Saturday, August 30, 2008

Weather watch

Quiet Labor day weekend, mostly soaking in whatever warmth there is left in the waning months of August. The leaves will soon give up their bright greens slowly losing their sprightly resilience and in a couple of months will fall away to the earth. The cold will set in and the long dreary winter slog will start. While Hurricane Gustav is barreling down the Caribbean and heading for the Louisiana shores, a hitherto unheard of storm, Palin seems to be pounding us down from Alaska. While the former will only have short term consequences, the latter could dig in deeper with unknown results. I sincerely hope both storms just blow away peacefully with zero national damage.

Commute pictures




Friday, August 29, 2008

You go Girl! - Quote for today.

The women of America aren’t finished yet… We can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all!”. Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin and the presumptive republican veep nominee on Friday August 29th, 2008.

On the Iraq war: "I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq" on the 1st of March 07.

"Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending out U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan."

On a $30 billion national gas pipeline project that she wanted built in the state of Alaska. "I think God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built, so pray for that"

If this is the way we are planning on breaking that glass ceiling, it is indeed pathetic.

From Gail Collins of the Times...

Whether you liked her or not, Hillary Clinton convinced the nation that women could be qualified to both run the country and be commander in chief. That was an enormous breakthrough, and Palin’s nomination feels, in comparison, like a step back. If she’s only on the ticket to try to get disaffected Clinton supporters to cross over, it’s a bad choice.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama's speech tonight was spot on. Just right. This man has a plan for pulling the country forward. If we don't we seize this opportunity now (at this juncture), we never will.

Dumbing down? - Lament

Yesterday my wife and I went to a 'meet the new teacher' gathering at our children’s day care. On the momentous occasion of our children transitioning from their current class to their next, we were given an opportunity to learn the new teacher’s backgrounds, their credentials and personality. We found them great and justly so - it does cost a bit. At the end of the session, it was mentioned that our elder son would be starting his letter writing soon and the head teacher mentioned that they would start with the letter C. As soon as they master writing C, they will proceed to O. I sat there a little flummoxed on the newly discovered order of the English alphabets. As if reading my mind, an audience member behind us piped up with the question du jour; What about starting with A? Then B, C, D etc. like the rest of us learned...

The teacher looked incredulously at us for a split second, resolved to herself that she was speaking to a bunch of parents who really do not know too much about educating their four year olds and slowly proceeded to explain. She told us that starting with the letter C is the easiest as it involves writing the letter in a single pencil stroke whereas starting off with the letter A would involve three discrete strokes to complete the letter. She told us that starting with the letter A will be mentally taxing on the little child. She went onto intone that children will find it emotionally and mentally stimulating to start with an easy letter first and then proceed to the tougher, taxing ones towards the end.

I was not convinced. Somehow, I felt that dumbing down little tasks and making life easy for children in their formative years is necessarily not a good thing. Let me explain.

Our children will live and work in a very different world from what we inhabit. A world more flat, more cohesive and more integrated where global economies intermingle and people, resources and goods cross international boundaries like we drive across states today. In such a world, our children will face competition from the likes of children bought up in countries like Taiwan, China, South Korea, Japan and India. In most of these countries children are given a tougher beginning to life, more material to study and a rigorous outlook in general. They are taught to survive the rough and tumbles of a system that they will have to navigate successfully and triumph a couple of decades from whence they start to write their first letters. Mollycoddling them with asinine explanation of 'mentally taxing’ and ‘emotionally and mentally stimulating' will not work in the future global marketplace where skills, tenacity and competitiveness will rule ever more so. Shielding our children from competition and striving to make their already comfortable lives more so will not do us any benefit in the longer run. Of course, I did not mention any of my wayward thoughts to the hapless teacher, but talked long and hard into the night with my wife. We are still working out a plan.

Jose Chavez Morado (Mexican 1909 - 2002), 'Boy', Oil on canvas, 14" X 11", 1945

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Quick notes

Michelle Obama’s speech (and Part II here) during the Democratic National Convention yesterday was super. Maybe she should consider a run for president sometime in the future... Great work. Will be interesting to see what Hillary has to say today...

Monday, August 25, 2008

On the Appalachian Trail - 1

The planned hike to cover the Appalachian Trail (AT) in NJ turned out to be a complete disaster. New hiking shoes whose soles separated, a bad knee joint that acted up and an unnaturally humid day that seemed to sap all of our energies plotted to make the hike a non starter.

What originally was planned by my brother and me to be a two day hike over about 70 miles with a sleepover at the midway location of High Point, NJ ended after about 18 miles into the trek on the afternoon of the first day. Well, we tried – and learned.

Raring to get as early as possible to the trailhead, we started off by cajoling the family to drop us off at the start point of the trail – located at the NY/NJ border. Starting at 6 in the morning, we started the hike by taking the 1.5 mile steep section of the blue blazed State Line Trail from the town of Lakeside in West Milford, NJ onto the top of Bearfort Mountain in the Abram S. Hewitt State Park.

The early morning walk up the mountain was especially breathtaking – the sun behind the trees, a bit of that hazy mist that surrounds damp trees in the morning, the birds just waking up and the occasional crack of dry branches in the distance signaling that startled deer. About 45 minutes into that climb, we spotted the white blazed Appalachian Trail at the NY/NJ state line. It was a mixture of emotions – elation at finally having reached the AT and a feeling that this was just the beginning of a long haul.

The trail itself was very well marked, the white blazes leading logically from one to the other with double blazes signifying a change of trail direction. Crossing split log bridges, woody roads, logs over intermittent streams, plank bridges over swamps and moss covered paths, we took in all that nature and the trail had to offer us that morning. We also noticed that the trail was slowly ascending gradually - up the Wawayanda Mountain. Named by the Lenape Indians, it means ‘winding waters’ and it tops off at about 1400 feet. In between, we stopped for a quick bite at Double Kill stream under an 1800's era iron bridge. Beauty. We also managed to get some water here before we resumed climbing the Wawayanda Mountain.

The views from the top of the mountain was moderate – nothing spectacular, but marked a little bit by a slight change in the nature of the vegetation around us – giving more ground to shorter and sturdier needle based woods than the sturdy hemlocks, white pines, balsam firs and spruces lower down. We also noticed large solitary rocks, the size of small trucks every once in a while, seemingly left there by a giant hand. These were remnants of the last ice age when glaciers carried these rocks downstream. Their current location must have been determined when certain sections of the retreating glacier melted faster than other portions, leaving large rocky detritus behind like isolated droppings of another age.
If climbing the mountain was difficult, descent was doubly so. The steep nature of the descent and the extremely rocky section of the trail were fairly hard on the knees and progress was very slow. In between, my brand new hiking shoes seemed to come apart at the soles (not too sure how this came to be as I got this from the supposedly venerable ‘Tent and Trails’ store in Manhattan - a store that I will never go to again).

The descent took about an hour, and the view on looking back at the now towering Wawayanda Mountain was especially beautiful. We felt in awe of the fact that we had managed to scale and descend our first peak in under 4 hours. Maybe we should have stopped and rested for a while at this point, but enthusiasm got the better of us and we decided to press on in spite of the complaining knee.

The scene in front of us was postcard perfect, Vernon valley and private farmlands were nestled between the Pochuck mountains upfront and Wawayanda behind. Most of the valley was covered with large wavy switchblade like grass overgrown with ferns, white / red sumac, buttonbush and violets. Along the long gravel path that led from the mountain base, we met a northbound thru-hiker who was on his way to Maine from Georgia. He went by the trail name Kit and said that this was his 105th day on the trail. We exchanged pleasantries and he seemed a bit taken aback that we were attempting the distance we planned in one day.

Vernon valley is basically swampy lowland and most of the trail over this section consists of intermittent wooden boardwalks built about 4 feet off the swamp surface. Years of flooding and vegetative growth along the Wallkill River on its way to join the Hudson created the Pochuck swamp over thousands of years. The floor of the swamp seemed mushy, soft and was covered with a rich, dark, brownish-black soil. The swamp itself was carpeted by a six feet high blanket of violets, yellow bellworts, poinsettias, daisies and a profusion of red flowers whose name I cannot seem to dredge. By this time, the afternoon sun was taking its toll and instead of stopping to rest, we decided to push on. I also remember reading that the boardwalk construction over the Pochuck swamp (also called Pochuck Quagmire) was one of the most expensive construction projects undertaken by the AT conservancy. The highlight of the walk across the swamp was a 14 foot high suspension bridge over the Pochuck Creek, whose foundation is said to float over the bog to make way for the shifting water and vegetation patterns.

It was about 12 noon when we decided to climb the 1100 foot Pochuck Mountain. The mountain was created out of billion year old rock and is scarred with ridges scraped from vestiges of the last ice age. The slope up the mountain was steep, unforgiving and beautiful. In between the climb, we caught sight of a baby deer who seemed to be fearlessly surveying us from behind the dense undergrowth. I also ran into our first rattlesnake along the way – I had decided to rest awhile and had just laid the backpack down on the forest floor when I heard an urgent clearing from the brush – and chanced on a snake about two feet long. We sized up each other for about 30 seconds before it decided to go along its way apparently deciding that I did not mean much harm.

After a little more climbing, we stopped for lunch (bread and meats) halfway up the mountain and I could feel my knee telling me that I will need to exercise better before trying anything of this magnitude in the near future. The rocks digging through the exposed sole of my left foot also was not really helping the situation. I remember cursing the lower Manhattan store multiple times. About this time, I decided that maybe we should call it a day and ask for help from the family in picking us right after we cross this mountain. It did turn out to be a wise decision.

The climb up Pochuck mountain was grueling, but the vistas on the summit was worth the effort. Wawayanda State Park and distant towns were tiny specks in the distance that was essentially covered in a maze of green that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. The distant reservoirs and the occasional lake reflected the brilliant blue of a cloudless bare Saturday sky. By this time, it was clear that we could not proceed any longer with my knee and the slipshod shoe. We asked for the family to come by and 'rescue' us from a designated point at the base of the mountain.

Descents are much harder than ascends for me and the descend down the especially steep Pochuck mountain was no exception. When one is tired, one does not seem to notice the beauty around the trail anymore – you just want to get to the next stop for whatever might be planned in terms of an end to the adventure. This was our condition on the way down. We however did stop a bit to heroically take a couple of pictures, but it was a feeble effort at maintaining a semblance of normalcy. On the way down, we ran into a 60 year old thru hiker who went by the trail name of Papa Rose. An interesting character, he offered several tips on finding water sources on the way ahead, and even mentioned that the mayor of the next town (Unionsville) was a kindly man who takes in hikers for the night at his home. We told him that this was valuable information, but we were calling it quits for the day.

In retrospect, we chewed off more than we could handle for a day. I also found out that hiking any more than 10-12 miles on the AT in a single day is inviting trouble, burnout and extreme stress on ones knees. Come to think of it, we had hiked about 18 miles in under 9 hours and ascended and descended 2 steep 1000 footers along the way. Nope, not a recommended idea, but at least we have a flavor for what lies in store ahead for future ‘section hikes’ across the trail. The plan still remains - section hike the trail end to end - even if it takes years - completion will happen at some point - cobbling a couple of days off from work every once in a while – cajoling family to pitch in – completing the trail wizened and intelligent.

The best part of the hike happened at the very end when my wife, her sister and my brother-in-law drove for a couple of hours to ‘rescue’ us on a fairly remote road (Lake Wallkill Road near the town of Owens, NJ). On thanking them for the effort mustered at short notice, their only response was ‘Hey, that’s what families are for…”


Catching the first of the white blazes

The NY/NJ state line demarcated by the State Line Trail

Across a wood bridge at the foothills of the Wawayanda Mountain

An intermittent stream blocked by what seemed like a beaver dam

View from the top of Wawayanda Mountain

Looking back at Wawayanda

The trail ahead leading to Pochuck Swamp and Pochuck Mountain in the distance

Vernon Valley

The greens of Vernon Valley

Wooden boardwalk across Pochuck swamp bordered with wildflowers

Wildflowers

Pochuck Swamp

Moss along the trail

Rattlesnake (?) - not sure...

View from the top of Pochuck Mountain

The skies above Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge

Friday, August 22, 2008

Taking a walk

Will not be posting over the next two-three days as we will be attempting to trek the NJ section of the Appalachian Trail. Meanwhile, a motley collection of pictures taken over the week...











Comment

It indeed shows how out of touch and disconnected an individual can be when the Republican candidate for the President of the United States, Sen. McCain tells people that a rich person would be defined as someone making $5 million or more a year. He further showed his separation from reality when he proclaimed yesterday that he has no idea how many homes he owns. I would brand someone with views such as this 'elitist'.

This comes at a time when a large percentage of U.S. homeowners are fighting to save the only home they own and know from predatory lenders and loan sharks.

It should be noted that of all the households in the nation, fewer than 0.001% had an annual income of $5 million or more.

From the real estate listing of John McCain's home on the market for about $12 million. From here.

Former home of Sen John & Cindy McCain. Situated on over 2.5 acres. Totally remodeled in Old World style complete w/7 bedrooms in main house & 6 bedrooms in guest houses. Hardwood & travertine floors throughout. Master suite has huge walk-in w/private cantera stone patio w/spa and fplc. Gourmet kitchen has travertine floors, granite counters, comercial SS apliances w/large catering room/butlers pantry off kitchen. 2 guest houses. His/her dressing cabana. Finest entertaining backyard in the Valley - 3 ramadas (2 w/full bar set-up), BBQ, play house, cantera stone decking, pavillion, spa and large lap/play pool. 7 car detached garage...




Thursday, August 21, 2008

Photo

'Happy in her own world', Color photo, Abhijit Nandi, Ripped from here.
A picture of an Indian paddy field worker coming home after a full day at the paddy fields won the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management’s environmental photography competition.
Complete list of images here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chinese Furs

PETA posted a video today documenting the bloody violence prevalent in the Chinese fur industry. Caution - the video is too violent and too graphic. I stopped watching a minute into the video.

In a tangential reference, scientists have shown that magpies have demonstrated abilities in self-recognition and self-awareness - once considered the exclusive domain of humans.

Predatory lending - home equity loans to 401(k) debit cards

A sampling of some financial ads from a recent Times article:

'There’s got to be at least $25,000 hidden in your house. We can help you find it.' - Citibank
'Is your mortgage squeezing your wallet? Squeeze back.' - Bank of America
'The smartest place to borrow? Your place.' - Fleet Bank
'Make Dreams Happen: Need Cash? Use Your Home'. - Banco Popular
'You’ve put a lot of work into your home. Isn’t it time for your home to return the favor?' - Citigroup
The past few years have seen American banks pull off one of the biggest frauds in our history. They managed to spin unsavory terms like 'borrowing money' and ‘getting deeper into debt' into such tasty morsels like 'home equity loans', 'equity access', adjustable rates , 'piggybacking first and second mortgages' and 'Equity Source Accounts'. Along the way, accumulating bad debts that one may not be able to pay off was spun off as indulging in a smart move that involved cashing into the equity supposedly 'inherent' in their homes.

In this process, the returns to these banks that had managed to hoodwink gullible public on fixed-rate home equity loans and lines of credit were 25 percent to 50 percent higher than returns on consumer loans over all...

At the same time, the borrower (owing to the fact that s(he) was never in a position to sustain the repayment of these loans) now faced the prospect of falling behind on home payments, defaulting on their mortgages, foreclosing their homes and ultimately finding themselves with blue skies over their heads...

An Ameriquest ad sometime back said “Don’t Judge Too Quickly, We Won’t” and told customers who had essentially bad credit records that their credit records were euphemistically 'less than perfect' and they could tap into money hiding in still unpaid homes. When Ameriquest (now bankrupt) pulled that, they were perpetuating a scam on homeowners who typically did not think through some of the arcane financial details (running into fast easy cash typically stunts the neurons of paupers as well as professors).

Now, prudent thinking might say that this scheme of bilking and hoodwinking might have come to an end with the collapse of the housing market. Not to worry, the bankers have found a new avenue out to make sure that their money spigots are flowing.

Think 401(k). That last resort nest egg stored away by people to count on a normal life after retirement. Well, the enterprising bankers have come out with a new money suction device - the 401(k) debit card, a new form of plastic that lets plan participants borrow directly from their 401(k) with every swipe they make at the store, supermarket or that car dealership.

From a sample advert for a company that hawks 401(k) debit cards:
ReservePlus delivers the most convenient 401(k) loan solution available today. In addition to providing a solution that encourages plan participation, increased contributions and decreased borrowing, this unique, loan servicing product improves efficiencies for record keepers, plan sponsors and plan participants through superior, patented automation
Next time you see a Bank ad, think twice and then run the other way...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ran into an interesting statistic this morning

I know members of our close family and other acquaintances with advanced degrees waiting in line to obtain working visas so that they could come and work here in the United States. These visas are called H-1B visas and are typically given to professions that require a large amount of technical skill and degrees in engineering, medicine, arts and law. Usually the visas are granted with a reason explaining why the person was hired. The problem is that the government has a cap of about 65,000 visas issued each year resulting in a lot of missed opportunities, deadlines and dreams. The following factoid that I came across in the latest issue of Harpers from their monthly column ‘Harper's index’ struck me as something combining satire, circumlocution and euphemism:

"Number of H-1B visas, for workers with a 'body of highly specialized knowledge' granted to fashion models last year: 349"

Lydia Venieri's ‘War Games’ at the Stefan Stux Gallery (Sept – Oct 07)

Monday, August 18, 2008

In (cardboard boxed) vino veritas

I have always felt that the poor cousin to ‘wine in bottles’, those 3 liter ‘wine in card box' should have some advantages... At a minimum, I have felt that the pouches in those boxes at least keep the wine fresh for a lot longer than wine from an opened bottle of wine. Finally today, I ran into an interesting op-ed piece in the Times that proclaims the advantages of switching to cardboard boxed wine. It is not just freshness, cardboard boxed wine actually helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions...

A standard wine bottle holds 750 milliliters of wine and generates about 5.2 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions when it travels from a vineyard in California to a store in New York. A 3-liter box generates about half the emissions per 750 milliliters. Switching to wine in a box for the 97 percent of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about two million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.

What’s more, boxed wine is superior to glass bottle storage in resolving that age-old problem of not being able to finish a bottle in one sitting. Once open, a box preserves wine for about four weeks compared with only a day or two for a bottle. Boxed wine may be short on charm, but it is long on practicality.

Commercial Mindset Quote

On Michael Phelps winning his historic eighth Olympic gold on Saturday night (from here):

"If he's handled properly over the next four years, he should generate in excess of $40 million," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm.

"He benefits from a celebrity-driven culture, a need for advertisers to raise themselves out of the clutter and the warm feelings that the American public has for him. His image is a perfect match for companies which want to align their brand with great success."
What is he, some kind of a piece of machinery or something... ?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Our cornfed vehicles

Cultivation, harvesting and cooking grains has been the staple of human existence for millennias. It seems like a slap in the face of nature when we cultivate food to feed the gas tanks on our vehicles. This video (via Andrew Sullivan) explores corn, ethanol and the subsidies.


Black / White or Shades of Grey

Yesterday Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama answered identical questions at the Saddleback Church under an interview format conducted by the church's pastor Rick Warren.

McCain's answers seemed scripted, pandering, straight off the cuff and tended to see issues in black and white. Life begins at conception; marriage is between a man and woman with little leeway for civil unions, the definition of a rich person as one who make more than 5 million a year and making weepy anecdotes combining Christianity and military service at the drop of a hat. Of course, he also drummed in his newfound mantra of drill, drill, drill for oil...

Obama on the other hand seemed analytical, taking time to think through the answers and seemed to not see radical issues in such black and white terms. Abortion was a right that women must enjoy as long as it is not late term and must be legalized, marriage was between a man and a woman but right under civil unions will be respected as much under his presidency, a rich person was one who makes more than 250,000 dollars a year and very little anecdotes pandering to the mostly evangelical white crowd. It is also interesting that he first two people Obama spoke of as important advisers were women.

Even if core issues such as the ones asked yesterday will never have pat answers, it is clear that people are blindly looking for the black and white. Very few seem ready for a deeper analysis that goes to the heart of such issues. People seem to be naturally gravitating towards the pandering, anecdotal, binary beanbag.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pictures from an Indian summer

Leafing through an album from a couple of years back I ran across these photos...



Friday, August 15, 2008

On the Indian independance day


India is 61 years young today. Amidst hosannas and eloquent McKinsey reports sung to the surging economy and the galloping middle class, some putrid aspects remain below the sheen which will be worked out in the many years to come in the world’s greatest true democracy.

From here:

In every men’s washroom at the Taj is a helper. As you approach the sink, he salutes you. Before you can turn on the tap, he does it for you. Before you can apply soap, he presses the dispenser. Before you can get a towel, he dangles one. As you leave, he salutes you again and mutters: “Right, sir. O.K. sir. Thank you, sir.”

India may be changing at a disorienting pace, but one thing remains stubbornly the same: a tendency to treat the hired help like chattel, to behave as though some humans were born to serve and others to be served
.

I sometimes talk to people who have decided to pack up their bags and return to India for good and ask them what it is about India that draws them back home. I have heard a lot of variations, but a common refrain tends to the following ‘well, now that we can afford it, we plan on settling down to a more placid lifestyle and starting up a small business’. On probing further they come out with plans like ‘buy a flat, a couple of cars, hire four or five servants to cook, wash, clean and drive and travel a bit’… I guess the tendency to treat hired help like furniture is instilled deep within us and only time and education will make it go away.

A new movie, Barah Aana coming out later this year explores this subject in greater detail.

In a scene, a security guard, Yadav, discovers that his son is ill and will die if he does not receive treatment costing $150. He goes around his building asking for loans from tenants who think nothing of spending $40 on pizza. The tenants, glued to their televisions, treat him like a puppy to be shooed away. That night, as he sits with friends and fills himself with drink, he contemplates what it would mean to bury a son.

“Why is it,” he wails, “that people can only feel their own pain, not others’?”

The director’s answer is that India has something deeper than a poverty problem. It has, in his view, a “dehumanization” problem. In an interview, he described India’s employers and servants as living as “two different species.”


Greatest Olympian?

We are all living through a bit of history as we start to notice that Michael Phelps has won his sixth gold medal in this Olympics underway in Beijing. At this point, he has won more gold medals than any Olympic athlete in any sport. A nagging question that comes up is if he is the greatest Olympian ever. Greater than the likes of Carl Lewis or Jesse Owens (whom I consider the best)? Jere Longman in today’s Times has an interesting explanation on why this may not be the case and I agree.

It is much easier to win multiple medals in sports like swimming and gymnastics than in track and field, because there are more individual events. And fewer countries produce elite swimmers than runners, making track a more democratic sport.

Still, that does not take away the fact that we are witnessing history.


Jesse Owens after winning Gold at the 1936 Olympics. Notice the dreaded Nazi salute from the loser behind Jesse... (picture ripped from here)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Linkage

The strange and twisted story of British murderer Neil Entwistle in the London Review of Books…

The global theatre of the internet, on whose enormous stage anonymous actors experiment with personae, using whimsical screen-names and avatars that can be changed from moment to moment, is a haven for the insecure. Shy teenage girls turn into bold sirens on their MySpace and Facebook pages, and it’s a safe bet that many of the most vituperative and expletive-laced comments on newspaper blogs are written by people who wouldn’t say boo to a goose if you ran across them in a pub.

Poem

FLEEING THE WAR ZONE

In the streets,
the blood spurts
from myriad deaths,
some avenged, some not.
Whenever they can, uncaring
scythes fill in for rusty daggers,
slicing skin to the unfeeling bone.
Inside, the scullions butcher the young
while petty clan fights dominate the lonesome
couple still squabbling over trifling fumbles. The
unclear whispers of the coming destruction are
eerily etched in the minds of the wary as
substantial legacies crumble with ease
and the whispering back benchers
deal hazy rumors while belching
rum at the local hole amidst
decorated war whores
belittling innocent
children.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Comment

When the invasion of Iraq was underway in full force and things were just starting to go south, a popular refrain among people that I met was the following: 'Let our boys finish what they started', which I thought was a callous and flippant response. A similar situation unfolds today with Russia riding shotgun over Georgia. I wonder how many people would say things like 'Let the ruskie boys finish what they started' in reference to this conflict that is slowly starting to mirror the quagmire in Iraq.

Promoting Hazy Privacy

R. and I used to have a great relationship. He and I would go out for lunches where he would teach me the basics of how best to get ahead in an investment bank without ruffling too many feathers and how to 'socialize' ideas and pitch them to individuals before presenting them publicly such that your audience were not hit with the ‘surprise element’ before corporate presentations. He was my boss for about three years until we parted ways. He was a great manager in my formative years and for this I will always be thankful to him. Of course, he had a strange, offbeat side to him that I could never really fathom. It seemed something like 'my emotion is held in check under this solid veneer of professionalism’ and it sometimes bothered me that I could not read him completely. I attributed this to eccentricities that are attendant upon individuals who are endowed with an above normal intelligence and wit. Recently, I met him at a lunch store in lower Manhattan and remember telling him how little he has changed in the intervening four years that we had not seen each other. I was happy to hear that his children were doing great and growing up fast. After the usual but genuine pleasantries, we enjoyed a great meal together while promising that we should meet up regularly thereafter.

I now know that I would not be meeting him anytime soon. I ran into a database recently that checks on the criminal profiles of United States residents. It is a free database that allows one to check into people’s backgrounds, type of crime committed and incarceration details. On running into this site, I was initially outraged that we can casually look up each others criminal histories using the services of a publicly accessible website. On the other hand, I was elated to find that this would be a new tool in quickly profiling that suspicious looking individual who might have moved into ones neighborhood.

Well, on a whim, I checked out my name and host of names that included professional acquaintances. All of the people that I decided to check were in the clear except for Mr. R. My previous boss, my good friend, dear Mr. R. (whose birthday, sex, height, weight, eye color and hair color matched exactly to the person I have known) turned out to be an individual with a startling and in my view – a despicable criminal record. He was incarcerated on the charges of marital assault and domestic battery in another state. From the physical details, the exact match of the name and a host of little details publicly provided, I know for sure that there cannot be another person who fits that exact same description (the statistical odds of such an instance is very, very low). I will now find it difficult to meet him for lunch or for that matter talk to him with a straight face. I am still unsure if databases like these are a violation of public trust that will further fray the already delicate strings that holds us tenuously together or a blessing in disguise for ferreting out the suspicious type. I indeed did rush to paint R. in a very unflattering way in my mind without knowing any details on what might have caused this apparently rational man to act this way, but the fact remains that it must have actually happened and this is what will stay in my mind…

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Us or I

During the much hyped opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, the Chinese national anthem was sung by a 'picture-perfect schoolgirl'. Unfortunately, the whole thing was faked and was lip synched to the 'voice-perfect schoolgirl' who was not shown because of her physical impediment - she was buck toothed and her buck teeth made her incompatible with the national image that China wanted projected.

From an official who coordinated parts of the show: "We should all understand it like this: it is a question of the national interest. It is a question of the image of our national music, our national culture. Especially at the entrance of our national flag, this is an extremely important, an extremely serious matter. The child on the screen should be flawless in image, in her internal feelings, and in her expression."

In America, this would tantamount to trickery, deceit and feelings of betrayal. In Asia, this is the norm - the collective sentiment rising over individual ability. David Brooks of the NYTimes has an interesting take on the differences between the 'I am an island' nature of individualism and the all encompassing nature of collectivism in an illuminating way. The following tests are also interesting to see what might be your core tendencies. I leaned Asian in the second scenario below (not very surprised at that!)…

If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

When the psychologist Richard Nisbett showed Americans individual pictures of a chicken, a cow and hay and asked the subjects to pick out the two that go together, the Americans would usually pick out the chicken and the cow. They’re both animals. Most Asian people, on the other hand, would pick out the cow and the hay, since cows depend on hay. Americans are more likely to see categories. Asians are more likely to see relationships
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The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts.

Linkage

David Brooks has a hilarious and a prophetic piece in the NYTimes on the iPodization of culture, on-upmanship and early adopter insiderness:

When you first come across some obscure cultural artifact - an unknown indie band, organic skate sneakers or wireless headphones from Finland - you will want to erupt with ecstatic enthusiasm. This will highlight the importance of your cultural discovery, the fineness of your discerning taste, and your early adopter insiderness for having found it before anyone else.

Then, a few weeks later, after the object is slightly better known, you will dismiss all the hype with a gesture of putrid disgust. This will demonstrate your lofty superiority to the sluggish masses. It will show how far ahead of the crowd you are and how distantly you have already ventured into the future.

If you can do this, becoming not only an early adopter, but an early discarder, you will realize greater status rewards than you ever imagined. Remember, cultural epochs come and go, but one-upsmanship is forever
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Monday, August 11, 2008

R n' R

Amidst a five day holiday which included entertaining the children at the Bronx Zoo in New York, water parks in other states and the Jersey outdoors, I found surprisingly little time to produce any updates here. Evenings were spent in perfect lassitude with a wide latitude on the mixed drinks while mornings were busy with schedules, packing and planning. In between, I found a little time to scout a proposed starting point for a planned NJ thru hike of the Appalachian Trail that we will be attempting in about two weeks time. What makes the endeavour fairly inane is that we were planning on backpacking the entire 72 mile NJ section of the AT over a Saturday and Sunday. Not too sure if it is going to work out as planned, but always worth a try... Meanwhile, some pictures from the week before.