Monday, September 29, 2008

The Bailout Plan

Like a lot of people, I have been obsessed with reading about the bailout plan being debated in Congress. To say I am torn about it is an understatement. But the more I read about it, though, the less I like it. On one hand, I understand that we are a national and global economy. Therefore, the behavior of others impacts us – whether positively or negatively. In this sense, the plan is not just bailing out those in trouble, it is helping all of us. On the other hand, I am wary of the extent of power it gives to government and skeptical of the good that such a hand-over of power will do.

While Paulson’s initial demand of money with zero oversight was (in my opinion) unconstitutional, the current plan sets up oversight but leaves a lot of open questions. Who determines what mortgages to buy and which not to buy? How is their “true” value going to be settled? Which banks are we baling out and which are we not bailing out? These remain unanswered questions, primarily because answering them in the here and now would be impossible.

This brings me to my next point: the claim that this will unfreeze assets and make banks start lending again. Is this inevitable? Are we requiring banks to lend? What if the assets are not frozen but the depressed condition of the economy makes banks cautious and unwilling to lend anyway?

I am glad the new plan establishes oversight. I am glad that we are not shelling out $700 billion in one fell swoop. But I am still concerned that the plan simultaneously does too much and not enough. That it will be too great a grant of power and discretion and that this grant of power will be futile.

As I was writing this, I read that the plan failed in the House of Representatives. Nothing signifies my ambivalence more than my response. I am scared – because now it looks like there is nothing left to do but wait and watch the consequences of this failure. And who knows what the consequences will be? And I was not even in favor of the bill!!!!!

This situation reminds me of the Federalist-Anti-Federalist debates on the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists argued against the Constitution saying that it was too great a grant of power to the federal government and that the country was being scared into voting for it. It was a document which would prove harmful to the people and fear mongerers were forcing it through. The Federalists warned of the dire consequences if it was not adopted saying that the country would disintegrate if the Constitution was not ratified. Is this where we are today?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


OK, now that I have your attention, I want to issue a spoiler alert: this post is not about the show. Nothing in my life is as dramatic as that show (which I have never seen) about a plane crash (thank goodness for that)!!!!! I thought I would write this after I got lost a couple of days ago.

I can navigate. I can drive. But I cannot navigate while driving. I am too busy watching the road to watch for the next turn or to look at street signs etc. Well, I have been taking the highway to drop Gregg off at the train station but getting to the highway is very exhausting. It is a one lane road with backed up traffic at all times. It takes me 15 minutes to simply get to and from the highway. So, Gregg found a new route which takes about 20 minutes all the way to the station and back. The problem was that I had to drive back by myself. This is the conversation Gregg and I had on the way to the station:

Gregg: “On the way back, simply take a left at the light and then another left. Then go straight.”
Nitu: “Where do I take the second left?”
Gregg: “At the first light after the first left.”
Nitu: “Wait, what? I am confused! Left, light, left!! Not left, right, left! Ok got it!!!”
Gregg: “It is so easy even you cannot get lost.”

15 minutes later I was calling Gregg. I was lost and needed directions to get back home. But this incident showed me how much I have grown as a driver. The first time I got lost, I kept driving and then called Gregg almost in tears. I had no idea where I was, not even a street name. It was difficult for Gregg to give me directions under the circumstances and I was extremely nervous till I was on a road I recognized again.

This time when I got lost I calmly noted the fact, figured out where I was, pulled into a deserted parking lot, parked, called Gregg, got return directions and followed them to the “t” till I got home. No crying, no nervousness!!! In fact, I was laughing about our earlier conversation.

I am not a seasoned driver yet but certainly my temperament is improving. Does this not show an immense growth on my part? What do you do when you are lost?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Exploring Pennsylvania II - Lititz

This weekend we took our second day trip and went to Lititz. Lititz is a small town about 15 miles outside of Lancaster. Established as a Moravian town with strict social regulations in 1756, it has evolved into a BoBo (aka David Brooks) paradise today. We had heard about this picturesque town and wanted to see what all the fuss was about and we were not disappointed.

The town has beautiful old buildings and architecture perfectly showcased through a quaint town square. As you walk up and down Main Street, there is a row of shops selling everything from teas and coffees to books, clothes, decorations for a home and cafes. This is home to the Wilbur Chocolate Company and the first pretzel bakery in the United States. Gregg and I loved the beauty, old-world charm and new world products.

In addition, Lititz also has a grocery store called Stauffers which is somewhat like a Whole Foods. We have one closer to us but the one in Lititz is huge and very well stocked. Since we do not have a Whole Foods here, I was delighted to see their selection.

I certainly went a little crazy and completely blew my budget. But here is a partial list of what we bought during the course of the day:

1) 3 second-hand books (This Proud Heart and The Three Daughters by Madame Liang both by Pearl S. Buck and a book on 1984)

2) 3 (one-ounce) packs of tea leaves (three different ones from India). This was from a store which sells only teas and coffees from different countries and they are NOT tea bags.

3) A teapot (with an infuser built in)

4) Coffee (pumpkin spice)

5) Cheese (Humboldt-Fogg’s goat cheese with ashen center)

6) Dried cilantro (which plumps up when put into liquids)

7) Some very good cuts of steak

Overall, a great day!!! Now for the bad part…grading 60 tests.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Relevance of Aristotle

Have you ever started reading something and then seen how EVERYTHING applies to what the writer is saying? I frequently have this experience and usually discount it as my overactive imagination. But I have been reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics recently and I am amazed at how observant Aristotle is (and how hard it is to convince my students of this). This is what Aristotle says about skills:

“Virtues…we acquire by first exercising them. The same is true with skills, since what we need to learn before doing, we learn by doing; for example, we become builders by building, and lyre-players by playing the lyre.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 23, Cambridge edition)

And this statement applies so directly to my life. In the past month, I have been doing a ton of driving. I drive Gregg back and forth from the train station, I run errands, I go to school and back. In the process, I have had to master my fears about a number of different driving conditions: driving on the highway, driving at night, driving in the rain, driving after the rain, driving with cars on the road (just kidding), parking!!!! The reason is that you learn by doing, and I am learning driving by driving. However dangerous this sounds (for other drivers as well as for me), it is nevertheless true.

Having said that, which professions would you think would not/should not fall into this category? How about surgery?

To-Do List:

Class Preps: Doing two and a half class preps this semester has been difficult and time-consuming. I changed some aspects of my Intro to American Government class and that is my half prep. The full preps are for Intro to Political Theory and American Political Thought

Grading: I have 120 students this semester and just gave 60 of them their first test. Promises to be a fun grading weekend.

NPSA: Gregg and I are both going to Northeastern Political Science Association’s November conference. I have to write a draft of a chapter for it – which has not been started yet.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Consoling Fallacies

Whenever something horrible happens that is unthinkable or unexpected, people have to bow down under the stress of bad news or learn to cope with it. This is what I saw after Tom Brady got his season-ending injury in the first few minutes of the new season. Gregg pointed out how the Patriots’ fans and commentators were coping with the news. “Games will be much more interesting now that Matt Cassel is quarterback instead of Brady (winning apparently did not make games interesting).” “This is the time for Belichick to show his real caliber (as if this current record is not enough).” And on and so on and so on.

Similarly, I have been trying to see the bright side of this economic downturn that we are in. While my consoling thoughts may not be very sensible, they do work nonetheless. Reading about how peoples’ investments and retirement accounts may be in trouble, I found myself selfishly thinking: thank goodness we do not have any of that stuff. Reading about how people are worried about the costs of their homes, I thought: well, that is one thing Gregg and I do not have to worry about.

How monumentally stupid of me!!! This is what my thoughts translate to: thank goodness that we have no money. Thank goodness for the years in graduate school during which we did not live an adult financial life. This silliness is on par with the conversations about how Brady’s injuries benefit the team. Good things are good things even if they bring some inconveniences and worries with them.

Having said that, the one thing which this economic downturn has taught us all is how to save. Instead of depending on credit or spending down savings, most people are cutting down their budgets, using coupons and doing everything to pinch pennies. This is hopefully a long-term change – and if it is – it will be a positive change for us all. I have certainly been more budget conscious and I hope to be this way for many years to come!!! Is this just a consoling fallacy too?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cooking as Relaxation

A lot of people find cooking relaxing and so do I. I never cooked as a child (or as an adult) until Gregg and I started dating about 5 years ago. It always seemed a waste of time to cook for one and I lived off the potato chip, frozen yogurt diet at the time. I have gradually honed my cooking skills since then. The one thing which I have started doing now (which I never did when I began cooking) is experimenting. Initially, I followed recipes to the “t” but now I rarely do that. I also never measure ingredients which is annoying when I have to give recipes to people. But experimenting is the reason why cooking is so much fun and so relaxing – you never know where you will end up (rather like reading a good book). Like with cooking, you can start a good book and at the end, you either keep it for posterity or it makes you want to throw up!!!!!

The other thing I have tried to do in the past couple of years is to eat better. I am a meatetarian – I do not like fish or vegetables. But one of the things I have been experimenting with is cooking vegetables or beans (or even fish) – things which are better for you than red meat. The only way to make myself eat vegetables or fish is to experiment with them – use them to make dishes which I would like.

This is what I set out to do yesterday. I had not eaten any vegetables for a couple of days. Plus, I had cans of garbanzo beans and red kidney beans in my pantry which I wanted to get rid of. I wanted to see what I could make with it. It ended up being a twist on a traditional Indian recipe which uses chick-peas. I wanted color in the food, so I put the vibrant red kidney beans in with the chickpeas, green peas, sautéed paneer (an Indian cheese) and some diced tomatoes and onions. Add a dash of heavy cream to finish it off and it looked – and tasted – really good. And it was a completely vegetarian meal.

Today, I tried making ghee (clarified butter). This is a very popular cooking ingredient in India and something I use frequently. It is almost the oily part of butter with the milk evaporated. Some lactose intolerant people have reported that they can eat ghee for that reason. Making ghee is both an attempt to save money and an attempt to get it fresh. The Indian store in Lancaster sells it but it does not have the fresh smell I love. Plus, a small tin of ghee costs about $9-$10 at the Indian grocery store. I made the same amount of ghee for only $6. A savings of $4 every 4-6 weeks!!!! The ghee came out quite well though I thought I might have overdone it by a fraction (it turned out to be a little darker than ghee should be). However, the dark color was because of the residue which is supposed to be strained out at the end anyway – the ghee now looks as it should!!!!

Anything you are experimenting with that you want to share (not necessarily in cooking)?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Exploring Pennsylvania

Since Gregg and I started our first full-time jobs together, we have had to make spending time together a priority. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Gregg is on the train or in Philly from 7am to 6pm (till 10pm on Mondays). Tuesdays and Thursdays, I am on campus from 12pm-6pm. While I know this is common for most couples, it is uncommon for us and we have been trying to compensate.

Our other priority since we moved to PA has been to explore Lancaster and its surroundings. So far, we have mainly explored restaurants. Once we ventured to Harrisburg but that’s about it. So Gregg decided to combine our goals into a new rule: Saturdays are days we spend together doing something new and not working (at least till the evening).

In that spirit, we got up this morning and drove to Gifford Pinchot State Park. It is about 45 minutes from our house. It is on a lake and has trails and camp-grounds. We took Giggs with us. Once at the park, we spend about 90 minutes walking the “Lakeside Trail” with Giggs and then headed out. I do not usually like hiking but this was a swift easy walk around the park. It is located outside a very small cute town and we went to what was advertised as a Farmers’ Flea Market. True to its name, it turned out to be part farmers’ market and part flea market. We walked around there for a while where Giggs got a lot of attention. By this time, we were very tired, very hot and hungry. So, we got Giggs some water and snacks and then stopped at the Hillside Café for lunch. The place looked like just some diner from the outside but turned out to be quite nice and swanky inside – in spite of its name and location. Anything but a café. The food was very good – I had their BBQ ribs and Gregg had a fish platter. Huge portion sizes too. I highly recommend it.

On the whole, a wonderful day!! What made it better was that it was a cheap way to explore. The state park was free; we only paid for lunch and gas. We did not buy anything at the farmers’ market. Overall, I spent a wonderful day with Gregg and Giggs, did not spend much money, got some exercise and discovered a very beautiful hilly part of PA. What more could one ask for?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teaching with PowerPoint

I have never used PowerPoint in my lectures – especially in my political theory classes. There are many reasons for this. First, political theory is not about regurgitating facts. It is about analysis – and it is very difficult to analyze the content while copying the slides or staring blankly at the presentation. Second, copying slides distracts students from the lecture. Third, writing large pieces of text onto slides is pointless – and political theory is about textual interpretation.

For the first time, I am considering doing a PowerPoint presentation for my Introduction to Political Theory class. Not for the entire semester but for the really difficult stuff – like Plato’s Republic. There is one major reason for this change – I find that students are confused about what is important and what is not (especially in political theory). Usually, I write important terms etc on the board but as we all know, writing the words “4 virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation and justice” would not mean that they have understood the meaning and place of those terms in Plato’s thought. I am hoping that a PowerPoint presentation (though without pictures or graphs) will give them the important details and the order in which these should be argued. I had been handing out an outline of my lecture for them to follow but apparently, Power Point is seen as more authoritative by the students.

However, I am still worried about doing it and the impact it will have. Students universally appreciate PowerPoint but as a person who wants them to understand and analyze, I remain wary. On top of that, I am not sure whether I should put my slides on Blackboard. Students usually like that but I fear that it encourages them to skip class. I cannot make up my mind on that issue as well.

Any thoughts? Any experiences with PowerPoint as a teaching tool that you want to share?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Double Talk

I studiously avoid politics on this blog but this controversy regarding Sarah Palin has put me over the edge. But unlike others, I am not simply outraged on Palin’s behalf. I am outraged at the hypocrisy and illogic and double-talk which has been washing over us since this pick. So, here are some of the threads I think we should untangle from each other and think about separately:

The Sexism Issue: A lot has been said about the sexist media coverage of Palin. So, what exactly is the sexism issue? There is the argument that with 5 children including a baby with Downs’ syndrome and a pregnant daughter, Palin will not be a good mother if she takes on the job of the Vice-President. I think this is clearly the sexism issue – this argument is out of my grandmother’s generation. As many others have pointed out, what she does to balance work and home life is her decision. Many women have to work to simply support their families and they should never be considered de facto bad mothers for making this choice. Nor should women be considered bad mothers for simply choosing to work. Is this argument made because people feel threatened at a woman having the second-highest position in this country (and potentially the highest)?

Having said that, let me make one thing clear: not everything said criticizing Palin is sexist. Questions about her capacity to do the job are not sexist. Questions about her experience are not sexist. And questions about her political history, her experience or lack thereof, are not sexist. We do no favors to women when we incorporate all attacks on a woman into “sexism”. To fight sexism, we should be clear on what it is – and what it is not.

The Experience Issue: This, as said before, strikes me as being a valid line of inquiry. There has been a lot of talk about whether Palin is experienced enough for the job. Inevitably, this is bound up with the question of whether Obama is experienced enough for the job. There are many people who claim that Obama is inexperienced while Palin is not (see Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show for a bit of humor on this issue). A couple of things are worth saying on this point:

First, the Constitution has no qualifications for the Presidency or the Vice-Presidency except age and residency requirements. Of course, the reason is that they thought the electors, men with political knowledge, will be making the choice and therefore, only people with national reputations/ national political service would pass the test. Now, on the grounds of national reputation and political service, one may argue that Biden and McCain are most qualified for the office of the President (in that order). Biden has been in the Senate since 1973 and McCain has been in office (first in the House and then in the Senate) since 1983. Obama falls a far third with 2 years of Senate experience and Palin a distant fourth with no national service at all. Thus, while all are qualified according to the letter of the Constitution, some are clearly more qualified than others by the intent of the Founders.

Second, the Electoral College does not operate today the way it was intended to. So, experience as an issue has become more thorny. Since we all vote, we all have the right to determine what constitutes experience and of course ideological predilections influence our judgment. Some opine that any executive experience prepares one for the Presidency – whether it is being the Governor of New York, Virginia, Alaska or North Dakota. Sometimes they argue that while executive experience prepares you for the Presidency, a short legislative experience does not but a long one does. Others say that you need to be on the national stage (reminiscent of the Founders) because that is where you see first-hand how Washington operates. And, so the argument goes, to change something, you need to know how it works. Still others, like Gregg, argue that the discussion of experience is silly because nothing can prepare you for the Presidency of the United States – the job is unique in its nature. To sum up Gregg: Observing the president – whether as a spouse, cabinet member, senator, governor, mayor, political scientist, etc. does not make you ready to be president. If candidates have a minimum threshold of credibility (he thinks all four candidates do) then the experience question becomes largely immaterial.

Before revealing my own views on the subject, I want to talk about how people seem to be using “experience” in this election. “Experience” has become a justification of sorts. While everyone running for this office has some sort of experience, none of them have actually experienced the office. Most people vote on ideology or just because they like the candidate (for whatever reason). Since that sounds like a bad reason for voting, they have taken to using “experience” as justification. But everyone disagrees on what relevant experience is, making the choice as difficult as before.

This is becoming too long of a rant and so let me conclude by saying this: for me, experience counts but not in the way that people seem to use it. Experience counts in conjunction with intellectualism and judgment. The latter qualities determine what use you make of your experience. I do not think either McCain-Palin or Obama-Biden will come into office and automatically know the ropes. But experience does not mean executive experience or legislative experience (for me). It means life experience. I believe that your life experiences shape who you are and how you behave. Now simply having lived a long life does not make you more experienced. Some people live long insular lives. But being open to alternatives, to new ways of thinking, to seeing the shades of grey in issues which are usually considered in black-and-white – hopefully that is what experience does for you. This is why I had been defending Hillary Clinton’s candidacy earlier in the election. It is not that being the wife of a President makes you an expert. But it does open your eyes to the world, it forces you to take things into consideration that you may not have, it gives you a different perch from which you see things. There may be people who have had many different life experiences but remained insular and dogmatic in spite of them. That is the person I would rather not have as President. And this is why experience alone is not enough – it has to be experience combined with the intellect and willingness to make the most of that experience. And this is why picking a President is so difficult – because whereas you may know their political history and experience, it is much more difficult to determine their mind-sets, proclivities and what they will do with that life experience once in office.

We know the political service and history of all four candidates. We know what experience they have. Let us stop the silly debates about whether a two-year Governor of Alaska is better suited to be Vice-President/President than a 2 year Senator. The “Ready on Day One” argument is pointless – none of them will be ready on Day One. Instead lets focus on the issues and decide the way we almost always decide – who do you feel more comfortable with given the issues at hand and your own worldview?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Trip to Boston

Gregg and I got back from APSA on Sunday. It was an exhausting but satisfying weekend. My panel went well – good feedback but no severe critique – and we got to see a lot of people who we rarely see since we moved. Stacie, Evan, Dave, Zach, Abhishek, Rebecca and even my cousin who lives in Boston.

Giggs got to spend the weekend with Gregg’s parents. They spoil him completely. When he is with them, he refuses to eat his food and so they give him tons of treats, a lot of walks and buy him toys. Every time he is with them, I come back with more toys and treats than I took with me. What worries me, however, is that they never like leaving him alone. They never put him in his pen or his crate except at night. While this is great for him – he gets constant attention and companionship – I worry that they will get tired of running around him constantly. It is so nice to be able to leave him with them and I do not want them to get exhausted running after him all day. I know that sometimes I am so ready for him to grow up, to not be such a puppy – it is tiring to keep entertaining him or watching him. Did I mention that he shredded both our phone chargers last week?

This is my third time visiting Boston. I must say that the city is growing on me. I hate the traffic but I love the architecture and the history. You pass a random graveyard and there is a plaque commemorating some Revolutionary hero buried there. The buildings are old and though some are dilapidated, others are not. The structures are imposing but their age and history give them dignity (I do not like ultra modern architecture). I love the quaintness of some of the areas and the openness of others like Boston Commons. I am not saying I would like to live there (I do not really want to live in a big city) but unlike, some other cities I have been to, I think Boston is a peculiarly old city living in modern times.


To-Do List for this Weekend:

1. Give Giggs a bath
2. Prep for my American Political Thought class tomorrow
3. Do laundry from my first full working week and APSA
4. Do some grocery shopping
5. Set up some things at my office