Sunday, December 06, 2015

American Muslims Must Reclaim Their Faith from Terrorists

Who could have imagined that American Muslims would produce their own Bonnie and Clyde?

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow robbed banks and killed 13 people between 1932 and 1934, during the height of the Great Depression, in Central United States before dying in a hail of bullets by police in Louisiana.

Now we have Tashfeen and Rizwan, assailants at a potluck party at a county health department in San Bernardino, killing 14 people in the span of a few minutes before dying few hours later in a shootout with the police in a quiet residential street nearby.

Tafsheen Malik, 29, born in Pakistan but raised in Saudi Arabia, came to the United States on a fiancé visa in 2014, the wife of Chicago-born Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, of Pakistani parents. Their victims ranged in age from 26 to 60. It was the deadliest mass-shooting in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.

Unlike Bonnie and Clyde who early showed psychopathic signs, there is as yet no consistent explanation for the depravity, the utter inhumanity that motivated a reclusive Muslim couple to consign their 6-month-old daughter to orphanhood- even an animal would not abandon its baby with such callous cruelty as this couple did - and murder 14 innocent people enjoying a quintessential American holiday tradition. (It is not unreasonable to suggest that this monster became a mother only to conceal her terrorist identity.)

All we know is that the trajectory of their seemingly normal life hit a shocking singularity on December 2, raising a million questions and unleashing a tidal wave of rage and sorrow.

While details are emerging daily about the couple, Malik pledged fealty to ISIS on the day of the attack, for instance, the central fact is clear: Malik and Farook planned the terror attack centered on their own malevolent ideas, the seeds of which may have been sown abroad, nurtured by social media and facilitated by the absurdly easy access to guns in America. The last-minute allegiance to ISIS was more likely a desperate attempt at notoriety by the wife desperate to hitch her wagon to an infamous organization.

Beyond that, who can comprehend what Faustian bargain this couple made and why.

So what now?

The average American is angry at, and suspicious of, his or her Muslim neighbor and co-worker. This does not include xenophobic bigots like Donald Trump and Ben Carson and their followers, whose numbers naturally spiked following the killing, as did the sale of guns and ammunitions.

No, I am talking about Americans who are not bigots and who are not hostile toward Muslims by instinct. But they are undoubtedly worried and rightly so. A Muslim friend, who has a college-going son, told me that his neighbor, whom he has known for years, asked him this troubling question a day after the San Bernardino shooting: “Does your son own a gun?”

We Muslims must have the self-assurance, the integrity and the honesty, to acknowledge that these Americans are not suffering from Islamophobia. They cannot be categorized as Islamophobes. They have raised an existential question and the least we can do, we must do, is to address it truthfully and practically.

The first step is to engage our neighbors and co-workers in frank discussions, not just in the wake of a shooting, but on a regular basis, about our faith, our rejection of violence, and our loyalty to America. Too many Americans are beginning to think these aspects of our lives are mutually exclusive. We must dispel this notion. Inviting Americans to visit local mosques can help but that is too limiting. It is the open and personal interactions at the neighborhood and the office levels that we urgently need, and not just in liberal coastal cities but in America’s hinterland.

But talk can go only so far. We need to become a more integral part of what makes America, America. This can include opening small soup kitchens, Muslim doctors holding weekly or monthly medical clinics, creating a shelter for abused women, promoting the gift of reading, tutoring neighborhood kids, organizing community evenings to look at stars and constellations, and so on. Many Muslims communities are already engaged in these activities but the number needs to increase.

The second step is to be alert for signs of extremism in our midst. For an Imam of any mosque to say that “I saw no signs of extremism in this or that Muslim” is becoming increasingly indefensible. If a seemingly moderate Muslim suddenly stops coming to a mosque, the Imam and one or more congregants need to become proactive and try to determine what may be brewing. It could very well be that this particular Muslim had become fed up with mosque politics and decided to pray at home. But it could be something sinister as well. If a Muslim suddenly starts sprouting strident piety, that should raise a red flag. If someone begins to show an inordinate fondness for guns, that too should ring an alarm bell.

The point is, almost always, there are signs. We just have to become more vigilant. Consider the statistics. Published reports indicate that there are currently 900 American Muslims under investigation by the FBI for possible ties to ISIS. Given that there are about 3 million Muslims in America, it translates to 3 Muslims per 10,000. Let’s say two of these three Muslims are proven to have no ties to terrorism. That leaves 1 out of 10,000, which is still 1 too many! A single psychopath, or a couple for that matter, can create carnage in a community in the blink of an eye, as we saw in San Bernardino.

Finally, we need to increase the quality of engagement with the youth in our mosques. Many Imams in America, particularly those born abroad, cannot speak meaningfully with the youth. (For that matter, many have not even mastered English, even though they have lived in the U.S. for decades.) Many youth are alienated by the obscure and irrelevant discourses they are forced to sit through in mosques and conferences. Inevitably, they turn to the Internet to figure out for themselves what Islam means and how they can practice their faith. In such a vacuum, these vulnerable, impressionable youth fall prey to the seductive, ‘purpose-driven’ language of social-media savvy terrorist organizations like ISIS. The process of selecting an Imam for any mosque in America needs to become more rigorous, and preference should be given to U.S.-born Imams who can relate to young Muslims as a kind and friendly teacher, rather than as an authoritarian figure.

American Muslims are at a crossroads. If we only pay lip service to our faith, not engaged in any meaningful way with the society at large, the terrorists will define our faith for us and we will lose. On the other hand, if we make it a priority that we will define our faith through action that will influence our society for the better, while remaining alert for any misguided and malcontent Muslim capable of giving us a collective black eye, we will have lived up to our highest calling, a state in which everyone is safe from our hands, and our neighbors are secure with us around them.

Monday, November 16, 2015

We Must Unite to Fight ISIS

As an American Muslim, I cannot find words strong enough to condemn the barbaric attack in Paris by ISIS that has claimed over 100 lives and injured many more. I hope that a significant proportion of the estimated 5 million French Muslims, the largest in Europe, will take to the streets to denounce the terrorist organization. The cancer of ISIS must be eliminated not just for the sanctity of human civilization but for its survival.

It is tragic that Muslims are fleeing their homelands (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and more) by the thousands because of the persecution and the instability wrought by a band of fanatics. The Paris attack by ISIS will worsen their condition as suspicion and intolerance against them mount.

Two wrongs, of course, cannot make a right. In this case, there is only one wrong that must be made right, and that is to decisively defeat ISIS and cleanse the earth of its nihilistic ideology.

Some of us fall for the seductive appeal of the “Yes, But” syndrome to explain away any event or catastrophe. Yes, Afghanistan is a mess but isn’t American overreach in the aftermath of 9/11 one of the main causes? Yes, Iraq is an unending disaster but isn’t George Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein based on the mythical weapons of mass destruction the main reason why things are the way they are?

True on both counts but the “Yes, But” explanation cannot be used to justify the horror that ISIS has unleashed around the world. Whatever the dark forces that gave birth to it, this terrorist organization is now bent on destroying anything that stands in the way of its brutal worldview through murder and mayhem.

Which is why we must unite against it, irrespective of our race or creed.

Recent events indicate that ISIS is on the run. Kurdish and rebel Syrian forces, with the help of airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition, have retaken several strategic towns in northern Iraq and Syria. Evidence is also mounting that a drone strike has killed Mohammed Emwazi, the infamous “Jihadi John” responsible for beheading American journalist James Foley, among others. (Not many Americans are aware that Kuwait’s Jassem Emwazi, the 51-year-old father of “Jihadi John,” called his son a dog, an animal, a terrorist and hoped that he would die and go straight to hell when the first video of the beheading surfaced.)

So what does a terrorist organization do to keep its flickering flame alive in the hearts of its delusional followers? Sow seeds of anarchy by killing people at random when they are out enjoying a concert, for instance, or dining at a restaurant. That’s what happened in the City of Light last Friday.

Although lingering echoes of “where are the moderate Muslims” still persist in some conservative corridors of America, by and large this canard is gradually receding. There is a reason for it. All major Muslim organizations in America, and for that matter, around the world, have condemned the attack in Paris.

This did not keep Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump from calling for more scrutiny of American mosques. Mr. Trump would have done Muslims a favor if he could also identify which mosques should be under surveillance, unless he meant, of course, all mosques.
In the Friday congregational prayers that I attended in recent months in the Bay Area, for instance, the majority of the sermons by Imams were directed against ISIS and how it was violating the most fundamental tenets of the faith through its contempt for life. A YouTube video made about a year ago against ISIS by Hamza Yusuf, one of the most prominent Islamic scholars in America, has been viewed by close to half a million people around the world.
Some Western pundits claim that ISIS is winning the war of ideas against the West. This leaves most of us Muslims scratching our heads. Really? Exactly where is this happening? Certainly not in our mosques where we have called ISIS by what it is: a terrorist organization that has nothing to do with Islam and that must be destroyed.

Yet it is also true that some young and vulnerable American Muslims have fallen prey to ISIS’s slick social media campaign for recruitment. (A recent Danish intelligence report states that the typical age range of foreigners joining ISIS is 16 to 25.) One such was Northern Virginia’s 17-year-old Ali Shukri Amin who was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison last August for helping another teen travel to Syria to join the fight there. In acknowledging his guilt, Amin also stated that when he sought advice about the war in Syria from the adults in his life, including imams, “they could not provide adequate answers” or seemed “too busy to try.”

One could make the case that Amin was unlucky because many American Imams have been counseling disillusioned youth planning to travel to Syria to reconsider their decision. One such is Imam Mohamed Magid of Sterling, Virginia, who was able to persuade several youths from his congregation to abandon their decision to join ISIS simply by asking them to “use your mind.”

So while we Muslims condemn the Paris attack, we must also take our youth seriously if they show signs of alienation and disillusionment with their lives and reason with them in ways that make sense to them, instead of being patronizing toward them.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Of Guns, American Campuses and Killing Fields

Fueled by an irrational sense of grievance and revenge, a student finds his campus easy picking. He knows the location of the classrooms and the class schedules. Once the doors are shut, he knows there is no escape for those trapped inside.

A partial list of campuses that turned into killing fields in recent years include Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, (1999, 13 killed), Virginia High Tech (2007, 32 killed), Oikos University in Oakland, CA (2012, 7 killed) and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT (2012, 20 killed).

Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, is the latest addition to this infamous list. On October 1st, 26-year-old student Christopher Harper-Mercer went on a rampage in the pastoral campus, killing nine and wounding nine before killing himself. His victims included 18-year-old students and a 67-year-old English professor. He was carrying six guns and five ammunition magazines. Police found another eight guns and assault weapons in the apartment he shared with his creepily over-protective mother.

Apparently this disturbed person was legally able to buy 14 deadly weapons without any problem.

Can more security prevent such horrific campus killings? Budget constraints have forced many educational institutions, particularly community colleges, to cut back on security. But even if campuses bristled with round-the-clock police patrols, a psychopath bent on mayhem will find a way because the police cannot be everywhere at once.

The fundamental issue is not one of campus security or lack of mental treatment, as the National Rifles Association (NRA), its acolytes and political enablers (Senators, Congressmen, Governors and State Legislators) claim. After all, the mentally ill do not go about advertising their illnesses. Besides, those closest to them blame society for their illnesses, as happened with Harper-Mercer’s mother. Also, most killers look eerily normal, their inner demons hidden from view.

No, the real reason why campus killings occur with such sickening frequency in America is our absurdly easy access to guns.

In the college where I teach, the simplest algebraic equations students learn to solve are linear equations in one variable. All the data from countries similar to ours suggest that the solution to gun violence can be reduced to

Fewer guns = Fewer killings

Comparison with Australia is apt. Australians love their guns as much as we do but in 1996, when a gunman killed 35 people with a semiautomatic rifle at a tourist destination in Tasmania, the government responded by banning rifles and shotguns and imposing tough licensing requirements for gun owners. It also offered a buyback program that led to the destruction of more than a million firearms.

The result? In the 19 years since, there has not been a single mass shooting in Australia.
The NRA and its supporters will say that Australia doesn’t have a Second Amendment like the United States: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The argument about what exactly ‘a well regulated Militia’ constitutes, and what the intent of the Founding Fathers were when they phrased the Amendment thus, will never cease. We go through this ad nauseam until … nothing happens and then it is back to business as usual: more killings on our campuses, malls, theaters and other public places.

Here are a few (and only a few) statistics of what guns have done, and continue to do, to our nation:
  • Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns than dies in all U.S. wars going back to the American Revolution.
  • On the average, 92 Americans die every day due to gun violence.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionalmost three times more preschoolers are shot dead each year than police officers in the line of duty.
  • There are anywhere from 270 million to 300 million guns in circulation in the U.S. As President Obama said in his statement after the Roseburg killings: “There is a gun for roughly every man, woman, and child in America.”
  • According to the gun violence archive, so far in 2015 there have already been more than 40,000 incidents of gun violence in America that has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths and 20,000 injuries. The dead include more than 2,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 and 560 children under 12. And we still have over two months left this year!

The grim toll relentlessly marches on. The truth is as clear as it is devastating: Far too many Americans regard their guns not just as culture but as religion, and the faithful are prepared to defend their religion to death, literally.

(In the days following the Roseburg shooting, for instance, gun sales in the area shot up dramatically. Within days, a freshman at Northern Arizona University killed a student and wounded three and at a student-housing complex at Texas Southern University, assailants killed a student and wounded another.)

How do we go about changing the status quo, even though it is impossible to rationally engage in a debate with the NRA and gun-activists?

First, we must believe that we are not helpless in the face of this continuing horror. The NRA is extremely powerful, no doubt, and has many politicians in its pocket, but it can be defeated. We have got to have this conviction.

Second, there must a concerted nationwide movement to hold elected officials accountable for their voting records on gun laws. If they are cowed by the NRA and hide behind a misreading of the Second Amendment despite the horrific toll on public health that unfettered access to guns take in America, we must work together at the local, state and national levels to defeat them at the polls. Politicians are driven by one overriding thought: How will we fare at the polls? Any prospect of a defeat can change a mind faster than, well, a speeding bullet.

Third, our government ought to consider offering a gun buyback program as was done in Australia, expensive though it will be. But we need a compelling demonstration from concerned citizens, particularly from responsible gun owners, to boldly say: “We have an unacceptable level of gun violence in America and therefore we renounce our gun ownership to save lives.” 
Many gun-owners are on record as saying that the NRA does not speak for them.

In his statement to the nation after the Roseburg massacre, President Obama said: “We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.”

Inaction will inevitably lead to recurring tragedies. We Americans from all walks of life must recognize that we are being destroyed from within by the false religion of gun and so have to take on the NRA and the gun lobby. Given their power, it will be a long and drawn-out battle but if we endure, we will win.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Point Lobos: Nature's Healing Power

Nothing refreshes the mind and cleanses the soul more than wilderness, be it the wilderness of the woods or of the shore. Point Lobos, a California State Nature Reserve about eighty miles south of San Jose and covering approximately 9 square miles, is one of those rare places where visitors find a merging of the woods and the shore, timeless trails lined by ancient pines and colonies of seals and cormorants on rocks shaped by wind and surf over millennia.

It is difficult for any photographer to comprehensively capture the haunting beauty of Point Lobos across the seasons, although Edward Weston, one of the earliest (1886-1958) and among the elect, tried. His lyrical black-and-white prints of unusual rock formations at the reserve have inspired scores of nature lovers to flock to the California coastline over the years.

With a summer of record-breaking temperatures in drought-stricken California winding down, I recently found myself approaching the Pacific from a pinecone-strewn trail at the Reserve.
The tide was coming in, watched over by a preternaturally calm gull poised on a rock. Colorful pebbles, green, brown, white and red, glistened in the sun, as did pink and white corals shaped like miniature trees.

Most striking were the tide pools reflecting bits of the sky and filled with the flower-like sentient anemones that closed and opened every time some seawater food got inside it while surging waves crashed on the rocks around them, sending white spray skyward.

Hermit crabs seemed to appear from nowhere, some falling awkwardly trying to scale the slippery slopes of the rocks. Others met headlong only to sidle away in opposite directions. Snails were out in force as well, crawling from nooks and crannies to approach the tide pools. Limpets, barnacles, and starfish used their suction-like holdfast to add to the diversity of the shore. With each wave, the starfish seemed to change its location.

The predator-prey relationship that had evolved over millennia was in full exhibit everywhere you looked. The tiny creatures looked fragile but there was an element of resiliency and fierce fight for survival in them that was palpable.

A tangled forest of kelp and rockweed farther out sank and surfaced as the tidal surge washed over them. A flock of gulls wheeled over them. Next to the kelp was an oystercatcher, a real work of art. Its deep-black body, bright red bill and yellow feet made it look both pre-historic and ultra-modern. It was feeding on the ocean flotsam that had washed up the shore and emitted a piercing cry that stopped me cold in my track when I tried to approach it. I did the only brave thing I could do: I quietly withdrew.

In a rock island farther out in the sea, saw hundreds of birds preening and, well, socializing. And farther beyond were seals talking up a storm in their rocky habitat, a combination of grunts and exclamations, punctuated by what seemed uncannily like the sound of laughter.
As I stood back to take the whole elemental scene in, I smelled it, the pine-scented breeze wafting in from the ancient grove nearby, and I thought: The music of the forest is lapping at the shore of eternity!

The sun moved across the sky with an urgency rarely witnessed on a normal day. And when it set in a blaze of yellow and crimson, with a flock of pelicans flying in formation across its golden orb, I knew I had gotten what I had hoped for: the gift of a fresh perspective and the appreciating the blessings of being alive.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Movie Review: "Mr. Holmes: The Man Beyond the Myth"

Creative reimagining of the canon is an art unto itself.

Such is the case with the movie, “Mr. Holmes: The Man Beyond the Myth.” Based on the book, “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin (1985), it explores the life of Sherlock Holmes in retirement as he raises bees in a farm upon the South Downs in Sussex in the south coast of England.

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), creator of the wildly popular detective, wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear) centered on his super sleuth.

But when Doyle ‘exiled’ Holmes to his apiary (The Blanched SoldierThe Lion's Mane and His Last Bow), it only kindled the imagination of writers convinced that age could not possibly dim this prodigious mind.

The stories in the canon suggest that Holmes would have been about 50 years old when he retired in late 1903. The movie opens with Holmes (played by Ian McKellen in an  Oscar-worthy performance) pushing 93 in 1947 in post-WWII England. His mind is as agile as ever but his memory is failing him. That explains his recent visit to Japan where he went in search of the elusive “prickly ash,” a plant with alleged ingredients to spruce up the memory, the ginkgo biloba of its time. He and his Japanese guide (Hiroyuki Sanada, who has a mystery of his own that he wants Holmes to solve) discover the plant in the bomb-blasted ruins of Hiroshima. Holmes’s physician derisively calls the plant “Ashly prick” but is unable to convince Holmes of its uselessness.

Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney, also brilliant) is Holmes’s long-suffering housekeeper, burdened by her gifted son Roger (Milo Parker, gifted actor indeed!) who helps Holmes with the upkeep of the bees and shows all the signs of a budding Sherlock Holmes in his own right. The pair’s verbal back-and-forth can carry the movie for those for whom a riposte goes farther than an edge-of-the–seat car chase.

Roger and Holmes run circles around Mrs. Munro with their observations, their air-tight logical inferences. “She doesn’t even know how to read,” says Roger in an outburst of cruelty that earns him a rebuke from Holmes. The practical Mrs. Munro wants to move out for the sake of her son’s future, a possibility that distresses both Holmes and Roger. “Exceptional children are the product of unremarkable parents,” Holmes arrogantly tells his housekeeper, indifferent to the cruelty of the remark. But he redeems himself by also telling Roger that “a good son always does what a mother asks him to.” Holmes also makes clear his distaste for people who “cloak cowardice in flags of sacrifice” and who does not wish, particularly at this stage in his life, to be a “last resort for lunatics out there.”

The story revolves around an unfinished case that Holmes investigated thirty years ago, of a devoted wife (Ann Kelmot, played by Hattie Morahan) whose miscarriages left her, and her husband Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), in misery and suspicion. When finally Holmes takes the mystery to its logical conclusion, it leads not to a sense of satisfaction but to a despair unknown to the First Detective who commanded mass adulation in his prime. “Human nature is a mystery,” says a rueful and chastened Holmes, “that logic alone cannot illuminate.”

What of the man beyond the myth? Earlier in the movie, Holmes informs an incredulous Roger that Dr. Watson, his quintessential sidekick (who had “at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association” as Holmes recalls in The Blanched Soldier), was not beyond taking poetic license in transcribing his adventures, including associating the iconic detective with the hat, the pipe and the cigar. He wishes to correct the embellishments of Watson who “turned me into fiction.” When Holmes struggles to recall the case of Ann Kelmot, it is Roger who supplies the crucial link that allows him to reconstruct the tragedy that unfolded so many years ago. As to why the case haunts him, Holmes tells his young protégé that “one shouldn’t leave this world without a sense of completion.”

Holmes’s enigmatic brother, Mycroft Holmes (The Greek Interpreter, in which Holmes confided to Watson that “If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an arm-chair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived”) makes an appearance to help viewers tidy up the case of Holmes’s Japanese guide. There are also allusions to Jack the Ripper and, of course, to the fearsome and ferocious Hounds of the Baskervilles.

There is a subtle, and it turns out, telling difference between the sting of a bee and that of a wasp. When Holmes comes upon the seemingly lifeless body of Roger on his estate with angry stings all over his body, his first instinct is to summon an ambulance before informing the boy’s mother. In anguish, the mother accuses Holmes of exploiting the boy and not really caring for him. “But I do,” laments Holmes as he breaks down before the mother in a heart-breaking scene of pain and guilt, remorse and repentance.

At the confluence of art and science lies the power of observation. This is what saves a distraught Holmes, already reeling from an “outbreak of mortality,” as he suddenly realizes what really happened to Roger now fighting for his life in the hospital.

“What will happen to the bees when you are gone,” Roger had asked Holmes earlier. That question helps Holmes figure out the chain of events that ensued when Roger went to check in on the bees dying mysteriously in their hives.

Curious? Then consider seeing this poignant, cerebral movie.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The STEM Engine

In 1964, the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, then forty-six years old, delivered a 7-part series of Messenger Lectures at Cornell University on “The Character of Physical Law.” (Bill Gates has made videos of the lectures available to the world in 2009.)

Feynman began his lecture with these words: “It is odd, but on the infrequent occasion when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics. I believe that is probably because we respect the arts more than the sciences.”

“Respect the arts more than the sciences!” The suggestion was perhaps hyperbole on Feynman’s part to set the stage for his inimitable presentation on the basic laws of physics and their role in defining how nature works. But even if it was true in the ‘60s that the arts received more respect than the sciences, the table has certainly turned in the decades since. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) appear to have left the arts in the dust.

Is this development for the better?

Surely from an employment perspective, anyone savvy with programming or big data analysis stands a better chance of earning a livelihood than someone versed in the nuances
of Shakespeare’s sonnets. After all, there are just so many positions available in English departments but those with proven ability to code or analyze data or conduct research on the mathematics of singularity or the strange properties of dark matter will be courted by numerous employers.

STEM has been expanded to STEAM, (STEM + Art = STEAM) and elicited support from industry and academia but there is a general feeling that the ‘A’ in STEAM is an afterthought, a way to pacify those concerned about the decline of humanities from our curricula.

But as Fareed Zakaria, a Washington Post columnist and author of ‘In Defense of a Liberal Education,’ pointed out in a recent column, a broad general education is a requirement for innovation and creativity. “Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy …”

What do community college students think of the ascendency of STEM at the expense of the Arts?

Luis believes wholeheartedly in the importance of STEM in revitalizing education in the United States. He worked on a STEM project in a summer camp last year and was amazed by the enthusiasm of boys and girls, particularly girls, from low-income families, in mastering STEM subjects. “In my experience, most girls don’t like to go for professions involving science and technology and math but these girls in my camp couldn’t wait for the next day’s activity to begin after a hard days of work. STEM is a way to lift students out of poverty and turn them into lifelong learners.”

Vanessa, on the other hand, believes that the emphasis on STEM is misguided. She finds the reach of technology disturbing. “Technology companies target even young children. I personally prefer for someone to be more artistic. Music and art of any kind help develop our brains. They allow us to actually think for ourselves. While STEM is important, art is equally important. I believe if we push more of the arts like painting and playing instruments, it will expand our minds and also improve our performance in reading, science and math.”

Cindy also believes that STEM education is limiting in many ways. “While it is good to be great test takers and have plenty of information sitting in our brain, STEM subjects by themselves don’t expand our horizon as much.  By cutting classes like English, Art History, and any type of Humanities, you are taking away any chance to promote critical thinking. I think all subjects are equally important to learn.  I have seen how dramatically Humanity classes have been cut from colleges. It's sad to see how everyone looks like robots taking the same courses!”

Garcia finds many benefits in STEM subjects but “there is also a downside to it as well.  When I was in grade school, there was a push for math and science. I was terrible at it but with tutoring I was able to get through most of the classes. Students today are influenced by technology and the media. The focus on STEM doesn’t include what students learn working in a group or with other peers with different social skills. It removes the social interaction many children need. I do not believe STEM by itself will work because it does not address the issue of diversity in the learning styles of students.”

Madisyn believes in the importance of STEM subjects but feels that it has to be complemented by an equal emphasis on the arts and the humanities. It will be a mistake to set up the ‘two cultures’ as rivals. “Knowledge is synergistic. Who wants to hire a scientist who can’t write? Who wants to employ an engineer who isn’t a creative problem-solver? Doesn’t technological innovation require critical reasoning, ethical awareness and sensitivity to the diverse populations in which such advancements are actually put to use? The brain has two hemispheres. It will be serious mistake to nourish only one half. In this day and age, promoting classes focused on technology and mathematics is much more of a surefire way to attain a career but I will argue that a CEO of a tech company must have a grasp on not just mathematics, but also of psychology and communication. Over-reliance on STEM education will be like putting all our ‘knowledge eggs’ in one basket. It may lead to short-term gain but will be disastrous in the long run.”

Jessica thinks that STEM or no STEM is a false dichotomy. She feels strongly in a balance between STEM and the Humanities. “If we cut funds from Humanities courses, thinking it will improve our math and science teaching, it will only handicap us and make us regress. The probability of kids becoming more interested in the STEM subjects is not guaranteed. If there is anything Americans know about their youth today, it is that if they are forced to do something they are not interested in, they will rebel. Unfortunately, our youth have become lazy. They are more interested in celebrities and social media than in subjects that expand their minds. If you’re not studying subjects you are passionate about but join a job for the money where you won’t travel the world, experience new cultures and be stuck in a boring office working 9 to 5, you will be miserable. STEM should be encouraged. We should become more math savvy. We should be bilingual. And we should not ignore the Humanities.”

Erica understands that education system in America focuses on creativity but finds the obsession with STEM subjects alarming. She wants STEMS balanced with liberal arts and philosophy. “I attended a performing arts school all through elementary and high school. We had art, drama, ceramics, dance and many other art divisions. I was in the GATE program in elementary which stands for Gifted and Talented Education. I was good at math, science and history but I entered the program due to my metaphorical and critical thinking skills. I was really good at writing. I started losing interest in math because of my grumpy, uninspiring math instructor who would force us to go to the board and make fun of us when we didn't answer questions correctly. Our education system needs to focus on ways to help expand our creativity in mathematics. Perhaps taking ideas from other countries could help establish the right formula for our education system. Now that I am in college, I've grown to know myself and don't let anyone intimidate me. I've learned to value math and how much we deal with it on a consistent basis, something I never knew before but am grateful I do now.”

Jocelyn recognizes the importance of STEM but finds the overreliance on technology troubling. “STEM is important, but in order to improve our society, we need to be also focused on social skills and creativity. Ever since Facebook and Apple have become insanely popular, people are obsessed with social media and gadgets. What people should be interested in is how they can improve society as a whole. I love science and I am pursuing it as a career; however, I also believe a society needs to thrive in different categories to be successful. For example, while mathematicians and scientists expand our knowledge, it is often the artists who change our society. We should emphasize both STEM and the Humanities.”

Friday, July 03, 2015

Redemption in Sports: USA vs. Japan in Women's World Cup Soccer 2015

History redeems more than it repeats.

So it will be with the United States Women’s Soccer team against Japan’s on Sunday, July 5, as they play for the FIFA World Cup in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Although it comes a day after America’s Independence Day, for fans it will be the fitting finale for the fireworks of the night before.


Because Team USA will beat Japan, that’s why.

You can call it destiny, Karma, or whatever word suggests a combination of redemption and inevitability.

The story began four years ago in Frankfurt, Germany when Japan stunned the U.S. on a penalty shoot-out following a 2-2 draw in regulation time before 48,000 fans and won the World Cup, the first Asian team to do so.

The U.S. led Japan throughout regulation play but the tenacious Japanese drew even every time. Although the U.S. got its revenge against Japan in the London Olympics a year later, the defeat in Germany never left its dark hold on the psyche of the players. It was the proverbial one that got away and its only redemption lay in defeating the plucky Japanese in another World Cup.

And so here we are four years later. Thirteen members of current Team USA were part of the team that lost in penalty kicks in 2011. And get this: all four women who took the penalty kicks for Team USA in Germany will be playing against Japan in Vancouver this Sunday.

Revenge is not a noble word because it is universally agreed that its antonym – forgiveness – is. And yet in sports, revenge can be a good thing, a substitute for redemption.

Anyone who watched the semifinal match between Japan and England in Edmonton on  July 1 will probably agree that England was the better team. They controlled the play for most of the time and created the better opportunities. And yet when England’s Laura Bassett scored a soul-crushing own goal in stoppage time to give Japan the victory, you had to read between the feints and the passes to recognize what was going on: Japan and the U.S. were destined to meet in the final, the confluence of forces beyond analysis and data-crunching. Undoubtedly England will get its chance at redemption in years to come but now the spotlight is focused on Team USA to erase history and write a new chapter.

It is true that the Women’s World Cup soccer pales next to Men’s in its global impact. On a scale of 1 to 10, the Women may merit 1 or 2 while Men register a whopping 10+. There is no comparison in the passions that the Men’s Cup unleashes. Consider what happened to Andres Escobar of Colombia who scored an own-goal playing against the United States in the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Colombia lost 2-1 to the U.S. and was eliminated. Five days later, in the town of Medellin, Colombia, Escobar was murdered in cold blood by some disgruntled fans. 

For Ms. Bassett, on the other hand, there has been nothing but sympathy even from the notoriously unforgiving English media.

The final between the U.S. and Japan is likely to rouse passion to at least level 6 in soccer’s impact scale. Asia, or at least South Asia, will be riveted because Japan is playing. North Americans will be glued to the screen, well, at least the soccer aficionados will. South Americans will probably be watching as well, since on Saturday, July 4, they will have watched Messi and Argentina take on Chile in Santiago for the Copa America final, a game steeped in soccer history and rivalry. That leaves Europe, Australia and Africa (penguins in the Arctic and Antarctic get a pass) but with soccer a global game, and teams from these continents having played in the tournament in Canada, the audience there is also expected to be sizeable. Besides, all the talk about revenge and redemption have aroused the curiosity of even lukewarm fans.

So, here is the prediction: Team USA will beat Japan.

By what score, you ask?


One other thing: Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach, Kelley O’Hara and company must peak on July 5 (they haven’t yet, although against Germany they showed the flashes of brilliance they are capable of) to reach the summit. Redemption requires a river of sweat and tears and, unfortunately, even some blood.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

NBA Finals 2015, Statistics and Luck

The NBA Finals this year has proved more riveting than other years because of the ‘cruel’ and colorful history of the protagonists. Golden State Warriors, led by Rick Barry, last won the championship 40 years ago, in 1975. Cleveland Cavaliers … well, the Cavs have never won the NBA title. The last time Cleveland won a major championship was when the Browns, led by running back Jim Brown, who carried the ball 27 times and gained 114 yards, won the NFL title in 1964. That was 51 years ago!

And now the whole country (and many other countries where basketball is the real ‘beautiful’ game) is abuzz with the match-up between two of NBA’s biggest stars: Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Cavaliers’ LeBron James.

Curry burst on the NBA scene in the 2014-15 season, an intriguing and captivating MVP whose meteoric rise has fueled the passions of Bay Area fans, even more than the unpredictable but lovable characters of the San Francisco Giants who won the World Series three times in the last five years.

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors
And LeBron James? Only that the he is the best basketball player in the world, considered by many to be the best ever, even better than Michael Jordan. When he left Cleveland for Miami Heat in 2010, he was labeled a Judas who had sold his soul for lucre. What time has wrought! All has been forgiven. Cleveland has again embraced James as its redeemer, one who will lead the long-suffering city to the Promised Land of sports.

Of the first two games played in Oakland, California, neither team played to its full potential, although LeBron showed with his statistics why he is the best. In the first game, the Warriors trailed for most of the game and only pulled out a win in overtime when the Cavs suddenly went cold. Simply put, the Warriors got lucky.

It is almost a given that a team can get lucky several times in a 7-game series but rarely consecutively. That’s what happened when James and company pulled out a win in the second game that could easily have gone to the Warriors as well. The two games have been sliced and diced in every conceivable data-driven way but after all the data have been analyzed, it is still luck- mysterious, unquantifiable luck - that held sway.

For the Cavs, the goal was simple: snatch at least one game from the lion’s den. That’s what the team did. For the Warriors, losing home court advantage would open up Pandora’s Box. That’s what unfortunately happened.

So what now?

From the perspective of statistics: If the claim is that the Cavaliers will win, and the significance level is set at the usual 5 percent (0.05), then there is a 5 percent probability that a Type I error is made, and the Warriors will triumph.

But as any statistician will affirm, improbable events happen. And they happen with more regularity than we think. There may be 1 in a million chance that someone will win the lottery, but it is still 1 in a million, especially for the person who ends up winning the lottery!

If the Warriors can win either the third (6/9/15) or the fourth game (6/11/15) in Cleveland, the team will win the NBA title in 7 games and send Bay Area fans to frenzy, removing the lingering heartbreak inflicted annually by the hapless San Jose Sharks on the loyalists. It will perhaps also mitigate the pain of the physical drought California is suffering through now, even if for a week or so!

But how probable is that? All statistics point to the distressing truth for Bay Area fans: The probability is low. To win in King James’s court will be a monumental challenge for Curry and his crew, even though statistics show that Curry is at his best on the road.

If the Cavs take the next two games, King James will likely deliver the title to Cleveland in six games, ending a drought for the city that has lasted over half a century.

But what about the improbable happening? Consider this fact dug up by Mark Purdy, sports columnist for the San Jose Mercury News (6/9/15 edition): It turns out that Stephen Curry was born in the same maternity ward of Summa Akron City Hospital in Akron, Ohio, in March 1988, where James LeBron was born 4 years earlier, in December 1984.

Is that a fluke, a random quirk, a pure happenstance? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, there are improbables, and imponderables, that cannot be quantified completely, that lie outside the reach of super-rigorous data analysis and blazingly efficient algorithms.

Warriors or Cavaliers? The New Kid on the Block or the King?

The heart says Warriors. The head says Cavaliers.

As much as it breaks the heart of a Bay Area fan, here is the prediction: Cavs in 6, with a margin of error of plus/minus 5 percent.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Big Money Undermines Higher Education

Education and business isn’t quite the pair as, say, horse and carriage or love and marriage, but the association seems to be getting stronger every semester.

Consider the business perspective and the logic of its exponents.

Education, a $1 trillion business according to the Education Industry Associationis the only 'enterprise' that hasn’t changed in a fundamental way in the last hundred years. A teacher walks into a classroom, the undisputed source of knowledge and wisdom, and lectures to a captive audience. The hope is that some of that knowledge and wisdom may hold and help students attain the goals they aspire to.

But it’s a hit-or-miss game because there is no accountability and no rigorous method for measuring whether or not the students have learned anything.

So why not apply business principles to enforce accountability and measure scientifically the ‘product’ (education) being delivered to the ‘clients’, that is, the students? If there are ‘dead woods,’ incompetent teachers, in the system, replace them with competent ones. After all, there is a huge pool of available teachers, particularly technologically-savvy young and idealistic shapers of minds, adept at delivering lessons in the native media of digital-age learners.

Successful corporations are ruthless pruners. They incessantly demand accountability from their employees who must earn their wings every day by contributing to the ‘bottom line’ in some tangible and measureable ways. Fail and you are out. Succeed and your incremental raise is more or less guaranteed when evaluation time comes around.

Can anyone argue with this line of thinking? Why not bring the pressure of the market to bear on a moribund educational system and infuse it with vigor and excellence? Why not put in place a rigorous system of checks and balances to extract value from the billions of dollars the government spends annually on public education, instead of letting it disappear down the black hole of unaccountability?

The logic is flawless.

And there’s the rub: Flawless is theoretical and rarely practical.

The major business practices applied to education so far has had no significant impact on the state of education in general and on the performance of students in particular. In many cases, it has made things worse.

Here’s a partial list of such practices, and their impact, or lack thereof.

1. Hire name-brand CEOs, preferably charismatic fundraisers, to transform educational institutions into profit centers. Stellar student performances are bound to flow.

The diagnosis is in and it is grim. Escalating salaries of University presidents, extensively documented and available online
is turning institutions of higher learning into corporations with even less accountability than before. Only to the willfully blind is it not clear that Wall Street principles and educational principles are incompatible. Education comes from the word ‘educere,’ which means to draw out or unfold the powers of the mind. Well-connected presidents can raise endowments that reach the stratosphere, giving bragging rights to ivory towers and their lesser brethren but it does nothing to unfold the power of the mind, the raison d’etre for institutions of higher learning.

One side-effect of turning colleges and universities into mini or full-fledged corporation-like entities is the hiring of administrators at the expense of teachers. A significant portion of the state and federal funding for schools go to pay for these administrators whose impact on student performances is negligible.

Another is the insidious effect of ideologues and political operators on higher education. As big money pours in from influential donors who have no interest in the power of the mind (in fact, they would like it to remain dormant as it suits their agenda) but everything to do with influencing administrators, faculty and students to promote corporate interests and vote for their hand-picked candidates. No doubt about it: The financial elite is subverting the purpose of higher education for their personal interests.

Between 2005 and 2013, for instance, the billionaire Koch brothers have invested at least $68 million on college and university campuses, paying for faculty, research and publications. You can check if your school is receiving Koch funding here.

When the focus is on profit rather than on truth, ‘higher education’ degenerates into dogma and despotism flourishes at the expense of democracy.

2. Tenure is a prescription for failure, since it is virtually impossible to fire incompetent but tenured teachers. Hire full-time teachers only when compelled to. Appoint as many part-time and adjunct faculties as possible. Let them do the bulk of teaching. Since part-timers have hardly any overhead (including such mundane stuff as health coverage), in glaring contrast to full-timers, the savings can add up and profit soars.

But what are the facts on the ground?  Students are more frustrated than ever before. They are not getting the education they deserve since part-time faculty cannot give them ‘office hours’ (difficult, since they have no offices) as they travel from campus to campus (‘freeway fliers’) to teach, hoping to somehow cobble together enough cash to pay for basic necessities. Demanding part-timers to become primary education-givers makes all the sense in the world from a corporate perspective but it does nothing to promote the well-being of either part-timers or students.

3. Include as many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as possible in the curricula. That eliminates the need for maintaining in-house resources and faculty for critical courses, leading, again, to ‘massive’ savings.

Well, MOOCs were supposed to liberate students from the limitations of their own institutions, allowing unfettered access to instructions from the best and the brightest stars in the firmament of higher education. The business model is compelling: For the price of a fast Internet connection, institutions can offer students top-quality education while eliminating the need for teachers in some of the core and critical subjects. The savings could then be applied to help students attain their goals.

It turns out that the savings, if any, have not resulted in improving the lots of students, such as offering more required classes during more flexible hours. MOOCs are not what they have been touted to be. At their best, they can act as supplemental instruction to traditional classroom teaching but it is clear by now that ‘MOOCotopia’ is not going to lead to ‘edutopia.’

4. Technology can save education by cutting costs and empowering students to take responsibility for their own education. Technologists and ‘educational entrepreneurs’ would like to eliminate the middleman, that is, the teachers, and let students learn what they want to, when they want to and how they want to, by using the magic of technology, each new iteration promising faster and better education. To paraphrase Thoreau, ‘In technology is the preservation, that is, the fulfillment, of students.’

We have been down this road before. Technology has made access to information easier and data crunching faster but in terms of enhancing critical thinking and improving performance, the needle hasn’t budged a bit. No technology can replace thinking, doing and making connections between insights and ideas.

5. Invest heavily in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses because that’s where the demand is and that’s what can guarantee the employability of students. If STEM can guarantee the maximum Return on Investment (ROI), why not put all the efforts there? The implication, of course, is that such subjects as English, philosophy, history, and in general  what we may call ‘The Arts’, may bring students personal satisfaction but no living wage in the fiercely competitive global market. Interdisciplinary studies? What benefit can they possibly have when specialization is the key to survival?

Much has already been written about the fundamental purpose of education and the
short-sightedness of putting all educational eggs in the STEM basket. The Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, author of In Defense of a Liberal Education, has pointed out why America’s obsession with STEM is bad for the nation’s future: ‘A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.’ 

The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, quoted his English teacher about the purpose of higher education: ‘It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.’

STEM courses can develop such muscles but so can anthropology and art history and English. And it is interdisciplinary studies that have led to some of our most remarkable and serendipitous discoveries since antiquity.

The intertwining of education and Big Money creates a highway that leads to nowhere. Colleges and universities must rethink the purpose of higher education and ward off any attempt by agenda-driven, wealthy ideologues to subvert this purpose.