Friday, December 11, 2009

Cause Célèbre

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”
Andy Warhol

Little did Mr. Warhol know how prophetic his words would be, and more importantly that he would be turning in his grave about how pathetic our definition of celebrity has come to be. Celebrity as defined in the Oxford English dictionary is: a famous person. The state of being well known. So while one can argue that the definition of celebrity has not changed, the respectability and synonyms that used to be associated with it have changed rather dramatically; namely, hero, luminary, notable, and personage. One used to associate celebrity with the heroes of science, theatrical luminaries, big names in sports, a notable of the concert stage or even a personage in the field of philosophy. And I seem to remember that talent also seemed to be an implicit part of the requisite. Clearly, these associations no longer apply or have been broadened pretty dramatically, to the point where they become completely meaningless, in my mind, when they include today’s’ reality TV stars. I admit that I feel ashamed and embarrassed to live in a society that not only lauds the likes of Charlie, Sheen, Tia Tequila and Omarosa but also consider them celebrities. If anyone among my reader population has been worried about 2012 being the end of the world, fear not because the apocalypse has been upon us for roughly a decade now, in the form of reality TV.


The sad truth of our more modern and civilised world seems to be that anyone who is willing to stand in front of a camera and rant or embarrass themselves in some way has become entitled to their 15 minutes by simply uploading it onto YouTube. The content and substance seem to mean nothing anymore, in fact a quick search of the most popular videos of the day will reveal that the most inane, asinine and meaningless ones are the most popular, by far. Anyone who has something useful or meaningful to contribute is lost in a sea of mediocrity and mirth. This sad realisation becomes even more depressing when one begins to realize that these mostly transient and meaningless bits of content are also being praised for the talent that produced them. While the digital world seems to be hastening this deterioration of cerebral pursuits, it is hard to ignore the fact that even among the ranks of the more bona fide luminaries today, there is a lot left to be desired both in terms of their lack of respectability and their contributions to society. The allure and mystique of the movie star and the stoic character of world leaders and politicians seem to be fading faster than we can type 140 characters.

As much as I love the ability for real-time updates and sharing that services like Twitter and Facebook have ushered in, I also believe that personal boundaries are still absolutely necessary. In fact, they are needed now more than ever before. So while I enjoy hearing about my friends’ latest escapades in a weekly or monthly dose, I equally have zero interest in knowing about the personal weekend antics of my Congressman from the 15th district of New York. 20% of politicians, who use Twitter, update their streams with personal information. Transparency in politics is great, but I am pretty sure this is not what America’s forefathers had in mind. Granted there is much greater access to personal information today. The glare of the media spotlight is much stronger and the newsmen might be less disciplined than they used to be. Still, people have the ability to control and limit what they do and say both in public, and in response to vapid accusations, salacious rumors and torrid gossip in the press. Take Denzel Washington, for example. I applaud his decision to keep his private life private. Being such a huge star, if he can obsessively limit the amount of personal information that trickles into a morbidly curious world, then I have to believe so too can others to a greater degree than they tend do today. Sadly, discretion no longer seems to be the better part of valour, today.

Another concern is our increasing tolerance for what is deemed acceptable and responsible in our society. The level to which our standards have diminished to an alarming degree is obvious when we laugh, sigh and simply turn the page at Madonna’s latest hobby, that of adopting (buying) children from different parts of the world. Or when we seem perfectly content to move on with a minor slap on A-Rod’s wrist for what amounts to cheating by taking steroids, albeit earlier in his career. And that it took the reckless and criminal endangerment of a child, in the Balloon boy saga, to finally create some semblance of public outcry. The lengths people are willing to go to gain their 15 minutes of fame is a sad testament to the state of our society today. Even crashing the White House’s first State Dinner seems only to be shocking because it might have endangered the President and Indian Prime Minister (who is no. 1 on most terrorist’s hit lists). And perhaps this is in part because the lines have become blurred between reality, and politics. For one it seems that good, bad or ugly the type of publicity does not seem to matter; reality TV aspirants just want their payday and politicians their name in the headlines. From Sarah Palin’s mudslinging family feud, to Governor Mark Sanford’s tell-all affair, or Tom Delay’s turn as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, to a stand-up comic being elected to the US Senate from Minnesota. One wonders when these two worlds will collide or worse yet that they already have and we are just too jaded to have noticed. In fact, I just heard that two former Real World contestants, Sean Duffy from Real World Boston and Kevin Powell from Real World New York show, are considering runs for Congress. As I ponder this, I realise that my initial shock and outrage has begun to fade, and acceptance fills this space. I cannot help but wonder if they might actually do a better job than our politicians in either party have been able to do.

Friday, November 13, 2009

To Close or Not to Close…

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
Benjamin Franklin

The word Guantanamo has become synonymous not with America’s War on Terror or her defense of the ideals of freedom but with un-democratic prison camps. A place where enemy combatants are held indefinitely, without charge and even denied Geneva Convention rights as well as access to and representation from council. They are in a state of limbo. In fact, Guantanamo Bay is not even located on American soil, so it is fair to say that they are also in a place of limbo, where the long arm of US Federal law and the greatness of her democratic principles do not apply. There is little argument today that while Guantanamo served to hold men with no status and no criminal charges, it has served greater purpose in damaging America’s moral standing in the world and sullied her reputation as a great democracy. It’s difficult for the US government to tell other nations to free prisoners who are being held for “treason” against their government when the US herself holds men with no status, even if they are not American citizens or political prisoners. I am sure there are those among you who feel it is a small price to pay, to keep America safe from men who seek to harm her and inflict untold damage to her property and people. But to my mind the argument for closing Guantanamo needs to go far beyond a debate simply between liberal or conservative ideologies and their corresponding positions on national security. To my mind the discussion around closing Guantanamo should focus on one thing – and that is whether its continued existence will erode the very heart of the democratic ideals on which this country has been built, and the reason why it remains the most democratic superpower even today.

At first blush my statement might seem ridiculous, to suggest that the fundamentals of American democracy might one day suffer based on the existence of a prison camp on some forty-five square miles of land and water. But a look back at recent history will tell us that these types of actions in a democracy, which may seem small or inconsequential at the time, have a tendency to grow and expand over time and power always gets abused by people. So even the most well-intentioned laws created to protect national security or citizens from evils the world faces cannot be allowed to exist outside the existing framework of the laws of the land. They should be contained and able to operate within the confines of existing laws, even if there is a need for enhancements or amendments based on the realities of the dangers we face today. The moment a nation feels compelled to go beyond the existing legal framework and begin to create a separate one, and most often one that is also shrouded in secrecy, we begin the slippery slide into a murky world where the blindness and impartiality of justice can never prevail. Simply because there is no transparency and because government lawmakers become the sole indictors, enforcers, judge and jury. A true democracy holds itself to higher ideals. A great democracy does not need to operate in the shadows.

One argument that was been forwarded by the US government, for opening Guantanamo Bay, was that these modern day terrorists are more evil than the evilest of men. Suggesting that these men are somehow more evil and more bent on destruction than evil men in generations’ prior, so the need arises for another system of incarceration. Well, I for one have still not witnessed greater evil than Adolf Hitler. The fact that he managed to seduce an entire nation into his sickness and delusion, got them to look the other way and many to actively participate in his cold blooded murder is more than Osama Bin Laden has come close to doing in attracting a handful of illiterate, misguided and poverty-stricken youth. The terrorists of today don’t even come close to the sheer lunacy, audacity and barbaric nature of Hitler’s Germany and their plans to systematically and methodically wipe out an entire race of people. The point is that given the heinous nature of Germany’s crimes, as atrocious and inhuman as they were, it elicited a response from the world where those individuals held responsible were tracked down, arrested, charged and then punished in a court of law. A court that operated within the confines of a democratic process, before the public eye where justice meted out and served in broad daylight. The other important point about the Nuremberg trials is that the legal framework for prosecution of the War Crimes came about after discussion, debate and finally agreement between all the Allies. It was not a unilateral decision or one led and defined by a single country or government. Sure WW II was global and involved most every large nation but is this not even truer of the war against terrorism? These terrorists recognise no geographical boundaries; they represent no state or flag and care not what colour, race or religion they kill. Surely, America does not believe that she alone faces this nameless, faceless and stateless enemy?

In fact, America, unlike a host of other nations has not faced terror on her soil for very long. Mainly, because of her geographical location, which makes it hard for would-be terrorists to penetrate her borders with weapons and because of her population, which makes it harder for these men to blend in and disappear. Consider for a moment the list of countries that have had to deal with and even today live with terrorism on a daily basis, largely because of the geography that surrounds them and the history that transpired before them. This list includes India, Israel, Russia and China, and what I find interesting is the way each country has chosen to deal with the problem. Both India and Israel have dealt with homegrown and external terrorism since their independence, some 60+ years ago. Both have borders that are easy to penetrate and hard to police. Both have complex multi-denominational populations and thousands of years of history behind them. Both are democracies and proudly uphold and cherish their democratic freedoms and ideals. And both have lost untold life to terrorism over dozens of years. Yet both these countries continue to use the existing legal system to try, prosecute and convict terrorists, successfully. Sure, there are often issues of national security involved in these proceedings and they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Exceptions are made as needed but they never deviate or feel compelled to set up a parallel system of justice purely to try or incarcerate these terrorists. They convict them in a court of law based on the evidence against them, give them due process and a chance to defend themselves, just like the Nazis had and for the same reason – because this is what fundamentally differentiates us from them. Now, consider on the other hand the China’s and Russia’s of the world, both countries that consider themselves democratic, in some form or another, albeit the term is considered used loosely in the eyes of the rest of the world. Both face similar problems with internal and external terrorism, yet the manner in which they deal with them is completely different from India and Israel. It involves subterfuge, secret courts and trial proceedings, media blackouts, no access to council and mostly all of it conducted deep in the shadows of their so-called democratic processes and far away from public eyes. There is a reason people do not cite Russia or China as examples when they talk about democracy and democratic principles, but instead talk of their shady human rights record. A state that has a transparent legal system for one type of criminal offences and a second, hidden and shadowy system for other types of offences can never be considered democratic because there can only be one set of rules and interpretation of them for everyone, the law of the land. Justice must always be blind. The moment one feels the need to take off or slightly open the blindfold, even just a little bit, one begins to compromise this basic principle. And it is this principle that separates true democracy from the pretenders of Russia, Iran, China, Egypt and so on. So the US decision to leave open or close Guantanamo Bay’s prison camps will determine which type of democracy she chooses to be associated with in the future.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Splendid Open Office-ism

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”
Robert Frost


The last time I sat in something that resembled and open office plan but with cubicles, I had an ashtray stacked full of cigarette butts next to me, plastic coffee cups spilling over the side of my wastebasket, a fully stocked bar in my desk, and had to share my desktop computer with the person sitting next to me. Suffice it to say it’s been a long time. In fact, over the years, I have grown so unused to the idea of sharing my work space that my primary reason for choosing the last two places of employment was based on this criterion alone. Yes, I actually turned down jobs at companies that proudly boasted of their open office plans and instead chose agencies that had the old school, civilized, quiet, private and individually allocated office space, with a door. And this is where I have been hiding for the last fourteen years of my career. Now, back from a year long sabbatical, I find that not only are all the job offers I am getting from open office style companies, but even my previous employer, the last bastion of old school advertising has decided to go the open office route…I have nowhere to hide. So I took a deep breath, accepted a job offer and will now have to face the inevitability of an open office after years of carefully and deftly avoiding it.

Most people feel some sense of trepidation when starting a new job because they won’t know anyone, have no established track record, or because they will have to prove themselves afresh to a new boss and group of people. These are all good reasons to feel some healthy sense of fear on your first day at your new job. I found myself worrying about none of these things, but did feel like I was about to be tested like I have not been in a long time. Not because I was changing roles and doing something completely different from my core experience and something well outside my comfort zone, in a place where the average employee age is around twenty-four years or that I was about to face a huge learning curve in a very short period of time. Nope. My only fear was that I was going to have to sit in an open space where I was going to have to share my personal work space with other persons. Share my thinking space with other thinkers, my eating space with other eaters – this was my one and only concern.

First day at work, I admit find that I love the wide-open space, the floor to ceiling windows, the light filled rooms and the glass door conference rooms; even though I am unable to get any work done during the day. However, as my first week progressed it began to dawn on me that the open office might have a number of amazing bi-products that are rarely ever mentioned when people wax eloquent about all the positive aspects. The following, in no order of preference or importance, is the list of three positive things that might one day be attributed largely to the consequence of working in an open office; which some might argue will make up for all that loss of productivity.

The first that comes to mind is the effect this style of office will potentially have in reducing the obesity rate, while simultaneously increasing dining etiquette. Since the vast majority of people in our generation no longer have the time to sit and eat in the company cafeteria or go out for a leisurely lunch anymore, we are all forced to eat at our desks. Which in an open plan also means that we have to be mindful of the fact that not only are we are eating in the open, but also openly in a space filled with our co-workers. No longer does one have the luxury of quietly shutting the office door, in order to loudly chew one’s food, or eat while gawking open-mouthed at the latest breaking celebrity gossip on TMZ. One has to be on one’s best behavior and put one's best table foot forward or risk having to bear the brunt of our shortcomings being known, publicly. And with cell phone video recorders and other such devices at arm’s length, the word publicly also has all sorts of new and global connotations. As if this is not a big enough reason to applaud the open office, there is a greater one yet. We are now forced to be more conscious of what we are seen putting into our mouths and therefore into our bodies, now that it is in plain sight of virtually everyone in the office.

Every day I notice people hesitate to pick up that slice of pizza or cheeseburger in the cafeteria. I can see them think about what their office mates will make of their junk food addiction or say about them behind their backs. It seems to be giving people pause where they once used to just dive hand first into the fried food bar every day, devoid of guilt and freely exercising their right to choose. So, while we can all mourn the loss of this precious freedom and kick and scream about it, we should not underestimate or overlook the long-term benefits that come with the loss of one’s ability to make one’s own dietary choices – a less free but healthier you.

The second benefit, also greatly overlooked in my opinion, has to do with the positive impact it is going to have on the environment. All because office printers are no longer surreptitiously tucked away in some dark corner of some dark hard to find room. Instead, they are proudly placed in wide-open spaces, in full view of a large number of prying eyes. All of whom are just waiting to out those people who feel compelled to print every email they receive, every internet article they want to read, and especially those perennial printers who send hundreds of pages to the printer, and then rarely ever come to collect them. Yes, all you wasters and tree killers out there beware, for your paper wasting days and ways are numbered. Additionally, the rain forest also benefits from a massive reduction in the number of Post-its used (sorry, 3M but your lead product’s days are also numbered). We no longer need to rely on these little bits of paper, to leave non-phone related messages for people. In part because during the last round of cost-cutting most companies got rid of all their secretaries, assistants and support staff, considering them non-essential. And partly because there is a now a new way to deliver these messages.

Allow me to demonstrate by example how this plays out in an open office setting, based on my personal experience. The other day a person stopped by to see my cube-mate, who happened not to be at his desk. Of course, I had the option of pretending that I did not notice what transpired, but that takes some skill and practice in an open environment, and one that I have yet to master. And this visitor made it even harder, since they decided to mutter loudly (and supposedly) to themselves, “Oh, Joe Bloe is not here.” Now, even though I had my back to this person I could not help but hear them muttering, which naturally made me turn and look for just a split second. That split second was all it took for this visitor to make rapid eye contact with me and then proceed to make me feel guilty for potentially trying to ignore their presence and dilemma.

So what option did I have now, other than doing the polite thing and offering to take a message for my missing cube-mate? I admit that this, even if the correct thing to do, was terribly distracting and a led to losses of productivity, as it happened six times that day alone (approximately six minutes of productivity lost). However, I did take consolation in the knowledge, as I am sure will you that I had personally contributed to six post-it notes not being used in the world that day. Which led me to quickly calculate that if I were to take three messages a day, minus time lost for weekends, public holidays, vacation and sick days; I would be able to save one tree every three years. Which no doubt makes up for the six months of lost productivity during this same time period.

The third benefit society will gain from this wonderful new open world is the eradication of those time wasting and productivity sucking gatherings at the famed water cooler. Gone forever are those days when you and your co-workers mingled, while gaining and dispensing hot office gossip along with cold filtered water. It’s hard to gather when your boss is not only potentially watching, but quite possibly within earshot. In fact, we are also no longer encouraged to walk over to one another’s desk like we used to, in order to follow up on something or just catch up on your colleague's last weekend trip away or their kid’s third birthday party; we are asked to IM (Instant Message) directly from our computer now. We no longer need to leave our seats in order to break bread while getting work done. Along with the loss of these old office rituals we will also see the office gossip, that one person in every office who always has the juiciest bits of information on everyone, soon become extinct. It’s hard for gossips to survive when there is nowhere to gossip and nobody to share it with.

Another thing that is frowned upon is people making or taking personal calls at their desk. We are encouraged to leave our desks and walk over to a small private room or an empty conference room to have this conversation. Given that there are only two such phone rooms and up to one hundred people on each office floor, and most people will not take up a whole conference room (with glass doors) to have a personal conversation, it effectively prevents us from having any type of remotely personal conversation during the day, or to face the risk of being overheard by your immediate neighbors and chastised by your superiors.

Hooray for efficiency, technology and a complete loss of productivity - I am sure our Master Houyhnhnm will be proud!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One Man’s Case against Healthcare Reform

“The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.”
G.K. Chesterton


I come to praise the healthcare system in the United States, and not to bury it. Mine is a story filled with all the trappings of a Hollywood medical drama, one that involves a mysterious, undiagnosable illness, a sports injury that refused to go away and got aggravated across continents, midnight trips to the Emergency Room, 911 calls and a myriad of specialists in various fields of medicine. Last year, almost the day after I quit my job, to take time off to travel and spend with my wife, family and friends I developed a sudden breathing problem. Of course, for the 37 years of my life that went before this, I had pretty much managed to stay away from doctor’s offices and hospitals. And the truth is that I rarely ever fell ill despite always having great medical insurance, which I cried about never really putting to any good use or getting my money’s worth; little did I know that in one short year I was about to make up for the last 37.

The week I handed in my resignation letter, we made our first trip to the ER courtesy of a hospital hospitality vehicle known more commonly as an ambulance. Yes, my wife actually called 911. I am not a hypochondriac, or someone who panics about things, ever. So, naturally when I started to have trouble breathing one night, and it got progressively worse to the point where I was leaning out our fourth floor window gasping for air, unable to speak while slowly turning blue, my wife made the call. I was discharged a few hours later after a series of test that included a chest x-ray, an EKG and blood tests, all of which the doctors said were clear. Their best offer of a diagnosis was a bronchial spasm, resulting from a recent case of the flu. I was asked to report to my General Physician for follow-up. We left the hospital without so much as having to part with our co-pay, having been told that they would bill us later. Rather wonderful, I thought to myself, not only the ER’s thoughtfulness and hospitality, but also this insurance coverage of mine. Because I was painfully aware that a trip to the ER in New York City is far from cheap. In fact, it rivals a night at the priciest 5 Star hotels in the world, without even including the added luxury and cost of getting there in an ambulance. I am reliably informed that the total cost of such a trip can be as much as few thousand dollars – again I say thank god for insurance. Now, this is not to say that I was never going to be billed any amount. In fact approximately a month later I received a notice from my insurance company saying that the hospital was entitled to bill me $100 for my share of the co-pay and they also informed me that they had paid 15% of the total cost submitted to them by the ER. Again I marveled at the fact that I had such great insurance. Not only was my share of the cost less than 2% of the total, but my insurance company was also refusing to submit to daylight robbery and pay the hospital the true cost of my care. Bravo, I say. In fact I had to make two additional trips in the months that followed, and am still to receive a single bill from this hospital, one and a half years on.

The other gratifying thing I learned in my subsequent trips to the ER is that nobody is turned away or denied care. A number of people in the ER waiting room said they did not have any insurance, and instead of being turned away as one would have expected, the hospital attendant said that it was not a problem and that once they filled out a form stating a lack of insurance, they would get access to the care they needed for free. While I was still pondering this it dawned on me that this might perhaps be the reason my insurance premium is so high, and continues to increase each year even though I have not availed of it in the years prior. Perhaps, I am paying for the poor families who cannot afford insurance (and out of work actors, unemployed graduates, couples who just chose a more expensive mortgage over insurance, etc.) and that would certainly explain the high cost of my premiums and continual increases over the years. This realization made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as I sat there clutching my Gold plated insurance card, waiting to hand it over to the registration clerk, confident in the knowledge that I was doing my bit to help society.

Anyway, my story and praise for the current system is far from over. Another great relief with the current system has to do with the safety net they provide when one becomes unemployed by accident or by choice. This marvelous little provision is known as Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act or COBRA. Anyone who was previously covered under their company’s group insurance is eligible and cannot be denied continued coverage for a period of eighteen months. The only difference is that the cost of the premium, that was being covered by your employer, must now be paid entirely by you. Due to this the monthly increase is roughly two to fourfold depending on how generous your employer was. There are those who grumble and complain about this increase, they say that it comes at a time when you can ill (no pun intended) afford extra costs, now that you are no longer receiving a pay cheque. But I say pish-pash to them, for one has to pay for such privileges. And besides, it is only in moments that one is less busy that one typically has time to linger on ailments that otherwise may never have surfaced. As a result, one can argue that unemployed people are more susceptible to health issues, as they have more time on their hands to dwell on small ailments, making of them bigger things and thus spending more time visiting doctors and hospitals. I am a case in point. I had been to the doctor maybe 12 times in last 37 years and the moment I quit my job I must have made, without exaggeration, at least 37 visits in less than 12 months. It would have been grossly unfair for me to expect my previous employer, the government, or worse yet, the poor taxpayer, to have paid for my health trespasses. My GP directed me to visit an ENT, who sent me to a pulmonologist, who in turn directed me to a gastroenterologist and so on. After each one conducted a battery of tests, often repeating the same ones done by the previous specialist, they ruled out a number of things, but none of them could figure out what was causing my continued breathing problem. Oh, and did I mention that along the way I even had to meet with a foot specialist? Not that this was in any way related to my mysterious breathing problem.

Which brings me to our world travels, during which time my right foot acted up, and I also needed to have emergency eye surgery. I knew something was afoot when my right ankle swelled up during a visit to San Francisco. We iced it and got an ankle brace and in a few days I felt much better. The next time it acted up again was when I played a round of golf in Rajasthan, a few months later, and then it finally came to a head while I was trekking in Bhutan. All this while I had managed to deftly avoid another doctor visit, but after the Bhutan trip, when I was walking with a knee brace, an ankle cast and a walking stick I could no longer avoid the inevitable. Now, as it happens we were in India at this juncture, where my insurance was neither valid nor accepted. I hobbled to the nearest highly recommended orthopedic surgeon, who naturally ordered a battery of x-rays and tests. At the very same time, again right after I quit my job of course, the sty on my eye had also reached a critical stage, and besides the pain my vanity was also now at stake. So we found a well-regarded local ophthalmologist who, upon his first examination of my eye, declared that I would need surgery to remove the now errant sty. The pain in my foot and eye both dissipated as I began to think about the strain my unemployed wallet was about to feel. Needless to say that I could not live without the services of my foot or eye, and opted to go ahead with both the surgery and the long list of tests the orthopedist had ordered. When I received the bill, for both the tests as well as for the eye surgery, I did a double take, because the total cost, including a series of x-rays, blood and urine tests and an outpatient surgery, were less than the cost of a single co-pay for a specialist in the United States. I thought at first that it must be a mistake, but then I realized that this was India. Of course, the equipment that these doctors use is probably much older and not the same state-of-the-art equipment used by the medical fraternity here. Plus, these Indian doctors don’t have fancy Harvard or Cornell medical degrees. And the biggest reason is that these Indian doctors are not made to pay for medical mistakes. Indians are generally quite a forgiving people and nobody sues a Doctor because they save lives, and are well meaning and only try to do the right thing by their patients. So, naturally with their older equipment, lesser degrees and more forgiving patients they can afford to charge much less for the same services. I realized that it was really not a fair basis to make any kind of comparison between the costs of care in these two countries, and besides, the issue had more to do with the people who sue at the drop of a hat, and not the fault of the private health insurance industry in America. So, I happily paid my 100% share of their bills and rushed back to the protective cover of my Gold plated insurance in the U.S.

The next few months I spent running from specialist to specialist, in-between my physical therapy appointments, which I had to do twice a week to heal my still injured right foot. Just around the time I could no longer bear the thought of another hospital waiting room or the sight of a person in a white gown, my wife suggested I try one last person, her allergist. Thankfully, I had enough breath left in me to see the man who finally diagnosed my problem, and sent me to the head of one of New York’s most prestigious hospital’s Otolaryngology Department, to ratify his hypothesis. I had laryngeal neuropathy. The new specialist prescribed the necessary medication and sent me to a Voice Therapist to help strengthen my larynx. With my breathing issue under control my right foot seemed to be getting worse. My doctor ordered an MRI as he said that x-rays do not always tell the full story and that it should have been well on the way to recovery by now. So I called the MRI place to make an appointment and set it up for a week from that date. The day I was supposed to go for my MRI, I got a call from the place and they told me not to come as the insurance company had not yet approved the request for my MRI. At first I was shocked and confused about why my insurance would deny something my doctor felt was necessary. Ultimately, after another week passed and my Doctor even called the insurance company to re-iterate the need to get one but to no avail. Instead, I got a letter from their cost consultants saying that after reviewing the necessary data on my condition (not sure what they looked at) they felt that an MRI was not called for and they added that this was done primarily for my benefit. It seems, in their experience Doctor’s often order needless tests, which ultimately wastes money, and only serves to raise the cost of my care. Gosh, not only was my insurance company looking out for my well being, from errant Doctors, but they were also looking to save me money, to say I was touched would be putting it mildly.

Based on my yearlong odyssey, I don’t understand what the entire hullabaloo is about, in terms of the Democrats’ urgency to fix the US healthcare system. I am living proof of the fact the current system works, and works rather well with all its meanderings, negotiations, graces, and non-billing after traumatic ER experiences. In fact it seems to work to everyone's advantage; except maybe the doctors, but then again we all know that doctor’s are overpaid anyway…right?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Julie vs. Julia: The generation gap

“The only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook”
Julia Childs

“Butter makes life worth living,” sounds like something Julia Child would have and should have said but that is my sentiment and how I have always felt about butter even though I cannot claim to be a Julia Child fan. That is, not until I met my wife. It was my wife who helped me discover the joys of Julia’s recipes and the fact that someone else in this world felt the same way I did about butter and for much longer than I have been alive. Needless to say that my wife is a huge Julia fan and I became one after sampling some of her wondrous fare in my wife’s most talented and capable hands (I secretly believe my wife is a better cook). Thought, I do have to admit that Julia had me at butter. So, as you would expect, we set out this past weekend to watch Nora Ephron’s new movie. We had been told that Julie & Julia is both a glowing tribute and a shallow disservice to Julia Child, depending on who we spoke with, so we decided to find out for ourselves.

Overall, I really enjoyed Julie & Julia. I think the word that best describes the film is delightful. Light, fun, funny and poignant at times and Meryl Streep’s portrayal, even if seemingly a little exaggerated and hyperbolic, was spot on and very memorable. No doubt Ms. Streep will be garnering her thirteenth Oscar nod in short time. I left the theater feeling rather happy with life and also rather hungry. However, there was one particular facet of the film that caught my attention and really got me thinking. It had to do with the stark contrast between the two generations that were portrayed by the two characters. I am not sure if this was intentional or an unintended consequence of simply presenting the two stories, in an honest way, but nonetheless it turned out to be a fascinating and eye opening comparison on all the things society seems to have lost in just about one generation. To begin with I found Julie Powell, and her character portrayed by Amy Adams (of Junebug and Doubt fame), not only shallow but whiny, annoying and I don’t know how else to say put this, but down-market. On the other hand, I felt Meryl Streep’s, Julia, was stoic, elegant and a woman of depth and great substance. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Julie who, in my mind, personified a telling commentary on our generation, complained about absolutely every aspect of her life. She just never seemed to be able to see the bright or light side of her life, in any aspect. From the beginning, with her move from Brooklyn to a new apartment in Queens, she complains about how the kitchen is too small. Then there is her crappy job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, where she describes herself as a “government drone, and a soulless bureaucratic goon.” Her job entails talking with the surviving relatives of 9/11 and helping them navigate through the city’s bureaucratic maze, and answering questions about proposed re-development plans. Albeit she sits in a small crammed cubicle and probably does not get paid anything close to Wall Street wages but surely the nobility of what she does every day, the lives she touches in a meaningful way, make up for all or some of that? But I guess that is not nearly enough for Julie, as she finds nothing but fault and negativity with her profession. Then as if we have not yet been shocked enough by her seeming shallowness we are introduced to her friends. They are even more vapid and vacuous than Julie, which one would not have thought possible. But there is one other explanation for this, which my wife pointed out to me. Julie’s friends are portrayed as even more wrapped up in their own self-indulgence and self-pity so that we are able to relate to Julie by thinking her a little less inane by comparison. Thank god for small consolations.

With regards to her great challenge, the premise of her blog - taking on the whopping 536 recipes in 365 days while still keeping her day job, one cannot help but feel (and hope) that perhaps this might be a noble cause after all. She has admitted to the audience that she has never finished anything she started before and plans to make this her first completed endeavour. And she talks about how the whole process of getting to know Julia Child, in the bargain, is making her a better person, thereby benefiting not only her perspective on life, but her relationships with people that matter. This is all splendid and one begins to feel some sense of redemption for our generation that is until you realise that her primary and only motivation seems to be notoriety and cash. When readers comments start to pour in on her blog posts, and she is beginning to get noticed we see the real Julie step from behind the shadows of the words and thoughts on her blog that almost have us fooled. The other telling note is that every time she has a meltdown (which are quite frequent) and is ready to give up, her husband eggs her on, not by words of comfort or a gentle push to finish what she has started but by telling her either to cheat (as nobody will ever be the wiser) or how fame and celebrity are just around the corner.

We then get to contrast all the above to Julia Child, whose motivations seem to be completely the opposite. She discovers cooking, or more like it discovers her, while she looks for things to do to fill her time while her husband is posted in France. She finds that it is a great way to express her larger than life personality in a completely male dominated society and also, a way to fit in, in distant, foreign lands. She has to work five times as hard as any man in her generation would for everything she achieves. Julia even has to fight to take her Cordon Bleu exam, in a male dominated chef’s world, where women are frowned upon. Never at any point during her many trials and tribulations do we feel like her efforts and motivations are a way for her to be famous or make a fortune. You also never see her whine about anything. When we find out that her greatest sadness is that she will always remain childless, it’s a heartwrenching, poignant moment in the movie. And when her cookbook and life’s work is rejected, her answer is to hold her head up high, and re-write the whole thing to make it better. Even with seemingly insurmountable odds, we never see Julia cower. Nor do we witness her lay on the floor, kicking, screaming and crying, while shouting at her husband, the way Julie does every time the stuffing falls out of a chicken or one of her sauces burn. Julia’s world continues stoically just as often as Julie’s falls apart for the slightest of reasons or seemingly none at all.

It made me think how differently we approach life today, even when it comes to the simplest things. We rarely see the joie de vivre that is so present in Julia’s world, despite arguably greater odds, in Julie’s world. I don’t think that life got much harder. Certainly, the challenges we face are different, but I am talking about the manner in which we choose to face and overcome those challenges. If Julie is telling of our generation’s attitude to life, then it feels like we make life much harder on ourselves, and that our success and happiness have become equated squarely with fame and fortune. So I urge you to go and watch this movie, to be delighted and feel famished but also to consider these thoughts. If you agree with me, then you will also feel that we have lost much over the last generation and that there is a lot left to be desired.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Toys R Not Us

“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.”

George. E. Woodberry 

On our godson James’ fifth birthday we sent him a Transformer toy, which had been his secret birthday wish. I had to scour the city’s toy stores to find Optimus Prime, which I believed to be the gold standard in transformers, being the leader of the Autobots, which are the good robots. However, there seemed to have been a run on this toy in New York City because store after store I left empty handed. Finally, when I could take no more disappointment or thronging crowds, I bought Bumblebee, the second most famous transformer (and the only other one I knew). As I prepared to leave the store, partly dejected, and partly elated because this was the last crowded store I would have to visit, out of the farthest corner of my eye, all the way across the store I saw it. It was Optimus Prime and seemingly the last one in this store and quite possibly in the city of New York, sitting on a shelf on which he did not belong. It was fate. I walked over, grabbed it and ran to the cashier before any one of the million screaming kids noticed my precious find. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a journey filled with great frustration, not just for five year old James, but also for his father, Roger, and his godfather.

One day after we shipped the toy, we got a thank you call from an elated James. Exactly 24 hours after that I got a distress call from his mother. She told me that the boy and now his father had driven themselves to distraction trying to transform the simple little toy from the current shape to the semi truck that it is supposed to become. Of course, at first I laughed, but when she told me that she had just sent James’s dad off to have a shower to cool off, after he had been trying to transform the toy rather unsuccessfully for over an hour, I knew she was quite serious. I laughed again, but this time because I knew that I would need precisely ten minutes with Optimus to accomplish the task, even if Dad was not able to make any headway. Luckily for little James, the wait for the final transformation would not be a long one, as we were due to visit them the following week. At this point Roger, now cooled off, got on the phone to hear me laugh and taunt him by telling him how I would only need a mere few minutes to ‘not disappoint’ his son. Roger also laughed, saying I had no idea how complicated this toy was. He proceeded to bet me $100 that I would not be able to complete the simple transformation in forty-five minutes, leave alone the ten that I felt I needed. Mano-a-machine - we had a bet.

Oh how I laughed silently on the plane ride in, as I thought about my easy $100. I almost started to feel bad about taking money from James’ father, who had just resigned from his job a few months earlier and remained unemployed. Almost. Roger and James picked us up at the airport and of course the first thing we discussed was how I was about to take some money from our host. He seemed pretty confident that I was going to be paying him. All this while poor little James was rapidly losing interest in his un-transformable birthday present, which seemed to have been completely taken over by Dad and his Uncle Nik’s obsession. When we reached the house, I greeted mom and godson number two and went straight to the task at hand. I sat down at the kitchen table, Optimus Prime in hand, and decided to take a stab before lunch. I was supremely confident that I would finish much before the waffles came off the waffle iron, perhaps even before the batter had been fully spread. This was it, the moment when all those years my mother said I wasted by not reading a book and playing with various action figures instead, was going to come to fruition. This is the day I had been training for.
For the first five minutes it was just Optimus Prime and me, in that kitchen, in that house and in all of California. We stared hard into each other’s eyes and knew that there would be only ONE left standing. I twisted, I turned, I bent and I clicked and felt I was making rapid progress, much to Roger’s dismay, and James’s glee. However, Roger continued to hold fast that I would not be able to complete the task, no matter the extent of my early progress. I had solved the Rubik's cube when I was barely ten, and three years before that I had fixed a digital clock on my parents’ fridge in Hong Kong after my Dad, the handyman and three electricians had failed. I was not about to let some plastic Hasbro-been get the better of me. I swear it felt like just fifteen minutes had transpired when Roger sounded the bell, but my forty-five minutes were up and Optimus Prime was no closer to looking like a semi-truck than he was when I started. I stared in disbelief, even as Roger said, “I told you it was impossible” and our young godson looked like he now had not one, but two inept male role models in his life. Both defeated by none other than Optimus Prime, who was not even a Decepticon, the evil robots.
 
I do not exaggerate when I say that this thing was a beast. I tried the entire four days that we were in California, setting aside at least an hour each day to transform my new nemesis. I came really, really close. So close that only one piece would not fit, but the point is that I was unable to complete transforming a toy that said in bright, bold letters on the box for “For Age: 4 yrs +”. As for the instructions, they were about as helpful as a blind person giving directions. I want to know who Hasbro has hired to create these new toy Transformers, I have a feeling they are either nuclear physicists of rocket scientists. I am a pretty intelligent guy, as is Roger and we are both toy obsessed and mechanically minded, but neither of us could transform this little plastic toy robot, so what chance will little five year olds have I wonder? I guess all that is left to say is that the cheque is in the mail.

Friday, July 10, 2009

PC versus Mac

"Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people."
David Sarnoff

Sadly, this quote seems to ring true of Crispin’s new work for Microsoft Windows. It seems their run as the hottest advertising agency has come to an abrupt end. I will admit that this is not a blog topic I had ever intended writing on but the more I am forced to see Microsoft’s new TV campaign aimed at making Windows “cool” again, the more I cringe and the more I feel compelled to break my silence.

My pain first started with Windows’ answer to Apple’s ‘Hello I’m a Mac’ campaign, which personified the PC and Mac cleverly using humor, even if it did represent the actual facts in shall we say, a rather liberal manner. But the “I am a PC” campaign that ensued as a fight back had neither humor, nor wit and only served to make me cower in shame at every new PC user it identified; or more appropriately one that I would rather not want to be identified with. I don’t know about you, but it seemed to have quite the opposite effect on me – I was seriously considering switching to Mac or at the very least lying about being a PC in public. Many words come to mind when I think of Deepak Chopra, spiritual, healthy living and Guru are a few of them but ‘Cool’ is certainly not one of them. Besides, I have always felt that taking a bunch of really famous people and getting them to simply admit that they use your product smacks of defensiveness and desperation not confidence and cool. And then there was the Seinfeld and Gates advertisement. Take it from a career ad man that screwing up a commercial with the ability to feature both Jerry and Bill Gates takes a lot of hard work and a serious lack of talent. Thankfully, someone at Microsoft no doubt saw their dominant market share rapidly decline in the near future, along with the current fear and embarrassment in many PC user eyes and put the kibosh on that bit of wasted Eastman Kodak film and then they came up with something completely different.

On winning the Microsoft Windows business, Crispin’s CEO said, “There was a time when it was Avis against Hertz, Coke against Pepsi, and Visa against American Express. I think Microsoft is at the epicenter of the great brand challenge of the next decade - or millennium.” Based on this quote alone, forget Crispin’s recent track record, I was rather hopeful that the first campaign was merely a rough pitch placeholder, even if soulless and creatively void. A momentary lapse of advertising reason, a blip on the path to the sublime, as it were, while Crispin was hard at work on the real campaign, which like ’The Burger King’, would make Microsoft's operating system King of computer cool.

Alas, it was not to be, as the “I am a PC’ campaign was replaced after a brief interlude with a really confusing advertisement about some ‘Mohave Dessert Experiment’ (which I thought was a reminder about how we must be careful not to let our PC’s overheat, to prevent the batteries from catching fire and exploding again) by an even more soulless and mind numbing ‘$1,000 PC shopping challenge’. So the whole point of this campaign is to proudly proclaim to the world that if you pay someone $1,000 cash to buy a PC, for up to or under a $1,000, they will end up buying a PC for up to or under a $1,000…Pray, someone please tell me, am I getting this right? Ok, so maybe I am being a little facetious but was ‘bribery’ the most interesting and imaginative way to inform less than 10% of the world’s non-Windows using population that PC’s offer a range of features at under $1,000…it also tells me that Mac users are willing to pay more for their machines, and don’t even need to get any cash in return.

The reality is that my wife’s Mac has crashed far more often than my PC. I even have Windows Vista, Microsoft’s biggest OS failure to date, and still have a less frustrating time with freezing screens and involuntary shut downs than she does on her Mac. Also, it’s a myth that Mac’s are immune to viruses. Global market share data for 2008 put PC’s at 90.73% and Mac at 8.03% and this is the reason why hackers spend countless hours devising nasty viruses for PC’s and not for Mac’s – lack of impact. At less than 9% global share, it would cause little to no disruption in the general population and virtually no chaos in the corporate world. And have you ever tried playing 3-D or Internet games on a Mac – there is a reason why most gamers use a PC.

I am not planning to list a long and laborious set of comparisons here but my point is that if in the space of 5-10 minutes and a few clicks on Ask (I don’t use that other search engine) I found some interesting things to say about my PC, versus a Mac. Then why, with a $300 million ad budget and countless creative superstars at their disposal, was a highly paid agency unable to find even ONE single remotely compelling or evocative reason to buy a PC?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tears, Fears and Smears; The GOP Story

“One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalised and cruelly mocked, but it cannot be taken away unless it is surrendered.”
Morton Kondrake

I have never been a big soap opera fan but it’s hard not to get drawn into the almost daily drama unfolding in the ranks of the highest profile members of the Grand Old Party. They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and I would argue that this already transpired during the Bush era. The price they paid was losing Congress, the Senate, the majority of Governorships and the Presidency. So having paid a heavy price for their wanderings in the Bush years, one would think the Republicans would be regrouping, and coalescing far away from the public eye trying to formulate a new strategy for 2012 – so what is going on with the endless trials and tribulations of their leading cast members?

Let’s start by taking a look at their brightest star from 2008, Sarah Palin. In the last few months, Ms. Palin has most definitely been in the forefront of the news. She has been firing missives back at her critics with alarming regularity but sadly none have anything remotely to do with the challenges facing the nation or with matters concerning public policy. And they have not been debated in the pages of The New York Times or The National Review but played out in People Magazine and the National Enquirer. The Palin and Levi family feud started with the very public breakup of her 17 year old daughter and Johnston Levi, the father of her child. Then, instead of learning her lesson Ms. Palin continued on to another public spat with David Letterman, a late night comedy show host. Granted Mr. Letterman’s comments were in poor taste but, even after he apologized the Governor of Alaska continued to drag herself into the mud and humor him. Not funny. As for becoming Queen of the White House in 2012, I am not so sure she has won any confidence from her few supporters leave alone her many detractors, but 2009 Queen of the Tabloids – Ms. Palin wins hands down.

Then there’s the crying Governor from South Carolina, another promising GOP Presidential candidate for 2012. Mark Sanford says he is an honest, God-fearing, bottom-line kind of guy. He also happens to be the guy who has been cheating on his wife for the past year and lied to his aides and staff, almost creating a crisis of leadership in his state with his five day disappearance. He actually said, “What I did was wrong, period. I spent the last five days crying in Argentina.” Perhaps it would have been more fitting if, instead of shedding tears while coming clean, he had sung a farewell tribute to all of his constituents:
“Don’t cry for me South Carolina. The truth is I never left you,
All through my wild hikes, and my mad disappearance;
I kept my promise, but had to keep my distance…”

I really hope for his sake that the road to the White House is paved with good intentions. But then again this is America and maybe all he needed to say was: “I did have sexual relations with that woman.”

Up next, the great brown hope of the GOP, Piyush Jindal or Bobby as we now know him. The man Rush Limbaugh has touted as ‘the next Ronald Reagan’. The Republican Party proudly advertises him as the first Indian-American Governor and hopes he will begin to attract a less white crowd to its base, even as he publicly decries his brown roots. Identity crisis aside, I must admit that I liked what I heard from him last year before he came out, in a manner of speaking, as a Republican up-and-comer. He sounded like a balanced and pragmatic man, even if he is socially conservative. However, in his first real test of leadership in the national eye, as the opposition’s rebuttal to Obama’s first address to Congress, his performance left a lot to be desired. It was not just awkward, but made Sarah Palin’s performance with Katie Couric look masterful in comparison. However, the bigger issue I had was with what he said. He had lost all the things that I liked about his perspective and viewpoint and sounded like a tired, superficial, contrived and insincere old Republican lapdog.

Finally, let’s talk about Eric Cantor, the Minority Whip, who is being touted as one of their next generation of leaders. Forget that this man was front and center supporting Cheney’s claims on Sunday news shows in the lead up to the Iraq invasion. He said of Iraq and Al Qaeda that, “really they're one and the same.” The issue I have with this man dates back to September, 2008 when the Bush-Paulson $700billion financial bailout package failed in the House because the majority of Republicans voted against it. Instead of simply accepting responsibility for the failure to garner the required votes within his party, as the Minority Whip, he blamed Nancy Pelosi and the speech she made a few minutes before the votes were cast. He said: "There is a reason that this vote failed - and that is Speaker Pelosi's speech.” Suggesting that he had the votes needed, but a dozen grown men from his party all changed their minds after hearing pathetic Pelosi's words. Leaders are made of sterner stuff in my book, and real men accept responsibility and move forward. Erik Cantor is clearly neither; and if he is the GOP’s idea of a new leadership, then God help them.

The sad truth is that the only loud voices you really hear from within the Republican Party today are from their players from yester-year, the ones like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney who just refuse to go away and continue their reckless fear mongering. They have nothing worthwhile to say and no new perspective to add to the national debate, other than offering the same old tired rhetoric of Obama’s drive toward Socialism. Frankly, the only breath of fresh air is the man who had to publicly apologise to Rush Limbaugh; the Chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele. While by no means an intellectual heavy-weight, he has at least been trying to inject some flavor and freshness to the party’s tired old white image, and has succeeded only in becoming a laughing stock within his own party’s base faster than Karl Rove can creep out Meghan McCain on Twitter. Sadly, I have no clue what the Republican Party stands for today. They are allowing themselves to be defined by the Democrats, who clearly have a spring in their step and bounce in their stride, thanks to Mr. Obama. Meanwhile, the Republicans seem only to have a tremble in their voice and a limp in their walk, thanks to Mr. Bush.

At this rate, a Limbaugh/Cheney ticket might turn out to be their only in option 2012, or then again maybe the Republicans have it right after all - to just sit back and continue doing what they are not doing and wait for the Democrats to screw it all up and hand it back on a platter; just like the Republicans did before them…

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Open Letter to Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei

"Allah has revealed to me, that you must be humble. No one should boast over one another, and no one should oppress another."
Prophet Mohammad

To His Excellency Ayatollah Khamenei,

Your demise seems inevitable; the only thing that remains to be seen is how you will respond to the clear and unyielding will of your people. I realise that you are a product of the Islamic revolution, one that was designed to overthrow the corrupt and tyrannical Shah, liberate your people from the West, giving them back their country. Yet your liberation gave them everything but liberty. In the end it bestowed a tyranny of a different order, one in the name not of the Shah but of Allah.

On Friday, when you spoke at the weekly prayers, we could see the fear in your eyes, hear it in your voice and words. Now we have all seen it even more clearly in your actions. If your only means of holding onto power is through the thuggery of the Basij and Revolutionary Guard, then you have already lost everything.

Every journalist you silence will only make the voices of peaceful dissent grow louder. You can jail and torture every liberal leader but new ones will emerge faster than you can jail them, many more than your prisons will have room to hold. You are sorely mistaken if you believe that you will succeed in crushing the will of the people through brute force and the threat of death; you will only serve to make their will grow stronger.

For every man, woman or child you kill, twenty more will rise up to fight your tyranny and injustice. Every drop of blood that is spilled will blot your conscience for an eternity. And every last breath you take away from another innocent soul will remind you that your end also draws near. No longer will the people of Iran silently tolerate atrocity and oppression in the name of Allah or any other.

The baton cannot crush anymore than a bullet can impede the path of freedom.

You still have a choice. You can forge a new revolution; one that upholds democratic ideals and not theocratic ones and you can truly return Iran to her people. The time has come to free a new generation, one that does not know of the Shah’s tyranny or of the injustices of your revolution. It is time to give them their birthright – a free and open society. This is the time to choose your place in history – as the father of a great nation or as the deposed despot of a revolution whose time came and has long gone.

Do not forget that the entire world is watching. We can see all you do and see through all that you claim you do not. You cannot hide, nor pass this off as some evil Zionist or Anglo-American plot to destroy Iran. The truth continues to flow through the cell cams of your people, and through every Internet gateway to the watching eyes of the world. Choose wisely.

In the end even Allah will not be able to save you.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran and Obama

“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.”
Rabindranath Tagore

As recently as 2007, George Bush announced that the US was going to set aside $40 million to help support democracy in Iran, a noble cause but one that should have been done silently. It was immediately used as an excuse by Ahmadinejad to crack down on students and “dissidents” labeled agents of America and to vilify the US as an evil empire that interferes with the domestic affairs of countries to suit its own regional, economic and security needs. Of course, this was also preceded by years of the Bush administration naming Iran a part of the so called ‘axis of evil’ and a terrorist state; all of which served only to add fire and lend support to the madman Ahmadinejad’s argument while stifling the moderate voices within Iran.

Now, contrast all of the above with Obama’s outstretched hand and lack of pre-judgment, where he is willing to initiate dialogue with whoever is chosen by Iran to represent its people on the world stage. If you look beneath the surface of the rhetoric of Ahmanidejad and the Khamemei there has been a rapidly growing moderate and pro democratic movement within Iran for some years now. Largely among the youth, who number 30% of the total population, and have no memories of the Shah, America’s interference or the revolution and thus no baggage other than what is espoused by their leaders and American Presidents. Additionally, they have been hugely dissatisfied with Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy, and most upset with his repeated assertions of denial of the Holocaust, which has served only to further isolate Iran. So from their perspective Obama’s outstretched hand further invigorates their cause by re-enforcing their belief that it is their own government which is the impediment to meaningful dialogue that could lead to peace in the region and prosperity for all Iranians.

At the same time the establishment in Iran, made up of the Supreme Leader, Supreme Council and Revolutionary Guard, realized that a friendly America would very quickly pull the rug out from under the feet of their revolution, because it has quite frankly been the only glue holding this passé ideology together in the 21st century. And the reality is that these ideologues no longer have any relevance or meaning to a new generation of Iranians. Granted, I do not have the benefit of NIE’s or CIA briefings each morning but in my estimation this fraudulent election result is a panicked miscalculation by the establishment to consolidate power and protect them from a friendly America. They believed that the only way to ensure their success was to make sure that their loyal horse Ahmadinejad (who was handpicked from obscurity by the Supreme Leader Khamenei a few years ago) won the election, and by a large majority so it would also seem to represent the will of the people. While this was a defensive reaction, to Obama’s overtures, they totally underestimated the spirit and resolve of their own people, not just the youth but also the majority of women - who clearly yearn for a more open, moderate and friendly Iran and are no longer willing to tolerate having the hijab pulled over their eyes.

So by publicly not taking a side, Obama has spoken volumes and helped the Iranian people in the greatest way that America can or ever has before. I can hear the voices on the right saying that his seemingly laissez faire attitude is a sign of weakness and one journalist even likened it to Obama voting “present.” But here’s the thing, if you have been listening, Obama has made it clear that US foreign policy is changing course. Unlike in 1953 when the United States and Great Britain orchestrated a coup, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mosaddeq and install the Shah of Iran; a tyrant who was more amenable to signing long term oil contracts with US and UK, instead of Russia. America under Obama has no interest in determining or charting the course of Iran. By making this clear, in both his speech to the Arab world in Egypt, and again re-iterating it this week, along with the promise of dialogue with whomever is chosen to represent Iran, by its people, he has taken away the most powerful tool that the Mullahs and Ahmadinejad have used to hold on to their repressive regime – evil America.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Greatest Democracy on Earth

"Democracy is a device that ensures that we will be governed no better than we deserve.”
George Bernard Shaw

At over 10,000 years old, she is one of the oldest civilizations in the history of the world and yet today is considered one of its youngest nations. She gave the world Chess, Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus, the number system and developed the decimal system in 100 BC. She established the world’s first university in 700 BC, had a physician performing complicated surgeries like cataract, artificial limbs, cesareans, fractures, urinary stones and also plastic surgery and brain surgeries about 2,600 years ago. She also gave us the art of navigation and navigating, the value of “pi” and the time taken for the earth to orbit the sun, hundreds of years before anyone in Europe did. She is also the birthplace of two of the world’s major religions, Hinduism (the world’s oldest religion) and Buddhism and a place where Christianity has existed for over 2,000 years and where the oldest Jewish synagogues and Jewish communities have resided since the Romans burnt their 2nd temple.

Today, India has no official language or religion but has 30 official languages (and 2,000+ dialects) and has people of every religion in the world, including the second largest Muslim population. It is only in India that you will find the Dalai Lama (and the Tibetan government in exile); a Sikh Prime Minister, a female President who was preceded by three Muslim Presidents and where the head of the ruling party is a Catholic Italian woman. Perhaps, India also faces the greatest geopolitical challenges of any nation with Pakistan bordering her on the West and Bangladesh, China and Myanmar to the East; it is a wonder that she is not just surviving but thriving and a testament not only to the grit and tenacity of her diverse peoples but also an ode to the success of Democratic ideals.

Last month Indians went to the polls to elect a new government. With 675,000,000 registered voters, 220 political parties and 5,398 candidates all vying for 545 parliament seats. The entire process took one month and required almost 1 million polling stations across the country. In the end 450,000,000 people had casts their votes and made their voices heard making this the greatest exercise in democracy the world has ever witnessed!

However, what I find most fascinating about this great show was how the people chose to vote:
India has long been divided by communalism, and parties intent on creating greater segregation through caste politics. As a result she has seen governments formed out of multiple and factious coalitions, with no one party really being given a clear mandate, by the voters, to lead. The main opposition party also went to town about the last coalition governments weak response to the Mumbai terror attacks because they showed a great deal of restraint in not taking the terrorist bait and attacking Pakistan; which would have destabilised an already sensitive region and quite possibly led to a nuclear armed conflict. This restraint was not a sign of weakness but of great strength, in my eyes, but one doubted if the vast majority of the voting population would be able to see through the opposition's smoke. And given that India has one of world’s poorest and least educated electorates it seemed that she was destined to stay divided and a slave to crappy coalitions that led from the status quo of the most compromised center. The fact that the electorate chose to look beyond what was presented to them and vote intelligently with their minds and rise above the communal divides, created by individual political parties, shows that the democracy and this great, young nation have begun to come of age.

Jain Hind!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Capitalism RIP…

"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit."
Gordon Gekko

Don’t get me wrong, I am as much of a jingoistic money grubbing capitalist pig as the best of them, and believe me when I say that I don’t intend on ‘sharing my wealth’ anytime soon (well, what little is left of it, anyway!); but I am saying that American Capitalism, the ideology that has been the essence and core of the global capitalist engine, is dead. The one that has for the last thirty or so years been filling up on spurious petrol to keep it revving; and much like Detroit, it is too late for an overhaul or an oil change to keep this baby purring – it will need to be replaced with a new and more generationally friendly one.

My conclusion is based on a simple premise. It is not one steeped in financial foresight or wizardry or even based on an innate understanding of derivatives, credit default swaps or the global financial systems’ intricacies or lack of regulatory structure. To my simple and poorly read financial mind there were (and remain) a couple of warning signs that our system of Capitalism was on a path to failure. And I want to clarify that it is not the fundamentals of Capitalist theory, but the people applying them, that have failed; the end result, however, remains the same.

The first warning was a growing lack of accountability coupled with a management culture where captains of industry were no longer being chastised, but routinely rewarded, for failure. And we, society, were saying it was fine that these men take no responsibility for their actions as long as they did not screw us personally. Of course, it also seemed like looking the other way had become easy because we were all in some way feeling a part of the greater wealth creation, by pushing our credit limits beyond our means and deluding ourselves into believing that our first million was probably also just around the next corner. It seemed that as long as these CEO’s had not broken any laws, all their sins were permissible and they could move to their next big job with a slap on the wrist and a golden parachute, instead of into management oblivion as should have been the case each time and with no exception. Add to this the small matter of Wall Street financial corporations, banks and hedge funds, creating generational wealth in a year and yet none of them were creating products or innovating, financial or otherwise (last time I checked CDO’s were not products). They were purely generating huge profits on a quarterly basis, which as it turns out were false, grossly overstated or simply hiding even bigger losses. These men were not only building the most dangerous and flimsy house of cards in the history of the world, but gambling recklessly and profiting from it and here’s the kicker – they were using your retirement money and mine to do it.

The second sign was one that was brewing in the world of academia. Colleges, whose critical role is to broaden minds beyond traditional spheres of influence and thinking, and to encourage future generations to discover and pursue dreams they never knew they had, were busy peddling sophisticated and fail proof financial models that would help companies evaluate ‘risk.’ You suddenly had professors everywhere becoming advisers to large corporations, showing up on company boards, and espousing ‘financial and economic’ expertise via regular columns in newspapers or appearances on television and basking under the bright lights of six and seven figure celebrity. Something is astray in academia when the line between classroom and boardroom starts to disappear in such a relaxed and yet alarming way. There were numerous reports of how talk of becoming a doctor, public servant or teacher had long disappeared from the modern day dorm room. It was now all about how one could make his first million dollars before turning thirty. Dreams consisted of amassing Astor or Rockefeller-like wealth not over a few generations, but through a few bonuses.

The third is what I deem the deterioration in the moral fiber of society; big words, I know, but simple when thought about in the context of the lack of meaningful action in the world of business and life, today. It is as if the fundamental human values and principles (not written laws or government regulation) that used to govern our inner consciences were being washed away in a tsunami of wealth creation. It felt like people only cared about creating personal wealth and were no longer willing to give back in real and consequential ways, in terms of donating their time and energy to bettering future generations. As long as everyone was making money, everyone seemed happy. Average people were buying their dream homes, and even less average ones were managing to buy second and third homes, politicians were filling their campaign coffers to the point where some actually stopped accepting any more contributions and we were filling our shopping carts with the latest flat screen televisions and Blue Ray players with money we did not have, and of course India and China were growing at 10% a year; nobody bothered about serious accountability and most of us did not stop and think about personal responsibility. We were happy to keep looking the other way as long as we and our own felt better off from one year to the next. And it is not altruism that I speak off. My mother always said it was easy to open your cheque book to appease your conscience, but it’s much harder to give up your Saturday to mentor new company recruits or give up the tee time to take your children to an all day camp - the issue that I believe lies at the heart of our problems and the failure of Capitalism. We were looking out for ourselves (in much, much larger numbers than in generations before us) and worried less and less about improving the future of our employees, companies, communities and our world.

So we can simply blame the Bernie Madoff’s, the Dick S. Fuld’s, the Barney Frank’s and the Republicans for all our woes and push for stricter laws, more stringent financial regulation and more transparent regulators, but I don’t believe this will solve the deeper underlying problem for the far future. I am all for bringing to book the leaders who misled companies, abused public office, refused to accept responsibility and engaged in criminal wrongdoing (and even have their bonuses and campaign contributions revoked) but I also believe that there is one more thing that we should all think about: ensuring that we set the example and bring up better people, in the generations that follow.