Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Saved by Beauty

I finished reading a remarkable book about Iran, written by an Anglo-American poet, a devotee of Rumi - the Islamic mystic, the author writes with the sensitivities of a first class travel writer, with the appropriate background on politics and history, alive to the ironies encountered in his travels while delving in the strange and exotic events, reminding one of writers like Rory Stewart and those upper class Englishmen who roam the world and write elegant accounts of their adventures. I supplemented my reading by looking at YouTube videos about the places the writer visited like Tehran, Isfahan, Nishpur, Yadz and Qom, and watching events attended by the writer like whirling dervishes, muharram and other solemn Islamic singing and dancing events that commemorate the martyrdom of the Shiite leader, bringing one towards a deeper understanding of Iran and the greater Islamic world. Learning by multimedia leaves one with images in the mind, the book’s words lost with the visual reality, as if one has done the travels himself, seeing the actual scenes instead of visualizing from the pages of the book, less imagination is needed by the mind.

I had visited Islamic sites in India like Fatepur Sikri, the great deserted city in the plains that ran out of water, near the city of Agra, built by a Mogul emperor, descendants of rulers from the Middle East, following the Persian architectural principles with their gardens and water pools, precise in their geometric lines, also recalling the immense courtyard of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi as well as the majestic columns and platforms in the Red forts of Agra and Delhi and the other ancient forts scattered in the city with their architectural lines claiming lineage from Persian roots. The wide open boulevards of the city of Isfahan, the Imam square, the bridge across the river, the bazaar, one clearly sees the majestic history of the ancient city, one gets the same feeling in the gardens and lakes of Beijing, symbols of an imperial past long lost in time. I saw these places first hand in Beijing and Delhi but glimpsed Iran from videos in the Internet, accompanied by words from a book, delving into the inner life of Persian poets and the modern day politics of Islam.

Iranians, who the author met in his travels, talk about Iran before the Islamic conquest, citing writers like Ferdowsi – the author of the Persian epic ‘Shanameh’, or more enlightened Islamic thinkers like Hafez, Omar Khayyam and Rumi the mystic, as the true image of Iran and not the severe Ayatollahs that rule today, writers one has read in the books of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in his great books ‘My Name is Red’ and ‘Snow’, writing also that the Sufi mystical tradition is the only bulwark preventing Pakistan from succumbing into a fundamentalist Islamic state like Iran, showing another face that one has deemed lost in the wars of the Middle East, a face of elegance, beauty, tolerance and enlightenment. The writer had difficulties leaving Iran, accused of being a Western spy, notably after visiting places like Kurdistan and meeting artists and other well-known people like directors and painters, some notable critics of the regime,  indeed working like a spy under the guise of being a poet, now that’s a novelty, meeting with the English ambassador, having dinner in his elegant residence, with echoes of their own imperial past, the colonial masters of continents now sovereign, Britannia no longer ruling the waves.

The writer has a strange pedigree, an English poet who worked on newspapers like ‘The Guardian’ and BBC, writing popular books on poetry, accepting American citizenships and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, travelling the world especially the Middle East with his avowed love of Rumi, going to America to help the Obama campaign in Ohio, returning to see the inauguration and feeling the anticipation for change, finally travelling to Iran to visit the fabled city of Isfahan to see the blue tiles covering the domes of ancient mosques, an image seen in a dream. The thesis of his book is that the harsh fundamentalism of Islam will be saved by the beauty of Iran’s past, perhaps a separation of church and state, as in the secular countries of Turkey and Egypt, countries with a rich ancient history, alluding to the role of Sufism in preventing Pakistan fall into fundamentalism, an insight by the writer William Dalrymple, hoping for change in the same vein as the election of the new American president. A year or so later, the Arab spring erupts with the fall of the entrenched leaders in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, with increasing protests in Syria, Bahrain and Iran, the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan and the coming pullout of foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, times are a’ changing baby as someone said, the openness heralded by news services like Al Jazeera based in Qatar.

Initially one was skeptical about the book, thinking it was some mushy romantic trip back to ancient Persia, but strangely has aspects of fine travel writing and insights into politics and religion, lacking in fact the usual poetic sensibilities despite frequent quotes from mystical poets, instead a raw insight into modern day Iran, but perhaps the YouTube videos were the real gems, placing value on a trivial book. The book was the highlight of the thanksgiving weekend, filled with great movies like Kurosawa’s ‘Kagemusha’, viewed with audio commentary, providing an unknown detail into Japanese history, refreshing the mind like a tonic, amidst tasks like smoking a turkey, injected beforehand with a spicy marinade, shopping on ‘Black Friday’, purchasing furniture at a discount with free shipping, delving into picture books and magazines, one’s thoughts flying again while keeping the mind lubricated with the usual drinks, going to the gym to swim and run,  missing sleep by sleeping late, aware that the deficit will hit you one day but who cares, lost in the subject of the moment, unfocused and missing real goals, perhaps like the book’s title, hoping to be saved by beauty.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Weekend

My mind is a bit mushy this week, a bit disoriented from the Houston trip the week before, perhaps tired from addressing the challenges faced on site, finally recognizing the many trials overcome in the preceding weeks, when a disaster occurred in the first week of the month, potentially fatal to the project but nonetheless allowed to continue, the mind finally catching up to the abuse received by the psyche.  One soldiers on, working on documents and deliverables, submitting papers for review last Monday, to get another project to the next milestone, doing the same thing weeks earlier before the Houston trip, solving issues and writing papers, all thoughts swirling in a common mental mass, achieving most objectives without floundering, perhaps a tribute to exercise or  meditation or self-reflection or cocktails, surviving with episodes of bewilderment, attending meetings and engaging in conversation without serious thought, stringing fleeting ideas to make the dialogue sensible, just succeeding until the end of the day when one thankfully goes home.

The Houston trip was supposed to be a week of rest, a routine installation and training, but not everything goes according to plan, bringing loads of stuff to read - newspapers, magazines, audio book, but having no time to really read them, with distractions from television and the Internet, one planned to just lie in bed and passively watch TV in the motel room, instead trying to catch up on one’s reading, a self-inflicted mental punishment, coupled with the problems in deployment, thankfully relieved with a good lunch and dinner, thankfully with Samuel Adams beer. One just moves along, surviving the days and weeks with its constant pressures, seeking relief in abuse, the mind drawn to thoughts of buying a bigger house or writing a book and doing all sorts of things, unintentionally placing a burden on oneself, until the body and mind says enough is enough, so moments of mental confusion come, ‘now what do I have to do now’, signs of a senior moment or the coming onslaught of Alzheimer, wishing the cocktail hour is coming soon.

Thankfully its Thanksgiving week with 2 days of no work coupled with the weekend, having 4 days total of vacation, plans to kick back and relax, watch movies and cook turkey, having some liquid refreshments to ease the mind, go to the gym to run and swim, sleep more and try different things, perhaps it’s the right time after all to have done the Houston trip with the anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday, a welcome respite to rest one’s mental wounds, to recover one’s equilibrium and prepare for the next test. Soon one realizes that one’s trials are self-inflicted, the mind needs to be silenced, the spirit and will settled to a serene level, with the goal to reach one’s true calling, instead of being distracted to deferring avenues, the mind like a sick machine or unthinking animal, just working to satisfy one’s base urges, a strange affliction to constantly read, see and experience new things, the mind filling up with stimuli. The strategy then is to let the thoughts fly by, without allowing to land and settle on the mind, instead moving like water as the brainwaves becomes like the wind, only important facts settling in.

Visual thinking is a learning strategy, a technique that allowed one to leap forward in understanding new concepts, nowadays no longer used as the process seem to be ingrained, one doesn’t dwell in ideas but do the required act instead – be a man of action. Visual tools were previously used to fix mental fatigue, now much needed but unexploited, perhaps due to the onslaught of more stimuli. Rest and recreation, taking stock of the situation, using visual thinking tools seem to be beneficial during periods of reflection, perhaps the answer to the current feeling of malaise. What is the source of this feeling?  One feels that one has crossed a threshold with the Houston trip, a realization that the product works well when the team has adequately prepared, but bringing up questions of the team’s ability or maturity, explained by the change in project personnel, but one thinks the previous shortcomings is due to one’s poor performance, unconsciously accepting blame, thereby bringing stress to oneself. But it is a team effort after all, despite the central or significant role that one plays, one must not accept full blame in times of failure, glad that more people have stepped-up, reliving the pressure with more skin in the game, but is it enough to condone past blunders?, where one is in the firing line, one thinks that one is not responsible but the overall boss of the project.

Perhaps that’s the relevance of Thanksgiving – to thank the boss and the powers that be, that one still has his job, perhaps narrowly avoiding being fired, thankful that all things worked well despite many constraints, living another day and accepting one’s shortcomings. Thankful one has survived the day’s trials, fighting one‘s mental demons, surviving the weeks and eventually the months and the finally the years. I guess the early pilgrims experienced more hardships, crossing the ocean and starting from scratch, surviving Indian raids and Old World prejudice and superstitions. One’s circumstance seem trivial when compared to the trials of the past, despite the seeming rush to deployment, the constant delays, the fear of having the project stopped, of not living to expectations, the disappointments of one’s fellow members, striving to be good but only managing a mediocre performance. Hence, thankful of living a normal life without the imagined disasters that never come, living to fight another day, hopefully more wiser than before, with less baggage and less illusions.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


We landed in the George Bush International airport on Sunday evening. We had about an hour layover in the Atlanta airport before leaving for Houston, watching the football game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 79ers, sitting near the terminal door and watching the screen while I bought my dinner of chicken tenders and French fries from Nathan, nearly missing the plane if not for the nearness of the food stand, my colleague busily trying to call but I missed his calls, walking back to the gate with my food and preparing to board the plane, eating my dinner in-flight to Texas. We landed in moderate climate, I removed my sweater, walking in the immense modern airport, reminding me of the new airport in Bangkok, with its similar high ceilings and stark monolith walls, looking for the car rental, eventually discovering that it was in another building, stood out in the curb to ride the shuttle bus, eventually finding the garage and choosing a Nissan SUV. We drove in large wide spaced highways, reminding me of Los Angeles, seeing the tall towers of the city in the distance, going Southbound to our motel, far from the city but closer to the warehouse in a town called Humble, Texas.

The first day at the warehouse was taxing. The day spent fixing the issues reported last week, first checking the cable and the computer that could not connect to the network, having phone conferences with IBM to check the firewall, having arguments on the source of the problem, finally finding an erroneous IP address, eating crow and apologizing to IBM, successfully solving the problem (though the cable had to be replaced). Lunch was Texas style grilled sausage and chicken breast with Scampi rice in a popular restaurant called ‘Saltgrass Steakhouse’, reminding me of a place called the Texas Road House, with Elk heads and other animal heads or bones nailed on the dark wood walls, Texas flags and old faded black and white photos, the interior dark with limited light coming in the windows giving an ambiance of an old saloon or hunting lodge. Back in the office, work continued, sudden program changes needed to be done when we realized the dock id was needed, e-mails and frantic calls were made to prepare the data, do more tests and finally going home early so one is ready for the go live the next day. Dinner was at Papas’s Seafood, where I had oysters and catfish, enjoying the ambiance of the restaurant, again with dark wood walls, high ceilings, overhead fans, lots of plants and pictures with a sea scape motif.

The next day was a bit of a disaster. The first test did not work so did the second one, missing a key item that was found during a discussion at lunch in a nearby steakhouse, realizing that important data needed to be transferred to the new system, making phone calls to get that information and sending to the support team in India and finally, re-scheduling the go live to the next morning. Despite the fix, it did not go well, the support team lax in their work, frantic phone calls again, support staff scrambling to fix the problem, causing delay on the local work, finally identifying the problem, a temporary fix put in place, and work continued. The rest of the day went well but disaster struck in the evening shift, the same problem again, necessitating another call to support, having it fixed and sending the troubled message back down, finally working and giving all a sense of relief. We had a quick lunch at Wendy’s and late dinner at Chili’s where I ordered ribs. We felt the problem has been licked after that eventful day, hoping for a smoother day tomorrow, ready to extend for a few more days if needed in case the application blows up again, returning back to the Hampton Inn where I had planned to exercise, instead sinking in bed and falling asleep.  

The last day in the warehouse went well, everything worked fine except for a minor glitch in the carrier report, the project team feeling pleased like a fog of doubt has just lifted and everything was fine again, and it was a fine sunny day unlike yesterday’s dark clouds and sporadic rain, as if the sun had brought out the good luck, and everyone happy with the performance of the software, printing labels with large quantities as if head office was doing a test, that we had a great lunch after ensuring all was fine,  eating again at Salt Grass where I ordered steak and scampi rice. Last minute calls to fix the final glitches and all was done so we went home early, going to Hooters for dinner where I ordered oysters and boneless chicken wings and Samuel Adams beer. I finally got to exercise, doing 40 minutes in the stationary bike, packing my stuff and watching television, waking the next day at around 5:30 am, checking my computer, listening to the audio book - Scott McClellan’s ‘What Went Wrong’ about the Bush presidency, checking the sites and making phone calls to ensure all was well, attending a remote town hall meeting, doing 40 minutes in the tread mill, having breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs, yogurt and a banana, packing and finally leaving for the airport.

The people in the Houston warehouse were fine young ladies, asking intelligent questions during the training, responding to the new printer and learning the new ways, the episode telling me that Texas is a fine place with eager young people, living in a sprawling city with large interstate highways, quaint suburban homes spread out the city, reminding me of Los Angeles and compared to the exclusive large homes in the East, the Western lands seem to be more egalitarian, with impressions of dynamism glimpsing the skyscrapers of downtown with NASA and oil companies adding modernity to a city along the coast, the trees reminding me of the Florida swampland and the pan handle of Mississippi. But the place seem to lack buzz unlike the cities of California but one can detect the faint scent of great wealth, existing for only a few, unlike Los Angeles or the other places in California that seem to say everyone has a chance to get rich. The flight home was uneventful, although the warehouse at home was calling me, about a small issue but I could not call them, my phone having died, trying desperately to call by VOIP using my computer but failing, so I just read my book by Howard Marks and had McRib sandwich from McDonalds. I enjoyed the flight home, getting the window seat, glimpsing the terrain below as the plane made its way home, passing the states of Alabama, Georgia and, finally South Carolina, the plane descending in the early evening with the city lights spread out in the dark land.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Most Important Thing

An investment book highly praised by Warren Buffet is not the usual finance book by people like Burton Malkiel or Jeremy Siegel , renown university professors who moonlight as investment gurus. Instead the book is written by a veteran investor- Howard Marks and lacks the academic flourish noticeable in books by professors. Aside from the usual focus on fundamentals, Marks zeroes in on value investing which Buffet is a well-known practitioner. His chapters on risk are strangely common sense but strike to the heart of the matter. Risk is basically losing your money – nothing more, nothing less. Risk is reflected in the price – the higher the price, the higher the risk. He focuses on investor psychology – the single most important aspect of value investing. Investor psychology is seen in bubbles, whether foolishly chasing the upside or in low price stock that the market has unreasonable discounted. The book is able to synthesize the various ideas of other great books by offering a realistic viewpoint for value investors. One can say the author is biased but a welcome one for someone who has been reading all sorts of financial guides.

Clearly, the market is inefficient not only because of asymmetrical information (‘insider knowledge’) but because of investor psychology, the market is a beauty contest as famously remarked by Keynes, indicating that stock fundamentals and especially technical investing is hogwash. Market sentiment is not guided by coolly efficient and rational investors but speculators who underestimate risk and are influenced by mania and emotions. It’s misguided mob throwing away money, not at all like the organized facade alluded to in television shows and advertising by brokers or investment banks. Even financial advisers may not have a clue on what they are doing, a silly pretense in trying to be a professional expert on some esoteric discipline, but just people trying their best not to lose money while sharks come in to get all the bling. People like Buffet and George Soros are the few who really know what they are doing and it’s not really an incredible skill but discipline, not being swayed by emotion and mob psychology.

The book alludes to investment success as an attitude, a certain predisposition that provides a ‘second-level thinking’ that synthesizes information from business, economics and finance, plus a conservative mentality that is not swayed by emotion and market hysteria. The key is an insightful understanding of the relationship between price and value plus a realistic assessment of the risk. Looking back to my first huge loss investing in currency, particularly on the Japanese Yen in the late 1990’s during the time Robert Rubin was treasury secretary, I was foolish. My bet was right but the execution was a mess, basically a misunderstanding between my broker and my intended plan. I was a fool who did not realize the risk despite the huge amount being invested, disregarding of my own exit plan, blinded by greed and a fear of losing money, all contributing to a disastrous loss acerbated by sweet talk of my currency broker. This sober experience, right after earning money on an early bet on Philippine banks that earned me enough to pay for my post-graduate degree, spurring me on to the reckless currency investment, thinking that I was different and smart when in fact I was just lucky, lead me to bite the bullet and borrow money from my grandmother in exchange for my stock certificates.

My failure led me to read more, eventually discovering Benjamin Graham’s books and Warren Buffet. The journey continued with Burton Malkiel and his ‘Random Walk down Wall Street’, Jeremy Siegel, Robert Kiyosaki, efficient market theory, diversification, stock allocation, George Soros and finally ending with Howard Marks  ‘The Most Important thing’ – a paean to value investing, coming full circle back to Graham and Buffet. Along the way, I have gained modest experience by investing in the Philippine, Singapore and US stock market, in common stocks, ETFs, index funds, country funds and so on. But all this experience is more about technicalities, answering the ‘How’ question, but the bigger question is on the philosophical idea, guidance on the psychology and behavior of a good investor, answering the ‘Why’ question.  The new field of behavioral economics looks into this area, something that Graham and Buffet have been talking about for decades, now an academic pillar where one’s behavior (like in all other things) is the key to success. Kiyosaki also focuses on the philosophy and not really on the technical part, not talking about the specifics of investing, but to re-orient the focus on cash flow and not traditional ‘assets’ like a large house. 

Being a contrarian is celebrated, to go against the crowd and sticking with your guns, even if it means obscurity and meager results, as long as risk is managed and one is not influenced by greed. This is the supreme lesson of Marks’ book which makes it an intriguing work from a veteran investor, being contrarian is OK while providing insights on stock cycles, risk and investment behavior. Perhaps this is the book that should end one’s study of investment – the philosophy thing is done so one follows Henry Ford’s advice to read only instruction manuals, in a specific sense, how to invest in currency or options or technical trading just to learn ‘How’ or study stocks so one is ready when the funds are available. The book transcends the financial realm into a general guide towards general living, not to aspire to live like the Joneses, but towards a more Puritan and conservative lifestyle, back in the days when one is not a ‘smart aleck’, trying to be the best and brightest, but being self-controlled, ascetic and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Nowadays that is being contrarian.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Existential Moment

It’s been a week since the disappointing incident at the warehouse. Last Tuesday, the warehouse could not ship the products until 2 pm in the afternoon, barely missing the FedEx trucks going to their usual routes, raising blood pressures all around, support staff scrambling everywhere like headless chickens trying to solve the software glitch, my mind in particular chasing at windmills like Don Quixote but not finding any alternative but to helplessly wait until the issue is fixed. Strangely, I felt alienated in the moment, unable to really panic, but going through the motions of trying to find a solution, not really caring despite the implication of the glitch to the big bosses and their perception of the product, but one did not really care, living in a sort of existential moment, perhaps burned out after having reached an exhaustion plateau where any sort of problem is separate from one’s reality like watching a television show, without considering the implications to one’s future or career. A post-mortem was done and it turns out that a crucial piece of the software was not tested. I found myself in the hot seat but did not really care.

After the post mortem meeting and the perceived fallout, I spent a sleepless night trying to think and see what could have been done differently, turning many scenarios in mind, thoughts churning like a runaway train, rising up the next day with a conviction to strike back. The result was an email, a reply to the post-mortem notes, a meager attempt in trying to save face and point the finger to the managers instead of accepting the responsibility exclusively in one’s shoulders, passing the buck to the big boys, attempting to show one’s brilliant analysis derived from a restive night, but ending in silence, perhaps some embarrassed moments to the other members who read the mail. But one has to move on, attending meetings with the other members, discussing the next move, not mentioning the email at all, trying to function normally instead of raising a ruckus which is what I felt I had to do, to rage like a King of England as portrayed by Peter O’ Toole, but one just eases down slowly in a whimper, agreeing to live a life of mediocrity and quiet normalcy.

Nevertheless, one realizes that it’s a danger to one’s career, this insouciant behavior of not caring; the products were shipped out after all, as one reasons it was a negligible delay despite considerable overtime work, so why the big hoopla, stuff happens as Rumsfeld said on the Iraq fiasco, resulting in more deaths, lost billions and collateral damage, and compared to late shipments its really nothing but the concerns of old men trying to seem relevant in a new age where change is constant. ‘ A revolution is not a dinner party,’ Mao said, so one should keep things in perspective, although this is nowhere near a revolution but a small change in the software, but perhaps a significant variation to the old timers who were using the old software for more than 10 years. But the challenge is mine, too. It’s moving down the wire; walking a tightrope, not in the problems of the software application but in one’s mental state; perhaps solving too many production problems has taken its toll, trying to bury the stress with alcohol and movies and indulgence to porn violence like ‘The Walking Dead with body parts exploding in blood and gore.

One does exercise to handle the stress, sticking to the new mantra of achieving 150 minutes of activity every week, adding an hour and a half of yoga during the weekend, and capping off the day with Bloody Mary, vodka martini, whiskey on the rocks or red wine, eating pork rinds, olives and peppers as an appetizer while drinking the lovely cocktails, reading articles in one’s tablet and watching French videos. This is modern life, handling stress with exercise, alcohol and high technology; a potent mix that keeps mental energies at a seemingly tip toe shape, but away from the peace and serenity which is the true salvation, gulping down vitamins and medicines to keep the body running, relying on chemical substances to lubricate the whole mind body equilibrium; vodka for stress, melatonin for sleep, fish oil for cholesterol and mental acuity, books and movies for mental cognition and exercise to keep fit. But the mind must stop or lose the relevance and spiritual saneness that is the real nirvana, not a mind numbing existence seduced by the high life, sophisticated equipment and constant stimulation.

My son is going to college next year, looking for a place to stay, although the university is only 2 hours away, a seminal change, the arc of one’s life ready to achieve a trajectory, a harbinger of new beginnings as my other son also goes his own way. The arguments and the stress, the dis-agreements and the endless discussions will go away and only the memories will remain, maybe not as melodramatic as I make it sound, like words from a sentimental old fool, but a doorway to another life as well, with another house perhaps in a major city, where prospects for employment are better and where one must achieve the destiny he thinks still exists in the future; this is the only event that excites me, not the travails at the office, where one tries to make himself understood, trying to understand the others in return; the idiosyncrasies, the hidden agendas, the small thinking and small mind sets of the project members, all scrambling to find meaning in their lives. But life goes on and one cherishes the small moments with their children, moving forward in their own lives while one tries to make sense of the new realities. Life is the true revolution.