Friday, February 16, 2007

Behavioural economics and government interventions

I tend to subscibe to a 'libertarian' outlook in life i.e. I believe that both governmental and non-govermental agencies (such as your friendly neighbourhood gangs like Bajrang Dal etc) should butt out of people's lives, socially but also economically. That is to say, I abhor the license raj system that is the norm in India. But at the same time, I am not convinced (even with long discussions with my dad) that a completely free market system is the best way either. Some things like providing a basic welfare society (making sure everyone has access to food, shelter and health care) and ensuring that education is available to everyone is, IMHO, in the sphere of the government. I just read an article in the New York Times about Behavioural Economics which seemed to make a lot of sense. The main thrust of the article was that people don't always make rational decisions (economic or otherwise) and therefore understanding the irrational behaviour is important while deciding if 'market forces' should be allowed free reign or some intervention is needed. From the article

"And yet most economic models and the public policies they inspire still assume that human beings behave like Mr. Spock of “Star Trek.” According to the models, people are guided in their decision making by a consistently rational and highly reliable sense of their own best interest."

I think this is a very interesting point. The authors goes on to discuss the new Pension Laws in the US, whereby an employer can automatically enroll all his/her employees into a 401K plan. The choice for person is not lost, he/she can choose to opt-out, but since it is human tendency to remain in status quo, once the money starts going directly into your 401K, on average people would not tend to opt-out. This law was brought in because of the absymal savings rate of Americans (it's actually negative i.e. they consume more than they earn) to encourage people to start saving for their retirement. Now if we compare the scene in India, where all salaried employees are forced to contribute to the Provident Fund, we see 2 glaring differences - (1) you cannot opt-out - I think this is important, if someone needs to use more currently due to whatever personal problems, he/she should be able to defer contributing to the PF till they are in a position to do so. (2) You have no choice of providers or of rates of return. In a typical 401K (based on the experience that I have had) you find offerings from several mutual funds. which allows you the freedom to structure your investment in the manner which you want. A caveat - some companies do have 401Ks which have only their stock for purchase, Enron was one such company and when the company collapsed, so did the savings for all the employees but this is a rare case. In fact most 401K plans suffer from the opposite problem that of too much choice i.e. too many options between mutual funds, bonds etc. The new law has tackled the 'decision paralysis' behavioural problem also by

"So the pension law instructed the Department of Labor to issue guidance to employers on how to craft a standard investment option for employees who don’t want to choose among various funds. Offering automatic investment in a balanced, diversified fund ameliorates decision paralysis and, in the bargain, advances the public policy goal of making a financially-secure retirement attainable for workers."

Food for thought, indeed.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day

It's Feb 14, Valentine's Day and I am not home, sob! This seems a regular pattern with us, I think we have spent only 1 Valentine's Day together in our 5 years of dating & marriage. Oh well, the next year will be better (I keep hoping!) ...

In the latest Valentine news, here is an article of how romantic love has very similar effects on the brain as taking cocaine .... hmmm, I feel better now about my seemingly boring life, I have been on a cocaine high all these years! ;) And isn't it soooo interesting that they prove that love and lust activate very different parts of the brain. The last part about the pain we feel when love doesn't work out was poignant, though I never had a relationship go sour on me, a few bad crushes (that I imagined were love) were devastating enough.

The next 'love' based article is about scientists in love or the two-body problem which is a contributing factor to the poor representation of women in the Physical sciences. Of course women scientists face the two-body problem even if the spouse is not in academia but I can imagine it would be much harder to find faculty positions in the same city especially if it is a small city. In fact, all the young (under 35) married female scientists that I know (about 15) have/used to have commuter marriages. I guess, the real change has come in the male attitudes. Yay for good husbands (mine included!).

And finally we come to the nuisance news of Shiv Sena/Bajrang Dal et al protesting for the umpteenth time the desecration of Hindu culture. I am so tired of these moralizing do-gooders, most of who don't have an arm's length knowledge of culture, leave alone Hindu culture. This yearly excercise of forcing people to conform to their norms of 'good' behaviour is just a nauseating way to show that they still have muscle-power. So what if they were voted out (or in the case of Bajrang Dal, never voted in), they still have the power to harass you on the streets, in cafes and any public places you may want to visit. That they dare to do so, year after year, in India's uber-metropolis Bombay is nothing but failure to police effectively and a muddle-headed idea of what is and what isn't the government's business.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Once again - a new year 2007

Of course, since it is the middle of the second month of this year, it can hardly be called a new year. But I am still getting used to the year and it feels new enough to me. Sort of like how a dress worn only twice feels new to a kid who doesn't have too many clothes to begin with!

It feels weird reading my own blog and realising that almost a year has gone by with me writing a word ... 2006 actually proved far worse than 2005 ever was - my father who fought so bravely against his diagnosis 'only 6 months' finally lost to pancreatic cancer on April 10th. Luckily for me, I had gone home to be with him in time. Those 19 days were the most bittersweet days of my life, hoping against hope and praying when I don't even believe! As my father got worse, it seemed like Death was mocking us; for every step forward we took, it dragged us two steps backward. Cancer is such a terrible disease, eating you from the inside out, changing my father from a strong, vital, thinking person to a shadow, a shell of his former self. When Death came, his face seemed calm, handsome even (he had been so handsome before the big C) and so much more at peace. That death was a relief to my father underlines the suffering caused by the disease, my father who LOVED life and living.

The days & months following this were filled with undescribable sorrow, my sister's illness took a turn for worse. She had to undergo surgery. While the greater family, aunts and uncles and cousins, rallied around and helped out, outsiders have to go home after all. The essential family unit, unlike the story-book families, did not unite under grief. We vented our pain & frustuations at each other and thus caused ourselves more pain. Even after all this time, we are only slowing making our peace with each other.

I guess it is ironic that this blog is titled 'Surviving Life' since most of last year I felt that I was barely keeping my head above the water, that I was one misstep away from coming to the end .... so I guess, I survived. I have come to terms with all that has happened and have come to realise that I MUST work to be happy. From September 2004 to September 2006 I barely did any astrophysics research - most of the time I was a Teaching Assisant and did just enough to get by. But between May & Sept 2006, I did nothing at all, just vegated at home. That pushed me deeper into a spiral of depression, where I would remained had I not started working. Unlike most people my work is my passion and you must follow your passion.

So then, this is the year that I graduate. I will be writing more regularly and hope to have lots to say, after all, I am extremely opinionated! Please keep reading! :)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Do you think, maybe, you did something to bring this on?

This post was supposed to be part of the Blank Noise Project Blogathon but I am a day late so I decided to just write the post anyway. As a woman whose best friend was sexually molested at the age of six by someone was trusted by her parents, this topic is something that bothers me a whole lot. This post is for my dearest friend and all the women who are not safe from lecherous bastards either at home or in public.

I lived most of my life in Thane a city that was originally a suburb of Bombay but now has grown to be a pretty big city in it's own right. Back when I was growing up in the 80's and 90's, it was a very safe city for women. The only real eve teasing I ever experienced was getting whistled at and shouted at by buses filled with blue collar workers who were going home after their shift. It used to be a weird experience of having all these old men, definitely old enough to be my father, some of them even my grandfather, yelling obscenities at me. But travelling by train, even though I travelled by the ladies compartment, exposed me to the world of groping ass%^$&s. The first time I was too bewildered to react but after that every time anyone tried to touch me got beat up. Once I chased a guy down the length of the station intending to hand him over to the cops. And when I stood up for myself, I found support in the crowd. There were usually 2/3 guys willing to help slap the guy around and quite a few women encouraging me.

On a trip to Khandala during the monsoon, with my all-girls school I nearly saw and was part of a gang-rape. That we escaped was due to the fast talking of my teachers and the fact that the would-be rapists were too drunk. We were trekking to the dam in the rain, singing Girl Guiding songs when we realised that there were hundreds of cars, full of drunken guys, ogling us, yelling at us .... You see, this was Independence Day (oh, the irony of it!) and so all the rich louts had driven down from Bombay, Pune, etc. They were sitting in this massive traffic jam and what better way to pass time besides leching at 14-15 year old girls? Since we had come more than half the way from our campsite and half the class were already at the dam, we continued the trek. Albeit in grim silence and with out belts (which had big metal buckles and could hurt when swung hard enough) in our hands. When we got to the dam and met the rest of the class, it was awful. Most of them had been groped and grabbed, they were terrified and crying. We decided to send them back in the van and walk back ourselves. As the van left, we found ourselves (about 60 girls and 2 teachers) surrounded by about 150 "men". They were so drunk that most of them could only leer blearily at us but there was a small but significant minority who were not drunk enough to pass out but just enough to lose their moral compasses and could have incited a mass rape. Getting away, with our teachers begging them - tumhari behene jaisi hain etc etc and that trek back was the scariest 2 hours of my life. But the only thing that I feel proud about is that I gave at least 3/4 guys a sharp knock with my belt buckle when they tried to touch me or the girls around me.

Even in sleepy old Trivandrum, this was in the late 80's, my 8 year old sister was approached by a travelling salesman and shown pornographic books. When she said she didn't want any and tried to go away, he kept trying to ask her to see more until she finally ran home. In Madras, my cousin sister told me she never travelled by public bus or argued with auto-rickshaw drivers and never ever would she report anyone to a cop, because as she put it, the thing they will say would make you want to die.

But of all these experiences, I would rank the 1.5 months I spent at Allahabad as the absolute worst. This is (or at least was in 1997) a city where any woman walking alone was a target. Where you were stripped by men's eyes at every chauraha, where a Professor's wife told me she never travels outside the research institute's colony alone - at the very least she would take her 5 year son along. The fact that she belongs to a man (her mangalsutra & very prominent bindi) and has a son keeps her safe! Where a woman dressed completely from head to toe in a salwar kameez and dupatta can feel unclean and undressed and a man on a motorcycle and bicycle can and will swerve to touch you and no woman will attempt to fightback.

I think to me that is the scariest part - not that men routinely whistle, yell obscenties, lech, grope or grab but that there are several parts of this country where when you fight back, you will not get any support. You will not be allowed to fight back. Where the patriarchy reigns supreme and women are chattel who will mouth lines like "woh toh ladka hai, lekin tum toh samajhdaar ho, tumko salika aana chahiye" (transalated " boys will be boys, but women should be sensible & behave modestly).

I dedicate this post to the hope of a day when women will rountinely fight back and dress as they like and not give in to these creeps. And for the day when the men AND other women around them stand up for the victim. No one will ever ask the question that is the title of this blog.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Blogging for choice month

I just found out that this has been declared 'blogging for choice' month. And I want to add my baby blog to all the pro-choice blogs out there.

For all my non-American readers, the word choice here refers to a woman's right to abortion i.e. the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy when they don't want to have a baby. Some Christians believe that abortion is murder of the fetus and must therefore be stopped. Of course this is not just about abortion, which is the thin end of the wedge issue - which is to ensure that women cannot control what happens to her body. Not only do the anti-choice groups oppose abortion but many of them even oppose free sale of contraceptives especially those which can be take after the deed, such as the morning after pill. Pharmacists adhering to this philosophy have refused to sell contraceptives to women with presciptions (see this and this and this) Many of these groups osentsibly believe that sex should be for procreation only which is why they are usually anti-gay and definitely anti-gay marriage. Under the current administration, which completely believes in this philosophy, funding has been withdrawn from programs which work in the poorest parts of the world for the sin of distributing condoms. The overarching theme is that 'sex is bad, sex is a sin and the only good reason to indulge in sex is to produce children'.

Coming from a culture that has a history of celebrating sex, though the past 1000 years has been an excercise in rolling back everything that was enlightened, these ideas seem stupid and ridiculous to me. Even though I practised abstinence till I met the one guy who was right for me, I would never presume to think I could tell other people what to do with their bodies and their personal lives. And even people in monogamous relationships need contraceptives unless we are each to have 10-15 children. This planet cannot support that many people!!

But the weirdest thing is to try and legislate morality. Even if you do think sex simply for pleasure is bad, do you think laws against it will work? If you think abortion is bad, then make sure that everyone has access to contraceptives, especially the morning after pill. Even so, there will be abortions - from a condom that broke to a pill/patch that was supposed to work but did not but they will be far fewer. Try and understand that no woman goes about trying to get pregnant so that she can have an abortion. Having a baby is not easy, read this to see how dangerous it is even with good health care and facilities. It is nonsensical to force women to go through with it, that attitude is no better than Saddam forcing children to walk ahead of the regular army in order to defuse landmines.

But the most important thing of all is to have humility. To be humble enough to say, this is what I think is good but of course other people have the right to their own opinions. Then there would be no conflict because of course no one is forcing you to have an abortion or use contraceptives or be gay. You live life on your own terms and allow others to do the same. Disagree with their choices if you must but do so civilly without trying to bring the state in people's personal lives or bedrooms.

The above paragraph would make no sense to two groups :- the unreconstructed sexists who believe that women should be kept barefoot and pregnant to ensure that they are not taking men's jobs or getting too uppity and the religious crazies. You cannot argue with the religious position, they believe this to be evil because their holy book says so and it must be stopped. All we can do is to hope that the state policy remains secular.

As for abortion, remember that the fetus is like a tumour growing inside a cancer patient, yes eventually fetus will be able to survive without the woman but till such time, she has a perfect right to her body and a right to refuse to host the parasite. Women are not incubators and you have no right to try to enslave our bodies. This is a harsh way to put it but necessarily so, women's rights are trampled on too easily by the patriarchy and it's enablers.

Update: Please read this for a very good blogpost on abortion, Feministe has said much better than I ever could.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

2005 Annus Horriblis - goodbye and good riddance

So 2005 is over, whopee! Yay, at long last! This was the worst ever year in my life so far and as I am in my early thirties, can only hope that I will not have a year this bad for another 30 years. To begin with, let me introduce my life and my circumstances and then onto my annus horribilis.

I am a graduate student studying astrophysics at a prestigious East Coast university in USA. Unfortunately my significant other aka my lover, boyfriend and husband lives in sunny California. He has not been able to get a job in the east and I have not wanted to move my research and retake all my exams in an univ in the west. So we have had a 4 year long-distance relationship. This is very stressful in and of itself. Add to that the usual stress in grad school and most reasonable people will agree I had enough on my plate. But no, the Gods decided that this was way too little and my father was diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer in August 2004.

In the months that followed I met with doctors in US and in India, talked with doctors in Australia (I have uncles who are doctors there) , researched the internet so much I felt my primary research interest was in pancreatic cancer and generally put my life on hold. My dad's tumour was inoperable because it was touching, almost entangled with, 2 major blood vessels. So chemo was his only hope. If the tumour shrunk enough to operate, he had some hope of surviving 5/6 years otherwise 1-2 years or less was the prognosis.

2005 began with the doctor in India telling my dad that after 4 months of chemo since the tumour had not shrunk enough, he didn't think there were any further chemo/radio/surgical options left for him. Since this doc is one of the foremost physicians in his field in India, this pronouncement really brought us all down. There was a slight ray of hope when a renowned surgeon in a very famous hospital in the US said that he thought my dad's tumour was operable. But we couldn't get a visa date for my parents till mid-May which meant 3 months of waiting in agony.

To add to all this, my thesis advisor was continually giving me grief about how unmotivated I was wrt to my research and I should reconsider whether I really wanted to do science - this after spending the last 4.5 years in grad school. I explained to him several times my circumstances vis-a-vis my dad and family but that was unimportant in his eyes. I was working as hard as possible but was obviously out my mind with worry over my dad. As he was not paying me anyway (I am being supported by a TAship from my dept) I could not understand why he kept belittling and harassing me. Mid-April saw me undergo a mini-breakdown from all the stress and in mid-May I told my advisor that I could not work for him any more. Any grad students out there will know how hard this is especially when you have worked for a while with your advisor.

My parents came to the US by the end of May and we met with the surgeon who seemed optimistic about my dad's chances. We spent the next month with our fingers crossed and our hearts in our mouths. End of June my dad had his surgery and that was the worst day of the worst year. The surgeon came out of the surgery in 2.5 hours to tell us that the cancer had already metastasized into Stage IV and there was no surgical procedure which could help my dad now. This was not only a delayed death sentence but also meant that the surgery, involving a great deal of pain (for my dad) and money ($65000 - this was borrowed from our relatives and my husband and I will be paying it back over God-knows-how-many-years), was a colossal waste.

Next month brought forth my baby sis' illness, she had TB and pleurisy (water in the lungs) and also an abscess in her breast. In between talking to doctors in the US and doctors in India, hubby and me felt like we would go insane. My mom returned home in August to look after sis and my dad started treatment under a clinical trial. Since it never rains but pours, I then proceeded to lose my dad's passport. Though how I managed to do this, I'll never know! It was inside my purse and nothing else from it was lost except the all-important passport. Getting a new passport was very never-racking and time-consuming and plain exhausting. And my sis was still not improving as the doctors were expecting, adding to my worry lines and white hair.

Unfortunately we found, in early October that the experimental drug was having no real effect on my dad's tumour and it was steadily growing. Another round of reading about clinical trials, consulting doctors etc. followed after which we decided to go in for a more aggressive treatment which involved more risk but also a possibility of more rewards. We finally got a new passport for my father by the second week of October. Now the worry was that my dad's I-94 was expiring in the end of November so we filed for an extension. One month was spent in see-sawing between hope and fear that we would/wouldn't get the extension but it didn't come through.

So my father returned to India and I took another sensible decision, I would spend the next year at least with my husband. If I could find an advisor who was willing for me to work remotely fine otherwise I would take a year off. All the disposing of lease, household goods and other general tensions involved in moving house ensued but the year ended on a happy note - I found an understanding advisor and I am finally living with my husband. The icing on this finish was that my sis was also improved enough to go off some of the heavy medicine she had been taking and so was really getting much better. She is not completely well yet but so much better that I can only be thankful for it. We still have many problems to deal with, my dad has to get his visa to come here, money is very tight, my dad's tumour has to respond to the medication, I have to finish my thesis but for now I am going to cling to the rays of hope that we do have and concentrate on the positives.

Before I end this post, I have to say thank you to all my friends out there who supported me, coddled me and literally pulled me through this miserable year. You know who you are, thank you for keeping me sane. And to my hubby who is the best, words cannnot express all that I want to say. If you have managed to read this far, thank you and I promise you that my future posts will not be so narcissistic and depressing.