Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Enemy in Our Midst

“Fighting terrorism is like being a goalkeeper. You can make a hundred brilliant saves but the only shot that people remember is the one that gets past you.”
Paul Wilkinson

While the Republicans and Democrats continue to expend time and energy fighting and arguing about what to call terrorists. And Conservatives blame misguided left wing political correctness for using soft terminology and for lack of profiling, the world and the profile of the Extremist is being totally re-defined with every new homegrown terrorist being caught in America and abroad. It is becoming increasingly and frighteningly clear that our old rules, profiles and profiling definitions no longer apply. The terrorists are now recruiting and succeeding in creating a totally new breed of monster: people who are virtually impossible to sniff out or detect, most times until they actually commit an act of terror.

In the last year alone, all the men (and a few women) who have been arrested in the act of committing an act of terror, planning one or are already trained and hardened members of Al-Qaeda - not one of them fits the old profile of disenfranchised, poor, uneducated, Muslim and non-American.
Omar Hammami, was born to a white Southern Baptist woman from Alabama and a Syrian immigrant father. He had the most normal middle class childhood and upbringing in Daphne, Alabama until he showed up in a Somalia Al-Qaeda terrorist propaganda video one day with his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, “the American” (The Jihadist Next Door - New York Times). Bryant Neal Vinas was an altar boy who grew up in a middle class suburb on Long Island, New York, with a passion for baseball and the Mets. His father is from Peru and his mother Argentinean. Vinas was arrested last year in Afghanistan and confessed to being trained and assisting Al-Qaeda in a plan to bomb the Long Island Rail Road. Friends describe Vinas as a sweet, charming, young boy with a kind heart, who was perhaps a little gullible. David Coleman Headley has a wealthy former Pakistani diplomat for a father and a white American Pittsburgh socialite mother. By all accounts he had a very privileged childhood. He lived with his father in Pakistan until the age of 17, when he arrived in the United States to live with his mother. In 1998 he was convicted of smuggling heroin into the US. As part of a deal for a lighter sentence, he agreed to work undercover for the Drug Enforcement Agency, which gave him unfettered access to Pakistan, India and the United States. It is now clear he was training with Lashkar, raising the possibility that he had made contact with militants while still working for the DEA. He has admitted to helping plot the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Bombay, in 2008. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, better known as the underwear bomber, is the son of a former minister and chairman of First Bank of Nigeria. He lived in a four million dollar apartment in Central London, and was an Engineering student at a prestigious London University. His teacher and friends remember him as model pupil and “very personable boy". Faisal Shahzad, the terrorist who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square is the son of a former Air Force vice marshal and Deputy Director of Civil Aviation in Pakistan. Shazad graduated from the University of Bridgeport, came back to earn a Master’s in the same school, and was working with a marketing and consulting firm as a junior financial analyst. He became a US citizen in 2009 and married a Colorado-born girl with Pakistani parents. They have two children. He is the epitome of the “average student, employee, and neighbour” that litters the suburban American landscape today.

The list goes on, but what is most alarming to me about all of these men is that they have only one thing in common. Not one of them fits into any of our pre-defined categories or profiles that have been established and used by law enforcement for more than two decades for the hard core
Jihadist. Yet to consider them anything less would be a foolish mistake. After 9/11 we were all painted a picture of the poverty-stricken, opportunity-less, uneducated Muslim male as the person we should fear most to be a likely terrorist. We were told that these men could be found in poorer cities and villages in Muslim countries. And we were led to believe that the focus was on preventing these men from penetrating our borders, not that they already reside within them. Or the fact they are from upper or upper middle class backgrounds, clean cut, born and bred American and some even non-Muslim. So what the hell happened and how did our governments get it so totally wrong? “There's clearly been an acceleration in radicalization in the United States," said Mitch Silber, the director of intelligence analysis at the New York Police Department. He says that Bryant Neal Vinas and many of these men are “poster children for the process, the unremarkable nature of the people who might go through this process and the potential to link up with al Qaeda and the danger that it presents" (‘The radicalization of an all-American kid’ - CNN). Clearly, the internet has made it much easier for people to access and find Al-Qaeda or radicals around the world and more frighteningly the reverse is also true. There was a long held belief that integration and assimilation of the population was not an issue in the United States as it has been in Europe, but that myth, too, has been shattered by among others the Fort Hood shooter and the Times Square bomber. What is clear is that we are witnessing a totally new phenomenon and one that has caught International law enforcement by surprise. But what is far more frightening to me is that it is seemingly impossible to find a common thread between all of these men or a common motivation to profile them in any meaningful way. Without an understanding of their motivations or the turning or tipping point as it may be, we are totally defenseless to identify these men or track them down until after they have shown the demon within them, which most often is too late.

I leave you to ponder the words of author Michael Marshall from his book, Blood of Angels:
“Terrorism isn't James Bond or Tom Clancy. Even Al-Qaeda is looking old school these days---now it's just some guy with a bomb. He walks the same roads as us. He thinks the same thoughts. But he's got a bomb.”

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Open Letter to Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Dear Mr. Walsh,

I felt compelled to write to you one last time as I believe there is a dire need to remind you of your words from British Airways 2009 Annual Report, as your airline’s customer service continues to sink to new and hitherto unimaginable lows. “We will not let this crisis compromise our long-term goal – to create a world-leading global premium airline with a reputation for being the very best at meeting its customers’ needs.” Everybody makes mistakes but your staff’s attitude and lack of care, concern and pure arrogance after the poor experience we had is abhorrent and led me to make the decision never to fly BA again. However, BA again started courting me for my business a few months ago through numerous emails, letters and offers promising a new and vastly improved customer service and experience. It was this promise to woo back the countless customers’ it has no doubt lost over the last few years that prompted me to make one last effort to resolve the matter.

Once again I have had no joy from your Customer Service department. I corresponded via your website’s customer complaint mechanism, and initially Mr. B, from BA Customer Relations (as in 2006) sent me a response and then again there was complete silence when it came to actually resolving my issues. And this upon my supplying both clarification of the facts, and the supporting documents he requested; boarding cards and credit card statement, with e-ticket#, as proof of purchase (Fax dated: 2/2/2010).

In short, I never received what Mr. B himself promised me by way of apology in 2006, mileage credit to my wife’s account, nor did I get the refund/partial credit owed me from travel completed in 2005.

In summary our experience in 2005 is as follows: my wife and I were travelling New York-London-Dubai-London-New York with one full fare Business Class and one Premium Economy ticket. BA messed up our reservations causing us to miss our flight out of NY, then promised to upgrade my wife from London to Dubai, as there was no extra seat available in Business on the next flight, nor was my pre-booked aisle seat that I had on the original flight; so I too downgraded to economy from NY-London (and was promised a refund of the fare difference, which I was told would be automatically credited to my credit card within 60-90 days). Then your staff in London refused to honour the upgrade promise made to us by your staff in New York. Upon my seeking assistance from your London staff and getting the run around, frustrated, I finally asked who I needed to speak with in BA to help me, I was told, and I quote: “there is nobody in this airline that can help you.”

Sadly and truthfully, my expectation for resolution at this stage is virtually zero from both you and your airline, but I feel that in the end it is unhappy customers like me remaining silent that allow companies like British Airways to continue charging high premiums, while delivering subpar quality and service. Most importantly, our silence allows you to continue to treat your customers like cattle and take our business for granted. So consider this my way to stop turning my head and looking the other way, allowing companies like yours to continue the pursuit of profits at the expense of customers and everything else that matters. With this open letter, I am going to make every effort to ensure that the world is made aware of our less than poor experience and encouraged to do the same, through my personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter and all the various public and travel forums and discussions I actively participate in.

In my opinion British Airways, over the last decade has squandered its well earned reputation as “The World’s Favourite Airline” and become the “World’s Worst Airline,” and this from a customer who for years remained steadfastly loyal to your airline in the face of increased and better competitive options becoming available.


Sincerely,

Mr. Vaish

NOTE posted on 4th December 2010: I got a response from BA one month after sending this letter, and responded (http://bit.ly/cUp7HA) and of course have heard nothing back.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Up In Smoke

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Winston Churchill

There are things that are really and truly hard to give up, and then there is quitting smoking. Without a doubt the hardest thing I have done in my life. This post chronicles my journey and offers to serve as a pat on my back. I feel I deserve one, for kicking a habit that experts say is harder to kick than heroin addiction. That, in my book, deserves a self-congratulatory blog post. That said, this post is also dedicated to all those people who are trying, have tried or want to try to quit smoking. And before you get any ideas, I want to be clear at the outset that my intention is not to encourage anyone to quit smoking. I am not one of those irritating born again ex-smoker zealots who goes around preaching the health benefits of being smoke free. Or, worse yet, someone who feels compelled to shove down your throat the ills of smoking, at every opportunity they get. For those people who have absolutely no desire to kick the habit, I say, “smoke on, and let the nicotine flow!” However, to those who have not yet tried it, I will say don’t ever – the early joys are not worth the price you pay later in life, and I have witnessed this first hand.

I started smoking when I was fifteen years old for two simple reasons. First, it made my Bacardi and coke taste better and second, all the girls in school that I wanted to hang out with liked to hang out with boys who smoked. Of course, it helped that in those days you could smoke on the London Underground platform (no joke), buses, movie theaters and pretty much anywhere you could find a light. And more than anything else I actually enjoyed every drag of my cigarette, to the point that after the first month I no longer cared about looking cool anymore. I guess I was hooked to the physical addiction and this went far beyond the social ritual that came along with the cigarettes. For the next twenty-one years I enjoyed every moment of it, so much so, that people routinely told me that I looked like I was born to smoke because I appeared so happy and natural doing it. I realise this should not make me feel proud, but I did. I was never one of those people who ever wanted to or tried to quit smoking. Actually, I read somewhere in my teens that if you quit around the age of thirty-five, you can stop, and sometimes even reverse, the damage to your lungs. Whether it was true or not did not really matter, it was good enough for me. Besides at the age of sixteen, the word thirty not only felt like a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away, but also a few lifetimes away. So my decision was made; I would live life to the fullest, smoking, drinking and doing everything else my heart desired until my mid-thirties.

There was one time in college that I did quit smoking. It was based on a challenge issued by someone who did not believe my little theory, and more importantly found totally incredulous the fact that I believed I would simply be able to drop such a powerful addiction at a time of my choosing. Now, you should also know that I was no longer a causal smoker by this stage (Mom, please don’t read the rest of this paragraph.). I was smoking more than one pack a day at the time. Crazy, I know, but easy to do when you are partying 24 hours a day, and living on 1-2 hours sleep a night. Not being one to back down from a good challenge, especially one that entailed testing my will power; I not only offered to quit smoking for two months but also threw in the added difficulty of doing it during the most stressful time known to a student – end of semester exams. That same day I finished my open pack and started my two-month long tribulation against all the odds. I will not say it was easy but luckily for me I had a few things working in my favour. I am a Leo, love winning, and had been smoking for a short five years. I even carried my trusty Zippo around with me for the entire time, lighting everyone else’s cigarette and anything else I could find. The two months passed and I had won with relative ease, much to the chagrin of my challenger and the delight of my friends. As I celebrated my victory by getting ready to sample the pleasures of my first post challenge cigarette, my girlfriend at the time asked me the most ludicrous question – “Since you quit for two months, and at a time you most needed your addiction, why not just stop smoking altogether?” Women.

Fast forward to August 2006, I had been smoking for a grand total of twenty-one years (with only that two month break), and found myself suddenly staring my thirty-sixth birthday in the face, and showing little sign of being able to quit. My wife was one of the people who was in on my little plan of quitting ‘around the age of thirty-five’ and was also beginning to doubt I ever would be able to kick this habit. Turns out she was not the only one; my Doctor, my mother and my entire trusty friend circle seemed to have serious doubts, I realised, when they all began to suggest taking a new miracle drug called Chantix to fulfill my self professed promise. As much as I hate getting help from anyone, I am even more skeptical of brain altering drugs. I believe that if you want to do something, you have to make up your mind and just do it. For me this is the only real and lasting way and failure is also not an option for a Leo. So I decided to move to plan B. I knew I wanted to and had even made up my mind to do it, so the only thing that remained was finding a way to wean my body off the physical nicotine addiction, without the aid of drugs or patches. So I turned it into a challenge to myself and decided to find out what the most basic amount of nicotine my body needed to survive was. I started by cutting down the number of daily cigarettes, from 20 to 10 over a period of three months. At 10 I was doing perfectly fine with no crazy cravings. So I moved it to the next level and decided to smoke only when I was really, really dying to have one. As it turns out, my cravings that I could not live without were satisfied by 4 cigarettes a day; two in the morning, one after lunch and one after dinner. That was it. Just 4 measly cigarettes a day; I knew I could beat my addiction and have been completely (not even a drag) smoke free since 7th June 2007.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

When I grow up I want to be politician


"Crime does not pay…as well as politics.”
Alfred E. Newman

I want to do this because it seems to be the coolest job in the world. You get to travel, see the world, get your personal needs taken care of and have a group of “hangers on” doing your every bidding. You also have corporations and businesses courting you and paying for your family vacations and in many instances also paying to re-do or repair you home. I don’t think any other job in the world can compare. You also get a gold plated healthcare plan, which you can keep for life after working for a mere four years; you will not find this perk within any other corporation or company in the world. As if all this is not enough, it is also the only job in the world that has no retirement age…most often the older you are the better chance you have of getting the job in the first place. In fact, one could even create a persuasive argument to support the fact that this is the quite possibly the only job where senility can be a huge asset. Especially when it comes time to be questioned by your voters about how well you dispensed your job duties, and why you made some of the decisions you did. So why would I ever want to do anything else?

Granted, there is a small amount of work I would need to do, but that mainly entails traveling around the country, talking to people and pressing palms while allowing them to believe I am listening to their worries and concerns, but mostly just enjoying the sound of my own voice. The other aspect involves arguing with my colleagues about absolutely every topic, and then publicly disagreeing with anything the opposing party says. All the while deftly ensuring that the voting public is aware that I am always on their side, on every issue under the sun. I would also not be expected at the office while I am on the road. Be it to far-flung exotic destinations on critically important “research trips” that will help me make the lives of my constituents better. I might need to travel to the Polynesian Islands to witness first-hand the impact of local drug trafficking on the economy and how it might undermine the fundamentals of democracy. Or I might embark, at great inconvenience to myself, using a combination of military and commercial jets, to Copenhagen to protest the high levels of CO2 that are emitted into the atmosphere through our over reliance on jets. Of course, it would only be fair to take my family and friends along with me since my job demands being on the road so much that I rarely get to see them. And just because I care so much about the future generations, I might even bring along a group of young and impressionable school children to learn this valuable lesson on climate change, and perhaps awaken the same instinct within them to selflessly serve their country. To think that taxpayers grumble about these sacrifices and investments in future generations our politicians make. After having had a more sufficient view into and understanding of the personal sacrifices and grueling schedules these public servants keep, I am sure you are all empathetic enough to see why they deserve 16 weeks of vacation in a normal year. In 2008, one of the toughest years economically in the world, and since the Great Depression in America, they only worked a combined total of 103 days. I am sure they must have also quietly taken pay cuts along with their reduced workdays and workload for the year. To think that they did not even make a fuss or let us know about it…does this selflessness have no end I ask? So why would I want to grow up to be anything else?

I hear that the levels of stress can be very high in political life. The pressure of constantly being in the public eye and needing to have an understanding and expertise in a wide range of topics, from military defense systems to wild Iguana lizard co-habitation patterns, must take its toll on the poor little human brain. So, it’s not surprising that these noble people need to take a break sometimes, to get away from under our microscopes and maybe take a secret hike along the Appalachian Trail. Is that so wrong?

This pressure can also manifest itself in other ways from what I have seen. I, for one, cannot imagine being away from my wife and family for prolonged periods of time. We all say that long distance relationships are doomed to fail, so how do we expect these poor men and women to make them succeed? And this with the added pressure of having to juggle and solve not just multiple problems, but find solutions that will keep their corporate donors, special interest groups, lobbyists and, oh yeah, their constituents all happy at the same time. So I do not understand why we refuse to cut them some slack when they end up having sexual relations with staff members. Yes they are not their spouses, but are at close quarters 24x7 with them, helping them solve the biggest problems that face not just our country but also the world today. Especially when they more often than not try to quietly and privately sort out these types of problems, generously I might add, by paying for their lovers’ mortgages or by giving their lover’s parents a gift from their own hard earned money. Frankly, if their spouses don’t mind and will stand behind and beside them after the fact, then who are we to judge them or meddle in their personal affairs?

Politics is also the only profession in the world where candidates do not need any specific qualifications or prior work experience to get the job. Once elected the progression from this state of knowing little to nothing about anything, to becoming an expert on all things, concerning all people, is another fascinating aspect to which I'd like to be privy. My thirst for knowledge is great and I don’t see any other job in the world offering it in such a massive, rapid and wide-ranging way. The other aspect that has always fascinated me is that even if I accomplish nothing more than getting nominated by my party to a position that propels me into the national spotlight, and I never offer a coherent or substantive point of view on anything, or even finish my term of elected office – I can easily quit, write a book about having accomplished nothing and about being a quitter, get paid six figures to do speaking engagements on the subject of failure, and retire in two short years. Now, if that does not sound like an exciting job opportunity then I am not sure what will.

So, I want to be a politician someday because I know I too can make a tremendous contribution to society doing all the many wonderful things I just talked about, making all the mistakes I wanted, never having to apologise or resign. But the number one reason is that I can do all of these things, and you the taxpayers would be paying for it all – every paisa, penny and dime.

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.