ago.  But, the scars are always there.  Our lives today are not independent of the historical events. In fact, in many instances, our lives today are very much a result of historical events.  The contemporary lives of Native Americans and African-Americans today, or the lives of the Dalit, are continuations of an unbearable past, how much ever some might want to pretend, or even believe, that looking back does not do any good.

Even universities are not exempt from this.  The older the university, more the skeletons that it most likely has in its closet. Some, like Georgetown, have systematically gone about atoning for the past and are trying to make things right--symbolically, because the literal is impossible.

In the colonial countries, things are barely beginning.  I came across an essay from 2016, by Amia Srinivasan.  The last name is a dead giveaway--from my part of the old country.  But, Amia Srinivasan is not from the old country--she has origins back there.  She is a philosopher playing at the topmost tiers:
I am an associate professor of philosophy at St John’s College, Oxford. From January 2020 I will be the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford. Previously I was a lecturer in philosophy at University College London.
She earned her BA at Yale.  Yep, that Yale!  In 2007.  Supposing that she were a traditional student means that now as a 34-year old, Srinivasan will be a chair-professor at Oxford. Holy shit!

Now, Oxford is in the old colonial capital.  Which means that there is plenty that they need to apologize for and make amends.  One of them is a highly visible reminder--a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who is not new to this blog.  Amia Srinivasan's essay from three years ago was about Oxford's controversial decision to retain the statue despite the student protests.

A big time philosopher who also writes for publications that even us non-philosophers can read and understand.  We need more like her.  She says:
Scholarly, specialist work is important, and we should defend it fiercely, not just in philosophy, but in all disciplines. And a lot of what goes under the name of “public” philosophy is simplistic and condescending. What we need isn't so much more philosophy that tries to speak to a non-philosophical audience, as more philosophy that comes from a place of engagement with the non-philosophical world.
Yes, I too hate that condescending tone that academics take when they climb down from their ivory towers in order to tell the masses what they think. Good for her. And good for us too.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Natural lies

I often comment that I read random stuff that interests me.  I do. And they do interest me. A lot.

There is one thing that I do with this randomness that makes it all worthwhile.  I connect that randomness to other randomness and make meaning out of it all.  I mean, isn't that what life itself is about?  We make meaning out of randomness. (A reminder that I do not believe in the meaning of life that the religious subscribe to.)

The randomness is about things mundane and profound.  We forget that there is a lot to be learnt from the mundane too.  After all, even the everyday absurd life is mostly about the mundane, right?

Consider this:
Strawberries and raspberries aren't really berries in the botanical sense.
It is mundane. But, does it not upend our understanding of berries?

Sometimes, in life too, it is a simple revelation, a truth, that compels us to rethink our estimate of people, history, whatever.  The mundane is never really about the mundane itself.

More about this berry berry interesting aspect of berries:
[Berries] are derived from a single flower with more than one ovary, making them an aggregate fruit. True berries are simple fruits stemming from one flower with one ovary and typically have several seeds. Tomatoes fall into this group, as do pomegranates, kiwis and—believe it or not—bananas. (Their seeds are so tiny it's easy to forget they're there.)
At this point, if you are like me who is botanically challenged, we are left dazed that "bananas are berries and raspberries aren't."

If you wonder how I end up reading such random stuff ...

I ran into a parenthetical sentence in this essay on natural foods: (Yes, technically bananas are berries.)

I stopped right there, stunned that bananas are berries.  How could one not be stunned with that revelation!  Scientifically speaking, even tomatoes and cucumbers are berries.  Up is down, and right is left ;)

Making meaning out of randomness is hard work.  It is far easier to believe in a narrative and never question even a random event or idea that is inconsistent with our favored narrative. But, such an approach has never appealed to me.  I hope it never will.