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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Why Sally Yates, Colin Kaepernick and the Hamilton Cast Were Wrong

“A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn't feel like it.”
Alistair Cooke (British-American journalist)

First, I want to be clear that I am aligned with the causes that each of these individuals felt the need to protest, but completely disagree with the manner in which each chose to do it. Their actions showed a lack of maturity, social decorum and professionalism, and these things have never been more important than now, when we have a President who completely ignores them.

I would like to discuss each individual event and the reasons for my disagreement because each one pertains to a different, but important, point.

First, I applaud that a cast member tried to dissuade the audience from booing, and stated that this was not a personal repudiation, but a plea for diversity and inclusiveness.

Two, Mr. Pence deserves credit for waiting in the wings to listen to their message and later adding that he was not offended as a supporter of free speech, but that he would leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.” (Source: Washington Post).

Now to my point of disagreement: there was an argument thrown around in the mainstream media, in the cast’s defense, saying that theater has historically been a venue for protest and dissent. This is true; but it conveniently ignores one vital fact – that protest has always transpired between the curtain’s rise and fall and not after the performance has ended.

Shakespeare often used his art as a powerful weapon for dissent, but always constrained his message within the substance and subject of his play. I am not aware of a single instance in which he or his cast showed up after curtain call to give the Queen or King of England a lecture.

The cast also failed to respect the fact that Mr. Pence was there as a private citizen, accompanied by his niece and nephew, and not his capacity as an elected official. This was not the time or place to raise their protest.

I have similar issue with the way in which Sally Yates (the acting Attorney General) behaved.

To be clear, I fully agree with Ms. Yates stance against President Trump’s ill-conceived travel ban and do not believe such a ban will help make America safer. My issue is with the way in which she took action. The professional thing for her to do would have been to resign on moral grounds.

Ms. Yates admits as much in her internal letter. She states that the legality of the order was not in question; it was cleared by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), whose job is to rule on legality. She goes on to say that her main issue was a moral one, driven by “…statements made by an administration or it surrogates close in time to the issuance of an Executive Order that may bear on the order’s purpose. And importantly, it does not address whether any policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just.” (Source: “Letter from SallyYates” via NYTimes).

Ms. Yates had every right to protest the order by resigning, but it was reckless of her to refuse to fulfil her job responsibilities. More worryingly, she signalled to all Justice Department staff that they too were free to disobey direct orders from the President based on personal whim, rather than compel them to always act professionally and follow the correct channels and protocols when in disagreement.

Morality is a grey area and that is why in a professional setting such behaviour sets a dangerous precedent. We must consider the flip side of government employees taking unilateral action. For the short period that President Trump’s travel ban was in effect, there were reports of US Customs agents detaining people not covered under the order. Like Ms. Yates, these men and women also justified their unprofessional behaviour as a moral obligation to protect the nation.

For this reason we must never defend Ms. Yates actions, or those of the rogue customs agents; both failed to live up to the level of the professionalism we must demand of all elected and non-elected officials. In a democracy we must always use the courts and the many other systems of checks and balances we have to fight when we disagree, but must never circumvent them or make exceptions (even when we are right) because this is exactly how civilised societies collapse.

This brings me to Colin Kaepernick. I care deeply about the cause he has been protesting and have researched and written about the gross inequality that exists between Blacks and Whites in America, even today, one hundred and fifty plus years after slavery was abolished.

Kaepernick is fighting to bring awareness to an important issue, but his chosen method serves to alienate and divide people because he has gone about it in a wrong-headed fashion. The issue for me is not whether he is disrespecting the flag or people who served, but that his actions were unprofessional.

When Kaepernick and his fellow players put on their uniforms, they cease being private citizens and become professional representatives of an organisation, who are being paid a salary to perform a job. Sports fields and offices are not places for personal protests and must never be used as such, no matter how worthy the cause.

Just imagine if everyone decided to take the same liberty and start using the professional environment to protest personal causes.

That said, there is nothing stopping Kaepernick from using his off-field celebrity to raise awareness for this cause. He can and should use his star power to gather support and get people involved in finding solutions, but never feel like he has a right to do it while wearing the uniform, or at the office, where he is just one member of a team of professionals.

And we must never justify or condone someone’s actions based on the weight of their cause or our agreement with it. What is at issue in all these instances is not the moral weight of the cause, but the preservation of the rules that govern and protect our way of life. 
Adherence to these rules is solely what underpins the health of a free society. For democracy to thrive everyone needs to respect the rules and maintain a level of professional decorum.

At a time when we have a man who ignores all of these rules, occupying the highest office in the land, it is even more important that we set the example for our children and lead the way, never lowering ours principles or high standards. 

The future of American democracy depends on it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi; I certainly hope so.


“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” 

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this before seeing the movie.

I am a big Star Wars fan. I was one of those kids who had everything from the light sabers and action figures to the outfits. I even knew the dialogues to the point where Han and Luke and Leia were like a second family. That was then.

We have all written off the three prequel films George Lucas made, and while I enjoyed the JJ Abrams reboot with the Force Awakens, it largely felt like a rehash of the original franchise with younger stars and not the reboot that is required to make it relevant for another generation.

Star Wars needed re-invention and a new perspective akin to what the James Bond franchise did by casting an atypical Bond in Daniel Craig and offering us a complex, vulnerable and gritty new character. My expectation with The Last Jedi was that it would do something similar and offer audiences a new hope with complex new characters, re-imagining the franchise for another generation.

Let’s start with the one positive aspect. It was an enjoyable movie with magnificent locations, stunning sets and some great action sequences which would have been great for the average superhero film, but not for Star Wars. Pretty much every other aspect of the film was a total and utter disappointment.

I guess my biggest criticism is that it felt like a happy Disney movie that completely lost the original grit, complexity and coarseness of characters and nuances in the storyline and plot that made it a work of genius. These characters felt simple and one-dimensional with a storyline so dumbed down that it felt like laziness on the part of the filmmakers.

To begin with, none of the characters had any convincing conflict or complexity in their make-up. Flat and cardboard and sadly unmemorable were they. Even when they tried to add a layer of complexity, it felt lazy and unconvincingly bad – like in a kid’s cartoon (where it works wonderfully).

The new evil super villain Kylo Ren is a disappointment. He comes across as an angry and bellyaching teenager, much less a dark foreboding and haunting force like Darth Vader before him. He spent most of the movie breaking stuff in anger, or looking like he was trying really hard not to break down in tears because someone called him a sissy. Also, I am not clear if he is meant to be an androgynous character. This is not explained and does not add interest to the storyline, and feels more like checking a box for political correctness, making up for previous lack of diversity in casting blockbuster films.

This brings me to the rest of the casting.

There is a white female lead, alongside Black, Hispanic and Asian co-leads. I spent the entire movie waiting for the Indian character to show up, but alas this United Colours of Star Wars was left incomplete for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for diversity, but it has to be natural, feel organic to the story and lend something to the plot - not merely become a box that needs to be checked that makes it feel contrived and totally superficial.

Then there were the inexplicable unrealities in the story - everything from our heroes escaping unscathed after earth shattering explosions (where all the bad guys die), to Princess Leia flying through space without a spacesuit, to a completely misguided attempt to add a romantic love triangle to the plot. The scene between Rose, the hitherto shy and crying Asian mechanic (who also suddenly learns how to become an ace fighter pilot) and Finn the black ex-storm trooper was so bizarre that it felt like an oversight.

The issue is not that there cannot be a romance between an Asian woman and a black man, but that there was zero chemistry between these two characters that established any sort of potential love interest prior to her confessing her love for him. In fact, they spent a large part of the movie running around like brother and sister without any hint of romance brewing between them.

Similarly, when Luke Skywalker’s reason for his self-imposed exile and endless torment are revealed, it is completely underwhelming. It is hard to believe that an otherwise intelligent, emotionally mature man, who incidentally is also considered the last hope for the Universe, would fall apart in such spectacular fashion over something so trivial.

And fall apart in a manner that involves renouncing the world, giving up all hope, turning his back on his Jedi religion, refusing to use his powers for the good and deciding to spend his remaining days living a hermit-like existence on an island, in a forgotten and far away galaxy, surrounded by little lady owl-like creatures.

According to Luke, the reason for his total meltdown is his former pupil Kylo’s betrayal, and turn to the dark side. The problem is that the audience is never made privy to depth of Luke’s connection with Kylo. Just like adults sometimes refuse to explain a deeply complex issue and tell children too simply to take their word for it, so too does the director seem to tell his simple-minded audience to do the same.

Then there are the failed and unimaginative attempts to give the franchise new life. We witness Luke throw the cherished light-saber over his shoulder, like it is an old useless relic. We see Yoda (who was totally wasted in the movie) burn the sacred Jedi texts, and we watch Kylo Ren bash his Vader mask to pieces in another one of his angry teenage outbursts.

There were moments of humor and light-heartedness that were used to convey the idea of letting the “old die”. The issue is that this message went beyond symbolism, and was also uttered as dialogue by a number of different characters.  Great filmmakers convey this message with a magical subtlety that demands a level of emotional intelligence from an audience. Here it is delivered like an impatient child who has yet to learn the art of subtlety would, repeatedly hitting the audience over the head until they all beg it to stop.

In closing, I will say that this would have been a great film if Disney had promoted it as a movie for children aged 6-10 years, for young minds that are at an age where things are still black and white and there is pure good or evil in the world, and minds are not yet burdened with complexity and nuance.

But selling this as a renewal of the franchise for the original devotees simply offers false the words of the immortal Yoda, “there is no try”.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Why You Should #DeleteFacebook from Your Phone


“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”
Dalai Lama

Larry Page the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, famously told the New York Times that when he looks to purchase a company, he asks whether it passes the toothbrush test; Is it something you will use once or twice a day, and does it make your life better? 

At first glance the statement seems perfectly innocuous and almost noble when you think about technology making your life better, but the reality is far more pernicious. Unlike brushing your teeth, something we are taught to do from early child hood, in order to preserve our gums and have healthy teeth, for internet companies the equivalent is finding ways to ensure we get fixated with and completely addicted to their products.

This type of addiction to Facebook, Google, Amazon, LinkedIn or Netflix has nothing to do with making us healthier or better human beings; in fact it is having exactly the opposite effect on our brains, mental well-being and state of happiness.

Merriam-Webster describes addiction as;
1: the quality or state of being addicted
2: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful

There is a reason Silicon Valley does not use traditional business metrics like earnings, sales or revenue to measure an acquisition target, instead they look at ‘stickiness’ or addiction in terms of how often users interact with the app on a daily basis.

Until now we thought about harmful addictions primarily in terms of substance abuse because it is easier to see the visible and physical effects on someone addicted to drugs, alcohol or sex; with the internet and social media, the addiction is more disarming and harder to see. We can all agree that most addictions are bad for human beings, and scientists and researchers are just now starting to see the detrimental effect smart phones are having on our intelligence, social skills and declining levels of happiness.

I understand that this is a hard thing to get your head around because few people will be able to imagine navigating daily life without a smartphone. It is how we stay in touch with friends, share kid’s milestones with family, communicate with co-workers, stay on top of breaking news, search for answers and even solve complex work problems, as well as what we turn to for entertainment during commutes and down-time. Nobody is suggesting we power down our phones and move back into caves, but it is important to understand the harm of constant use and without conscious boundaries.

A recent Wall Street Journal article cites a number of independent research studies reaching the same dangerous conclusion that the “integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to cause a “brain drain” that can diminish such vital mental skills as “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”

To keep us addicted, each service needs to constantly invent new ways to get us to spend time within their apps and to do it many times a day. This is how Facebook, BuzzFeed, Instagram, Reditt and every other similar service make money - the more often we use it, the more likely we are to see an ad, and thus the more valuable their service becomes to an advertiser.

There are only so many baby pictures and cat videos one can watch. After a while the bit of content vying for our attention needs to become more and more outrageous and sensational to command our repeated attention. It is this vicious cycle in a race to become the most addictive that is driving all their content into the gutter, as we saw with the mass proliferation of fake news across all news and social media platforms in the last US election.

People will argue that we have dealt with many captive and unhealthy mediums over the centuries and mankind has not only survived, but thrived, and this is true; but unlike cinema, radio, television or computers, we have never before been able to immerse ourselves in these things twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and have them within our reach from the moment we wake up to when we sleep.

The same WSJ article explains this fundamental difference with a mobile phone in this way: “Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.”

Another study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found a direct connection between increased Facebook usage and decreased well-being; “And the team says their findings show that "well-being declines are also a matter of quantity of use rather than only quality of use." Even if we were to argue that adults are generally more capable of dealing with this type of addiction, which the data says is not true, we must consider the devastating effect it is having on younger minds.

Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has been studying generational differences for 25 years, recently wrote an article in The Atlantic on this issue. She found that “there is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.” She concludes that “there’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness.”

I am not suggesting that Facebook, LinkedIn or Google are evil; in fact in the grand scheme of life they have done much more good than bad. The issue is the frequency with which we engage with our apps based on having our mobile phones tethered to us 24x7, and the incessant and constant need to consume information via the built in alerts and notifications, which are designed to distract us from life and encroach on our minds in unhealthy ways.

I understand that it is not possible to live without Facebook and Google or a mobile phone today, but there is no reason why we need to have access to and distraction by these services twenty-four hours a day. My suggestion (and this is what I have done) is to delete Facebook from your phone, because it is the MOST distracting and harmful social platform of the lot and then turn OFF your notifications on all the other apps barring maybe two or three news sites.

This way you will still have access to everything but will be in total command of when and where you do, and no longer be a slave to their alerts and notifications.

I promise you that you will be much happier and science says your mind will be much healthier.