Kush Tandon Kush Tandon's bibliography
Monday
Apr182005

Graduate School - A Tough Journey

Today at www.thesquare.com, I read the following:

”..i don’t have a complete picture of labor laws, unionization and history, but it seems to me that the function of unions were originally for blue collar workers that were being mistreated. the notion of a labor union for graduate students is asinine.”

My reply to the post on the board was:
I really wish it was that simple. One always has to keep in mind that graduate students are there is earn a degree rather than become cheap labor supporting the University system. On one hand, graduate school can realize your life long dreams, but the vulnerability of graduate students is quite often exploited, more than you want to know - sometimes worse than blue collar workers.

Harvard and Yale or any state school’s backbone are graduate students: be it your freshmen English writing TA, calculus recitation instructor, or research assistant in the billion dollar genome project (or something similar) at your alma mater. In sciences and engineering, most of the graduate students in United States do get full or partial support in return for 20 hours of work as a research or teaching assistant. The same also, happens for quite a few humanities students. Sometimes, 20 hours become 40 hours a week for tasks that does not contribute toward their completion of the degree (like being a teaching assistant), and so forth. It gets terribly more complicated on top of it when international students are involved. I am excluding fellowship and professional degree graduate students in this discussion.

I think there should be something like union or a watch-dog organization that makes sure that they are treated fairly and properly compensated. Moreover, a lot of schools are now giving add-ons like medical insurance just to be competitive to get the best students - not out of altruism. If you want them to spend 80 hours/ week in the lab for 6 years, working toward million dollar grants - at least give them medical insurance.

End Note: One has to go through a graduate school to know that it is not an easy ride.

Friday
Apr082005

Discovering Series, Part 2 (Botswana): A Standoff

SCU_02401.jpgDiscovering Botswana: A Standoff

By Kush Tandon


December 28, 2004 , around 8:30-9:30 AM , Okavango Delta , Botswana

"Something, or something awful or something wonderful was certain to happen on every day in this part of Africa . Every morning when you woke it was exciting as though you were going to compete in a downhill ski race or drive a bobsled on a fast run. Something, you knew, would happen and usually before eleven o'clock "

- Ernest Hemingway, True at First Light

Three safari jeeps are parked less than 10 steps away from a wounded leopard, a dying baboon, and about 50-100 baboons on the top of the trees, shaking violently, howling, and ready to jump in. About 7:00 AM , my brother along with the ranger KB had seen a leopard stalking for a kill and then got ambushed by the baboons. Deep in the bushes of Okavango Delta, the morning cool, the dew and the calm is slowly disappearing. The birds have telegraphed the hunt to the jungle.

I am in one of the three jeeps that have joined others a few minutes ago at around 8:30 AM.

Deep in the bushes, I see a baboon on the ground barely breathing and desperately trying to hide behind a giant tree. The leopard quietly limps and is now about 10 steps close to the wounded baboon but also uses the bushes as a cover. Every time he moves, the other baboons from above threaten. They are ready to pounce on him. This strong, young leopard, with an arms-length long deep wound on his thigh, is just staring at the baboons. Very briefly, from time to time he looks at the kill and then licks his wound for a second. I never seen any living creature with such a sheer, raw focus - there is no past, no future, only a very tenuous, fragile present.

"I am bleeding. I can barely move too. The moment, I take my eyes off these baboons, they will lynch me. All this for just for a meal. I haven't eaten in two days. This even happened last year. Do you think I enjoy this? I would rather take a nap."

"Why me? I am dying. Why is my time up?" , the baboon lying on the ground.

"If this leopard moves an inch closer to our brother, we are going to tear him apart. He cannot get away. He has his way all the time. It doesn't' matter that some of us will die if we confront again. This has to stop."

A standoff - that will only be over when one of them dies. In this law of the jungle, for all of them, the best hope is the continuation of status quo. Is there a such a thing?

A beautiful leopard, badly mauled, and very focused. He knows he holds the cards. A brave baboon that refuses to surrender his will to live. The band of brothers who are not ready to give up on him yet - as long as he is alive. Nobody is ready to blink. There is about still 2-3 hours before it is eleven o'clock.

Acknowledgments: Picture of "The Leopard" by Lav Tandon (2004).

Tuesday
Apr052005

Not Aways a Burden

From 04/05/05, The New York Times.

You should realise that illegal immigrants not only provide "dirt cheap" labor, live in inhuman conditions, and then also cover your social security. Give them some dignity. Notwithstanding the law of the land, at least don't shoot them or let them die of thirst. One has to acknowledge them as human beings and then deal with the solution.

From Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions

Wednesday
Mar302005

Tsunami, Earthquakes, and You

By Kush Tandon

Day before yesterday, a decent thing happened in spite of the deaths in Banyak and Nias Islands. As soon as Sumatra earthquake of March 29, 2005 was identified, countries were warning each other of a possible tsunami, online major newspapers were updating their story every 5-10 minutes, colleagues who knew of the earthquake before the newspapers/ TV/ blogs broke the news were sending out emails. The Amateur Seismic Centre (a website run by a student, Stacey Martin in India) was emailing people on the email list to pay close attention to any directive from their local authorities. It was a very effective low-tech warning system for a probable tsunami in action even though full tragedy in Indonesia was not fully averted.

Why didn't we do this on December 26, 2004? The reason was complacency, ignorance, and plain apathy. We all thought it was somebody else's job and even the ones who tried could not succeed. Very basic of knowledge of earthquakes (even with rough estimates of size, location and depth) and tsunami should have had us on red alert for Indian Ocean nations immediately. The basic information about the earthquake known before the tsunami hit the shores of many Indian Ocean countries should have been enough. The reach of CNN and cell phones is almost everywhere. Some of the scientists in Indian Ocean countries were scared of being chastised for "crying wolf". Sure, the early information was incomplete and sketchy - but that will be always the case, in any disaster of any kind.

I agree that an occurrence of a possible tsunami was completely forgotten from the collective memory of Indian Ocean nations and there was no oceanographic data in Indian Ocean while the tsunami was being formed, and that definitely hindered our sense of foresight. Indigenous islanders in Indonesia and Andaman Islands knew better than rest of us.

A clear link between the magnitude, depth, and seafloor deformation accompanying a submarine earthquake and its capability to produce a tsunami is still a research question, and will be for sometime to come. Similarly, is the case about trying to predict an earthquake? We do not know enough about earthquake physics and do not have enough past data to be able to predict them precisely. However, we know a lot more than we did 20 years ago and have some probabilistic ideas and guesses that can help us in clearly identifying "danger zones" and act accordingly.

A high-tech warning system for tsunami or any natural disaster will only be worthwhile if there is real time data sharing and communication between different countries, and most importantly a high level of awareness amongst the populace. Also, we all have to think of other possible disasters too, and start acting now. Is India-Pakistan-Nepal-Afghanistan ready to jointly build an infrastructure for a warning system for Himalayan earthquake risk hazard, similar to one in Mexico City? There will be huge earthquakes in Himalayan region - maybe tomorrow, maybe 20 years from now or perhaps 80.

Suggested Readings:

  1. http://asc-india.org/
  2. http://cires.colorado.edu/~bilham/indexHimEq.html
  3. http://www.seismolab.caltech.edu/
  4. http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com/
  5. http://www.usgs.gov/
Monday
Mar282005

The Terror Bee Equation

The Terror Bee Equation: How to sterilize the queen bee without being stung by the whole beehive?

By Kush Tandon

 

"Last year, originally I wrote this post on www.thesquare.com for a discussion on fighting terrorism, and radical Islam - but has anything changed since then. Maybe, Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan are now talking face to face and responding. I guess we do have hope."

Terrorism depends on many factors, some of them are entirely is in the hands of the people who commit them, but with some, we can make things more complicated for us. I made this terror bee equation to describe many factors and show how some of them play havoc beyond control.

Terror Bee Equation = Poverty X Exponential (Sense of Being Disenfranchised or No Hope) + Lack of Progress + Lack of Democratic Institutions + Cultural Trappings + Lack of Visionary Leaders Today (Mandela, Gandhi, King in Middle East)

Note that the "sense of being disenfranchised or no hope" is an exponential factor. I intend to say that when a group of population feels their future is slipping away than that anger becomes the dominant reason for hatred. In this equation, most of the factors solely are governed by Islamic nations themselves who have been quite active in recent terrorism. However, USA/ UK/ India/ Israel can play a not so helpful role in causing "sense of being disenfranchised or no hope" being blown out of proportion by noise of Apache helicopters day in, day out in Middle East or senseless humiliation in Kashmir.

Therefore, one should choose battles wisely so that the exponential factor is kept to the minimum. Even on this point, the mother lode rests on lack of leaders and thinkers within Middle East who would understand the aspirations of their own populace today, and harness public discourse in a non-violent manner. Without this citizenry is left with little room for peaceful outcome of differences in politics, etc. In recent times, the role of Nelson Mandela as a healer in South Africa overcoming century of injustice comes to mind immediately.

One would argue that there are poor nations that do not embrace terrorism - but then how does "poverty, lack of hope, AK-47 culture" feeds the cycle of radical Islam? Simple, democracy and peace does not grow out of the barrel of the gun, be it their own, or others. Quite often, if the violence due to poverty does not show in the form of religious bigotry than it takes a purely political face with examples from South America but it does show its ugly head. It is the visible disparity of wealth side by side that acts as an explosive mix in one of the means of continual humiliation? Purely, the presence of poverty and hardships does not mean reverting to terrorism, as shown in post WW II Japan. Cultural shock absorber can also play a great role in rebuilding a society under seige, as was the role of Emperor Hirohito and civil infrastructure still intact in Japan after WW II.

I have known a lot of Pakistanis and Middle East immigrants/ visitors/ students/ scholars in USA and Muslims in India. They all (the ones I have met are quite engaged in their life, career and the well being of the society around them) are very appreciative of democratic, free way of life, and have same dreams like a Hindu or a Korean American or an Italian American. Sure, my sampling is limited but revealing though.

Dr. Marc Sageman (U. Penn) aptly puts: "Most Arab terrorists are well-educated, married men from middle- or upper-class families, in their mid-20s and psychologically stable". In "The Economist" sometime ago, it was also pointed out that high profile acts are committed by "elitist, richer" Arabs but most of their foot work is done by orphans in Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. In an act like 9/ 11, Osama bin Laden trusted his own brothers and not the African and Asian brethren who do all the fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc. We can make recruiting efforts by elite radical Islam terrorist very difficult or easy in Asia and Africa - our choice. The only difference between radical Islam and radical versions of other religions is that they are finding recruitment very easy. Jessica Stern from Harvard is most succinct about Islamic terrorism that "If you're humiliated, you want to blame somebody and try to fix it". Why go on rampage (verbal and physical) and get stung by the whole beehive?

In September 14-24th (2004) issue of "The Economist", they had a telling article "The Muslim World: Liberals try to save their faith". A question why the Middle East moderates are not generally raising hell in condemning acts like Beslan and others is addressed by an interesting sentence: "Seeing the world through a lens of victim hood has grown into a comfortable habit". Why should we want to create conditions that perpetuates victim hood? It is nectar for a terror bee. Another interesting observation was "Scandals at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo have made it difficult to maintain that there exist universal notions of human rights, rather than particularist and discriminatory ones".

The slogan "War on Radical Islam" is originally from Salman Rushdie's bold article in New York Times, a few weeks just after 9/ 11 not from any politician from your home town. He made a point that active encouragement from West to build moderates in Islam is badly needed, if we want to wage a battle against radicalism. No intellectual knows radical Islam up close than him.

Nobody should ever advocate a passive approach to combat terrorism but an imaginative one. Also, remember they are no silver bullets.