Friday, May 27, 2011

Swirling Mind

Yesterday I felt dizzy. It was a day that started with some issues in the warehouse, an impromptu meeting with the business project leader, a Toastmaster meeting at noon, more issues in the warehouse, an hour meeting with the boss in the afternoon, read some interesting e-mails and, finally, phone calls to the warehouse staff to resolve the day’s issues. Somehow I still managed to go to the gym after work to exercise despite my spells of dizziness. It did not help that I slept late the previous night; about 1 am after attending a stock investing seminar online for 2 hours.  I had always thought that I am good at multi-tasking but realized that age does catch up with you. The mind gets sluggish and confused when faced with constant demands from different directions. Sometimes writing a journal is what brings everything back into focus. It is probably the one significant act that keeps me sane.

The meeting yesterday was good and made me realize the coming workload ahead. With the success of the pilot, the work will ramp up to the other warehouses. The load is complimented with additional work in other projects I am involved in. Extra curricular tasks increase the burden to the mind and spirit: Toastmaster duties, classes on creative writing and investing, parental duties and other miscellaneous activities like reading books, surfing the Internet and watching movies. I am glad for the coming memorial weekend that would give me some rest time. There are just so many things that I want to do that I often sleep late. It’s watching movies, surfing the Internet or working with the new gadgets or software. Somehow writing a journal will pull my mind into a focus where I can concentrate on the needed tasks at work.

Without journaling, distraction occurs as the mind is unable to focus on work. Too many demands will make you dizzy as what happened to me yesterday. But a more sinister impact lie in the future if one persists in multi-tasking. According to recent studies, cognitive decline via diseases like Alzheimer’s will result. There is indeed a slowdown in mental capacity which is more attributable to age than misuse of the brain. I guess exercising, Tai Chi, meditation and journal writing are keeping the mind normal. But the pace of work, the availability of distractions and ‘addiction to know’ take their toll. It is not only the mind that’s affected as there’s a resulting impact in the body as well such as obesity and raggedness due to insomnia or lack of sleep. One’s metabolism is no longer youthful so the pounds are piling up especially in the abdomen.

Recently, I watched a documentary called ‘Ultra-Marathon Man’. It gave me an idea to start jogging again. This will improve my metabolism, keep my mind sharp and keep me healthy enough to succeed in the new demanding environment. In the past year, I go to the gym 3 times a week for about 45 minutes to run the treadmill, swim and do the cross trainer. I also use the sauna and steam bath to have a healthy sweat and remove toxic waste from my body. I think I can ramp up my exercise by doing a morning jog in the days when I don’t go to the gym. I think it’s the only way to remain fit and successful in an environment of abundant food and distraction. With my temperament, where I indulge in good food and drink, living an austere life will not work.  But one still has to focus and avoid multi-tasking so prioritization and meditation via Tai Chi and journal writing still need to continue.

During the haze of work yesterday, I googled the writers Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy. Both Franzen and Wallace are highly intelligent and well educated – attending many universities in their youth.  Their works are brilliant intellectual exercises. Their analysis of the modern writer’s plight against the onslaught of television and technology is a good guide for would be authors. On the other hand, McCarthy is not an intellectual like Franzen or Wallace. He did not complete a college degree or spent a lot of time in a university. He strove to just be a writer - churning out works until he built a significant body of literature. His work has an immediacy and authenticity that one does not experience in Franzen or Wallace. Reading McCarthy is like being in the presence of a great writer like reading Hemingway. His preference for short declarative sentences is similar to Hemingway.

Don DeLillo is another writer who writes with short declarative sentences. His scope, ideas and tone seems like ‘high art’ when compared to other writers. Michael Chabon is another entertaining author who creates well structured, imaginative and entertaining novels – similar to the intellectual virtuosity of Franzen and Wallace. Thomas Pynchon on the other hand is a blend of McCarthy and Franzen. An intellectual but with the earthiness of McCarthy. His work is plugged into the same authenticity that McCarthy draws from. The atmosphere of his novels captures the milieu of the locale better than most writers. His themes are large and tackles the relevant questions similar to McCarthy who famously disdains writers who don’t tackle the grand themes of life and death - writers like Marcel Proust and Henry James.  It’s a wonder to read current American writers as I seemed to have stopped at Hemingway preferring instead Asian, European and South American writers. There is life after Hemingway after all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Desire to Know

The weekend was again spent reading too many books and watching DVDs. So much time is wasted with these activities that were previously thought as educational and mind expanding. Ordinarily, these were good activities to spend one’s time but now seem wasteful and self indulgent because it’s at the expense of other activities that one has considered important. Activities such as writing a novel, looking for college scholarships for one’s kids, exploring nearby towns, kayaking and hiking in the mountains. But the weekend was not all lost as I was able to visit the Greek festival and the nearby museum. It was a great 4-5 hours spent in a Sunday afternoon. But one still has the load of magazines, picture books and DVDs still unwatched and left over from the weekend. This brings to mind an old Chinese saying that knowledge not used is useless knowledge. This can also be re-phrased as experience without learning any practical lesson is useless experience.

It’s the same old desire to do everything and be alive. The desire to lead a good and exciting life. It’s the cause of stress where one is conflicted with too many demands on one’s time. It’s a question of choice and deciding on what task one should devote one’s time and energy in. The time for decision is never made because one just plunges along the road to distraction. Being well-rounded is an ego trip. The secret of great people is really focus and dedication. It is not doing many activities that make one successful but focusing on only one or two tasks. The enemy of focusing for some folks like me is the desire to know. To be in or conversant on the latest technical gizmo, gossip, spectacular picture, movie or hip novel. Perhaps it’s the fear of being ignorant and un-educated that is the root of this desire. A desire that is addictive and worse as any kind of addictive drug such as heroin or cocaine

Great people who can focus on a few tasks don’t have this fear. It’s these people who are the ones who are really free. The good thing is the realization that chasing an elusive secret is a waste of time. Perhaps it’s the tiredness of age or the realization that time is running out as one approaches middle age that brings a new awareness. The awareness is all the more important in this country where there are too many distractions. But it is also the land of re-birth or transformation or the second-act. So chasing the elusive secret is like a quest for transformation as well – to change oneself after one finds the ‘real’ truth. Unfortunately, one will only end up where one has started as the title of that famous book on meditation called ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are.’ It’s not the gathering of experiences or skills that matter as Eckhart Tolle often says but being in the moment.

People who can focus on a few things are confident people. They don’t care about being in the know. They have no desire to understand everything except for those few things that will help in the task focused on. I guess that is the fulfillment achieved by great craftsmen – people who are experts on the things they do like making great furniture or software. This is the lesson of Zen; of making tea or tending a Japanese garden or making a haiku – to be able to focus on a single task and be an expert on it. Unfortunately, when one is a technologist one is forever distracted by the latest gizmo or gadget that is forever being released in a never ending stream by giant multinational companies. It feeds into the addiction of wanting to know more and experience everything possible on earth.

Jonathan Franzen in his essay ‘Perchance to Dream’ says that today’s writers can never attempt to write a novel that will appeal to a mass or ‘general’ audience. Book reading is now a pursuit of a sub-culture of readers. Television has won according to his late friend, David Foster Wallace. Television and perhaps movies is now the better medium to tell a story. Franzen says that one should NOT have the general audience in mind but instead focus on that small group of people who remain readers despite the inevitable onslaught of technology. People no longer have the focus and attention to sit down and read a good book – forever distracted by the seemingly endless diversion available in the Internet. It’s an intriguing idea despite considering the success of their books like Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ and ‘Freedom’ and Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’.

Despite the death of the ‘social novel’ as proclaimed by Philip Roth, these books by Franzen and Wallace still succeed. But I think the greatest success will come to contemporary writers like Cormac McCarthy whose works are successful in both print and film. His works are also brief and focus on the truly relevant themes that are urgent today. Don DeLillo and William Gibson also have a focus and brevity of style that maybe more appealing to today’s highly distracted reader. Both Franzen and Wallace are a continuation of the stream of American writing populated by writers like John Updike, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer who have a certain verbosity and extravagant flourish. Perhaps it is the overabundance of words that fuel a feeling of wanting more, to be able to get everything and live a larger than life existence ala Ernest Hemingway, John Huston or Orson Wells.

I guess the idea is to focus on a certain theme and stick to it when writing. Focus on simplicity and the stripping of other useless (to the task at hand) external activities are the key to sanity and success. Perhaps this is the theme that one arrives at after so much thought and deliberations. I guess a re-reading to Eckhart Tolle is needed again. Simplicity is the answer to life’s stress. There is just too much thinking and churning of thought which feeds the mind and the desire to know. The antidote is to stop thinking and wake up and enjoy life. For instance, it was good to be out last Sunday and experience the Greek festival – to be out of one’s thoughts and just enjoy the exotic food, good weather and the performances. It’s the revenge of the un-nerd. One just needs to get the job done and do it - as some people would say.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Authentic Fiction

Creative writing compared to journal writing feels like being dishonest. It does not feel authentic. But that’s the point. It’s fiction after all. Journaling is authentic because it’s supposed to be a place to write one’s true feelings. Perhaps it’s like those opinion columns in news papers or magazines. The works of Hemingway feels authentic; something like the expression of the author’s true feelings in the character. It’s a subtle deception because one thinks it’s a personal journal or diary. Hemingway’s work is an intriguing mix of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing ala James Joyce and third person narrative. So an early reading of Hemingway fools novice writers into thinking that writing authentically is like writing a journal or diary. Hence, the true craft of writing is lost because one would think that it’s just an inspired burst of prose similar to diary writing. The long painstaking work is not seen in the so-called ‘effortless’ prose of Hemingway.

Hemingway always said that one should write about what one knew in order to be authentic. So this contributes to the deception because one thinks only about the self-centered reality that one is exposed to. But Hemingway was a reporter exposed to wide experiences and evolved from his journalist’s life. He was not a diarist. After attending the 10-day creative writing session and going through the text book from Gotham writer’s school, one realizes that creative fiction is a whole different animal. It’s a different avenue of expression. Journal writing is about self-analysis, reflection and thinking while creative fiction is about play, imagination and invention. The modes of thought are different although the mechanical task of putting words to paper exists. I guess the benefit of journal writing is the practice of self expression and stimulating one’s creativity especially if done via blogging.

Creative fiction is about creating a whole new world. Often times it’s a world beyond the experience of the diarist or journal writer. Imagination is the key ingredient with confidence and a facility with words are complimenting skills. Make believe or the suspension of disbelief is the intended goal. In the class, I revised an old unfinished story that I had done long ago and presented to the class. Most people said it was a good short story with suggested improvements in grammar and ways to ‘show instead of tell’ to make it a better work. I realized it sounded more like an outline of a novel which needed to be fleshed out. One was telling instead of showing. Some of the brief sentences could even be expanded into several chapters. The fact that one could look at this work dispassionately was an improvement in itself.

I like the class although I should have spent more time doing the exercises in the book. It was a good session. It allowed one to meet other aspiring writers, share works and read out one’s prose. Sharing one’s work has a cathartic effect similar to the public speaking experience in Toastmaster. Listening to one’s own words or seeing others read one’s work increases one’s confidence. One is led out of the solitary experience and neurotic churning thoughts when one participates in the open light amongst friendly people. I have always thought that the Toastmaster experience and creative writing sessions are both necessary components in the journey towards finding one’s voice. Blogging or journal writing plus extensive reading is part of the overall journey to be a writer. The writer needs to develop the creative writing mindset to succeed.

There is a lot of free stuff out there that will help. Websites, writing tools, creative writing seminars are free or offered at low cost, events in the library like meeting authors or Scribblers where one can share one’s writing are cheap ways to learn about the craft. One just needs to start writing and produce some work to kick things off. One often feels that one is too late with one’s age and circumstances in life. But there is a free seminar today called ‘Writing after Fifty’ which seems to address this exact concern. I hope I could attend as it’s a fitting end to the creative writing session that I finished this week. Next week I am attending a six hour session on stock market trading. I had never planned to be a stock trader but the cheap price is attractive to further one’s financial literacy.

Stock trading with all its sophisticated tools like moving averages or stochastic methods or candle sticks, etc. are the modern equivalent to the intuitive techniques of Jesse Livermore - the legendary stock trader who lived in the 1920’s. The class has a session on options which was the subject that I really want to learn. Other topics will serve as preparation to speculate if one has the time and money to do daily trading. All this learning activities elevates one’s skill since one should be constantly challenged to move forward. One thinks that one will be rich and famous with creative writing but it will be a long and lonely road. (Sometimes one writes to learn what one is thinking). Stock trading is another alternative to earn money but it’s still fraught with uncertainties. Nevertheless, one needs to increase skills for the future. Other avenues like creating Android apps or starting a business are other ways to create alternative income streams.

Several thresholds were crossed in recent months. Going live in the project, learning new things in the computer and business fields, training and supporting applications in this country is a significant milestone for me. Completing a creative writing course and participating in the local Toastmaster club as an officer is another milestone in this place. Completing a stock trading course is another. It’s a step forward in my new home. Now following Stephen Covey’s principles, one needs to add new areas to achieve holistic growth. Some alternatives are cooking, kayaking, tennis, yoga and creating videos to post in YouTube. I was thinking of starting a new blog about cooking but having many sites to maintain will be a challenge. One should be ready to see new blog entries about cooking in this site soon.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Race Relations

I watched a biographical movie about Martin Luther King last weekend. Tonight is also the premier of the PBS documentary ‘Freedom Riders.’ After watching the movie, it felt like peeling a layer and seeing something unpleasant that one did not think exited. It all started with the book ‘The Secret Life of Bees.’ Such an innocent title to learn about segregation and race relations in the Deep South.  If one is from another continent, one is ignorant of the struggles faced by the African-American community preferring instead the sanitized version of Hollywood movies. For instance, one watches Sidney Poitier in the brilliant film ‘In the Heat of the Night’ or film clips of MLK speaking in front of the Lincoln memorial; thinking that these were the only notable incidents in the struggle. What is missing is the day to day violence inflicted on anti-segregationists in places like Alabama and Tennessee. The movie on MLK was an eye opener that reveals the violence one never thought existed in such as country like this one.

 Perhaps the shocking thing is realizing that bigotry and prejudice exists in the most wholesome of peoples. Watching the scenes where non-violent protestors are hosed down by fire houses, tear gassed, attacked by dogs and beaten by police and racist bystanders is heart wrenching. Looks are deceiving and one could be fooled into thinking that all is well but in fact one’s next door neighbor or co-worker can be a racist or member of the Ku Klus Klan. The ugly face of racism is again rearing its face in the recent personal attacks on the president. The brilliance of the anti – segregationist struggle is to follow Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement. A frontal violent assault would have failed but the act of putting a mirror in front of a people and, thereby, transform their consciousness is unbeatable. The ugly spectacle of Bull Conner ordering the assault on children and non-violent protestors turned the tide towards transformation.

The wave of anti-segregation, civil and voting rights could not be overturned if advanced via a non-violent strategy. But like the civil war, it was the southern states that needed to be transformed again. Most of the freedom riders came from the Northeastern states especially the non African Americans (i.e. white folks). It was this integrated and non-violent action that changed the minds of most Southerners. But not everyone it seems. Perhaps it was the killings of the Kennedy brothers and MLK when people started to feel disgusted about segregation and the general brutality of the times. It was the realization that the dream of the founding fathers may be a hoax unless people stand up. It’s the transformation of ordinary Southern folks like the young heroine in ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ that really counted. Gandhi said the struggle of the African – American minority against the white majority will be the true test of his ideas on non- violent struggle.

Last weekend, it was reported that South Asian Indians have overtaken Filipinos as the second largest ethnic group in the country. It’s an interesting fact that the people of Gandhi would also benefit from the anti-segregationist victory. Sadly, Gandhi and non-violence proponents like MLK would perish under violent circumstances. But the world is a better place and more diverse. For instance, the governor has an Indian ancestry while the president is African American. Perhaps the real story about this country is about diversity and not about being a super power or being an economic power or being the best military force in the world. It’s not about having the most number of millionaires or billionaires or Nobel Prize awardees or brilliant economists, writers or intellectuals. Perhaps it’s the story of a people’s transcendence of their own shortcomings to become better. It’s no longer a white country but a more diverse and perhaps forgiving one. It’s a microcosm of the world.

Maybe this is the underlying theme of the country. Its greatness is not the economic theories of capitalism and free markets but diversity. Diversity that is enforced by a true democracy. But before one gets all fired up and spiritual, one needs to have faith in order to survive. It’s like a sort of hope of the Islamic radical who believes in the treasures of heaven when he blows himself up. It’s the belief in a better tomorrow that one persists in believing in order to remain in this country. A country that often has episodes of senseless violence and inequality. But what does one care except to hope that tomorrow will be good for one’s children. One has turned a corner once one understands the violent past of the South. One no longer becomes a tourist but to be amazed and vigilant that such transcendence has occurred. One day one should pay homage to this struggle and the PBS documentary is a step in that direction. One wonders why it took so long.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Cloud

In today’s world, the best way to be productive is to be wired to the ‘cloud’. It’s a way to be more efficient by being up to date on one’s engagements and\or activities. The problem is that one usually has more than one device. For instance, the office computer, home computer, tablet or iPad, Sony Dash and HDTV linked to an old laptop and, finally, the Smart phone.  Ideally one just needs a laptop and a smart phone but that does not work for most people. One cannot work on personal stuff in the office but now and again one does sneak in a task or two. After all that’s the work – life balance promoted everywhere. But the most difficult thing is to have a synchronized calendar and task lists that contains both office and home tasks. In real life, it’s not as easy as it could be.

The solution is the cloud where one keeps all his productivity tools and information in a central location for one’s devices to access. Perhaps the best solution is Google Calendar and tools like Spring Pad and Ever Note which are available as apps in the Android market (for tablet and Smart Phone) and has its own web site (for computer work). The problem is that one’s office tools don’t synchronize with these cloud based tools; preferring its own silo of information. Lotus Notes rarely have direct links to Google based products; preferring an intermediary such as Microsoft Outlook. Other tools do exist in the market that bridges the gap but one needs to pay for it. The best option is the free option so one just needs to re-enter the information from one application to another if one doesn’t pay the price. Hence, one needs to manually move tasks or appointments from Lotus Notes Calendar into Google Calendar.

For tasks or to do list, the best option is Spring Pad or Ever Note - a close second. One could access these applications in one’s home computer, Android tablet and office computer (via the Internet). Not an elegant solution but workable. The Google platform provides the best place to have cloud based tools such as Google Docs and Calendar. But one would need a wireless connection if one does not have a monthly data plan like most folks. The monthly plan is like an open faucet that drains one’s cash little by little. The most cost effective solution are WiFi only tablets. Spring Pad and Ever Note can work remotely and can synchronize later when one is within a WiFi zone. But these tools are not available in the Sony Dash – another interesting platform that uses a UNIX variant. But Sony Dash can link to the Internet and access Google Calendar.

As one ages, the Smart phone loses its attractiveness because of the small screen. One’s eyesight is not as good as in one’s youth. The alternative is the iPad or the other Android variants with their 7 to 10 inch screens. For the long term, Google seems to have the most promising platform although Microsoft seems to be gearing up for a battle in the cloud. The recent purchase of Skype plus the partnership with Nokia are the rumblings of a strategy poised to strive at Apple and Google. In the long run, Apple does not seem to have a long term future if focused on hardware; something that’s not cost competitive unless the aim is the high end market. Google and Amazon seem better positioned towards a cloud based future. It remains to be seen if Microsoft can make a successful transition to the cloud.

Other interesting applications are coming up that will make the cloud work. Dropbox is a free service where can store and synchronize one’s files in the cloud to one’s many devices. A similar service exists in Google and Microsoft’s Windows Live but does not have the ease that is specialized for this task. Even browsers like Firefox have a way to synchronize one’s bookmarks in all devices. Now one is gearing up one’s home computer to be able to support one’s office work – installing connectivity to the office Intranet. It’s the link between the so-called private and public cloud. Perhaps the challenge is adjusting to this new lifestyle of multiple smart devices and cloud computing. How does an aspiring writer take advantage of the cloud? Aside from the writing tools such as Google Docs, one can take advantage of the emerging self-publishing trend with the help of sites like Amazon.

Complicating all these is the Internet TV exemplified by Google TV and Boxee. Aside from the entertainment and educational value, one can also use cloud services – aided by wireless keyboard and mouse.  For example, checking one’s calendar or tasks in ones HDTV. Consequently, one can make VOIP phone calls in ones tablet, computer or HDTV. It’s a wired world with the cloud as the central platform for services, interaction and content. Of course, the cloud is just a high concept description of the Internet. We are all just returning to the old days of dumb terminal to mainframe connectivity or perhaps the more recent (1980’s) client – server model which was replaced by Microsoft and Apple’s drive into the home computer front. The early days of the Internet and dotcoms facilitated connectivity but Face book, Google and Amazon brought everything back into the cloud of centralized existence.

Google is fighting another battle with Chrome. The Chrome web browser seems to be the emergent front end for net book computers. Chrome is morphing into an operating system and one wonders if an Android replacement at hand. The Chrome marketplace (computer + HDTV) is the counterpart to the successful Android marketplace (phone + tablet) which is the counterpart to the successful Apple or iTunes marketplace (iPhone + iPad). Even Amazon is offering the Android marketplace in its site. The only missing player is Microsoft perhaps hoping for some help from Nokia. The Chrome environment will only make sense if there are apps that exist in Android to insure workability in all devices (computer + tablet + phone + HDTV). Otherwise, Chrome will prove attractive only in the HDTV and computer platforms and not in the Smart phone and tablet space. It remains to be seen how all these strategies will play out in the coming years.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Civil Rights

After I listened to Sue Monk Kidd speak about her book in the library and after watching the movie adaptation of ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, one learns more about the Civil Rights movement in the South.  The usual perception of people like me is that Negro emancipation occurred after the Civil War. But the struggle has in fact continued well into the 1960’s even after Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights act that resulted in the South moving into the Republican camp. In fact, some would even argue that the struggle still rages today. One has given a sort of peripheral attention to the struggles of college students and the non-violence movement against segregation. In one’s memory, Martin Luther King’s epic speeches and his assassination were the main events of the struggle. The 1960’s were also about other events like the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy killings, Vietnam and the hippie movement. ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ bring the full attention back to the Southern anti-segregation movement and the Civil Rights struggle.

One often believes that the giant of Civil Rights is Nelson Mandela with his epic fight against the South Africa apartheid government. It was actually a violent battle against the white supremacist unlike the principles of Martin Luther King who favored Gandhi’s non-violence. It was only after Mandela’s rise into the presidency and his advocacy of forgiveness and reconciliation without retribution that exalted his name. It follows Abraham Lincoln’s grand gesture of presidential forgiveness of the rebellious Southern States. As everyone knows, the Civil War ended slavery but resulted in segregation and the Jim Crow laws – not true liberty and racial equality. It took generations more with the recent struggle (about 45 years ago) to end segregation that just started with Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation. This period is not well documented except for the excellent photographs of those who participated in the movement.

There is a revival of this period with Sue Monk Kidd’s book, the recent memorial to King and the recognition of people like Rosa Parks and the freedom riders. The election of a black president seems to herald the end of this injustice. But the recent attacks of the so-called ‘birthers’ like Donald Trump smacks of racial prejudice. This has been called out by Jimmy Carter a few years ago to explain the inappropriate outburst during the President’s State of the Union address in Congress. The Civil Rights struggle needs to be celebrated and understood to appreciate today’s progress. An achievement that even Nelson Mandela learned from but without the dynamics of his epic story. It was more of an evolution of a people who matured enough to accept the civil liberties and rights of former slaves. It’s an ongoing education - continuing with the acceptance of the first African American President.

‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is a good book and a move in that direction of celebrating the civil rights struggle. It’s an educational journey that young people should read and learn so a better place and union is achieved. One cannot understand the civil rights struggle with Obama’s story because he is divorced from that history. He is a new man who stands in the shoulders of great people like King, Rosa Parks and other heroes. Perhaps even the young heroine in Sue Monk Kidd’s book. One understands the story from rap and hip hop, from Jay-Z’s book ‘Decoded’ from the poetry of Alice Walker and Langston Hughes and in the movie of King.  Skin color no longer matter and it’s an achievement of every person who has risen above his own racial prejudice and bias. The only refuge for this type of injustice is right wing groups, religious conservatives and fascist movements. Unfortunately, it’s the preserve of rich and powerful people.

I finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s excellent book ‘Freedom’. A big sprawling work about a dysfunctional family that finally achieved bliss and grace in the end. He is like an American version of Anthony Burgess with his scope. He brings a macro focus on the American experience like Burgess sophisticated sweep of European manners in books like ‘Earthly Powers’. Franzen has Burgess prodigal range of a wide array of subjects. Franzen writes about neo-conservatives, obscure rock stars, Bush II presidency, conservancy movement, rare birds, mountain top mining, capitalism and free markets, college life, suburbs, marriage, sex, adultery, adolescence and fringe groups. It’s all about the concept of freedom and the American experience in using freedom perhaps to the detriment of the world. It’s a more serious book when compared to Thomas Pynchon ’Inherent Vice’ but with a similar deadpan humor. But Franzen did not write about the civil rights movement with his focus on the affluent white middle class similar to the stories of John Updike.

The subject of Sue Monk Kidd and Jonathan Franzen are strikingly different; like stories from different countries. Perhaps the country is a dissimilar place today than in the recent past. The African American experience is remarkable no matter what people try to present today. The DVD series ‘Poetry Lounge’ presents the voices of African Americans writers. Poetry is expressed with open mike sessions where people express their work in front of a live audience. Perhaps it’s the poetic version of a rap session with hip hop singers. Some say that rap or hip hop is the modern version of the blues or jazz - the songs that express the black experience in the South. It’s a strong vibrant voice that has more raw energy than the voice of mainstream writers who have sunk into the comfortable affluence of middle class existence. Perhaps that’s the difference between the Obama candidacy with a promise of change as compared to the status quo of conservatism (with their misuse of freedom).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thick of Things

The assassination of Osama Bin Laden feels like a threshold has been crossed but one is unsure what it is. In recent years, al-Qaeda has reached a level of insignificance that it looks more like a revenge killing but really it is justice served for 9/11. The decapitation of the head of the terrorist group is the last nail in the coffin. Hopefully, that would portend improvements in the situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban no longer has its symbolic and important supporter at its back. The strategy of counter-insurgency with surgical strikes is the wave of the future. Social engineering via nation building and regime change has lost its allure as well as funding. It is the portent of things to come: more intelligence and surgical strikes and less large-scale military interventions. The spies are back with high tech espionage and old fashioned cloak and dagger work. John le Carre will be proud.

In the larger picture, Osama’s death is the removal of the last impediment towards the democratization of the Middle East. The recent people power revolts detached the focus from Islamic extremism towards democracy and openness. Corrupt and long serving dictators should go; not the Islamists. After all religion is difficult to fight against and the right of the people. It’s a good strategy wherein people’s energies are best spent earning money after economic openness is achieved with the departure of oligarchies aligned to reigning dictators. Political and economic liberalization is the key towards shaking the hold of Islamic extremism in Middle Eastern youths. No more martyrs and beautiful virgins waiting in heaven. No more bombs and missiles but capitalism and open markets. In fact, virgins are available in earthly paradise as long as one has the money. Martyrdom is no longer required.

Eventually, this strategy could pave the way for peace between Israel and Palestine. One suspects that the influence of the military-industrial-complex is waning; especially after the loss of the neo-conservatives. The complex is likely responsible for sponsoring the Pakistani elements who harbor terrorists like Osama. The Pakistani elements are also responsible for the spread of nuclear technology to rogue states like North Korea and Iran. Perhaps it serves as platform for leveling the nuclear playing field as long as terrorist don’t get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan is really the terrorist state – a militant theocracy like Israel. Some people would think that these two states are the real threat to peace; a willing pawn of the military – industrial – complex. The Osama killing and the successful people power revolts in the Middle East is a repudiation of the previous Cheney - Bush – Rumsfeld doctrine.

The current doctrine maybe called the Obama – Clinton – Panetta doctrine. A strategy to increase democracy (or American power and influence) in the Islamic world without the military interventionism of the past.  Hopefully it would increase the chances of peace and prosperity in the Middle East as well as reduce the dependency on oil. It’s a brilliant holistic strategy. I think there’s a lot of excitement in that part of the world. A similar situation occurred in Asia with people power revolts and economic liberalization in the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia wherein significant regimes were upended and changed. Perhaps a similar situation is developing in the Middle East. The fall of Islamic extremism (as compared to the fall of central planning and cronyism in Asia) is the key goal. Open markets and money are the drivers of this change.

With all these external upheaval, one is also engaged in a significant but modest ‘battle’ in one’s own front yard. The new application has been live for 10 days. It has proven to be robust and able to handle the work. But the onsite staff is not exactly impressed or enthusiastic, preferring the old system. The program does need enhancements to resolve the minor issues that have arisen since go live; but resources are tired and not excited to keep things moving. Sometimes the local team is not helpful (like the Pakistani intelligence when looking for Osama) when they perceive their power slipping after the new system is implemented in all sites. The offsite support is also slow in delivering the next release. It feels like a constant battle; fighting in multiple fronts – from the people ware – to the application issues – to the support staff - to the business leadership. The result is fleeting stress and anxiety, early mornings and lack of sleep.

Despite the excitement at work, one is still piling up the weekend with books, movies and music. Too much distraction and no focus on the true goal of writing. The creative writing course is ending next week and one has learned a lot. But one cannot commit the required serious time to achieve the dream. One is still in accumulation mode – where one is still reading and learning instead of applying the knowledge already gained. A never ending gathering of information and experience that’s a bane for people with an inclination toward input and learning. Perhaps it’s only the thrill of accumulating. For example, one has downloaded movies or purchased DVDs and books but no time to read or enjoy them. It’s feels like the joy in acquisition is the end in itself. The only resolution is a drunken stupor in the weekend – enjoying the recent discovery of vodka martinis (shaken not stirred) and olives and be oblivious of the gathering baggage in one’s mind.