Monday, February 24, 2020

The march of time

It was two years ago.

She was 54.


Sridevi died on February 24, 2018.

When I was waiting for my mustache to grow, she was already a veteran in singing and dancing and acting.  Like in this one:

When the movie was released, discussions were in plenty on whether Sridevi was really 16 or much older than that, but pretending to be younger like how female actors liked to do.  She looked well developed for 16.  And then it turned out that she was not even 16.  Heck, not even 15!

One of my earliest favorites of hers was from 1979.  Of this:

Sridevi died. At 54!

Only a few months older than me.  But wonderfully more accomplished than I could ever be.

Years later, my brother forced us to watch a movie of hers.  After many decades I watched her in a movie, and she didn't look that much older since the last one--was it Moondram Pirai, I wonder.

I suppose Sridevi wrapped up all the things she had to get get done because she was racing against a clock that was rapidly winding down.

I will end this with another clip:

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Birthright citizenship is a lottery of opportunity

The other day in class, I showed a short video about two textile industry workers in two different countries.  During the discussions that followed, one of the questions I asked the class was this: How many of you would trade places with those two workers?

Not a hand went up.  Naturally.

Imagine a different scenario in which students in those two countries are shown videos about the work and lives of two working class people here in the US.  And imagine those students being asked if they would like to trade places with American workers.  I bet that quite a few hands will go up.

But, of course, we have a system that prevents eager, willing, and capable people from coming here and being productive.  Immigration is a scare word in politics and culture.  Even in a country that was founded by illegal immigrants who wiped out the original inhabitants!

More than a year ago, Farhad Manjoo--another guy like me with a funny name and a naturalized American himself--wrote that "a brave Democrat should make the case for vastly expanding immigration."  Quick, name a leading Democratic presidential wannabe who has made the case for expanding immigration.  Couldn't name one, could you?

Manjoo wrote:
There’s a witheringly obvious moral, economic, strategic and cultural case for open borders, and we have a political opportunity to push it. As Democrats jockey for the presidency, there’s room for a brave politician to oppose President Trump’s racist immigration rhetoric not just by fighting his wall and calling for the abolishment of I.C.E. but also by making a proactive and affirmative case for the vast expansion of immigration.
It would be a change from the stale politics of the modern era, in which both parties agreed on the supposed wisdom of “border security” and assumed that immigrants were to be feared.
A contrast to Manjoo's prescripton is what today's leading Democratic contender said in an interview with Ezra Klein: He said that allowing more and free immigration "is a right-wing scheme meant to flood the US with cheap labor and depress wages for native-born workers."

The confident assumption that immigration is a zero-sum game that would depress wages is bizarre.  Not even for a nanosecond does the current President and the wannabes seem to consider the accident of geography--of where we are born.  As Manjoo wrote:
When you see the immigration system up close, you’re confronted with its bottomless unfairness. The system assumes that people born outside our borders are less deserving of basic rights than those inside.
"They" are "less" than us because they were born there, which, more often than not, are "shitholes" according to the man in the Oval Office.

Even if you set aside this moral dimension of the accident of geography, and how some may have won the "ovarian lottery," is it really the case that immigration is a zero-sum game?  Not. At. All.

It is usually only libertarians who make the case for immigration.  Like Bryan Caplan in his latest venture, which is a graphic non-fiction book.
Caplan presents immigrants not as threats—to low-skilled workers, to social services, to public culture—but as generators of wealth.
We--don't forget that I am an immigrant here--are not threats.
As a libertarian, Caplan generally seeks to avoid distinguishing between citizens of different countries. Instead, he condemns the “global apartheid” that borders perpetuate. Exclusion on the basis of one’s country of birth, he maintains, is no less reprehensible than discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, or religion. We are right to value equality of opportunity—but, if it’s valued at home, then it should also be valued on a global scale, where inequality is much starker.
Ask most progressive Democrats, and they will bleed in favor of "equality of opportunity."  But, they will be quick to slam the immigration doors and deny opportunity to "the wretched refuse of your teeming shore" because the "cheap labor"  will "depress wages for native-born workers."  It is an unholy alliance of the left and the right in order to screw most of the rest of the world that thirsts for opportunity!

When President Orange realizes that economic growth rate has not jumped up despite his trillion dollar give-aways to the rich, what he fails to acknowledge is that there is no labor to speed up the growth--something his chief-of-staff admitted in a closed door meeting.  Manjoo wrote:
Economically and strategically, open borders isn’t just a good plan — it’s the only chance we’ve got. America is an aging nation with a stagnant population. We have ample land to house lots more people, but we are increasingly short of workers.
But, of course, even the left will not make a case for the huddled masses yearning to break free.  If only it did!
There doesn’t have to be a tradeoff between immigration and welfare programs or workers’ rights. On the contrary, they are two sides of the same coin.
The United States needs more immigrants to maintain current levels of economic growth and welfare provision, but it also needs more economic redistribution and workers’ rights to make sure that the aggregate benefits of immigration are shared fairly within society as a whole.
In the current political climate, even to suggest that a presidential wannabe is in favor of immigration will mark the death of that wannabe's candidacy. Some day, we will see the light.  The sooner the better.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Beauty is skin deep?

Remember this one?

President Cheetos is perhaps the most well known example of one being unhappy with their skin color.  Why this orange monster prefers that strange color is, well, his madness!

We humans are obsessed with skin color.  This president is not an exception, though his obsession is just off the charts!

We live in a crazy world in which the pale-skinned want to get tanned, the dark-skinned want to bleach themselves, ... Weren't we all dark-skinned naked humans not too long ago?
Our species, Homo sapiens, originated around 200,000 years ago and underwent tremendous diversification—culturally, technologically, linguistically, artistically—for 130,000 years before a few small populations left Africa to populate the rest of the world. These early ancestors of modern Eurasians dispersed into parts of the world that had more seasonal sunshine and much lower UV levels. It’s in these populations that we begin to see real changes in the genetic makeup of pigmentation. As people move into areas with much lower and more seasonal UV, they run into problems if they have too much natural sunscreen. Some UV is essential for making vitamin D in the skin.
The paler skin is an adaptation to life in the latitudes far away from the equator.  A darker-skinned person like me now has a much tougher time making vitamin D.

A few years ago, after the routine lab tests during the physicals, the doctor said I was deficient in vitamin D and he prescribed a dose of pills.  He wanted me to check in with him after three months.  I never did.  Because, as much as I believe in the importance of the hormone like vitamin D, I am equally convinced that too much of a good thing can be harmful--especially when it is an artificial intake via pills.  It is one thing to increase vitamin D intake through walking on sunny days, or through milk and yogurt consumption.  But, pills?

I grew up in a culture, in a country, where the skin complexion was categorized in so many ways, like:
Coal black
Dark brown
Light brown
Very fair
And, yes, even white!

A graduate school friend, who was from Nigeria, used to joke that there isn't any black skin--it is all only various shades of brown.  A white American grad school colleague noted that there is no white skin and once held a blank sheet of white paper against his skin to prove his point.

Madness!  It has taken me decades to re-wire my brain on this after all the brainwashing during my formative years!

So, if our skin coloring, with all the shades of brown that people in the old country are so attentive to, is a product of our evolution, then does it mean that the colors are still evolving?
Skin color is evolving insofar as we see all sorts of exciting new mixtures of people coming together and having children with new mixtures of skin color genes. If you go into any major city of the world, you see how children are being produced through such felicitous interactions. Not only the pigmentation genes but lots of other genes are getting mixed up. We don’t see much natural selection of pigmentation as we did earlier in our history because we mostly protect ourselves from the harshest parts of the environment—from excess sun or cold or dryness
We are mixing things up.  Soon, the world will be beige ;)


Friday, February 21, 2020

The future is ours!

There is plenty to depress me on a daily basis.  But then, I tell myself the same thing that I often tell students in my classes: Look at the trajectory, and we will see that life has only gotten better.  However true that is, it is not easy to overlook the unpleasantness that we run into day in and day out.

I am not referring to the unpleasantness of things mundane, but--and especially--about issues that are political that then translate into everyday life.  It is disheartening, for instance, that 63 million voters have enabled a sociopath to turn this country into a banana republic.  They have ensured that our policies will not empathize with the "wretched refuse of your teeming shore."  It is a long list.

And then there is the trajectory.  The moral arc of the universe that MLK believed bends towards justice.

And what an evidence of that arc is Pete Buttigieg!

A gay married man continues in the Democratic primaries even as many other wannabes have quit the race altogether.  The person that I favored the most has long been gone.  Buttigieg is still in the race.
While other high-altitude candidates such as Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris followed an Icarus-like trajectory, Buttigieg kept flying above the tree line. ...
Butigieg has been in the upper ranks of the Democratic contenders for so long that we forget how unprecedented his ascent has been.
In the days ahead, Buttigieg will face a series of tests that approximate the pressures of the presidency.
Can he come across as a compelling presence in two debates within six days (the other is in Charleston, South Carolina, next Tuesday)? Did he build a political organization from scratch that can stand the rigors of the 3 March Super Tuesday primaries in 14 states? And will he continue to keep a cool head as the campaign inevitably grows ugly?
Against the well-funded Bernie campaign, the cash-drained Buttigieg will have a tough time ahead.
Whatever happens from here (and only the foolhardy would dare to predict), Buttigieg has made history with his campaign. And maybe the greatest accomplishment of this former South Bend mayor has been the seeming ease with which he has done it.
Whatever happens, we will look back at his candidacy and appreciate the trajectory that made it possible for a gay man, who openly and proudly kisses his husband in the public, to be a plausible candidate for the presidency.  The 63 million, who gloat over their short-term scorched-earth victory, cannot bend this moral arc to their will how much ever they try. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"constant change; no enduring essence; the inevitability of suffering"

The New Yorker has an essay profiling Yuval Noah Harari.  Helps me understand him as a person, and not merely as an author/thinker.  The author probes about the Buddhist way of thinking permeating through Harari's interpretations:
 I asked if it was fair to think of “Sapiens” as an attempt to transmit Buddhist principles, not just through its references to meditation—and to the possibility of finding serenity in self-knowledge—but through its narrative shape. The story of “Sapiens” echoes the Buddha’s “basic realities”: constant change; no enduring essence; the inevitability of suffering.
“Yes, to some extent,” Harari said. “It’s definitely not a conscious project. It’s not ‘O.K.! Now I believe in these three principles, and now I need to convince the world, but I can’t state it directly, because this would be a missionary thing.’ ” Rather, he said, the experience of meditation “imbues your entire thinking.”
He added, “I definitely don’t think that the solution to all the world’s problems is to convert everybody to Buddhism, or to have everybody meditating. I meditate, I know how difficult it is. There’s no chance you can get eight billion people to meditate, and, even if they try, in many cases it could backfire in a terrible way. It’s very easy to become self-absorbed, to become megalomaniacal.” He referred to Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk in Myanmar, who has incited violence against Rohingya Muslims.
In “Sapiens,” Harari went on, part of the task had been “to show how everything is impermanent, and what we think of as eternal social structures—even family, money, religion, nations—everything is changing, nothing is eternal, everything came out of some historical process.” These were Buddhist thoughts, he said, but they were easy enough to access without Buddhism. “Maybe biology is permanent, but in society nothing is permanent,” he said. “There’s no essence, no essence to any nation. You don’t need to meditate for two hours a day to realize that.”
Go ahead and read the entire essay.

I have blogged before referring to Harari.  This was the earliest one, from March 2017.

My favorite, however, is this one, which I blogged in May 2017. It is my favorite because of a very unique perspective that Harari provides about religion.

Read them all.  Even if you disagree with Harari, he does provide you plenty to meditate about ;)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Talking at each other, instead of talking with each other

My father often notes that nobody calls anymore, and that the younger people message each other--or in groups--via WhatsApp and Facebook and more.

Phones are everywhere--sometimes people even have two phones--yet, talking to somebody else using the phone has become rare.  The word "telephone" refers to the distance (tele) and voice (phone.)  The smartphone is not a smarter way for the distance voice.  There is very little vocalization.  There is no need for "phone" in the gadget that we refer to as the smartphone!
The very idea of talking on the phone invokes horror among those who claim to loathe it. There are thousands of memes explaining the many ways that talking, not texting, is rude, basically criminal. Calling is not time-efficient, ill-suited to the attention economy, where all eyes must be on several screens at once.
The psychologist Sherry Turkle has been studying the impact of computers on human psychology since the early 1980s, and in 2015 she published Reclaiming Conversation, in which she referred to “the edited life” that we live now. She spoke to teachers who observed that their students seemed to develop empathetic skills at a slower rate than they would be expected to. “Face-to-face conversation is the most human – and humanising – thing we do,” she wrote. “Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”
An interesting essay that will be worth your time.  This is a topic about which I have blogged in plenty.  The following is a copy/paste from one of my previous posts on this; it is from six years ago:

Real world conversations seem to be getting rarer by the day.  For instance, even until a decade ago, the break during class time was when the room was noisiest thanks to students conversing with each other.  Calling the class to order typically ended that noise and it was back to me droning on and on and students trying their best to keep awake.

It is a different world, and a different classroom setting now.  The break time is often quiet--students are almost always hunched over their smartphones, texting and chatting.  Sometimes, I joke that they are probably texting students sitting only two seats away!

Such behavior is not unique in the classroom alone and is played out seemingly everywhere, sometimes even among family members in the same home.

Perhaps an irony that an introverted blogger worries about the death of conversation.  But, keep in mind that introvert does not mean anti-social ;)  While I might not be the nonstop chatterbox like, well, you know who you are (!), I love conversations.

This fascination with the trend in decreasing levels of conversation is the focus of this piece in the Atlantic:
Turkle is at work on a new book, aspirationally titled Reclaiming Conversation, which will be a continuation of her thinking in Alone Together. In it, she will out herself again, this time as “a partisan of conversation.” Her research for the book has involved hours upon hours of talking with people about conversation as well as eavesdropping on conversations: the kind of low-grade spying that in academia is known as “ethnography,” that in journalism is known as “reporting,” and that everywhere else is known as “paying attention.”
“I can’t, in restaurants, not watch families not talking to each other,” Turkle tells me. “In parks, I can’t not watch mothers not talking to their children. In streets, I can’t not watch mothers texting while they’re pushing their children.”
Her methods are contagious; once you start noticing what Turkle notices, you can’t stop. It’s a beautiful day, and we walk past boutiques, restaurants, and packed sidewalk cafés. The data are everywhere: The pair of high-school-age girls walking down Boylston Street, silent, typing. The table of brunchers ignoring their mimosas (and one another) in favor of their screens. The kid in the stroller playing with an iPad. The sea of humans who are, on this sparkling Saturday, living up to Turkle’s lament—they seem to be, indeed, alone together.
We are chatting, messaging, updating the Facebook status, tweeting, yes. But, ...
The conclusion she’s arrived at while researching her new book is not, technically, that we’re not talking to each other. We’re talking all the time, in person as well as in texts, in e-mails, over the phone, on Facebook and Twitter. The world is more talkative now, in many ways, than it’s ever been. The problem, Turkle argues, is that all of this talk can come at the expense of conversation. We’re talking at each other rather than with each other.
When I teach a class online, it is that conversation with students in the classroom that I miss.  The dialog in the classroom, the tangential comments made, the jokes, and even the wide yawns of students, make up the valuable Socratic conversation.
Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.
Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.” 
Oh well. Maybe some day when there is a severe electromagnetic storm and we lose electronic communication, we might be forced into re-learning the art of conversation.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem likely that we can teach the art of conversation either!

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Gift of the Magi

In an age of abundance, what do gifts mean?

Yes, General Malaise on duty today, too!

The tone of the discussion in this post won't be anything new if you have been here long enough.

When we were kids, I looked forward to grandmothers visiting with us in Neyveli.  Because it was fun times when they were around.  But--and this was perhaps the more important reason--also because of the awesome  therattipal.  The great-aunt, who died barely a fortnight ago, always fondly recalled how my brother and I loved the nendra pazham jam that she made.

All those sweets were like the gazillion awesome tasty stuff that were all home-made.  I remember them, and recall them so fondly, because they were all made by hand by my grandmothers and aunts.  If they had brought with them sweets and snacks that they had purchased from the store, I doubt that I would have such fond memories of food and people.  Which is also why I don't have any special memories of, say, Tirunelveli halva--as much as I liked them then, well, they were always from the halva store.  Family lore is that my grandmother used to make the best halva ever, but she was no longer energetic for that kind of hectic kitchen labor by the time I came along :(

Now, during my visits to India, I see that rarely do people seem to make sweets and snacks at home.  In the old country too, like here in the US, abundance is clearly visible.  Restaurants are in plenty and all of them seem to be forever filled with customers.  Therattipal is not a big deal anymore--it is available any day at the store that is round the corner from my parents' home.  Oddly enough, I don't enjoy those sweets--what my mother made was infinitely tastier, especially because she made them and didn't merely buy them from the store.

It is not as if we don't have the time.  We do.  We choose to spend our time other ways.  There are a gazillion ways in which we can entertain ourselves passively watching glowing screens of all sizes.  And, thus, we live in a world where we rarely ever spend a great deal of our time in order to make a gift.  We buy stuff made somewhere in China, warehoused somewhere we don't know, and pass it along as a gift.  We do not even bother to write personalized notes and, instead, outsource those sentiments to greeting card manufacturers.

So, back to the question of what gifts mean in an age of abundance.  And more than that, what do gifts mean for relationships?

 I am stumped!

All I know this: There is something seriously missing in this contemporary abundance.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Death strikes. Again.

Four elders in the extended family died within a span of eight weeks.  They were all octogenarians; one of them was only months away from turning 90, and the latest was not far behind her.

"She was fine even a week ago," father said.  "She had some kind of a nasty cough for two days.  The doctor gave her antibiotics.  Couple of days into this treatment, when they tried to wake her up for the afternoon coffee, she was gone."

We all have to go, sometime, even though we love living.  The later it happens in one's life, the easier it is for the rest of us to accept that death.  We are often traumatized when death happens to a younger person.  Especially when kids die.  Which is also why the old tradition considers the death of the very elderly who have experienced life to its fullest as கல்யாண சாவு "kalyaana saavu"--in this case, the death is like a celebration.

All the four deaths happened with their people around.  Only one was in a hospice setting, and the rest were at home.  We forget that this is how humans usually died, and not in some sterile setting.  Away from traditional societies, like here in the US, only the rarest of the lucky ones ever get such an exit.  For most of us, we die among strangers:
For most of human history, death has been an intensely spiritual experience. Frequently, some religious figure, a pastor or a shaman, would be at a patient’s side at the end to help make it a deep and meaningful experience not only for the patient but also for his or her family and friends. Studies show that most patients have great spiritual needs and many derive strength from their faith. These days, instead of a shaman, patients are surrounded by strangers in scrubs. Death – one of the most complex events that can occur in a hospital – is usually handled by the youngest physicians.
Even though we know really, really well that death comes to every one of us humans, few among us bear witness to the very process of dying.  My father recalled witnessing one death in particular, when he could see the flame of life slowly extinguishing.  Even in the old country, only a lucky few get to witness the end, which is a humbling experience. 

I have been lucky to have been taught this most fundamental lesson of life more than once.  Witnessing the ending is a profound lesson on how fragile our existence is.  To watch a person die in your presence is perhaps one of the most humbling moments ever.  I believe that the dying that I witnessed has made me respect death, and respect living even more.  I consider myself immensely privileged that they died in my presence.

And when the end happens, the person instantly becomes referred to as "the body" that needs to be taken care of!  In the old traditions, the four bodies were cremated.  We mourn the passing.

Life continues on for the rest, and it is important to remind ourselves that we live in the present--without ever forgetting those who went before us, and who made the present possible for us.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

After watching My Happy Family I pulled up and read an old blog-post of mine about Georgia, its food, its people, the people from the old Soviet Union ... all in America!

Here is my blog-post from from August 2012:

When "S" suggested dinner at a Russian restaurant, my immediate response was, "Russian? Bland food?"  But, I was assured that it is not really Russian, but the food is Georgian, and that I would love the two dishes that are "S"'s favorites.

A woman in a summery dress was straightening the outdoor tables as we walked in.  True to the old stereotypes of smoking and drinking Russians, she had with her a pack of cigarettes as well.  The eatery had to be authentic then!

We sat at a table, adjacent to a couple.  Two tables away was a lone young man who looked like he could be from one of the Central Asian "Stan" countries.  At a far table was a group of three older men.  I imagined that they were immigrants who had gotten together for their weekly conversations about the old country, and perhaps tell the same stories all over again, in their deep and gruff tones.

The walls were filled with handwritten notes in various languages.  I scanned them, and I spotted a Thirukkural couplet.  A wonderful couplet that will be meaningful in any culture:

The couplet roughly translates to:
When one harms you, shame them by doing them good.
To the right of the couplet was a vase/cup and spoon that was so much like the ones that Srikumar, my high school friend, had gifted me back in the days when he was a student in the USSR. I still have that at home:

The food was awesome.  Borscht and a chicken dish that is described in the menu as:
Shashlik: This hunter's joy on a skewer is grilled Thursdays through Sundays; please allow 25 minutes. It is said that this dish saved the Yalta Accords between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in 1944.
As we exited the restaurant, I noticed the summery-dress woman sitting outside. 

"Are all you folks from Russia and Georgia?" I asked her.

"We are from all over the old Soviet Union" she replied.  "I am from Belarus."

"No kidding!"

"We have had people here from Latvia, Lithuania, and many of the old Soviet republics.  We all talk Russian."

I so wanted to joke with her that I thought the Latvians and Lithuanians hated the Russians, but I didn't.  Leave them Russians alone; they have caused enough troubles already!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Is climate change stressing you?

I did a quick check to spot my oldest entry relating climate change and the food that we eat.  Looks like this from 2014 might be it,  though there may be a few more from prior years--I don't have the patience to do a more thorough check!

Until I arrived in this land of the free and the home of the brave, I was a strict vegetarian. Even when my vegetarian friends and siblings talked about having tasted animal food--this was back in the old country--I remained steadfast in my convictions.

In the adopted land, I slowly drifted away from the staunch vegetarianism.  But, it was not as if I could not live without getting animal protein in me every single day. I could not care if I didn't have a piece of chicken or a burger. But, it certainly made things easier, logistically speaking, especially when traveling.

Over the past years, evidence relating the food we eat to climate change has been piling up. 

It is the same with many other aspects too.  Do we really need more evidence about the harmful effects of plastics, coal, ...?

We continue to gather evidence, however, perhaps with the hope that some day we will change our behaviors, and we will also change the societal decisions on these.

So ... "how can we begin to move the numbers?"
WRI’s authors provide some suggestions, including drawing on lessons from marketing, celebrity endorsements, packaging, and product display to change the cultural norms around meat. The government can also employ some powerful sticks and carrots, including taxes, subsidies, and the power to make buying decisions for schools, federal offices, and the military, the report states.
The government ... under this tRump administration couldn't be bothered with climate change.  Working through "alternative facts," the current government does not even care for evidence!

Maybe the market is the one that will have come to our rescue.  Mission Impossible!

In addition to the climate change angle, a plant-rich diet can also help reduce stress!
The collection of evidence is compelling that reducing food waste, increasing plant-rich diets, practising conscious consumption and improving food systems can help to improve mental and physical health and displace anxiety.
And, to top things off, vegetarian meals can be awesomely and pleasingly colorful; if only people understood that vegetarian food is simply fantastic!

In the bowl: Baked yellow beets and burrata with a white balsamic vinegar reduction (with honey and vanilla)
On the plate: Basque peppers--pan sauteed with olive oil--and crackers with muffaletta

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Anger, anxiety, and adolescence

When I was a kid, then a tween, and then a teen, I was angry and anxious about a whole bunch of things.  There was one issue that was a non-issue.  It never even blipped in my radar.  There was simply no need to.  It is like asking me whether I was addicted to Instagram during my high school years.

That non-issue is a huge issue for many of today's kids, tweens, and teens: Climate change.
Young people, absorbing the gravity of these warnings, have become the defining face of the climate movement — marching, protesting and berating their elders for bequeathing them an uncertain, unstable future. Underlying their anger, though, is another a-word: anxiety. And it’s something they’re increasingly voicing. Teachers hear their students talk about panic attacks when wildfires break out, and psychologists face young patients weeping about their fear of never having a family.
I would think that most of these kids are not from Republican families--after all, their Dear Leader comforts them that there is nothing to worry about an issue that is nothing but a hoax!
As climate change continues unabated, parents, teachers and medical professionals across the country find themselves face-to-face with a quandary: How do you raise a generation to look toward the future with hope when all around them swirls a message of apparent hopelessness? How do you prepare today’s children for a world defined by environmental trauma without inflicting more trauma yourself? And where do you find the line between responsible education and undue alarmism?
For years, when I have discussed in my classes impacts on the natural environment, I have suggested to students that it will be an issue through their lives and not mine because I will soon check out.  I have also reminded them that the issue is not about the science but is all political, which is why students have a much greater responsibility in working on this outside of the classroom.  I often remind them about this:
Transportation (cars, buses, trucks, and planes) leads in greenhouse gas emissions, while electricity (coal and natural-gas power plants) is a close second. Industrial goods and services are third; buildings, fourth; and agriculture, fifth.
This way of measuring blame, however, misses something crucial: people. These industries are spouting carbon because customers demand their products: travel, electronics, entertainment, food, all sorts of stuff.
Almost always, I end up talking about carbon pricing.  But then, who listens to me, eh!

"“Eco-anxiety” or “climate depression” is playing out in real terms among young people, sometimes in extreme ways":
Sarah Niles, an 18-year-old from Alabama, told me that her fears about climate change have simply become a part of her life. “I feel like in my peer group, you just go right from talking about polar bears dying to ‘Did you see what Maya posted on Snapchat?’ Nobody has a filter to adjust,” Niles says. “It’s like, the ice caps are melting and my hypothetical children will never see them, but also I have a calculus test tomorrow.”
Frankly, I have no idea how to be encouraging to kids, tweens, and teens!  I do my best to remind them that they have immense power to effect change--as consumers in the marketplace, and as citizens in the political domain that also has the power to regulate the marketplace.  But, like Sarah Niles, most students seem to operate along the same lines of talking climate change and Instagram and midterm exams all in the same breath.

As much as a cynic I am, and a decorated General Malaise I know I am, I am far from being an alarmist when I talk with students.  If anything, my faculty colleagues seem to think that I am one of those right-wing Republican nutcases who doesn't worry about social issues!  In my classes, I often point to a range of solutions. Not pie-in-the-sky ones, but feasible solutions.  Which is why I agree with this professor's approach:
This past fall, she added a second lesson about solutions, highlighting the drop in the cost of renewable energy and improvements in battery technology for storing clean energy. It’s a strategy Duffy says is necessary for any climate communicator, but especially one working with young minds. “There’s a danger in having the instruction emphasize climate catastrophe,” she says. “It’s tempting to say how bad things are, how much we need to stop it. But at some point you’ve accidentally said this is a foregone conclusion. We can overemphasize how scary it is to the point where people feel hopeless and panicked.”
Yep.  One of my favorites is to show them how rapidly the energy sources have changed in a mere 150 years.  I encourage them to extrapolate from those trends.  And boy that seems to change their frameworks!

The kids are alright.  We older adults are the ones who have created problems for them.  Especially the really old adults in one major political party here in America.  They will, forever, stand accused!

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Emerging domestic terrorism


A topic that I have blogged about a lot, because I have been concerned for years that we are not talking about it as a serious issue.  I will continue to rant, even if nobody listens!

There is a particular kid of masculinity that I am increasingly worried about--misogyny.  Not the kind of pussy-grabbing misogyny that Dear Leader epitomizes.  But, a misogyny from the incels.  (Keep in mind that the screwer-in-chief is not an incel by any means.)

Incels are "involuntary celibates"--they don't want to be celibate, and desperately try their best, but they feel rejected by women and, therefore, they are celibate.   These guys are creating real worries among the law and order community:
Last month, the Texas Department of Public Safety released a report finding that incels “are an emerging domestic terrorism threat as current adherents demonstrate marked acts or threats of violence in furtherance of their social grievance.”
An emerging domestic terrorism threat?  Oh my!
a group of computer scientists have painted the most complete picture yet of the misogynistic groups that fuel the incel movement online. The “manosphere,” as it is known, is divided into four broad groups. “Men’s right’s activists” (MRAs) claim that family law and social institutions discriminate against men. “Men going their own way” (MGTOW) take this feeling of grievance further, arguing that society can’t be “amended”; they often avoid women, blaming them for their problems. “Pick-up artists” (PUAs), meanwhile, date and harass women; they believe society is “feminizing” men.And then there are the incels, the most potentially violent of the group.
Why are the incels most potentially violent?
Incels abide by the “black pill,” a belief that women use their sexual power to dominate men socially. For that, incels want revenge.
This is insane!
Worryingly, it seems that there has been a significant migration from men’s rights groups to incel groups. Every year since 2015, around 8% of MRA or MGTOW members appear to have become more radicalized and joined incel groups online. 
Sex is so primal and yet we choose not to openly and constructively talk about it.  Many a lives have been ended because of this three letter word.  Add incels to that, and I can easily see how explosive it can get.  It does not have to be this way.
So what can be done? One step might be to create tools to help spot and protect potential victims, along with an earlier analysis of when and how men’s rights and MGTOW groups get radicalized
These people are serious about incels as potential terrorists.  OMG!  Masculinity can easily become toxic in many ways.

Friday, February 07, 2020

That which does not kill me ...

A hundred years ago, the flu pandemic killed about two percent of the world's population at that time.  To put that in contemporary numbers, imagine if the Coronavirus killed 150 million this year!

Yet another reason I am thankful that I am alive now, and not in the bad old days, which people often mistakenly refer to as the good old days!

Viruses of many types have always been a menace to humans.  Remember smallpox? Polio?  Bastards these viruses are.  And they mutate.  If only the damned idiots in the Republican Party will accept and understand natural selection and evolution; they perhaps don't even have the word "mutate" in their dictionaries!

Unfortunately, the anti-vaxxer idiots are highly influential as this news report shows:
One recent post came from the mother of a 4-year-old Colorado boy who died from the flu this week. In it, she consulted group members while noting that she had declined to fill a prescription written by a doctor.
The child had not been diagnosed yet, but he was running a fever and had a seizure, the mother wrote. She added that two of her four children had been diagnosed with the flu and that the doctor had prescribed the antiviral Tamiflu for everyone in the household.
“The doc prescribed tamiflu I did not pick it up,” she wrote.
The child died!
The mother’s recent posts have now been deleted from Stop Mandatory Vaccination, but in group posts going back to 2017 she said she had not vaccinated her children from the flu.
The mother did not respond to a request for comment.
A Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement: “This is a tragedy and our thoughts are with his family and loved ones. We don’t want vaccine misinformation on Facebook, which is why we’re working hard to reduce it everywhere on the platform, including in private groups.”
How does the flu become a killer?
The short and morbid answer is that in most cases the body kills itself by trying to heal itself. “Dying from the flu is not like dying from a bullet or a black widow spider bite,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “The presence of the virus itself isn't going to be what kills you. An infectious disease always has a complex interaction with its host.”
Amesh Adalja.  Hmmm ... The name suggests he might be a bad hombre from Gujarat!  Have to alert the immigration folks ;)
After entering someone's body—usually via the eyes, nose or mouth—the influenza virus begins hijacking human cells in the nose and throat to make copies of itself. The overwhelming viral hoard triggers a strong response from the immune system, which sends battalions of white blood cells, antibodies and inflammatory molecules to eliminate the threat. T cells attack and destroy tissue harboring the virus, particularly in the respiratory tract and lungs where the virus tends to take hold. In most healthy adults this process works, and they recover within days or weeks. But sometimes the immune system's reaction is too strong, destroying so much tissue in the lungs that they can no longer deliver enough oxygen to the blood, resulting in hypoxia and death.
We've met the enemy, ... and it is our own immune system?
Some studies suggest that during the infamous 1918 global flu pandemic, most people died from subsequent bacterial infections. But more virulent strains such as those that cause avian flu are more likely to overwhelm the immune system on their own.
It is such public health nightmares from which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) protects us.  tRump and his crazies don't value the CDC:
Funding has also been cut drastically to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), forcing it to reduce or discontinue epidemic-prevention efforts in 39 out of the 49 countries it had been helping. Among the countries where CDC efforts were scaled back were Haiti, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as China, where the agency provided technical assistance.
In its 2020 budget the Trump administration proposed a further 10% cut in CDC funding, equivalent to $750m. It zeroed out funding for epidemiology and laboratory capacity at state and local levels.
Keep calm, and carry on!

Monday, February 03, 2020

People just disappear sometimes. You have to love and appreciate them while they're near you.

I woke up after a good night sleep.  And later in the day, came the update that the great aunt had passed away.

It is the third death in the extended family within the past two months.  "It has been three, and I wonder who is next," my mother noted.

Such is our mortal lives.  At some point even when we are young we learn that death eventually comes for us too.  We too are on the same conveyor belt moving towards the same gate.  There is only one direction and only one gate.

The death of a young boy, a year or two older than me, was the event that convinced the 9-year old me that I, too, would die at some point.  Witnessing the death of my grandmother as an early teenager removed any doubt whatsoever.  Every single death further clarifies the understanding that we are mortals with expiration dates.  As George Yancy notes:
No matter how many times I’ve decided to remove the veil, the sting of our collective finitude continues to hit me, along with the reality of bodily decomposition and putrefaction. The unspoken reality of death, which is the haunting background of our lives, shakes my body ... Yet a clarity emerges.
Even though we know that we will not live forever, and even though this accident of being can come to an end at any time, we simply refuse to engage in frank and honest discussions of death and, therefore, life.  I agree, again, with Yancy:
Death is our collective fate. Yet so many of us fear to talk about it, fear to face it, terrified by the idea of nonbeing. But we must face our destiny, our rendezvous with death.
We love living.  It is difficult to accept that there will be a moment from when we will no longer be here.  It sounds like a cruel joke that somebody is playing on us.  But, we can't dodge that  "rendezvous with death."  That fateful encounter is the loneliest event in one's life.

Where went the life of that boyMy friends?  My grandmother?  My great aunt?  What will happen to me when my life ends?

Years ago, I came to peace with an understanding that I will never know the answer(s).  All I can do is live in the here and in the now.  And feel sad that the people I knew are taking turns exiting this world. We feel the pain only because we survive. Because we are alive. We are alive to know and feel that the person who was close to us died.

I feel privileged that I am alive to think about them.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Life of the diasporas

It was a whirlwind trip.  Flying 2,000 miles, spending a night away from home, and then flying those 2,000 miles back--all within 40 hours.

I have never before had such a hectic travel.  But there was a reason.  A great-aunt is on her deathbed--literally--and it was to bid her goodbye at the hospice care.  And to share with her children and grandchildren what a wonderful human she was.

We traded stories celebrating her life.  In a way, the life that is ending also gave us a valuable opportunity to (re)connect after many years.  After all, we no longer live in Pattamadai and Sengottai, where the clan members got to see each other regularly--even daily, if they lived in the same village.  Now, the descendants live far, far away from those villages.  The younger the descendants, the less that they know about the villages and the clan.

"I'm so sorry that I have been out of the loop for so long," said one of the younger ones when I updated her about my life.  But then I know very little about hers.  We live disconnected lives, in contrast to the deeply involved ways of the old.

The hospice staff assigned to care for the aunt were also like us--people who had moved far away from their homes.  From the great ancestral home.

I recognized the accent of one who was there when I first visited the aunt.  It was distinct.  Was she from Ghana?

But, I didn't want to be rude by asking her right then.  I have had too many unpleasant encounters when my Indianness is the first thing that strangers talk to me about.  I would ask her that if I saw her the next day, I decided.

She was there with her smiling, pleasant face the next day too.

"Good morning," she wished us as we walked in.

I was the last one to enter the room.  I walked up to her chair and thanked her.  And then got into the otherness.

"Like us, you too have an accent," I said.

She smiled.  I am always envious of people whose faces radiate their smiles, unlike mine that apparently comes across as nothing but a face that has just sucked sour lemons!

"I am from Ghana."

"That's what I figured, because the way you talk reminded me of my colleague.  I didn't want to ask you that right away yesterday.  I figured I would talk to you about it if you were here today."

She smiled even more.

We quickly chatted about plantains and red-red.  Food is a great uniter!

She asked me only one question that perhaps summed it all up for her.  "Are you a professor?"

Empathy Through Enchiladas

The NY Times had an interesting report on the predictive power of food:
Voters who had been to Europe, Australia, Canada or Mexico or had eaten at an Indian restaurant were less likely to choose Mr. Trump by 10 to 12 percentage points beyond the differences explained by other factors like the ones mentioned above.
Of course, it’s not that eating Indian food leads a person to support one Democratic candidate over another — that’s silly. (And there are voters for whom Indian food is the taste of home.) But a voter’s orientation toward the world is related to candidate choice, and it turns out that eating in restaurants that celebrate less familiar cultures is one way to measure where people think they are more connected: to those around them locally or to people farther afield.
Indeed.  Food is a portal to understanding the world around us.

There's something remarkable about breaking bread together--even if that breaking bread happens at an "alien" restaurant.  That magic is powerful when we share food at home, as I quickly realized when I came to the US.

Siddiqqi, who was from Pakistan, or the Taiwanese girl whose name I have long forgotten, came over to my apartment to eat with me.  And then there were more. Greeks. Nigerians. Or my meals with Palestinians. A Guyanese-American with roots in India.  And, of course, white Americans too.

It was never really about the food.  What is it about then?
According to anthropologists and psychologists who have studied food in recent years, cuisines from international cultures can take us out of ourselves and help us better understand distinct people and cultures. The secret ingredient is empathy. And the process begins with stirring our emotions.
Food and emotions, and that wonderfully important ingredient to being human--empathy.

Empathy, about which I have blogged a lot because of the importance that I attach to it, means that we are placing ourselves in somebody else's shoes and understand their feelings.  When the others are from cultures that are alien to us, food is a phenomenal portal through which that "other" slowly becomes "us."
A culture may seem unfamiliar to a person, but after that person discovers the way people from an unfamiliar culture “prepare their food, the way they eat, somehow they understand it. There’s link between you and them, and that gives you insight.”
But, we need to keep in mind that it is not merely about food.  I have always stayed away from the international food fairs at college campuses because it seems to perpetuate the mistaken notion that it is all about food.  I want people to begin to understand the "other" through food.
Food alone, though, is often not enough to complete the trip to another culture. The journey needs other people.
Which is why white Americans eating Mexican and Indian foods can also be racists and xenophobes!  The "others" serving food is what the supremacists think is the norm--the equivalent of "shut up and dribble."  As if we are here only to keep the masters happy!

"Without the ingredient of human empathy, food from another land can only have a bland effect."  As I noted in this post a few months ago, I wish people would think about this:
“Have you or your family ever invited a person or a family of another race to your home for dinner?” ... When is the last time you or your family had dinner in your home with a person or family of another race?
Breaking bread at my home is about empathy and understanding. I have no place in my life for people who lack empathy.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

It is always personal

In 1950, on the 26th of January, India kicked out the colonizers for ever. 

The new constitution was adopted and went into effect, the Bastard Raj ended, and the old colonizer was to become an island increasingly irrelevant in the world as it had always been for the most part of human existence!

Even as an Indian, I never cared for the Republic Day celebrations, however.  Because, it was less about the spirit of independence and more about jingoism and the military spectacle.  Exactly the kind that trump wants to see happen here in the US for the Fourth of July!

Decades later, my brother has another reason to mark the 26th of January.  It is the official national day of his adopted country, which continues to have the crown as its figurehead, for reasons beyond my understanding.  Maybe it is a white thing!

January 26th is complicated.

But, those are political. Not personal.

On a strictly personal level, January 26th is a day to celebrate.  I owe my existence, my male chromosome, to an event that happened on the 26th.

It is the day that my father was born in 1930.

Paal paayasam for the 90-year old and for everybody! ;)

Like father, like sons ;)

It was a dark and stormy day

The sky was dark as if it was night though it was day time.  Like the last days of Pompeii.

I switched the lights on.

Even inside the home, leaves and twigs all over the floor as if the wind had blown through the house.

And then it suddenly hit me: I hadn't fed my dog for more than a day. I hadn't even let him out.

I called his name.  He came with his tail wagging.  I gave him a hug. I opened the door by the kitchen for him to go to the side yard.

He rushed out.

There was a puppy--all black--sitting right outside the door.  I shooed the pup away.

I remembered that there was no dog food at home.  I hadn't bought any.

I hurriedly tore a few pieces of bread.  I called out for my dog.  He came in slowly with a stick across his mouth.

It struck me that my dog had died a long time ago. Twenty years ago!

I woke up.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

How old is the temple? Does it matter?

"Please share the Srivaikuntam photos with Girija also--she said she has never been there," I wrote to my sister.  Girija was at a loss when trying to understand how she had never been there, when the distance from Pattamadai to Srivaikuntam is not even 30 miles.

I told her I would send some of my favorite photos from Srivaikuntam.

The temple at Srivaikuntam is at least 1,100 years old.  But then, it could be older, too.

To the locals and the faithful, the age of the temple is immaterial--to them, it has always been there.  But, to an insanely curious person like me, this is a simple question for which detailed answers ought to be there on display boards, in printed materials, ... Could this temple be 1,500 years old? 2,000?  You see what I mean?

Of course, as a confirmed atheist, my interest in this is simply for a better understanding of the world around me and not for any religious salvation. Therefore, it is all the more an irony that here I am as an atheist trying to get the simplest of questions answered, while the true believers don't seem to be interested at all.  Faith doesn't require answers to questions about age.

I was blown away by the complexity of the engineering and art at the temple.  I am one hell of a moron when it comes to anything related to the arts, and even more so when we talk art history.  Yet, yes, mind-blowing!

Lengthy corridors supported by stone columns, each from a single piece. Delicate carving of the stone to produce finely detailed sculptures.

All these done so many years ago.

The temple sculptures have a lot of secular art too--not mere religious ones.

I loved the piece below, which appears to depict a hunter who has returned with a heck of a prize, and perhaps an annoying thorn in the sole of his foot, which the woman is removing.   Simply beautiful.

It seemed that there has been extensive damage to quite a bit of the art in the areas exposed to the harshness that the sun, wind, and rain over the thousand-plus years.  The displays noted that an industrialist/philanthropic family had spent quite some money on renovating the temple.

And then there were art pieces that would make middle school students giggle, and people like me wish that somebody would explain the significance of such wonderful art from so many centuries ago.

In the carving below, there is no doubt about the intention of the bearded male (no, not me!) who seems to be a hermit (no, not me!)

If Pinocchio's nose grew because of lying, well, this hermit's penis appears to reflect his thoughts of sex.

The fingers of the woman's left hand are also strategically placed.

I so wish I had taken art history!

There was a lot more to see, and there is a limit to how much I can take photos too.  If only I had been informed and alert about such fantastic art at temples even when I was way younger!  Youth is certainly wasted on the young :(

One interpretation is that depiction of sex in the art in the outer areas of the temple was to remind the believers to leave their dirty thoughts outside, and enter the holy areas with a mind that was focused only on god.  Maybe.

Another interpretation is that temples were also the local art exhibits where the sculptors displayed their talents. Maybe.

Fascinating fodder for curious minds in a 1,100- or 1,500-year old temple!

Friday, January 24, 2020

The truth is that the GOP cannot live forever with lies

Back when the Bush/Cheney/Faux News collaborative venture called the Republican administration created their own reality and assured themselves that they were creating heaven on earth, Stephen Colbert made us laugh our way out by the news that he reconstructed in his show.  In this reconstruction, Colbert invented a word that has also entered popular culture: truthiness.
American television comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word in this meaning[2] as the subject of a segment called "The Wørd" during the pilot episode of his political satire program The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005. By using this as part of his routine, Colbert satirized the misuse of appeal to emotion and "gut feeling" as a rhetorical device in contemporaneous socio-political discourse
So, where from did Colbert get the word?
 Colbert explained the origin of his word as: "Truthiness is a word I pulled right out of my keister".
We all laughed.  It was funny.

Except that it is not funny anymore. In this rapid descent to hell, facts no longer matter.

Facts and truths are fundamental to democracy.
Fights over truth claims are simply the price we have to pay for living in a democracy. By this way of thinking, we are just in a particularly rough patch.
But, the challenge to truth leading to the conclusion that "anything goes" as truth and that any interpretation is as good as another, is a freaky way to live.
Some kinds of truth—think of physics or other “pure” sciences—might be able to survive quite adequately without democracy. However, the best aspects of liberal democracy cannot survive without any commitment to finding some common way of seeing and talking about the world that takes on the imprimatur of truth, at least provisionally.
Truth matters as the foundation for interpersonal trust. It matters because we cannot talk to one another, much less conduct a serious debate, until we share some principles and facts about the world at large, not to mention a consensus on how to generate them. How, for example, can we ever decide on a serious labor policy if we can’t agree on whether the unemployment rate has gone up or down or even on how to figure out how many people are out there looking for work? 
Exactly.  Collective decision making in a democracy, like about unemployment and census, depends on truth.

Recent political developments have made it abundantly clear that 63 million, which includes quite a few "god-fearing" white people, have decided to wage a war on truth itself!

But, history shows that we have been engaged in such a battle like forever.  And, with every new battle, truth always prevails.  So, fight we shall, and win we will.
[NO] matter how treacherous the terrain, we cannot give up on trying, within the framework of pluralism, to find some elemental convictions about the nature of reality that we can hold in common. Our future depends on seeing, as well as living in, a shared world.

Monday, January 20, 2020

South of the Sahel

When reading this essay, I was reminded yet again on how much a typical understanding of sub-Saharan Africa begins only with European colonialism and white supremacy.
For a long time, historians in the West have seen the Atlantic slave trade as shaping the beginnings of West Africa’s engagement with Europe. There is no question that the slave trade exerted a profound influence in many parts of Africa. However, to look at African history as the history of slavery and the slave trade is no more accurate than to study the history of the Nazis as the sum of the German past.
That's how I was taught about Africa in world history more than four decades ago, and it continues even today. I often remind students to scratch the surface and discover the plenty that there is to learn.

At least we know something about Egypt, the Pharaohs, and the pyramids.  But the rest?

Take a look at this map of the part of Africa that is south of the Sahara:

No, I am not going to ask you to name the countries--after all, I too would surely miss more than one.  Take a moment to scan the map. The size. The number of countries.

Now, think about American Presidents making trips to African countries.  Since the LBJ years, which is when most of the countries were finally able to shake their colonial masters off, how many of those countries have been visited by American Presidents?

It is a fair enough question, right?

Let's consider the two-term Presidents first.  Nixon was nearly a two-termer.  Yes?  How many of those countries did he visit?  How about Reagan?  From 1968 through 1988.

Here's what Wiki tells us: Neither Nixon nor Reagan visited even one sub-Saharan country when they were Presidents.  Not one.

I am sure there were geopolitical reasons during the Cold War era.  But, still ... not even one country?

Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama have made a number of trips to Africa.  But, the countries they visited?  It feels like they were all on the same beat. Going to the same countries.

I don't care about what they do when they visit.  But, when the President visits a country, Americans at least hear about it, perhaps for the first time ever.  Imagine a President going to Congo--it does not matter which Congo it is.  Or Gabon. Or Mozambique.  At least for those couple of days, those countries will be "trending" in social media, and Wolf Blitzer will cover those countries nonstop on CNN.

But, it does not happen.

Now, we have a (P)resident in the White House who just knows only as shitholes, where people live in huts. He thinks there is a country called Nambia.  No wonder he has steered clear of the continent when making his international trips as the President, including four to France.  Maybe Macron can take him along to visit the old colonies on an apology tour!

President tRump's 17 international trips to 23 countries

But then, maybe it will #BeBest if he does not go anywhere near Africa!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Actions and reactions

My first semester in graduate school was also my urban economics professor's first at the university.  I think "urban economics" was the name of the course.  One of the readings that he--a recent transplant from Canada--had for us was about Monterey Park.

Most of the natives were familiar with the place but a couple of us foreigners and out-of-staters had no idea where Monterey Park was.  This essay was all about how the city's population had dramatically changed--seemingly overnight--so much so that even the signage in front of commercial establishments were appearing in Chinese.  And the local whites were upset.

I, as a foreigner, couldn't understand what the big deal was.  Why were the whites so upset?  Yes, there was a time in America's history when the immigrant Chinese were ill-treated.  But, wasn't that history?

Thus, in fall 1987, as a foreign student in Los Angeles, I was introduced to a rapidly changing America, starting with a community that was only a few miles east of the university where I was engaged in intellectual discussions.

What I didn't know then was this: It had been just about two decades since the US had gotten rid of its racist immigration laws.  In 1965, LBJ and the Democrats passed a sweeping immigration reform that followed the Civil Rights Act.  A new immigration regime allowed non-whites to come to the country.  The initial trickles quickly became a stream and then a wave of non-whites.  Monterey Park had become Chinese majority, with a Chinese-American mayor to boot.  And quite a few white folk were angry.

I didn't know then that I was in the relatively early part of the gushing stream of immigrants from India.


I was in an international setting--on campus and in the city. A bubble that normalized my status.  From my first day, I didn't know anything other than believing all these were the norm!

Almost 30 years after the LBJ-led immigration reform, in 1994, the reactionaries struck.  An anti-immigrant hateful rhetoric clinched a second-term for a Republican governor in California!

But, immigrants continued to move to California.  Silicon technology was altering the economic landscape at warped speeds, and the population from India kept up with this pace.  The stream from India became a huge wave.

All thanks to the reform that was passed by Congress and signed into law by LBJ on October 3, 1965.

But, LBJ had no idea that his immigration reform would lead to the browning of America.

Fifty years later, in June 2015, the reaction to LBJ opening the immigration gates to non-whites came in the form of tRump.

The hateful rhetoric that helped a Republican win the governor's office in 1994 was also the reason why the party lost California.  It is now a state where Republicans are an endangered species, who mostly yell and scream from its inland valleys.  I cannot imagine the hateful rhetoric that has made a success out of tRump and the Republicans having a lasting effect beyond another election cycle.

Better days are ahead.

Selling graduate degrees

History/news repeating itself means that I can easily copy/paste from my old posts. It is as simple as that.

Consider this Washington Monthly piece, for instance, which argues that "Teachers across the country earn grad degrees to get raises. Turns out those degrees don’t improve student learning—they just fatten universities’ bottom lines."

Ah, yes, an old issue here at this blog!

Back in September 2011, I warned readers: "Two words to keep in mind: graduate degrees."  I wrote there:
Look at yourself at the mirror and ask this question: "Does one really need a master's degree to teach at the elementary school level?
And then, follow it up with this: "Do instructors at community colleges need doctorates to teach the classes?"
There is a good possibility that your instinct says that a master's degree is not needed for elementary school teachers, and that community college faculty don't need to have the "PhD" tag either.
It is also highly probable that you think it might be a good idea if teachers have those respective advanced degrees.
Now, ask yourself, this: will student learning be increased just because it is an elementary school teacher with a master's degree, or a community college instructor with a PhD?
That was in 2011.

Here is the Washington Monthly in its January/February 2020 issue:
“Most of the research is that there’s either no statistically significant difference, or small significant differences, in teachers with master’s degrees,” said Thomas Kane, an economist and professor of education at Harvard. Matthew Chingos, an education-policy expert at the Urban Institute, has described it as “one of the most consistent findings in education research.” Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, put it more bluntly: “It’s as conclusive as research that finds smoking causes lung cancer. It’s as conclusive as the research on climate change.”
Compare with what I wrote here in 2011:
There is nothing in the literature that shows that student learning is enhanced merely because the teachers have those higher credentials.  In fact, the higher credentials by themselves do not make good teachers.  The advanced degrees are neither necessary, nor sufficient, conditions for improved student learning.  These are simply distractions!
So, why then the push for graduate degrees?  I will quote from my own post first:
The problem comes up because teachers, their unions, and the schools have set up a system in which teachers get a salary bump if they have advanced degrees. ...
Now, think about higher education as an industry.  If you are a higher education professional, you realize that there is an economic incentive for second grade teachers also to get master's degrees.  You then expand into offering those programs
And what does the Washington Monthly say?
Nixing the automatic master’s pay bump, which many experts advocate, would likely face intense resistance from teachers’ unions. It would also draw quiet resistance from a less obvious source: the universities awarding degrees. Data from the Department of Education shows that education master’s degrees are the second most commonly awarded master’s degrees in the country, after MBAs. That makes them an important and reliable source of tuition revenue—as long as teachers feel the need to get them.
Seriously, what the hell is wrong with us?!

My bottom-line was:
Taxpayers subsidize the public universities that offer those graduate degree programs.  That is right: we pay for the generation of most of those advanced degrees.  These graduates then earn more because of the very degrees, when those degrees are not even required!
That is no different from this argument that teachers ought to be paid more:
 This money should still go to teachers—it just shouldn’t be tied to an expensive, time-consuming degree with no tangible benefit. Simply giving all teachers higher salaries, says Roza, would be better than having teachers go into debt to get degrees.
Make teaching great again, dammit, instead of wasting money on unnecessary diplomas!