Thursday, December 25, 2008

American Airlines Bad, Zurich Good

On our way from JFK to Mumbai Anita and I were stranded in our connecting city Zurich for a day. A winter storm in the Northeast US area including New York had ended the previous night. The weather was clear and flights were departing normally when we boarded our 5:25pm American Airlines flight from JFK (New York) to Zurich.

But then there were an hour of cargo loading delays in which time light snow of about half an inch started falling. That led to need for de-icing our plane which was expected to take about 40 minutes as we were 4th in line. Instead, because of equipment failure and other snarl-ups we were on the ground for almost four hours and missed our connecting flight at Zurich.
To our surprise American Airlines miss-classified the entire cause of delay as weather-related. This way their staff escapes responsibility and enables them to cite their rules to avoid taking care of stranded passengers. Their staff at Zurich rebooked us for the same flight the next day without arranging or helping with any accommodation or paying a cent for stay or incidentals.
This was in stark contrast to our experience the previous year with Continental Airlines in Frankfurt where we were stranded for three days for genuine weather related reasons. Continental had put us up in a decent Frankfurt hotel for three days, paid for meals, and took such good care that I had sent them a letter praising their staff.

Back to Zurich, we made friends with a nice couple (New Jersey based, of Indian origin) in the same situation, along with and their remarkably turned out son (born and raised in the US, yet fluent in Marathi) who is a senior at Northwestern University. They contacted friends in Zurich who picked them up and put them up in their picturesque countryside home.

Anita and I also made the best of our halt by checking into a nearby hotel and taking a local train to see Zurich Downtown. It was a great opportunity for our first visit to a Swiss city. Zurich is a much better and enjoyable city than we had expected, combining modernity with rich historical architecture. Though it was a Sunday, the shops were open and there were crowds of revelers because of Christmas time.

Later at night in downtown we came across a devoted Gujerati son taking his visiting parents out for a walk. For dinner he recommended a well known restaurant called HillTL which served very good vegetarian cuisine with a lot of Indian fare. (By remarkable coincidence the next morning these parents were seated just across from us in our flight from Zurich to Mumbai.)

While entering HillTL we greeted a Sikh gent who was coming out. We started chatting and he became so friendly that he accompanied us back into the restaurant, waited as we ate, then gave us a tour of all 3-4 floors of it with a view of its open glass-walled kitchens. He then showed us other parts of Zurich downtown for the next hour or more, and was an excellent guide, filling us in on the background of various shops and landmarks. His name is Paramjit Bharj, and amazingly he's a devout and fully observant Sikh speaking fluent Panjabi even though he hasn't been to India since his birth. He was raised in Uganda and then came to Zurich over 30 years ago when Idi Amin expelled people of non-African origin. He had interesting views and we enjoyed his company.

Posted here are pictures one of a "singing Christmas tree" with live singers making up its branches, then one of Anita in front of this, one of me with Paramjit, and finally of Anita and I together. All in all it turned out well despite the disruption in our travel.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mumbai Terrorism - It's A Small World

The Mumbai terrorist attacks have caused worldwide outrage that hopefully extends to Islamic countries and societies. Much of Anita's extended family lives in Mumbai. It's a city of 20 million, so despite the large number of victims including 163 killed we hoped that no one we knew was affected.

While people within our innermost circle are safe, we are hearing tragic stories about those very close to our extended family and good friends. Through a dribble of chance conversations we so far know of eight such people killed as well as some harrowing escapes. More connections will almost certainly emerge once we're in Mumbai where we're headed shortly.

For instance two days back I happened to call Anita's cousin Indru whom I've also mentioned in my previous post, about an unrelated matter. She sounded somber, and I learned that two victims whose stories were also carried in The New York Times and other media were a couple who are Indru's and her husband Gul's best friends. They were Ashok Kapur, chairman of Yes Bank and his wife Madhu who hung out with Gul and Indru almost daily and they used to vacation together worldwide. Ashok and Madhu were in an Oberoi Hotel restaurant when they were attacked and pursued by the terrorists. They fled and were separated. Madhu managed to escape after hiding out for several hours, but Ashok was killed - something Madhu and the authorities learned about much later. Now Indru, Gul and other friends and relatives are trying to support the shattered Madhu as much as they can.

Anita's cousin Rita (also mentioned in my last post) had gone from Mumbai to Pune to look up and stay with my in-laws. She left by train from the historic VT train (now called Shivaji Station) just three hours before it was stormed by the terrorists and 54 people killed there. Not wanting to take chances, her husband Dilip sent their car and driver to fetch her back to Mumbai three days later.

Any incidents touching us personally are a microcosm of the general coverage and commentary in the media. A couple of instances I'd like to highlight relate to reactions in Pakistan.

The first is this link to a Pak TV broadcast that my cousin Poppy received and passed on - many similar ones are posted on YouTube. It reflects the state of denial among Pakistanis who refuse to acknowledge or condemn the role played by the terrorists based in Pakistan. The TV show's anchor and two guests talk of how Indians brought this problem upon themselves and are now falsely linking this to some activities in peaceloving Pakistan. This mindset is of course not limited to Pakistanis or Islamists. It's remarkable how people's prejudices and perceptions can distort reality. But I also came across this (hopefully not too rare) clip showing a much more objective assessment on Pak TV by a Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. He is courageous in contradicting some other participants and acknowledging that some rogue elements within Pakistan are responsible and should be firmly curtailed. If there are enough of such people on both sides then there's hope for our countries coming together.

The other item is a (as usual?) beautiful Dec. 2 Op-Ed of Tom Friedman in The New York Times. He calls on Pakistanis to take to the streets and declare, "as a collective, that those who carry out such murders are shameful unbelievers who will not dance with virgins in heaven but burn in hell. And they (should at least) do it with the same vehemence with which they denounce Danish cartoons (of the Prophet Muhammed)."

It is heartening to see no backlash (so far) against India's Muslim community, which would have played right into the hands of the terrorists. We should continue doing more to reassure Indian Muslims, and credit goes to political and community leaders who have involved them in condemning these attacks. There are likely home grown elements that have substantially participated in these attacks, but a crazy fringe should never tarnish the broader community. A fifth of the Mumbai casualties are Muslims, and so is the Mumbai police chief. Whatever comes of it there's symbolism in this reported move by some Indian Muslims to deny the slain terrorists burial in Muslim cemetries.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Relatives Help and Visit Pune

In Anita's extended family (as may be typical in large ones) interactions range from little or no contact with some relatives for decades, to having very close bonds. We're fortunate to find many in the latter category.

But people lead busy lives and we don't expect them to disrupt these on our account. This is especially so when we're not seeking any help, and assuring relatives that any situation we're facing is firmly under control.

So on our recent trip to Pune we were overwhelmed by the outpouring of warmth, support and help from Anita's folks, who're mostly my good friends too.

When I first arrived to tend to my in-laws' medical emergency I only sought advice and contact information from the three Pune-based uncles and aunts about good hospitals and doctors. That was enough for me to move Daddy and Mummy to the hospital, lock up their apartment and get their treatment under way. Most of Anita's relatives live in Mumbai, and I emphatically told them I needed nothing else and that they shouldn't bother coming to Pune.

But they'd have none of it. Now I know from where Anita gets her stubborn streak (and those other qualities that made me woo her decades ago.) When we come to India we typically stay a few days in Mumbai to meet up and spend time with relatives living there. This time we stayed put in Pune, yet a lot of Mumbaiites that we care about come to us in Pune.

In the process, the visits were a big morale booster for Daddy and Mummy, and our doctors said that these probably significantly helped their recovery. And there was more.

Here are some highlights:

  • Anita's cousins Ashok, Gul, Indru, Jagdish, Kavita, Meena (with daughter Tanny) and Rita specially made the 8 -10 hour round trip from Mumbai to Pune just to look up my in-laws and spend time with us

  • Aunt Duru and Uncle Hira cancelled / put off all their travel and holiday plans despite our protestations, to help, regularly visit and advise us in Pune till my in-laws were home

  • Again, despite my dissuasion Rita with maid in tow left her husband Dilip (who is miserable without her and vice versa) for six days to join me in Pune to tend to Daddy and Mummy in hospital. As it turned out her help was invaluable because I wasn't expecting to be so heavily occupied with Daddy's emergency surgery. Rita's company and consultations apart, I was also able to leave Mummy to her care in this time before Anita had joined me

  • Dilip himself made repeated calls to get me to agree to his visiting Pune and taking me back in his car to Mumbai for the flight back to USA. I instead asked him to postpone his trip so he could look up Daddy and Mummy some time after I and Prakash had gone. Dilip agreed and his trip on Nov. 17 - 18 provides valuable coverage, as did Kavita's second trip on Nov. 8th. This way there's always someone dropping in and checking on Daddy and Mummy as they're steadily getting better

  • Ashok lent a vital cell phone and datacard for internet connectivity on our laptops from anywhere. India's anti-terrorism measures include dumb provisions that make it very difficult for those of us visiting from abroad to obtain cell phones and data cards in our own names. So Ashok's help proved very useful

  • Ashok (and owners Gul and Indru) repeatedly offered all the resources at the 5 star Sun-n-Sand Hotel in Pune which is a short walk from Inlaks. When Anita landed in Mumbai, she was brought to Pune by Ashok and Indru. Then we were ensconced in the penthouse suite of Sun-n-Sand for the next two weeks with the full run of all facilities. It was like living in two worlds, transitioning daily from the hubbub and frenetic activity of the hospital to the lavish luxury of the hotel. There were 300 exotic dishes to try in the hotel's multiple restaurants, a nice gym to work off (half) the calories we took in, and a retinue of smiling staff to attend to our needs
  • Moti Uncle and his wife Mooma lived in Pune for decades till recently, called regularly to enquire about Daddy and Mummy, and give valuable advice. They also had a good 50th wedding anniversary bash in Mumbai on the same evening that I was arriving from Pune to catch my flight back to USA. I went with Meena and Tanny to the party and spent a wonderful 45 minutes meeting and revelling with the assembled clan before leaving for the airport

So despite the serious purpose of our visit and some hectic activity, Anita and I had a memorable trip interspersed with these warm get-togethers, and helpful relatives. (For poor Prakash, Anita's brother and the dutiful son who relieved me in Pune, it was just a lot more of work, which he cheerfully did without having time to meet many people.)

When marrying Anita, I hadn't realized I'd gain such a nice extended family of hers as dowry.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Close Indian Neighbors

For those living in the US who are used to cordial but occasional contact with neighbors, the experience in India can be quite revealing.

My in-laws (Daddy and Mummy) live in a closed apartment community in Pune, India which is called a (housing) "society". I have been struck by the warm and close interactions with neighbors in their society. This became even more evident recently.

A couple of times Mummy tried to walk and fell in the small hours of the morning, and Daddy wasn't able to get her back up. Their neighbors not only rushed to their help in those times but also rallied to monitor and care for them for several days subsequently.

I (and subsequently Anita) arrived from the US and had both my in-laws hospitalized. In the next several weeks they overcame a number of conditions on the road to recovery. In this time as well the close involvement of neighbors was striking. Some examples:
  • Some neighbors visited Daddy and Mummy in the rather distant hospital. Many more were intending to do so but heeded my request about no visitors so we could concentrate on their treatment

  • Immediate neighbors took charge, discontinued part-time help and stopped delivery of supplies, newspapers, etc., to my in-law's apartment during their hospital stay. I hadn't anticipated any of this in the midst of the medical emergency

  • After their return home, Daddy and Mummy had streams of visiting neighbors to welcome them back. Many brought along children or grandchildren to help cheer them up. I was impressed seeing these kids under 10 years of age patiently and respectfully spending time with my in-laws when they could be doing more fun things elsewhere

  • Many came forward with local information and advice that was helpful to us in making arrangements and settling my in-laws back down

  • This Mira Society has over a thousand residents, yet a third of them seemed to know about our predicament, and who I was. I'd cross and greet apparent strangers walking in the internal streets here and they'd stop me to ask about my in-laws, and how long I planned to remain in Pune

Life in Mira Society is of course not typical of that in other places. In Delhi and Mumbai we see neighbor interactions that more closely mirror those in the urban US.

My in-laws have stayed in Mira Society for over 30 years, and I can understand their reluctance to move to a service apartment as we have urged, that is more suited to elderly care.

The other remarkable thing is the way Anita's extended family came together to our help. I'll describe some of that in the next post.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Choice of Palin has Sealed McCain's Fate

To turn an old saying around, it's far better (for Obama) to have a foolish opponent than a wise friend. And McCain has totally obliged.

Forget GWB's abysmal ratings. Forget the economy. Forget the Iraq war. Till the end of the Democratic Convention McCain still had a more than even chance of occupying the White House. His biggest card was the split among the Democrats, and Hillary supporters just wanting an excuse to vote for him.

Basic politico-economic theory and conventional wisdom both required him to veer to the center. Any of the speculated VP choices would have been fine - Tom Ridge, Joe Lieberman, even Mitt Romney and just may be Tim Pawlenty, as they all had their respective strengths.

A stance that would dilute the pro-life message, raise the prospect of restoring taxes for the ultra-rich, call for more regulation and expanded healthcare would turn off the hardcore right, but not enough to withdraw or switch support, when they see Obama as the alternative. Yet McCain could this way pick up a lot of the disgruntled Hillariites, and the undecided and independent voters.

But then he went ahead and picked Sarah Palin. What was he thinking? That just because she has the right plumbing (as a Hillary supporter put it to me) she'd get the Hillary women to back the ticket?

In addition to her obvious lack of experience she's so far to the right as to be almost a caricature of the ideology that's distateful to Democrats and most independents. McCain seemed smugly happy about the surprise he had pulled off, and about her almost rapturous reception by the hardcore right. "Trust McCain to shake things up" said a lackey on TV as Sarah's introduction started just ahead of the Republican Convention. But you need to shake things up when your outlook is bleak and the current course seems to be failing, and not when you have so many strong cards in your suit.

There are of course many other deficiencies in his campaign. When the economy is the number one concern you don't see a single economist of repute among his advisers. Ditto on other issues. The negative ads are horribly conceived and destroy his clean guy image without getting an effective message across. But these blunders I think pale in comparison to Palin (pun intended.)

The end result is obvious now, with McCain trailing Obama by 8 points nationally just six days before election day. Hillary supporters and independents have been shocked back into Obama's camp, and talk of voting against Obama out of spite has all but evaporated. I had anticipated this as my comments of September 1st and September 15 (when McCain was still doing well in the polls) on my August 1st post show. To a large extent McCain's choice of Palin is indicative of the quality of his decision-making as President. The maverick has turned ultra conservative, which I see as an act of misplaced expediency and even cowardice. McCain is paying the price and has only himself to thank for it.

I'm guessing Obama is silently but ardently thanking him too.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rubina At The Journal

New York parlance or universal acronyms? Only recently did I realize that "The Journal" unequivocably means The Wall Street Journal, and "The Times" refers to The New York Times. Both of these are great publications, and getting to work here is pretty good for aspiring journalists like Rubina.

So we were happy when Rubina got an opportunity to join The Times as a freelance graphics editor last year, and then subsequently at The Journal. In case you're wondering what she does as a graphics editor, it is gathering the information for visuals that are not just photos, and then creating them. This includes charts, tables. diagrams, schematic summaries and maps that usually accompany news stories or articles.

Newspapers are facing a tough environment trying to hold on to readership and ad revenues in the face of competition from the internet. They are pressured on headcount and typically take on only freelancers or people on temporary contract. Rubina is passionate about her work so her working this way without any job security or benefits was fine. She creates about 2 - 3 graphics daily and we used to cut and save all these till the novelty of this declined somewhat. We knew she enjoys her work and is productive and appreciated by her group and supervisors. It's also great experience so that was good.

Then I got her call a few days back. The editor of the front page of The Journal said he wanted to talk to her. Don't worry, he said, it's good news. Then over lunch he offered her a regular, full time position. She's very happy and so are we (Anita, Sheena and I - her family) especially since she loves living in Manhattan. I saw she hasn't yet updated her personal website in respect of her employment status at The Journal since she's still going through the formal process, and will probably do so subsequently.

Currently she's working on the "A" (main) section of the paper. Her group traditionally do not put their name on their graphics, but typically one third of the ten or so of them are hers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Offshore Drilling And Poor Journalism

I often wonder at the failure of these US multi-billion news agencies to address the most basic questions that arise from the very news that they cover. Here is an example.

For the past couple of months we've heard arguments flying back and forth about lifting the ban offshore drilling around the US. Given the skyrocketing crude prices and that we're not going to avoid importing oil 10, 20 or 30 years out, I'm now all for it. Safety and pollution concerns are now very low, and we don't have the same wildlife refuge conservation considerations in offshore drilling as in ANWR.

The Democratic leadership (till recently including Obama) have opposed lifting the ban. They say that it won't help in the short term, and that oil companies have plenty of offshore areas that they can use first.

The first argument is silly - does it mean Congress and government should only limit itself to the most short-term measures? But the second argument about idle leases merits serious consideration, and no news agency that I know has asked the oil companies or Republicans to respond to this specific point, and then reported upon it. Instead the election coverage on energy issues by the likes of CNN is an endless blather of cross-talk among candidates, their surrogates and political pundits.

One place where I found a partial rebuttal to this "use idle leases first" argument is on this QandO blog. In short it says that leases take a very long time to work, are held up by many procedural steps, and require a lot of capital investment that is costly or hard to come by. It's only a partial rebuttal because it doesn't fully answer the question: if the oil companies have their hands so full that they can't get through these existing leases, then where will they find the capacity to explore the new areas?

Still, at least this little blog tries to answer this most obvious of questions. That's a lot more than has been done by the large and sophisticated media outlets.

All is not lost. Some new programs with welcome depth are coming on air. My favorite is CNN's Fareed Zakaria's GPS (Global Public Square) that started a few weeks ago and covers central global and foreign issues.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Does A President Need Principles?

A good thing about the upcoming elections is that either presidential candidate will be a huge improvement over Bush. The race is surprisingly close at this point, given Obama's highly successful foreign tour, favorable press coverage and inspiring speeches as compared to McCain's gaffes and senior moments. Many more voters view Democrats favorably as compared to Republicans. Obama is an inspirational speaker with quick wit and charm. He is also highly intelligent and organized.

Yet according to CNN's "Poll of Polls" today Obama is at 47% to McCain's 44% with 9% undecided. What gives?

One reason McCain is so close may be that he is still widely thought of as decent and principled despite his share of flip-flops. The Washington Post today carried a long article about how emotion and ambition have always guided McCain's behavior. But even such negative coverage may only humanize him and not tarnish his overall standing with voters.

Obama appeals to the idealism of his enthusiastic supporters with his message of change and hope. Yet in his life there seems little or nothing of principle he's done, or made sacrifices, that compromised his own interests.

Then there have been his rapid switches on issues after winning the Democratic nomination. These move him to the center or even into Republican territory, like his wooing of evangelicals and decrying a Supreme Court ruling against the death penalty in non-homicidal cases.

Such tactics while smart help shape perceptions. Half the voters (myself included) think Obama will do or say whatever gets him elected or furthers his personal interests. But even assuming that is true, how much does it matter? It largely depends on what the candidate hopes to achieve by becoming President.

The significance of being the first black / minority President shouldn't be lost on Obama. Here is his chance to go down in history as a great leader with path-breaking accomplishments. If that's his objective then his actions and decisions driven by pure self-interest will largely converge with what is good for the country. He will surround himself with good people, and take decisions on their merits in the national interest to secure his legacy.

Companies seek the smartest and most capable CEOs who are not necessarily nice guys. The system of compensation, rewards (and punishments in case of wrongdoing) tries to align the CEOs' self-interest with that of the companies.

This private company analogy can apply to Obama even if his incentives for being a good President are different. So while Obama has his core following of wide-eyed admirers it will be interesting to see how the preferences of the more skeptical swing voters unfold in the coming months.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

McCain's Strategy: Stupid Or Ultra Smart?

At first I thought John McCain has lost it. But now I'm not so sure. I'm referring to his behavior and policy stances after securing the Republican nomination, and particularly after Barack Obama became the official Democratic nominee.

Every veteran of two party politics should know about the "race to the center" strategy. This is also formally taught in introductory game theory courses in the economics department of the University of Chicago, where Obama's advisor Austan Goolsbee is a professor.

The theory here is for mercenary politicians to take more extreme right or left positions during the primaries to win support of their respective bases, and then each moves to the center to try to win most voters in the general election. By "mercenary politicians" is meant those who are simply focused on winning, and untethered to internal commitments or prior promises.

Obama has all this down pat. That's why you saw him gallop towards supporting the death penalty even for some non-homicidal crimes; courting evangelicals; qualifying troop withdrawal commitments in Iraq; lecturing blacks on personal responsibility; and so on. He may ease off the pace of transition a bit because of left-wing reactions, but his base is pretty much in the bag and you know where he's heading. Even Jesse Jackson's much publicised private diatribe against Obama actually helps drive some undecided whites into Obama's fold.

But what about McCain? He seems firmly stuck on the right of even where he has been in the past several years on issues ranging from (a lack of) women's reproductive rights to taxes to healthcare coverage. Moreover, he flubs his speeches and country names, and is the anti-thesis of Obama's eloquence. He's well behind Obama in the opinion polls. So he seems to be following a really dumb and ineffective game plan, right?

That's possible, but there's an alternative explanation. After all McCain has some of Karl Rove's closest associates advising him. Obama is a formidable opponent but one thing that can work for McCain is Hillary's disaffected supporters who can either vote McCain or not vote at all.

Obama can heal the divisions simply by taking on Hillary as his running mate, and though I had my doubts it looks like she's amenable to this. The only thing is, with all the bitterness during the primaries process, he's apt to choose her only if he feels he needs her. But what if he were confident that he could win without her? Then he'll choose someone else, and that's the only way for McCain to beat him.

If that's the calculation then McCain should let Obama get substantially ahead in the polls till Obama chooses his running mate, someone other than Hillary. Only after that should McCain turn to more centrist themes and go full throttle in his campaign. His earlier rightist stance will endear him to the Republican base who contribute to his campaign. This base will also be more understanding of his late shift to the middle if he's lagging in the polls and "has" to adjust positions to catch up with Obama. Also, McCain's tepid campaign style and listless speeches earlier on will lower expectations, which will make it easier for him to beat them in the all-important debates and final run-up to the elections.

So back to the question: Are McCain and his team being absurdly foolish or brilliantly clever? Their subsequent actions, say after the Democratic convention, may supply the answer. At this time it is hard to tell.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Watching Sex

I mean watching the movie "Sex And The City" in case the title is misleading.

Wife Anita asked if we could see it together and I agreed, despite its unflattering reviews in The New York Times, and also in The Wall Street Journal. The critics at Rotten Tomatoes also gave it a failing grade (below 60% positive) though the general viewers were more generous. Gender seems to play a big role. The women love it, the men don't.

I said to Anita that it is our going out together that matters and not the particular movie that we watch. She responded that she'd never accompany me to my "men-type" of horror, sci-fi, action or similarly inane movies. That's honesty and lack of false promises or mushiness for you.

The 8:50pm show on Saturday that we saw was full of women. There were only seven men (me included) out of an audience of over 150 with a surprisingly high proportion of young females.

The movie itself was very well received, with a lot of "oohs", "ahs" and laughter. At the end many people (all women) clapped in applause - the first time I've seen this happen in Danbury. While leaving we heard four women tell their two male companions, "Oh, thanks so much for coming. We're sorry you didn't enjoy it as much as we did!"

About our own reactions Anita liked it a lot. But so did I, contrary to our expectations going by the reviews. Beneath my boorishness and practicality I may have a soft and sensitive core that would appeal to the four main women characters in this movie. Or maybe not.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Stopping Email Pollution

Do you get flooded with spam and chain messages? Often malware is carried by emails that infect when you unsuspectingly click on links or open attachments. There are simple ways we as senders can avoid contributing to this. Here is my count down of the four biggest email nuisances that we can control. The last one is the most innocuous and widespread because so few realize it, and yet it's capable of the most damage.

No. 4: Hackneyed jokes and quotes repackaged in large PowerPoint presentations. These are not only often stale but waste time to open and view. They may also carry viruses or spyware. Good jokes come across well even in simple inline text. The others seldom improve much with the addition of colors and sounds, emoticons or inane animations. Not all attachments are bad. Visual cartoons and striking pictures or video clips can be exceptions to this.

No. 3: Chain mails and online petitions. Some claim to bring luck, others are pleas for money , most have been circulating for years, and almost all are a waste of recipients' time.

No. 2: Unverified health tips, virus warnings, "true" stories and sensational pictures. Most of these are hoaxes or distortions. Before forwarding any of these we owe it to our recipients to check their veracity on sites like or

No. 1: Forwarding attachments or links without "signing" your message. I used to routinely forward such stuff to my grouped recipients without comment till my brother alerted me to the danger. This is the biggest menace of all so let me explain.

By now most of us know that email supposedly coming from you may actually be auto-generated by a virus program that contains malicious code. It is triggered when you open an infected attachment or click on a "poisoned" link, and is sent to everyone on your address list. If you routinely forward stuff without comment, your unsuspecting recipients will not be able to tell this malicious message apart from your other ones. It's like a case of repeatedly crying "Wolf" till your recipients ignore the danger when the real one appears. By opening it they'll get infected and spread it further.

If you send any messages or forwards ESPECIALLY those with attachments or web links, please remember to sign your messages. What does signing mean? It means typing in your name or initials or nickname, ideally something that an automatic virus program would not include. For example I sign my forwards by including my initials SM in an introductory line at the top.

Some friends of mine insert their names in the "auto-signature" feature of their email and think this is a smart shortcut. It's quite the opposite and defeats the whole purpose, since a virus program will also pick it up and send on this signature. Worse, this can fool the recipient into thinking the email has been consciously signed and sent. If you feel you must have it, then at least add the title "AUTO-SIGNATURE" (preferably in CAPs) at the top of your auto-signature content so that your recipients are warned if they receive poisoned auto-generated content from your account. And when you consciously send something, you can simply delete this word AUTO-SIGNATURE from your message.

I tend to delete without reading any unsigned messages with attachments and links and suggest you do the same unless you like playing Russian roulette with malicious code. Note that even a signed email just indicates it has been consciously sent, and is no guarantee that the attachment or link is safe from malware or spyware.

I have focused here on forwarded emails, and left out other abuses like phishing. Also omitted here is how we can protect ourselves as recipients and/or using anti-virus or anti-spyware programs.

You can educate your own circle about all this. It's partly the reason I'm creating this post so I can send this link when required. We cannot eradicate email pollution but can help by not contributing to it and protecting our own recipients.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bad Things Happen To The Best People

Last month my father-in-law ("Daddy") informed us about the murder of Asha (aka Aasha) and her husband Brij Chhabra in Troy, Michigan. Asha was the only child of Daddy's best friend and cousin, S.K. Mirchandani who had passed away a few years ago. She had inherited a sizeable estate in India worth over $2 million.

Now in the US with her family, Asha let a close family friend still maintaining Indian connections manage the property for her. This person whom she trusted completely was Narayan Thadani, who now lived in Texas. Well, Thadani secretly sold off her estate and stole all the proceeds. When he was exposed and on the verge of losing a lawsuit in Texas, he hired two El Salvadoreans to kill Asha and her husband. As this news story reports, by sheer chance the two were caught following a routine traffic stop after they drove away from the crime scene.

Their deaths were horrible news to us, though Anita recalled little if anything about Asha and I hadn't met her or her husband. Or so I thought. But Daddy said my own parents knew the family of Mr. S.K. Mirchandani well. When I called with the news my parents said that I too had known Asha well from way back. I was surprised.

They told me Asha's dad Mr. S.K. Mirchandani was my dad's boss for about two years when he first joined the Indian government long before I was born. Mr. Mirchandani was one of the finest and upright of people so my Dad was devoted to him, and remained friends long after their official association ended. My parents said we'd visit the Mirchandanis often in Delhi, and I loved playing with Asha.

Then it hit me who Asha really was. She was the first person that I had asked to be my best friend (she accepted) when I was five and she was eight years old. She was bubbly and caring and fun. My favorite play then was simply to run and she'd laughingly run alongside. Or we'd play tag on her lawn. I'd eagerly look forward to going to her house. I was too young to have been a true playmate for her, but she indulged me with gusto and kept me so happy and excited that I'd hate to leave.

I last saw her when I was eight, after quite a gap because of my parents' preoccupation with other family matters. I was excited to see her again and noticed how much she'd changed. She must have hit a growth spurt because she was now a few inches taller than I. She had become graceful and lady-like and with her large eyes and now shoulder-length hair looked to me like an angel. While we didn't play physical games like before, she showed me interesting things in her room and responded to my chatter. I remember how she laughed at my fascination with flashlights and produced one for us to play with.

Till now I was unaware that I had ended up marrying her second cousin. Her family (maiden) name Mirchandani hadn't registered in my young mind when I knew her or I'd have made the connection much earlier. Now she and her husband are tragically gone, and I've heard they were every bit as nice as what I recalled about her. This other news item other details of the killing and its immediate aftermath. There are also pictures of them and their killer(s) on the internet - just search Google images. My heart goes out to their young daughter Suman that they left behind.

I'd like their cold-bloodied killers (including the family friend who ordered the hit) to be punished under the fullest extent of the law. But this won't bring Asha and her husband back.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Supreme Court Under-Delivers In Gere Case

On March 14, 2008 the Indian Supreme Court finally acted on that arrest warrant against actor Richard Gere which had become an object of concern and derision around the world. Gere's alleged offense was playfully kissing actress Shilpa Shetty on her cheek at an AIDS awareness gathering in Delhi on April 15, '07 that I discussed in my May 9, '07 post.

Some may be relieved that the Supreme Court suspended the arrest warrant so Gere is free to visit and travel around India again. But the courts and/or the legislature should have done much more to prevent such abuse in the future. Here's why I am so dissatisfied with the outcome:
  • This case should have been used to lay down jurisdictional guidelines by the Indian Supreme Court which would have been binding on all lower courts. In Gere's case an obscure judicial official based in another state (Rajasthan) hundreds of kilometers away from the incident in Delhi started the proceedings and issued the arrest warrant. Just because media footage is aired in some place should not give the local judiciary the authority to summon or proceed against people who were never within their physical jurisdiction. For interstate occurrences there should be a clear single jurisdiction court. That way you need to only depend on the good sense and judgement of that court instead of being hostage to the whims or shenanigans of any one of the thousands of courts.
  • This arrest warrant and proceedings should have been nipped in the bud by Rajasthan's own higher courts. There's the District and Sessions Judge of Jaipur, and above that the Rajasthan High Court that could have taken suo motto (i.e., of their own) notice to quash the proceedings and to admonish this lower official. Instead, Gere's lawyers had to go all the way to the highest court of the land, and I can imagine all the hassle and expense this entailed.
  • The Supreme Court did not issue any strictures (i.e., rebuke) against the judicial official which would impact his service record and discourage similar actions in the future. The Supreme Court instead chose just to scold the original complainants which is a hollow action.
  • The Supreme Court has only "indefinitely suspended" the arrest warrant, instead of quashing the entire case against Gere.
  • The Supreme Court ruling came after 11 long months. In this time the original judicial official succeeded in his primary objective of harassing a celebrity and garnering importance and publicity for himself.

Sadly, there has been a pattern in the Indian judiciary of protecting their own and to expand their powers. Over twenty years ago began this trend of higher courts taking up so-called "Public Interest Litigation" (PIL) and to make executive decisions or legislate from the bench in the guise of court orders. In Himachal state I had also seen judges filing cases with each other and passing judgements granting themselves bigger budgets, better housing or other benefits.

The Supreme Court judges in Gere's case apparently sympathized with him but were not neutral arbiters of justice. They were unwilling to lay guidelines however justified to curb judicial overreach and diminish the capacity of their junior colleagues to do mischief. Ideally, the Legislature can step in and at least lay down the juridictional parameters for this purpose. The lawmakers have other preoccupations, and are currently too fragmented politically to act. But I hope this situation changes soon.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hillary For 2008, Or Is It 2012?

It's three weeks before the Ohio and Texas primaries, so Hillary still has a chance to reverse the Obama tide. She is more qualified, and voters may just grasp this in time.

She currently faces "momentum" and herd instinct (aka peer pressure) that disproportionately influences younger people, which is working for Obama. He also has the African Americans favoring him by 80% or more, without a backlash among other Democrats.

But I also see something that I touched upon in the third bullet point of my January 5th post. This is Republicans who have no intention of choosing Obama in a general election nevertheless voting for him in the primaries simply to undermine Hillary who's more likely to beat McCain. I've long suspected this to be one of the reasons for the unusually large turnouts in Democratic primaries that favor Obama. This is why I strongly favor closed primaries in all states, open only to voters registered for that party way earlier.

Instead, the Democratic primary of Ohio is open (or semi-open which is essentially the same thing), as is that of Texas. Most TV networks are curiously silent about this. But a couple of days ago Dick Morris who's now a bitter enemy of the Clintons talked on Fox News about this manipulation by Republicans. He did this to support his prediction that Hillary will fare worse than expected in both these states. He may well be right.

There's little Hillary can do about this so where does she go from here? In the days ahead she certainly needs to reshape her message. For example, she should change those "35 years of experience" and "ready to be President on day one" lines that were weak and off the mark to start with. She's now looks to be doing this and stressing her more significant advantages, like her substance over his rhetoric, or achieving solutions instead of just making good speeches.

Beyond that, how should she act once she wins or loses the nomination?

If Hillary wins she should immediately ask Obama to be her running mate. Whatever her personal feelings about him, she now needs him as part of the "dream team" to unify their bases, including the youth and the African American vote. For his part, Obama should accept. The VP stint will give him the standing and the experience to become an odds-on Presidential favorite in subsequent elections, when he'll still be young. It is actually in his interest to accept the VP slot much earlier, if the Democratic primaries outcome looks to be headed to a stalemate by end of March, or early April.

And what if Obama wins the nomination, or looks to be certainly headed there with committed super-delegate support? Then Hillary and Bill should say nice things about Obama, call on the entire Democratic party to support him, and then both retire from the scene for the remainder of 2008. If Obama offers Hillary the VP spot, she is better off graciously declining him. She has nothing to gain. After eight years of an Obama Presidency she will be less electable at age 68, and any missteps by the Obama Administration in the meantime will rub off on her.

More than this, contrary to the sayings of pollsters and TV pundits, I expect Obama to lose to McCain unless McCain says or does something very stupid. You saw it for the first time here - in case of an Obama - McCain matchup without Hillary in the picture, I predict Obama will lose by five points or more.

In that case Obama post-2008 will be little more attractive than other general election losers: Dukakis after 1988, Gore after 2000, Kerry after 2004 - you get the idea. In the past 60+ years I recall only one instance when a prior general election loser won subsequently. That was Richard Nixon in 1968, who won in unusual circumstances after Democratic frontrunner Robert Kennedy was assassinated. So here's my take in case Obama wins the nomination now: Hillary should just wait for 2012 and hope the Democrats choose better then.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

United Airline's Unfriendly Skies

About six years ago United Airlines had the best frequent flier program. I was prepared to pay up to $50 extra to fly United just for this reason. Now a lot of that has changed. I want to caution fellow US travellers so that they don't get burned.

But first here's what I had liked about the old program:
  • If there was a seat available on a flight you wanted, you could get it even at short notice for just 25K miles. Easy availability and no sneaky "fees"
  • If you booked your "free" (or Mileage Plus award) ticket and your plans changed, you could change bookings on the same itinerary without charges or penalties, so long as seats were available
  • You could go to the airport and fly standby on a different date on forward or return legs without any charges and restrictions, so long as seats were available and you were sticking to your original itinerary (same departure and destination airports)
  • Your miles did not lapse so long as there was some activity in your account in the preceding 36 months
  • If your your account had no activity for close to 36 months, you would get a cautinary notice from United a few months in advance about the impending loss of miles

Now consider the changes in United's program. None of these has been announced except for the one about the period of account inactivity that triggers forfeiture of miles being reduced from 36 months to 18 months:

  • Now very few (and sometimes none) seats per flight are available for "saver" award fares of 25K miles. After that some other seats are available for "standard" award fares of 50K miles. And you may get neither even if the plane has plenty of vacant seats because their set "quota" of designated award seats has been allocated
  • You can still change your dates without charge on your original itinerary, but only if award ticket seats in that category (like "saver") is available on that flight. Good luck finding that though
  • Trying to go standby on a different date is no longer allowed, even if the flight you want to go on is empty
  • The no activity period in your account after which you lose miles has been reduced from 36 months to 18 months from the beginning of this year (2008)
  • This is really sneaky. They no longer warn you of impending forfeiture of your miles. In fact the monthly and quarterly statements they send you do not even contain a "last activity date" or date when miles lapse, unlike any of the other airlines.

All my daughter Rubina's miles were quietly taken away last month. She had not been traveling on United in the past 18 months because her flight destinations were inconvenient on United's flights, and their prices were significantly higher. Leave alone sending a warning, United deliberately does not mention the mileage expiration date in the monthly statement that they email or mail to members.

I called up customer service to point this out while requesting her miles be restored. They refused, saying this is their new policy. They said customers should log into their Mileage Plus accounts and then track their expiration dates. They offered to sell her back her lapsed miles - at a price amounting to $350 for a "free" saver fare, or $650 for a "free" standard fare. Thanks a lot. I asked United customer service why they don't mention the mileage expiration date or last activity date on their emailed/mailed statements like other major carriers do. No answer.

Other airline programs have negative features as well. Air Tran and Southwest frequent flier benefits are useless unless you accumulate enough miles for a free ticket within a 12 month period, because they all lapse otherwise. Delta and American charge fees of $85 and $50 respectively if you book tickets less than 20 days in advance, with even higher fees for booking within 7 days. Many airlines offer 25K awards only on the routes with least demand. But at least you don't feel they're stealing your miles outright.

I'll still fly United or Air Tran or Southwest, but may go with other airlines with better mileage programs if their fares are less than $25 - $50 higher.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Reagan Amidst The Democratic Race

I've always been underwhelmed by Reagan and wonder why he's so lauded by the Republicans. I was in India for most of the time he was President (that is, till August 1987) but read enough about international and US affairs to form an opinion about him even way back then.

His admirers say he "defeated" the Soviet Union and "won" the Cold War though they're quite vague about how he did it. Outspent the communists in an arms race? Dragged down the Soviets in Afghanistan by building up the Bin Ladens and the precursors to the Taliban against them? Some of these explanations for Reagan's supposed success sound quite bizarre. I think he was mainly lucky that enlightened leaders like Gorbachev realized the value of market driven systems and Democracy, and their reforms overlapped with Reagan's tenure. True, he didn't do anything stupid like GWB may have done in launching military adventures to re-unite the communist block against the US and halt their reforms. But that's hardly saying much.

On the domestic front, Reagan's policies were even less creditworthy. His tax cuts and build up of deficits created a temporary boom that borrowed against the future and pushed economic woes in the lap of his hapless successor, George H.W. Bush. I couldn't understand the Reagan nostalgia, but didn't have the words to articulate this. Then last year I came across this March 19, 2007 column by Paul Krugman in the New York Times which (to paraphrase Hillary) found my voice. He's since written many columns that drive the point of Reagan's fake legend home.

I'd have expected a literate and well-read person like Obama to have seen all this. So I was quite surprised like many others to see Obama compare Reagan and his Reagan years favorably to the Clinton years. I can understand his taking pot shots against Bill Clinton in order to get at his wife Hillary (I've always been skeptical about Obama's "clean campaign" promises) but this is the worst way to do so. Last night in the CNN Presidential debate in South Carolina Obama tried to qualify what he had said earlier, but it isn't enough. His comments prompted Krugman to write another column yesterday (January 21, 2007) about debunking the Reagan myth.

Last night Obama also took a cheap shot at Hillary mentioning he was doing all those grand things in the community while she was sitting on the corporate board of Wal Mart. Hillary returned the favor by referring to his work for a Chicago slum lord who is a campaign contributor. The exchange was unseemly and I may be prejudiced but Mr. (purported) Clean is the one who started it, and she'd have suffered if she had not retaliated.

So far Obama seems to be having it both ways on the racial front. He's winning the African American support simply because of skin color (even though ironically he doesn't share any of the typical African American history) and skillful references to issues like the Jena 6. Think about it - if all else was exactly the same, would Oprah have endorsed and campaigned for him the way she did if he was white? At the same time his other supporters don't yet seem turned off either by his subtle play of the race card, or by his lack of substance.

The polls show Obama will sweep South Carolina because of the African American vote, and I'd expect the Hillary camp to be braced for this. Hopefully, she'll be able to recover adequately for Super Tuesday on Feb. 5th when over half of the total delegates will be elected.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Unexpected Quarter Exposes Obama

Of late in regard to the Democratic primaries race I've been pleasantly surprised by Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics at Princeton and a top New York Times columnist. I've always admired his incisive logic, compelling reasoning and biting sarcasm that lays bare the bankruptcy of several Bush policies.

At the same time I thought Krugman would be too liberal to appreciate Hillary, and would instead favor more populist candidates like Obama and the "new farther left" John Edwards. Till some months back Krugman had been openly distrustful of Hillary, fearing for instance that she may be too beholden to drug companies and health insurers who have contributed to her campaign.

But he seems to have taken a lot of pains to understand each candidate's position and proposals on issues, and makes well-founded pronouncements. Hillary seems to have now won his respect, with the "turnaround" starting in September on healthcare issues. On the other hand, he has been increasingly troubled by Obama's stances on several hot button issues including approaches to the economy, healthcare, and social security. And I thought I was the only one who saw through Obama!

Seriously though, see Krugman's past five columns dating back to mid November that expose Obama's shallowness and policy shortcomings:

In case you're wondering, I haven't "cherry-picked" Krugman's columns here, by omitting any since September 2007 that praise Obama or criticise Hillary. So there you have it. Paul Krugman sees through Obama's rhetoric and appreciates those offering more substance, even if they're centrists like Hillary who are not his natural allies. The question is: will the voters in general?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Thank You, New Hampshire

I was pleasantly surprised by the Democratic election results last night in the New Hampshire primaries. Most pundits and polls had predicted a huge win for Obama, so it was good to see that NH voters did not ape Iowa. Hillary's slender victory has obviously huge implications though her path to nomination is still uncertain.

I also welcome the McCain win in NH on the Republican side. He's my favored candidate on the Republican side though well behind Hillary because I do not share his stances on taxes, healthcare or choice vs life issues.

A nice graphic created by daughter Rubina for the New York Times today shows the detailed profile of New Hampshire voters supporting both the Democratic as well as Republican candidates.

While I'm happy about Hillary in NH, here are my other comments:
  • I regard Obama to be superficial (especially compared to Hillary) even though he's a great talker. Still, I'll give him his due. His concession speech last night was gracious, as were his comments on today's news shows. This is something Hillary can emulate. And yes, someone who can speak so well without notes as Obama has to have good clarity of thought.
  • Why is Hillary so keen to project confidence in the outcome of the primaries? I was turned off to see her campaign manager babble about how they expected to win NH on the eve of the elections because of the enthusiasm of the crowds who greeted her. Hillary in news show appearances also said something about how she was the only one predicting victory when all others didn't. I think it'll be more honest and also better in winning voter goodwill and sympathy if they admitted to their worries and anxiety, and then said how gratified they are by the outcome. Doesn't political psychology 101 say that it is good to play the underdog, lower expectations and then beat them? That's accepted wisdom in debates, so why not in poll outcomes? Over-confidence and a I-knew-it-all-along refrain comes across as arrogant, while a little humility wins voter sympathy and support.
  • Hillary's emotional moment and her fighting back tears was a genuine and unplanned act, in my view, despite allegations to the contrary in some of the media. It seems to have won over voters for her, which supports my contention above. Few people doubt her strength, so she doesn't have to hide her emotions to prove it. So many in the media say that she comes across as so much warmer and likable in smaller private gatherings. I hope she opens up more in public appearances as well from now on.
The outcomes are wide open. Thanks to you, NH, exciting (and hopefully happy) days are ahead.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Post-Iowa Rejoicing - Count Me Out

I'd almost recovered from jet lag following our India trip when the Iowa primaries results came in. It is good news for Republicans on both fronts. Their Republican winner Mike Huckabee is not only personable and likable, but also a truer Conservative who more consistently reflects their core values than Mitt Romney. They should also welcome the Democratic outcome as their most formidable opponent Hillary Clinton suffered a blow by coming in third place. Obama would be easier to beat as a Democratic nominee since people like me will either switch support to the Republican candidate, or simply sit it out at home.

Partly for reasons touched on in my October 18th post I voted with Republicans in some significant races in the last two elections. I supported Joe Lieberman in November '06 in the senate general elections (as did 70% of Republicans) after he was rejected as a Democratic nominee (my June 6th post has some painful details). In the process Democrats lost a senate seat since Lieberman is now an Independent. Then last November it was Republican Thomas Boughton who was re-elected Mayor of our Danbury city which otherwise leans Democrat. Boughton secured two-thirds of the votes both because of his good performance record and because his Democratic opponent was so weak. Now it'll likely be a three-peat for me (not voting Democrat) if Obama gets the Democratic nomination.

So why don't I like Obama? It's not about the issues, since he and Hillary are pretty close on those. It's about his personality, which ironically is supposed to be his strong suit among most Americans. To me he hasn't come across as anything more than a great talker. Hillary isn't perfect by any means but she's shown a lot more depth and understanding on the issues, especially while answering questions. I also see strong character and determination in her that should make her effective. And okay I'll admit it - it's also because she's the wife of Bill Clinton whom I like a lot.

Obama won Iowa mainly on the strength of his overwhelming support amongst the youngest voters. That's not surprising - they're the most naive and hence likely to be taken in by him. Okay, I'm half-kidding. I know enough older people even in my closest circle of family and friends who are normally sane and rational folks, who happen to like Obama.

It's interesting how the results in one little state like Iowa have so much influence on others, starting with New Hampshire. That's why these initial primaries carry inordinate weight. The U.S. became a superpower largely because of the independent and entrepreneurial thinking of its people. Are the current generations losing these traits of their forebears? Right now the polls show that Obama's support since the Iowa primaries has surged and that he is tied or slightly ahead of Hillary in New Hampshire. My own decisions are hardly based on what other people think - why can't more Americans be like me? Half-kidding again.

But seriously, I'll close with some other observations:

  • Why do candidates try to project themselves as sure winners? Hillary proclaimed in a recent TV interview "I WILL win" and I remember Kerry trumpeting the same confidence in 2004 even when the polls showed him to be trailing. I disagree with the pundits and think that this is a bad tactic. This over-confidence tends to turn people off, and is almost a matter of reverse psychology, if you will. I'd advise more humility for Hillary. Remember, Huckabee surged in the polls and took Iowa with his lower key approach.
  • I also disagree with the pundits who say Hillary would need to sharpen her attacks on Obama after the Iowa debacle, as he's surging in New Hampshire. Such negative campaigning tarnishes the image of the attacker, and Hillary with her likability issues is particularly vulnerable to such perceptions. I think she should effectively counterattack if criticised for sure, but otherwise continue taking the high road and win support through her clarity of vision, honest and in-depth answers to questions, and all this mixed with a little self-deprecating humor.
  • I suspect there could be plenty of manipulation to sabotage the opposite party in the current system of voting by independents and wonder why no one else has brought this point out. Say that I am a Iowan (or New Hampshire) Republican at heart and am registered as an independent since this is the most advantageous. Then if I know that Hillary is the Democrats' most formidable candidate I'll simply go and vote for Obama (or Edwards) in the Democratic polls just to undermine Hillary. I suspect some (may be a lot) of this has happened in Iowa and may be repeated in New Hampshire. The solution is to only allow party card holders to vote in their respective primaries (as is the case in our CT state) and to have a cooling off period for those who want to switch parties.
  • Why do we have this system where the order of the primaries in the states remains fixed? This makes the pocket states of Iowa and New Hampshire unduly important on a permanent basis, and is unfair to other states. While Iowa and NH naturally like the status quo, why don't the other states use their clout in the national convention to push for a more equitable roster system where other states get their chance to be first in subsequent elections? It's not relevant in the current election cycle but the states and the two Parties should considering this longer term.

Iowa disappointed from my perspective. And I don't have that much faith in New Hampshire. Let's see how the primaries turn out there in two days.