Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Investing for the Future

Jeremy Siegel’s latest book is an eye-opener. The book may seem old considering it was written in 2004 – way before the economic crises that occurred in 2008 and 2009 when the financial world nearly collapsed. But his ideas are not the usual investment advice that one would expect from finance gurus. It’s a book written by someone with expansive and deep views – with geo political breadth but with the no nonsense investment views of a Benjamin Graham. He seems like a combination of Warren Buffet and the futurist Alvin Toffler. The result is a well thought out and researched book that provides a balanced perspective from both the economic and investment fields. It also contains sound empirical evidence that’s more at home in an economics PhD thesis.

The crux of his book is proposing a ‘Global Solution’ to the current problems in fiscal deficits and health care costs - brought on by the coming retirement of the baby boomers. The retirement of the baby boomers will cause massive disinvestments in the equity and bond markets as money is withdrawn to fund retirements and pay for health care needs. The situation is made difficult with the aging population in developed countries like Europe, Japan and USA. His solution is to have the rising powers in the developing world – India and China take the slack and buy into the equity markets of the developed world especially USA where the stock market has consistently increased one’s wealth. So the ‘Global Solution’ aims to have the emerging powers solve the problem of the developed world especially the possible fall of asset prices.

Looking at it in a different way, India and China (and possibly Indonesia and Brazil) will have a lot of surplus funds since the emerging middle class will have all the jobs outsourced from the developed countries. So the baby boomers of the developed countries will be buying cheap good and services from these emerging countries – transferring immense wealth from West to the East. So the emerging countries now have the money to re-invest in the capital markets of the developed world. The 2008-09 financial crises saw this dynamic at work with Singapore and China coming in to invest in the distressed US financial system. The ‘Global Solution’ is an interesting view on the coming long term crisis. It’s a first class analysis of the current problems that is still applicable after the world changing economic and financial fiasco of 2008 – 2009.

With this in mind, the investor should avoid the ‘growth trap’ of investing in hot, new companies, for example, Google, or Apple or Microsoft. Instead, one should invest on the tried and true companies such as General Electric, Philip Morris (now Altria) and Pfizer. The main reason is that low expectations have driven down the market price of these stocks but these tried and true companies would often maintain their attractive dividend policy and rate of appreciation (due to low market expectations).  Philip Morris is one company always mentioned in the book which is counter-intuitive considering the lawsuits from cigarette smoking. Normally, one would not invest in the tobacco sector at all. But Siegel makes the case that these mature companies like Philip Morris would overcome these constraints. In Philip Morris case, diversifying into foods and changing its name to Altria. Hence, Philip Morris is the better investment than IBM – the hot growth stock at the time in the 1950s.

To Siegel, wise investors should focus on companies with good dividends, re-investing those dividends to increase the compounding effect, focus on good valuation relative to earnings or cash flow (good P/E ratios) and on stocks where the expectations of the market have fallen (such as Philip Morris) and to hold them for the long term (preferably forever).  He suggests companies with a global foot print and sectors such as health care and staples. To benefit from emerging markets, he suggests investing about 50% on index funds that focus on global companies in the rising countries of India, China, Brazil and Indonesia. For example, companies like WIPRO in India or Lenovo in China. Siegal writes with the style of an old world investor with abundant empirical evidence and an air of academic seriousness. He sounds like an intellectual version of Warren Buffet. One hopes to read his previous book ‘Stocks for the Long Run.’

Yesterday, one also watched the film ‘Inside Job’ – a documentary about the economic and financial crisis of 2008-09. A brilliant film that portrays the lethal combination of financial innovation such as mortgage securitization (and CDOs and CDS), the ideological belief in deregulation and free markets, rise of financial incentives (bonuses) that reward risk and a political system with no control and supervision – all combined to blow–up the financial system. The film also tackled the intellectual foundation (i.e. Ayn Rand) and flawed economic theories that seemingly smart people like Alan Greenspan, Lawrence Sumner, Robert Rubin and other well-known economists and leaders believed in. Popular political leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are not spared as well. One wonders what is the point of investing wisely when these conditions allow the system to blow up.

In fact, the crisis allowed Siegel’s vision to come to fruit. Chinese and Singaporean sovereign funds came in to invest in troubled banks as well as Japanese and Middle-Eastern funds. The money flows are moving west ward from the East – a trend that started with Japan. Now most of the treasury bills or real estate properties are owned by Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other concerns. A turn of events not even the Tea Party can turn back. It’s like an inevitable march of the rising East. One wonders if the result will be political discord especially with trends like the Hispanic population now being the 2nd largest ethnic group in the country and blacks retuning to the South (for example, Atlanta being the largest city with a black population as compared to Chicago) or Asians being the largest ethnic group in New York (and possible Los Angeles). Demographics are a statistical truth that one cannot deny. One needs to understand what will be the resulting future.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wake up

 Being awake means not allowing the mind to be focused on trivial matters. Sometimes the mind purposely distracts itself by reading too many books or watching too many movies. There is an internal desire to be quenched. For example, watching the critically acclaimed television drama ‘The Wire.’ Now who wants to miss that? Or perhaps reading the latest ‘Wired’ magazine or the latest TED video or Vanity Fair issue. Or perhaps reading the latest New York Times or reading the books of Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy. There is always a reason for the mind to be occupied in pursuit of one’s desire whether fulfilling one’s curiosity (always a good thing) or being in the know (like a snob or geek). The mind is lost in thought as it tires to achieve it’s pursuit of knowledge. In fact, the mind is asleep lost in its blind pursuit of some desire.

One is able to indulge in distraction because of wealth. To be accurate, not true wealth but a lack of true poverty. The homeless or the unemployed do not have the luxury of reading or watching movies. They have the in your face reality of surviving, to get food on the table or some money to feed the family. The early pioneers did not have this luxury only possessing ‘The Bible’ as their reading guide. People in the early years did not occupy their minds with too much thought or thinking. They went out into the world to make a living. It was a practical no nonsense world. Only in the world of creative endeavor where people like writers need a lot of ideas. But there is a limit to the free time as one still needs to get food on the table. So struggling artists don’t spend their time reading but actually practicing their craft – such as painting or writing.

It’s this realization that one gets attending writing workshops. The mind is stripped free of churning thoughts with too many ideas that one gets from reading lots of books. Instead one is faced with a blank page and a writing exercise. The creative muscles that need to be engaged are different from the free-flowing mode of thought engaged in journal writing. It is a formal act of structure when one tries to learn a craft. It’s like appearing for work in one’s first day. The mind is alert trying to find the way forward. It’s the same with trying to be a creative writer. Journal writing or blogging is just practicing the basic skills. Like basic arithmetic as compared to solving a physics problem. Hence, the writer’s craft is an application of a structured methodology that is free of emotion. Facing an empty page and disciplining the mind to focus (instead of allowing it to be distracted) is possibly the hardest thing to do.

Jonathan Franken famously sealed his Internet connection with glue to avoid distractions and for him to focus on writing. That goes to show that even the best of writers are plagued to distraction. Reading the first chapter ‘Writing Fiction’ by the New York City writing school provides simple solutions. As a start, one needs to set up a time every day to write; at least four to five hours a week as a start. Showing up at this time regularly, at one’s favorite writing spot is the first step. One does not need to write but show up at that time at that spot. Maybe one can spend it planning, reading, editing or researching. The trick is to get into a habit. I understand this goal as I go to the gym three times a week. So it is similar to setting a habit that one can follow until one develops the discipline and craft needed to succeed.

Recently, I was losing interest in going to the gym. What for? What is the meaning of spending too much time there? Is it worth the effort? There were days when I had turned back on my way to the gym. Soon I was shaken out of my laziness by the thought that I was overweight and needed to lower my cholesterol and blood pressure. So I remembered an acquaintance who suggested joining running events. I started to read magazines with the schedule of these events. It got me interested and back on my weekly exercise regime. I guess one needs such strategies to remain engaged. So I plan to attend the NYC online writing classes, workshops in the community centers and scribbler sessions in the local libraries. Of course, one has to keep doing those writing exercises to keep engaged. Hopefully these actions would result in a published book.

Having a plan and implementing a plan is being awake. One is not lost in some world of one’s own. I had made the mistake thinking that one could achieve writing success ala Hemingway; busily writing alone in solitary glory. But it’s a myth that one only realizes later in life. Hemingway worked in newspapers and actively sought the help of editors and people like Gertrude Stein and Maxwell Perkins to hone his craft. The only thing good about starting with Hemingway is reading. Reading a lot of books was the way these great artists learned to write in the absence of formal writing workshops. Creative writing courses are an invention of the current century which one had initially disdained. But it was a regretful contempt due to the ignorance of the writing craft and delayed one’s development as a creative writer.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Project in Trouble

One just came from a meeting where the business project leader said the project may be in trouble if it does not go live soon. Despite the fact that we are so close to going live. Sometimes one feels all the pressure is in one’s shoulders. But the issue is not in the computer system but in other areas that have increased in costs. For instance, additional cost in the print media and the new plastic envelopes needed for the reports. Previously these costs were shouldered by the contractor. Now it’s going to be paid by us. Clearly these are not issues on the information system side but more in the business planning and estimating because these are not areas related to the software. But one cannot help but feel troubled because one is the new guy around. There is always a feeling that one does not belong yet.

Increasing one’s paranoia is the vicious comments and feedback one reads in a CNN article on Japan tragedy. The writer wrote a beautiful and inspiring piece on the calmness and civility of the Japanese people in the face of multiple disasters. The comments started to be racist with all sorts of discussions on sources of power, nations, and race and so on. One can go crazy listening to the vitriol that comes out of people. One is not surprised at the anger and back biting that one hears in the politics of this country. In fact, one can become paranoid as these words can come out of anyone. Perhaps someone who works with you or sits beside you and whom one would think does not have thoughts of bigotry and hatred. The surrounding environment is enough to make you tense.


Problems at work and other experiences are a microcosm of the society at large. Reading about this heated exchange makes one wonder that the whole point of the tragedy is missed. Instead it becomes a useless debate on war crimes, racial prejudice and other historic episodes. One guesses that this is what democracy is all about. The freedom to spew garbage out of one’s mouth like saying things like the project is in trouble even if there’s no serious basis on saying these thing. I guess one should find out the context of his words. Perhaps he is saying that more testing is needed. One came out of the meeting thinking that one should shut down the project. If the context is that more testing is needed, then that would provide a better understanding of the situation. Hence, it’s more of concern that the project will fail if started early without adequate testing.

But one does not understand what is needed. The business leader should provide guidance if this option is taken. Suddenly one sees that everyone is actually protecting their ass. No one really cares except me; that‘s an old accusation one got long ago. Being a sentimental and na├»ve fool. I guess that was why the boss man did not like about me despite one’s good nature, modesty aside.  The person with the hero mentality. There is no place for someone with that sensibility in a cut-throat materialistic society. Perhaps the good honorable people left are the Japanese who suffer with dignity and civility despite the hardships they endure. I guess that’s the secret alluded to by Hemingway – to live with grace under pressure; living life stoically despite the inhumanity of it all.

Perhaps that’s a lesson to everyone. The tragedy forces us to live with calmness, dignity and civility despite the odds against you. Being in a troubled project is not the end of the world. One should move on and persevere despite the many challenges. Hence, accepting the torrent of stupid words from other folks is the normal challenge in a democracy. One should not lose one’s head and keep calm. This is a lesson that one never learns; often becoming reactive and shooting from the hip. It’s the Latin hot bloodedness that one inherits from the Spanish. Transcending this urge is also like getting out of the usual groove or mental habits.

The existing Japan tragedy makes one think of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. ‘The Road’ is a terrifying view of how a society can go to hell with every man for himself. Seeing the tragedies such as the New Orleans flooding bring out the inhumanity of man. But it does not have to end this way. The Japanese attitude and manners is the noblest solution to any tragedy.  One cannot imagine a father and his son walking in a wasteland, trying to survive and get out of the way of bad people who like to eat you. It was a dismal story that seemed to end in a good note as the orphaned child was rescued by the good guys. The father was right and mother’s useless death was a waste. She did not have faith on her fellow man. Reading the vitriolic comments from the CNN article and the careless words of the business project leader is enough to lose one’s faith. But the Japanese provide an inspiration to a world gone mad.

Friday, March 18, 2011

New Thought Patterns

Breaking established thought patterns is like getting out of a groove. The mind goes thru habits built over years of repeated action. Habits become grooves in the fabric of thought like a well-traveled road. So breaking habits is hard to do as the old song goes. Habits in the mind are also established modes of perception or modes of cognition. So breaking old thought patterns is like changing one’s perceptions or thinking or cognitive style. Even with the realization that the thought pattern is wrong does not stop the action from being done because it’s already a mental habit. It’s like leaving a highway to travel thru an unknown dirt road. If one changes his habits, the dirt road soon becomes a well traveled route and soon cement, asphalt and gravel will pave the way until it becomes a new established road. Hence, finding or getting a new groove is the common expression.

Thoughts once created in the mind cannot be removed. If the thought challenges an established idea, one either discards the idea or accepts new truths. Accepting new truths is difficult because it requires a transformation. If one equates oneself to ones thoughts, then it becomes personal. It feels like a challenge to oneself. So transformation is difficult until one realizes that one is not one’s thoughts. The thinking mind is not the ‘self’ but some inner ability or skill that can be changed. A skill that is similar to roller skating or public speaking or learning French where one can adapt. When I tried roller skating or public speaking, it involved moving out of one’s comfort zone. It was difficult and felt awkward but perseverance allowed one to master and be competent in this new skills. Unfortunately, roller skating resulted in a broken wrist that required surgery. But that’s another story.

Learning French was a good experience until one reaches the advance level and all thoughts become mental gibberish. A recent New York Times article spoke about memorization. There is an old technique that anyone can master. It involves mnemonic techniques or something like creating a picture palace in one’s mind. The writer became a mental champion after mastering these techniques. There are three levels that one needs to traverse. The first is to understand and practice the new skill; the second is reaching a plateau where further development does not seem possible, and finally, surpassing that plateau and reaching a new level of expertise. I think one is able to achieve that expertise or at least a high level of competence in public speaking or roller skating (despite the broken wrist). But the French language is another thing and one needs to discover a different strategy to reach a higher level.

Breaking out of wrong thought patterns can be liberating; for example, losing one’s prejudice and bias. It brings one to another level of existence or freedom. The common theme in the New World is starting a new life; in some new state or new job. It is the story of re-invention, for example, where one can have different careers in one’s life as one ages or develops. Learning new skills and new thought patterns may not be consistent with the recent trend to focus on one’s strengths. But sometimes learning new skills or thinking styles maybe an act of re-discovering one’s true strengths. Or perhaps re-aligning attention to ones strengths after years of neglect. Hopefully, one’s old thinking patterns will not be an existing strength that would prevent one from changing. For example, Tiger Woods changing his already formidable golf swing to something even better.

One cannot easily change one’s habits even if one realizes that it’s wrong. For example, those folks who cannot seem to eat healthy food or exercise more or stop smoking. It is an act of will or discipline, perhaps to prevent the mind from being distracted. Unconsciously, one cannot break out of the groove as it’s a conscious action. Being a creative writer requires one to get out of the mental groove of being a journal writer or diarist. It’s a mental shift that requires having the new groove of the creative writer. The new groove requires practicing the craft of writing; with writing exercises, workshops and sharing one’s work and get feedback. A new thought pattern needs to be created; perhaps one that can utilize one’s exiting grooves for more efficiency. Perhaps like taking one road if there is traffic or taking the highway for another reason. But getting to the same destination is the goal.

Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the description of insanity. So doing the same thing like borrowing more books, magazines, DVDs, music CDs and planning trips while expecting to finish a book is insanity. Efforts to attend writing workshops is a good start to create a new groove but continuing to fill one’s time with these useless activities will not get anything done. Hence, creating new grooves (or thought patters) may not be an issue as one consciously is learning new skills. It’s a question of focus and avoiding distractions. Discipline and force of will is needed to break this frivolous habit (or old groove). So the challenge is to learn new skills, create new thought patterns and clear time to start work. Time is the commodity that is being wasted if one does not devote one’s energies to achieving the main goal. It is wasted in frivolous activities like reading useless books and watching movies.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Starting Late

The book ‘Start Late and Finish Rich’ by David Bach has the right title to attract people like me. Middle – age with modest saving who wish to make a lot of money before retirement. The message is mostly common sense with a focus on savings; for example, avoid buying expensive lattes or eating out in fancy restaurants. On the other hand, the investment advice is more like Robert Kiyosaki’s ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’.  Invest in stocks, bonds, real – estate and have other sources of income aside from your day job. There are some interesting ideas on franchising and starting your own business as well as on renting out property and buying real estate. It was an enjoyable book to keep one on track to having a good financial education. There were also some good tips like the homeowners tax credit if one sells a home one has lived in for two of the past five years and if the capital gains are less than $ 250 thousand.

Reading these types of books reinforces one’s financial literacy. But one has read too many investment guides that one can’t keep track of the different techniques. But after one keeps reading, the theme is always the same. So it becomes more of a refresher course than anything else. Basically, save more, don’t spend, invest in stock, bonds, and real-estate and start your own business. The book also provides hope that all is not lost in one’s advancing age. It gives hope to the saying that life begins at 40 or 50 or 60. After reading all these books, one realizes that those spent on economic theories maybe the most useless. It was more of an attempt to keep updated of one’s undergraduate economic training. Henry Ford maybe right when saying that reading books is a waste of time. The only books worth reading are technical manuals or other such books that teach a real skill that you can use to earn a living.

One has been on this road of reading self-help books for so long that one does not live up to the lessons. More reading and less actual practice becomes the result. With the free resources available in the Internet, one no longer needs to read any more of these investment books to be updated. Just watch a video in one of those investment websites that love to impart the latest theories. The foundation has been laid after reading Robert Kiyosaki, Benjamin Graham, George Soros, Warren Buffet, Burton Malkiel, David Bach, John Bogle and so on. Now is the time for action after reading all those works from the so-called roll call of experts. The availability of all these books in the library is enough to satisfy one’s thirst for knowledge. But one’s thirst has been fulfilled and it’s now only overindulgence and drunkenness. Perhaps one is drowning in too much advice. 

I attended a creative writing course yesterday and arrived 30 minutes late. I had read about the course at lunch time. The cost was only $ 35 and the text book is interesting which I bought at Amazon – the Kindle version. My goal this year is to attend as many creative writing courses that I can while completing my book. I think I have read enough about creative writing for the past years that I need to attend actual group sessions. I hope I can replicate the success of Toastmaster in my public speaking into my creative writing by attending these public courses.  Like my initial feeling when I started attending Toastmasters, I felt awkward and felt it was a waste of time. But one realizes that the lone genius is a myth (read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’) and group interactions are the key to one’s growth especially in innovation and creativity. Just like the Toastmaster experience.

This is the key lesson in the crowd sourcing concept. One can get smart talking to smart people than reading lots of books. Getting ideas from the crowd is also the key success factor. Not all of one’s ideas are correct or perfect and, in fact, more egoistic than anything else. Although writing is a lone pursuit and endeavor, one benefits from sharing one’s work and getting feedback. For example, Ernest Hemingway with Gertrude Stein and Maxwell Perkins or Thomas Wolfe with Maxwell Perkins or James Joyce with Ezra Pound. Moving from journal writing to creative writing is a big step that requires the removal of one’s ego and move towards a more impersonal craft where feedback from other people is important. It’s crowd sourcing from a writer’s point of view.  Like in most other endeavors, egotism and self-centeredness prevents one from growing.

A good example is one’s interpersonal skills. One had tried to develop this craft by trying to playact and provide a polished veneer. At the start, it was intuitive and natural until one went forward with a belief that being professional is best with the result that’s impersonal and cold like a professional spin master.  In fact, the best tactic is just being you with all the doubt and insecurity expressed in front of the audience. It makes one human and more believable to the larger crowd. It was due to arrogance and being wrapped up in thought that prevents one from seeing reality like it really is. Perhaps it was reading too many books and preferring a solitary existence with limited social contact and so resulted in egotism. Being forced out in the open with Toastmaster and creative writing sessions and other social interactions is the best way to remove one’s blinders.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mindset Correction

Driving one insane is a good title for the constant effort to be on top. It’s a play of words on the movie ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ – the classic movie starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Indeed, one feels a constant drive to learn and experience new things that maybe one is driven to mental exhaustion. In one’s mental evolution and growth, the first struggle is controlling one’s mind via meditation and perhaps journal writing. The second struggle is cognitive therapy where one understands one’s thinking errors and the steps towards fixing them. Perhaps, the final struggle is to relax and slow down the thinking process into a state of acceptance and serenity. Otherwise, the mind is driven to collapse. The mind flits from one subject to another and never achieving focus. The solution perhaps is a combination of cognitive therapy, meditation and journal writing.

One experiences constant change that one is driven to adapt and excel. It’s satisfying one’s curiosity that drives one forward – a constant urge to satisfy one’s desires. Will it help that one can satiate a portion of that desire? For example, purchasing a new gadget and returning it after 45 days to fulfill the customer return policy (and thereby avoid spending money). It’s too much work and one would be a gadget freak to keep doing this exercise for each new device that comes to market. There are other more meaningful things to do with one’s time. From one’s point of view, understanding one’s needs and looking at the market for that item that meets those needs is best. One just needs to avoid the consumerism that may take root. In fact, understanding one’s core needs is important rather than being always in the know.

The stuff that is free is the true challenge. Free movies, books and songs in the library and Internet are what consume one’s time. It’s like walking into a candy store with everything free. Soon the constant indulgence of free stuff is what blunts one’s edge that one is lost in quantity – a flood of information and stuff that one loses touch on the important details. Last weekend, one rushed again at reading 3 books, one magazine, watching 5 movies and not getting anything done. There is a constant desire to be smart and learn the new stuff while not gaining any real skill. One has cast a wide net to gather all that one can get (because it’s free) and now that the fish has come, one is constantly gorging oneself. I guess that is the problem. One gets fat because one has free buffet for breakfast in the hotel. Hence, it is not the lack of opportunity perhaps but an immense over availability as one tries to get all the freebies.

One is drowning in the land of the free and material stuff. So how does one focus? An interesting exercise is to list one’s goals and then list how one uses his time. Normally, one does not spend the time needed to achieve one’s goals. Hence, a disconnect exists that results in stress and mental exhaustion. For example, what is the typical goal of a middle age parent?

•    Earn more money (to pay for kids’ college tuition, provide a good lifestyle to the family) 
•    Learn new skills (and, thereby, earn more money) such as writing, programming in the Internet with the latest tools, i.e. social networking, blogging, etc.
•    Learn financial literacy (and, thereby, earn more money)
•    Be healthy and grow as a person, ex. go to the gym, jogging, hiking and canoeing
•    Help your family grow

Does one spend time to achieve one’s goals? Reading too many books, watching too many movies does not help unless these activities further one’s skills or financial knowledge. The easy solution is to watch only 1 or 2 movies in the weekend and reduce one’s reading list. Hence, planning and controlling one’s time. One thinks that now is the time to focus and accept the situation. One does not need to be constantly aware of the new stuff in the fear that one will be left behind. But one can make technology one’s friend. The latest apps allow one to receive the information one needs. Focus on the push technology rather pull saves time. Pushing one’s activities to the cloud to be more productive is also a good tactic. One should slow down and accept what one has achieved and start growing the skills that one has accumulated.

Pilot is done

The project is looking good after completing two pilot runs last week. Lots of drama but the exercise came out well despite some issues. These are blockers which need to be resolved before going live. It was a fun exercise and the team learned a lot from the experience. Most of the members including me are either near middle age or past it and some are a few years away from retirement. It’s a fun situation like that Clint Eastwood movie about aging astronauts going back into space. It’s the first time I have ever worked in such a team where usually I am the oldest member. Now it seems I am the strapping young teenager. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the ‘youngest’ member is tasked to do most of the work. More often than not, thought leadership is the key to getting things done despite not having the formal authority. But there’s a ‘rebel in my soul’ that often sticks out in meetings and results in awkward moments. I am not as good in interpersonal skills as I would think.

During certain moments, one begins to doubt if one has reviewed all the angles. It’s the burden of being the thought leader or initiator. Although most of these folks have done projects, this piece is unique even for me. Driving down to distant places, meeting people and disrupting their work so one could test the new software are a challenge in itself. But it’s a new experience meeting the folks in this new land unlike in the past where one is jaded after doing too much of the same thing. Although the project seems to be the same, the culture, the people, the technology and the situation is entirely different. Being away for nearly two years bring back warm memories of those ancient years. Distant lands of the East like Bangkok (Thailand), Shenyang, Shanghai (China), Manila (Philippines), Singapore, Tokyo, Ohta (Japan) and New Delhi (India) restores good stories. But I had reached a certain plateau so I needed to move on.

Now the game is different which brings a new sense of wonder. Distant places like Reno, Monee, Laurens, Washington, Los Angeles and Greenville are the new places to discover. One loses one’s cynicism when learning something new. It’s really a New World especially the technology and innovation. It’s the only place in the world other than Japan and perhaps China where new innovation changes cultures and lifestyles. Perhaps the innovation is coming out of the West Coast, in California or Seattle and East Coast cities like New York or Boston. But there are bastions of conservative traditions where the old ways are preserved despite new tools like social media. Nevertheless, one just loves the new gadgets that one easily purchases with the high wages or easy credit that fuel the culture’s consumerism and materialism.

But it’s the driving force of change and new experiences that taxes one’s mind. So reading books like ‘Getting Organized in the Google Era’ by Douglas Merrill is a leg up in the New World. The main thesis is to use Google to manage one’s life by posting personal information like Calendar appointments into the ‘cloud’. The mobile lifestyle is the new way to be successful. Mobility not only means being away from one’s home but within the home itself as well. One does not need to be in front of a computer to be productive or learn new things. New devices like Google TV, Sony Dash, iPods and tablets are bringing us into the Star Trek era. The pilots for this lifestyle have been expressed in visionary shows like Star Trek or Star Wars or Blade Runner and even James Bond. So the youth of today even the baby boomers of yesteryear have been primed for this type of mobile lifestyle.

Is that why one can easily move into different lands and cultures? Doing or watching the pilot is one way to practice. One is surprised that one can moved forward despite some momentary doubts. It’s the benefit of creative thinking that one practices with the appreciation of art, for example. Visualizing the outcome is a method that one can practice intuitively. One has come a long way from the exotic East. It’s a long road that ramped up with the discovery of visual thinking, cognitive therapy, blogging, traveling and self-reflections. Experiencing and exploring new situations like Toastmaster, roller skating and golf were small steps that lead to the New World. One thinks it’s a state of mind that one gets first by extensive reading. It’s an advantage that one has like parachuting into Iraq or Afghanistan and undertaking to change things with the latest tools and techniques.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

European Paranoia

Recent news depicts the shift in attitudes in Europe regarding immigration. The actions of Muslim extremists have brought fear into the hearts of the native born. The bombing in London, the assassination of persons critical of extremism in Belgium and /or Netherlands, the banning of burkhas in France and dissatisfaction against immigrants in Sweden are signs of this phobia. It’s regrettable that this should arise in liberal Europe glaringly expressed in the opposition to Turkey’s membership to the European Union. It’s regrettable and hypocritical as immigrations from the Middle East and Africa result from turmoil in their native lands due to the historical excursions of Europeans themselves. These historical excursions resulted in colonies that disrupted the normal social fabric of these nations resulting in an unfortunate dependency.

England is the paramount example. Recent rhetoric from the new Conservative government marks a shocking lack of ideas that inevitably stimulate xenophobia. The former English empire held sway in a large part of the globe; in the East from Hong Kong and India to the Middle East and Africa. England became a beacon for a cosmopolitan society with maharajahs and African kings comfortably existing in polite English society. The empire also stimulated migrations of Indians to the Malayan peninsula to tend rubber plantations or in Africa for coffee and tea plantations, sold opium in China and set the national boundaries of India, Pakistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Rhodesia, South Africa and numerous other countries in the world. It’s the first action to impose a global society with English ideals. This brought migration of English peoples to the colonies and native immigrants to England to seek a better life.

This example of a multicultural mix occurred in various flavors throughout the West including the New World. The introduction of new ideas also brought a native reaction through the decades that expressed itself in extremism such as the Wahabi sect in Saudi Arabia, influenced the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and, eventually, Al Queda and other terrorist sects. The formation of Israel initiated with the Balfour Declaration and the withdrawal of English troops from Jerusalem are the roots of the Palestinian problem. The turmoil brought about by foreign interventions is the driving force of emigration to Western lands. Oil deposits are just one of the recent motivations for foreign control whereas in the past it was the Crusades in their quest to liberate the Holy Land. Of course it was not helped by Muslim victories through the ages with the Ottoman Empire and various Eastern dynasties that held sway for certain periods since the time of Alexander the Great.

So it’s sad that Europe would start having second thoughts on their liberal traditions of immigration. It will start a new round of conflict that may result in a North and South stand-off, collapse of World Trade and other multinational organization like the United Nations. The only hope is the New World being the melting pot of many cultures and races. But there are also signs of a change in attitude with the opposition to immigration reform also attributed to the rise of conservative views. The attacks on the twin towers were possibly the start of this reaction. But a great power is not without resources and the Middle East is just one problem to be resolved. The usual answer is regime change and more freedom and democracy by removing the despots that have ruled the Middle East for many decades.

Is this the end game of the neo-conservatives? Following the removal of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines (and thereby reduce the rise of the Communist New People’s Army and its threat to the then military bases) and despite the failure of the Tiananmen Square revolt in China, the formula remains the same. Social engineering at it’s covert best. The main goal is to reduce the influence of extremist (and thereby threats to Western interests) by engineering the fall of despotic regimes that fuel local discontent. At the same time stimulate economic and political liberalization and free trade. It’s a grand strategy by a super power to stem the tide of extremism and, indirectly, reduce the rising xenophobia to European immigration. Perhaps even reduce the rise of Chinese influence in the region.

The worst case would be the rise of national barriers and the collapse of free trade. The best case would be a new era of openness, free trade and more global prosperity. The formula succeeded in the Philippines but with mixed results. The game began with new information released to the media; government corruption in the Marcos regime and now Wiki Leaks in the current exercise. It is a brilliant move to end the foreign adventures in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the last piece of the puzzle would be a Palestinian state in Israel. Perhaps the recent Middle East turmoil, with its promise of more democracy and openness in Israel’s neighbors is the remaining demand before achieving a deal with the Palestinians. Peace in Gaza and the West Bank would be a fitting end to regime change and extremism.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Battle of Aiken

Last Saturday we drove to Aiken Country to watch the Battle of Aiken. The event is scheduled every year and is a re-enactment of a minor civil war battle. It was a pleasant 2 hour drive through green fields and small towns. I particularly liked the town of Clinton and Aiken. Both seem to be quaint affluent towns, more like resort towns for the rich and famous. We drove through the back roads, avoiding the major highways that would have brought us to Columbia, the state capital. Aiken County is more like a satellite town to the bigger city of Augusta across the Georgia border. In fact the true target of Union forces was Augusta’s gun powder industry and industrial facilities like Graniteville mills. Luckily the true target of General William Sherman was Columbia so the Battle of Aiken never escalated into a bigger fight. It was more a side show in the Civil War; it’s true value being the last battle won by Confederate forces before the surrender of General Robert E. Lee.

The mock battle was staged in the outskirts of Aiken city possibly near White Pond. But the actual fight occurred in the city itself where the Confederate General Joe Hooker planned to surprise the cocky Union General Kilpatrick. Hooker laid a trap by hiding his soldiers behind town buildings but a trigger happy soldier from Alabama fired a shot that alerted the Union soldiers to the trap. Eventually the Union soldiers escaped and retreated back to their defensive positions outside the town. The mock battle is the initial skirmish that occurred outside the city prior to the eventual battle within the Aiken city limits itself. Casualties ranged from 40 to 400 soldiers depending on the reporter. A minor battle for sure but that saved Aiken and Augusta from the destruction of Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign that had already seen the burning of Atlanta and Savannah.

The event was staged in a sloping hill. Various white tents dotted the landscape selling food and Civil War trivia like uniforms, hats, belts, insignia, books, currency and pictures, toy guns, swords and so on. There were a few tents set-up by the military with actual guns and other weaponry, uniforms and other military paraphernalia of the different periods of their history: World War I and II, Vietnam and Korea and the Revolutionary War. These tents where manned by war veterans who explained some trivia such as Japanese pistols (that looked like the iconic German Luger) and American pistols like the 45 caliber. I liked this section of the exhibit which had real guns unlike the general stores that sold Civil War trivia. The tents laid out along the sloping hill gave the impression of an army in camp, waiting for battle. Some re-enactors walked about in period costumes usually Confederate and Union soldiers, ladies and gentlemen of that period with their billowing skirts, hats and long coats.

The people in period costumes plus tents that looked like general stores of the period all contributed to the atmosphere. We had barbecue sandwiches, French fries and coke for lunch. We also bought pork rinds for the ride home. I enjoyed going into these tents looking at the merchandise being sold especially the currency, books and pictures and war gear like blankets, uniforms, hats, pipes, swords, ‘fake’ pistols and rifles. It was like a traveling museum. According to the website the whole event costs about $ 25,000 with a lot of Civil War enactors probably contributing their time for free. It was a fun time and seemed like a state fair with many young adults, families with young children and a band playing revolutionary music. Before the mock battle, the Star Spangled banner and Dixie was played including the haunting song ‘The Way Home’ which was featured in the movie ‘Gods and Generals.’

The battle was actually exciting. There were cavalry running around the field with elegant officers in their horses, shooting pistols and brandishing swords. Artillery canons firing away like large drums, shaking the ground and pulsing air like concussion, the air filled with smoke and the smell of sulfur. About 500 pounds of gunpowder where used in the battle. After the initial skirmish, cavalry charge and artillery barrage, the infantry in both sides advanced into the field and exchange volleys. After an initial success by the Confederate forces, the Union soldiers repulsed them and chased the rebels back into their lines. A few ‘dead’ soldiers lay in the ground. The crowd where encouraged to give their best rebel yells and Yankee hurrahs during the fight. It was a loud and stimulating round with the emcee explaining the tactics and background music providing drama to the scene. We sat in the ground near the battlefield and watched the officers in their horses ride by, having sword fights and shooting their pistols. We left after the first act as we had to get back by 6 pm.

I enjoyed the day and plan to watch more reenactments in the future. It’s the best way to learn rather than reading history books or watching movies. I wished we could have stayed overnight to see the dance and the other activities scheduled in the evening. One needs to stay at least the weekend to enjoy the whole spectacle. It’s like history coming alive with historical personages jumping out from the pages of old books. My cynicism and jaded outlook had cracked a little bit, deriving some enjoyment from such tourist shows. But in fact it was not for tourist but an act of passion by the hobbyist to keep their history alive. A kind of ‘otaku’ as the Japanese would say of these nerds who live in their own world. Being a Civil War aficionado requires one to enter into this rarefied world in order to enjoy a sort of specialized pleasure where only the initiated can understand. It’s like being a geek.