Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rubina Weds Shaun

Last month on Sunday, October 17, Rubina and Shaun were married in Middletown, Cpreceded by small, intimate gatherings of the immediate family, the bridal party and some out of town guests on earlier days.  Sheena was the maid of honor and Shaun's sister Shannon was another of the bridesmaids. The wedding and celebrations which were largely planned by Shaun and Rubina went very well.  

Here was something interesting.  Our first preference for the wedding was for a Saturday, but with the Saturdays booked in the venue of our choice we had settled on a Sunday.  It turned out for the best.  After the cold and rain on Friday and a chilly Saturday, the weather improved dramatically and the sun came out to make for a great wedding day.

Rubina and Shaun in their wedding planning did an excellent job of fusing American and Indian traditions.  For example, they combined the Indian / Hindu rituals of circling a sacred fire seven times (with an explanation of its significance in English) with more typical American ceremonies and reciting of vows.  They also wisely kept focus on the primary objective of everyone attending having a good time, rather than getting the proceedings just right.  That all the ceremonies went off smoothly and well was icing on the cake.

One major difference between typical Indian weddings back home and ones in the US is in the size and composition of the guest list.  In India the invitee list is much larger and includes people who are close to the parents, even if they don't know the bridal couple too well.  But in the US as in our case those invited and attending with few exceptions were close to the couple, with the invitations going out from them rather than from the parents.  This distinction can probably help non-Americans understand why the Obama's were not invited to Chelsea Clinton's wedding.

We as Rubina's parents are happy that Rubina and Shaun are so right for each other.  Shaun is a wonderful, caring person with a warm and close knit family that Rubina (and we) immensely enjoy being around.

The couple went for a short but enjoyable honeymoon to New Orleans as they had to return to attend another wedding in Shaun's family the following week.  They're settling down well since, and plan to go on a second phase of their honeymoon trip next year.

Here are some bridal party pictures of the mehndi (henna hand painting) celebration on October 15 and the wedding on October 17.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Why a Mosque at Ground Zero?

The latest poll shows Americans nationwide think 70% to 25% that Muslims have the right to build a mosque and cultural center near Ground Zero, but oppose it 63% to 28% as inappropriate.  New Yorkers oppose it 51% to 41%.

The non-Muslim supporters of the proposal are upholding 1st Amendment rights and the proud US tradition of tolerance and respect for all religions.  They also think this profound gesture of inclusiveness will mitigate ill feelings towards the US.  It is remarkable to see NY Mayor Bloomberg, a Jew and till recently a Republican, buck public opinion as a high profile and vocal supporter, at the cost of a steep drop in his popularity.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is similarly facing heat from within his own Republican Party for implied support by cautioning against an overreaction.

I appreciate such principled stands and my respect for Mayor Bloomberg has gone up immensely.  I also think a lot better of Gov. Christie whom I had regarded as a poor choice by NJ voters to replace Democrat Jon Corzine.

Still, I hold a different view, in line with most Americans who have a gut feeling about this.  I am opposed to the present location of the mosque for the following reasons:
  • Why here?  The site was deliberately chosen right next to Ground Zero.  The decision to locate the mosque here is not in spite of the tragedy at Ground Zero, but because of it. In other words, if there had been no 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, there would not have been any plans for the mosque right here.
  • The stated intent behind building the mosque here is not believable.  The planners claim to want to foster better relations between others and Islam, and to help people have a better understanding of this faith.  How can they not have anticipated the adverse reaction?  They say they are surprised by it, and Imam Rauf claims had they known this would happen they wouldn't have proposed this.  Even assuming that is true, now that they do, they should look elsewhere.  Rauf a couple of days back said he opposes this as it would create a violent Muslim backlash round the world.  That reasoning again sounds false.  What's the religious significance of Ground Zero for Islam, that its proponents insist on building right here?
  • Sensitivities to a mosque next door have a subtle aspect.  They go beyond the fact that the 9/11 attackers all happened to be Muslims.  It's that they committed this act in the name of Islam.  Of course the vast majority of Muslims found this to be reprehensible, but they will empathize and won't mind if the mosque is a located a few blocks further away. 
  • Erecting a mosque here is unlikely to discourage terrorism, and could arguably work the opposite way.  Who said the jihadists and religious terrorists are perfectly reasonable, rational people?  The planners say the gesture of allowing a mosque here would weaken or win over radicals because the US would be seen as Islam-friendly.  That could certainly be the way many Islamists may see it.  But jihadist recruiters could also feed religious fanatics the line that the "sacrifices" of the 9/11 attackers led to this mosque being built, and more of such "pious" acts are needed to help spread Islam.
Where do we go from here?  Laws are imperfect, and the mosque planners seem to have taken advantage of this and US freedoms in an affront to the 9/11 victims and their families. The solution can be to fix or modify the laws as situations like this arise.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission could have nipped the controversy in the bud if they had given landmark status to Ground Zero, instead of unanimously turning it down.  Then they could have done something like barring all new religious buildings within a half mile radius.  Perhaps a measure with similar consequences can now be passed by some other body.  This may be needed even though the planners and Rauf now show signs of backing away.  This is because other mischief mongers could take their place, if for no other reason than to yank peoples' chains, or because this issue attracts so much publicity.

Still, we should reassure Muslims of equal treatment of their religion and their needs.  To this end I saw this interesting proposal to even have a Muslim place of worship within a Ground Zero building.  The difference?  It will presumably be one of the several places of worship for people of different faiths, stressing respect and equality for all.  It will also be under the overall control of a centralized management not associated with any particular religion.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Whom Would You Choose - Sully or Slater?

A good thing about news online or in hard copy is that you can pick the stories you want to read, and ignore the rest.  You can't do that with the TV (where I also watch the news.)  Even switching channels often doesn't work because they're fixating on the same inane thing.  It can be a balloon boy hoax one time or a flipped out flight attendant another.

Captivity to such TV coverage apart, this hoopla about Steven Slater cussing out a passenger and deploying the emergency chute to walk off his Jet Blue job gets to me in other ways.  The Huffington Post online poll shows almost half the readers regard him as a folk hero.  This may not be a representative sample of Americans as this readership is very liberal.  But Slater also has 100,000+ fans on Facebook, tee shirts sold in his name, and has a media fixture for the past four days.

The deeds are nowhere comparable but I'm reminded somewhat of the hundreds of women who write love letters or send marriage proposals to serial murderers or rapists in prison.  In a free country everyone gets to have apologists, even amongst strangers.  If only these women could be advanced to the head of the victim line instead of the other poor hapless souls targeted by such predators.  In the same way if only Slater fans on their flights could be privileged to have only crew members like him in attendance.

Joseph Lopez who was a flight attendant himself cites his difficulties and challenges as a rationale for Slater's behavior in an August 14 piece in the Washington Post.  But I'd agree a lot more with Rich Lowry in his August 14 opinion in the Salt Lake Tribune.  He lauds the quiet heroism of Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in landing his US Air plane in the Hudson River, and contrasts that with Slater's self-indulgent excess that "is not in the least bit admirable." 

On my own air trips I'd hate to have someone like Slater aboard.  To add to my July 13 post on airline experiences  I've witnessed my share of surly, brusque or stone-faced flight attendants, especially on American Airlines.  One snapped "what do you want?" to a diffident old lady sitting across the aisle from me when she pressed the attendant light button to request for some water to take her medication after we had boarded.  The same attendant wore a scowl for the most part of the flight - a passenger on my other side wondered if this was because their flight attendant union had just agreed to wage concessions in bankruptcy talks.  On another trip a flight attendant glowered at a young mother who had requested water for her restless infant after boarding, and took 20 minutes to bring it.

In both cases I toyed with the idea of quietly noting the errant attendants' names and sending feedback to the airline after getting home.  But their name tags that they are required to wear on their uniform were missing - this was probably not accidental.  I also observed their far more cordial and gracious colleagues on the same flight and wished there was a way to track and reward good and conscientious staff while penalizing bad conduct.

But in the aftermath of the chute exit drama it seems these workers just needed to behave more shockingly and egregiously to win accolades and fans among a sizable chunk of regular Americans.  I'd instead much prefer airlines to "Sully" their image after wiping their Slate(rs) clean.  And I'd like TV broadcasts to focus more on real news.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Landmark Half-Measures

This is just the latest of the Obama (and Congress) half-measures that have been widely labeled as "historic", "unprecedented" and "landmark".  I'm referring to the Financial Reforms Bill signed into law on July 21st.

It started with the $800B economic stimulus package of Feb. '09 that Paul Krugman warned even at the negotiation stage as being very inadequate,and reiterating these concerns after Congressional agreement. His fears of a stalled recovery have been realized.  Next we had the Afghanistan surge of troops, but with delays and declaration of a withdrawal starting in July 2011 - signaling intentions to embolden the enemy though leaving some leeway.  Then of course there's the health care overhaul of Mar. '10 but without even the public option, leave alone the far more appealing and cost effective "Medicare for all" (aka "single payer") push.

Which brings me back to the financial reforms law.  It is huge and complex, yet leaves almost all the important safeguards against a meltdown to be put in place through subsequent regulations by government agencies.  That's great for bankers and their lobbyists who can get all the loop holes and escape clauses inserted while working with regulators.  If they can win over hundreds of lawmakers, why not a few dozen regulators behind closed doors?  Krugman points to further timidity by the Obama team - they are even dithering over nominating an obviously great fit like Elizabeth Warren to head the new consumer financial protection agency.

But that's not all.  Regulations can be changed by successive administrations, without further legislative oversight.  That means that even if the present crop of  regulators do their job well and insert the right checks and balances, all this can be undone by a future Bush clone who assumes the Presidency.  Knowing this, even the Republicans beholden to bankers and supporting them may not be quite so upset with the new law.  And as seen in the current crisis, it can take many years for the negative consequences of lax oversight to surface, while banks can start to profit almost immediately.

This means that a future regime that loosens regulations that unfairly helps banks can benefit from their patronage.  Yet such an administration can quite possibly escape (or at least get the benefit of the doubt for) the blame for planting the time bomb that causes a financial disaster on a successor's watch.  

Other instances of the Obama and the Congressional Democrats collectively lacking courage are in enacting effective energy legislation, and perhaps immigration reform.  In energy we couldn't even have the weak cap and trade system passed, leave alone a stiff gasoline tax that can fund alternative fuel development as espoused by Thomas Friedman for years.

My take even on Obama "victories" is generally of his doing a lot when cornered into having to act, yet without doing enough.  It's almost like trying to save half the patient.  And it's not a question of being a centrist, but being ineffective.  I believe his taking the lead and acting more vigorously and decisively on contentious issues would help rather than hurt the Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections.  It would not only rally his disheartened Democratic base, but also win the respect of more independents. 

But some initiatives did work well.  The response to the H1N1 "swine" flu epidemic was good overall, and overestimating the demand for the swine flu shots and the resultant oversupply was much better than if they'd underestimated it.  On the gulf oil spill the Obama team could have acted faster and forced more skimmers to be mobilized, including those from other oil companies.  But it did force BP to pay into a $20 billion fund despite Republican condemnation and appointed Kenneth Feinberg to administer compensation (with luck speedily and impartially) from it.   

Hopefully they can build more upon these types of successes in the time to come.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Some Perceptions on Travel Outside the US

A friend recently emailed me asking about booking travel from the US to India, and experiences with airlines. I offered my personal (and very limited) perspectives to her two questions, and thought I'd share them here. This is about personal travel by coach with a close eye on the budget. Anything you'd like to add is welcome.

Q: I'm planning a trip to India. Do you know and use any good travel agents, or do you just book online?
A: I do know of good travel agents (and supplied that information to our friend.)

However, the online options have improved a lot over recent years and I've found very good deals on http://www.kayak.com/ and http://www.orbitz.com/ in that order. The fares fluctuate and the best ones may be available for just an hour or so before they are snapped up. So if you've time it is best to check multiple times every 4 - 5 hours, and/or at odd times like early morning or late night.

The other thing is that for international travel their systems don't work well in real time. So just like Travelocity has problems even in domestic flights, these sites often display low fares that they later say are no longer available when you proceed to book your travel. You do sometimes get those lower fares when you try subsequently. 

Frequent flier miles sometimes come in very handy.  Daughter Sheena got a business / first class ticket for her forthcoming trip from Austin, TX, to Lima, Peru on American Airlines for relatively few (60K) AAdvantage miles.  This is on dates when paid fares even in coach are very high.

Q: Which airline have you mostly been flying? Are you happy with it? Have you ever taken the Air India nonstop? (i.e., the direct flight from New York or Chicago to Delhi or Mumbai.) I'm curious about it, and also about its quality aspects.

A: Some of my recent trips to India have been on Delta non-stop from JFK (since discontinued), American-Swiss combos via Zurich, Air France via Paris, and Thai Airways. The US airlines typically have the skimpiest service, especially American, while the European (and Thai) airlines have better food and cheerier attendants. Continental is better among the US carriers, though. They took great care of us in Frankfurt when we were stranded for 3 days due to bad snowstorms in the US.
In contrast, when we flew American Airlines and missed a connection in Zurich due to a late incoming flight, they wrongly blamed this on the weather and we stayed a day at our own expense without any help from them. They ultimately paid up months later, but that's a long story.

There are mixed reviews about Air India but my experience on all 6-7 trips on it has been very good. A couple of times passengers tended to be unruly or unsophisticated - a Sardarji swaying drunkenly after several free drinks, and some passengers getting up from their seats on landing while the plane was still taxiing on the runway. But those were sources of amusement rather than inconvenience for me / us.
To us personally the Air India crew has been very attentive, polite and gracious, emblematic of typical Indian hospitality. On one occasion after we were airborne a flight attendant noticed I had long legs and of her own re-seated me (and Anita) in a more spacious section. At other times the flight attendants have plied me with multiple alcoholic drinks when I requested for one (may be I look like a boozer.)

And those traveling non-stop from the US to on Air India have generally liked it a lot even in coach - plenty of leg room, good food, unlimited drinks, polite crew, etc. Jet Airways invariably receives rave reviews though I've not used it for international travel myself, and they don't offer non-stops to India. In general it's better, faster and less uncertain (due to delays and missed connections at intermediate airports, volcanic ash in Europe, etc.) to travel non-stop from US to India. So I'd recommend it, on Air India or whatever.

Moreover, the crews are individuals so experiences can vary - I've often seen great attendants and got service to match even on my lowest ranked airline, American Airlines.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Guarding Your Tail

Imagine you are running a $100B company. Your personal salary is 2% of the excess earnings (over and above the safe treasury rate) of your company. You secretly bet your company's fortune so you get an extra 1% of return on investment with 98% probability, but your company can lose everything with a 2% probability.

Any bookie can see these are terrible odds for the company since the "expectation" is (0.98 X 1) - (0.02 X 100) = -$1.02B. In other words your actions will cause your firm to lose $1.02B a year on average over a long period of time.

But if you are mainly concerned about about your own earnings during your 5 year tenure at the top, then making this bet makes perfect sense. There is an over 90% chance that your company gets that 1% for all five years, netting you $20M every year. If they are unaware of the chances you've taken, then your investors will attribute your "success" to your superior managerial capability. And if that calamity does occur wiping out your investors, you personally get to walk away paying nothing. You even keep your past earnings, go yachting and getting your life back, as BP's CEO Tony Hayward would say.

That in essence is why people can have strong incentives to take on tail risks defined as very unlikely but catastrophic events. Instances of such tail risk taking include:
a) The aforementioned BP spill, where cutting corners and ignoring safety imperatives can save oil companies hundreds of millions of dollars a year. While the other oil chiefs solemnly swear to the complete safety of their practices, they know the chance of any such false claims being exposed on their watch is very low. Just as it was for Tony Hayward who was unlucky enough to have lost the reverse lottery. But the the risk of something terrible happening is very high, when aggregated over all the operating companies and the tens of thousands of wells operating under loose regulations.
b) The financial meltdown led by the collapse of the sub prime mortgage loans market. The easy money architects like Alan Greenspan thought the risk was very low. Many lenders, traders and money managers (backed by their rocket scientist quant analysts) knew that a drop in real estate prices could be catastrophic to the derivatives market. They just figured that the bubble wouldn't burst in their short term trading horizon, and someone else down the line would take the fall. Or if they were too big to fail, that they could collect on the upside while a lot of the downside would be borne by taxpayers. They were right on many counts. Even Goldman Sachs which famously dodged the bullet would have done badly if the housing price collapse had started a year earlier, before they unwound their positions.
c) Hurricane Katrina and the damage to New Orleans. Generations of politicians and lawmakers avoided raising and strengthening New Orleans' barriers. These would have guarded against the very unlikely possibility (in their watch) of a Category 5 hurricane directly hitting the city. They instead could divert such resources for popular "pandering" projects that would win them accololades and political support, with no one the wiser about the risk that did not materialize. But a city's life should be measured in centuries (think of the Netherlands' dikes) and over that horizon the risk was very high.
d) Other as yet unrealized disasters like nuclear accidents (assuming Three Mile Island wasn't bad enough and a while back) or earthquakes where safety codes are not strong or enforced enough.

The common factor in all these instances is that the people taking the risks on average derive a huge benefit from doing so, even if this is severely detrimental to the affected populace. That's why leaving the regulation and policing to the private industry can be so harmful. These special interests can lobby fiercely, or use a portion of their expected benefits to bribe or buy support and intimidate opposition that wants tighter controls.

At "my" University of Chicago the majority academic view leaned heavily towards private enterprise and self regulating markets. It went way beyond the concept of "efficient markets" relating to stock, etc. prices that makes intuitive sense. Many of the arguments and reasoning I heard in support of this more extreme "private and unregulated is generally the best" view was not convincing to me. It generally cited historical correlations between free enterprise and economic prosperity. Many of these no longer hold as even Andy Grove pointed out on July 1 in BusinessWeek in a different context of job creation and the rise of China and other controlled economies.

Still, to its credit the University of Chicago does tolerate dissent and fosters diversity of opinion. Paul Krugman in his April 9, 2009 NYT column, pointed to Raghuram Rajan of this school presciently warning back in 2005 of the risk of a financial meltdown, absent adequate controls. Now we just need to have lawmakers and politicians step up to the plate and have the right government safeguards to watch our collective back - and tail.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sheena's Latest Pastime - Take Two

Three months ago I had talked about daughter Sheena's varied interests including her latest one - aerial silk dancing, and added a YouTube link to her first performance on Feb. 14.

On April 27 she had her second performance. Her improvement is evident, as is the fact that in physical prowess her acorn fell far from the family tree, particularly on my side. I'm talking of her flexibility as well as comfort with heights.

About the first, I'm stiff enough to have caused considerable amusement all around during my few attempts at even the most basic of Yoga poses. I'm happy just to touch my toes and can barely manage to sit cross-legged on the floor for a couple of minutes in our traditional Indian gatherings. Yet Sheena's flexibility has been evident since childhood.

Her second performance is at some height off the ground, and much greater drops haven't bothered her. She showed no nervousness when we both first bungee-jumped in Vegas off a 180 foot platform. That was when I was inwardly frozen with fear. I saw her smiling broadly in a subsequent video of a bungee jump off a bridge to an apparently much deeper drop.

Back to her 2nd aerial silk dancing performance, here's a YouTube link to her video - the image is small but not bad for a night shot taken with her miniature Canon SD780 camera. She has a better close-up version on her Facebook account (for anyone who's her "friend" there.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

More J&J Shenanigans

As I suspected my Listerine experience mentioned in the last post was not just a one-off by J&J. It looks to be part of a pattern created by the top management placing quick growth and profits over ethics and long term reputation and performance.

Here are other recent instances:
  • The Justice Department in January accused J&J of bribing nursing home drug procurer Omnicare with tens of millions of dollars to buy and promote its drugs. The kickbacks allegedly increased J&J's sales through Omnicare from $100 million annually to $280 million. The inappropriately administered drugs like Risperdal increased the risk of death for many patients with dementia.
  • A subsequent March 11 BusinessWeek article (March 22-29 issue) reports an "explosion of litigation" by states against J&J over illegally marketing Risperdal for unapproved uses. The practices included getting paid doctors to plant questions from the audience so they could talk about off-label uses. J&J may end up paying billions to settle this.
  • Last week J&J recalled 40 of its pain and allergy drugs for children including children's Tylenol. These drugs were contaminated or had the wrong strength of ingredients, and J&J's may be guilty of criminal (not just civil) misconduct. It's ironical that the government is advising consumers for their children's safety to switch from branded J&J products to their generic equivalents.
  • BusinessWeek on April 29 reported J&J will pay over $81 million to settle criminal and civil cases over improper promotion of its drug Topamax.

J&J of course is not alone in cutting corners and acting improperly. It's just no better now than the rest, and the loss of its reputation is likely to cost it much after its current management and CEO have departed. To consumers that means being wary of it, and regret its exit from the small pool of iconic brands that we over the decades had learned to trust.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Beware of New Listerine Claims and Products

For over 17 years I have used Listerine mouthwash continuously on the recommendation of my periodontist, after getting religion on dental care. Its current maker and distributor Johnson & Johnson (J&J) bought the brand from Pfizer in 2006.

I had thought highly of J&J after reading a business case of the way it had handled a major crisis. It had launched a massive campaign, recalled 31 million bottles and reassured its customers following the 1982 Tylenol poisoning murders. That was 28 years ago.

Now it's very different. J&J seems (like Pfizer) to be all too willing to engage in deceptive marketing and mislead customers so long as it doesn't technically violate the law. Take Listerine.

Advanced Listerine was introduced in 2005 amidst much hype as an improvement over regular Listerine, with "the same germ killing power", "plus it controls tartar for cleaner, brighter teeth." It cost almost twice as much as regular Listerine. After switching to Advanced Listerine I one day happened to compare its back label with that of (regular) Cool Mint Listerine. To my amazement they both had exactly the same four active ingredients, in exactly the same proportion.

This way Listerine managed to make customers overpay for essentially the same product (except for the flavoring) with its misleading claims. I figure consumers eventually caught on, and the Advanced Listerine has quietly retreated from store shelves, but not before making millions in this rip-off.

Now here's the latest. Two months back I saw that the regular Listerine had been replaced in our local Costco store shelves by Listerine Total Care Anticavity Mouthwash. It was a different color (purple) and cost 25% more. The package had bold claims about protecting teeth and promoting dental health in six ways and gave the impression that this new product was all of the regular mouthwash and more.

I bought this and (wary from the previous experience) compared the label with that of the regular Listerine. Imagine my surprise when I found that its only active ingredient was sodium flouride, the same stuff you found in virtually all toothpastes sold in the stores. Since the fluoride in the toothpaste is sufficient for most users, the new Listerine is essentially useless for most folks, except for its alcohol content (same as in the regular variety) that kills germs.

So I returned the new Listerine and (at the urging of the nice Costco customer service folks) sent my feedback to Costco management. Many others must have done the same, because now the regular Listerine is back on the shelves, and I'm sticking with it. That's a product that I'd recommend any day, but beware of more marketing tricks and deceptions by these companies.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another Uniquely American Feature

Last month I picked up my parents returning from India at New York JFK airport. That's when I learned that the luggage cart rental has been increased there from $3 to $5. This apparently happened in February 2009 at both NYC airports.

Welcome to the US. Most fellow passengers of my parents were quite upset, and many avoided using the carts and struggled with their bags. Back in the late '80s and early '90s this charge was $1 to $1.25. I suspect Smarte Carte, the private company that operates and rents these carts, has a pretty cozy relationship with the airport authorities. This company's website as well as JFK's official one studiously omit disclosing these rates.

The parallel between these cart charges and non-universal US health care (at least as it existed till today) is obvious. It also points up the inefficiencies of this private, fee for service arrangement that makes everyone except this private company worse off. While passengers are being ripped off we also may be nearing a high cost death spiral as also explained by Krugman in a health care context. That means the exorbitant cart rates will decrease demand for them so much that the overhead costs will be spread over fewer carts, creating a push for even higher rates.

In all airports outside of the US luggage carts are "free", meaning these are included in normal airport charges that should work out to a few cents per passenger. So almost everyone uses carts and the per unit cost is a small fraction of that here. It's high time the airports (like health care authorities) learned from such better practices outside the US.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sheena's Varied Interests, Including This Latest One

Most of our US born nephews and nieces were deeply channeled into specific after class activities from early childhood, with heavy investment of time and effort by them as well as their parents. They gained considerable proficiency and competitive accomplishments in their respective pursuits, including debating, ballet, golf, piano recitals, swimming and martial arts.

Our older daughter Sheena wishes we had pushed her more in this way, too. But we like most parents in our circle in India largely let our kids find their own interests, attended their performances and helped transport them to and from their activities.

In this background, Sheena developed a variety of pastimes, some of them quite atypical. In addition to playing musical instruments, singing and dancing she also became very good at chess and its tandem variant "bughouse."

In our trip to Las Vegas a while back she was taken up with bungee jumping off an 18 story high platform. I as dad felt obliged to go first to ensure it was safe. Though I hid it I was paralyzed with fear before my first jump, but Sheena laughed and joked with the operators while following suit.

What's more, she has kept up and expanded her activities since graduating and working in Austin. For a software engineer her pursuits have ranged well beyond the nerdy. She is accomplished in various modern dances, has been part of a women choir, and played Ultimate Frisbee tournaments in three continents.

Six weeks ago we came to know about Sheena's latest interest when Rubina and her fiancee Shaun visited Austin to celebrate Sheena's birthday. As a birthday present Shaun got and helped install an aerial silk rope through Sheena's home ceiling. Since the past few months she took up aerial silk dancing that was new to us. While a beginner, here's the video of her first performance jointly with good friend Sumina.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Silver Lining - Rising Above It All

A lot of Anita's folks including my parents-in-law live in Mumbai and Pune, so I pay special attention to developments there.

Two recent adverse events were the Shiv Sena agitation against popular Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan ("SRK") in Mumbai, and the German Bakery blast in Pune. These are of course vastly different in terms of severity and criminality. But the reaction they evoked (or lack of it) speaks well for Indians, who will hopefully keep this up.

SRK was right in criticizing the snub of Pakistani cricketers by the Indian Premier League, an antithesis of "ping pong diplomacy" where sports help improve country relations. In response the Shiv Sena which is seldom (if ever) up to any good tried to damage SRK by disrupting the screening of his latest film "My Name is Khan." They announced a "boycott", intimidated movie halls,tore off posters and threatened violence.

But the movie has done very well in Mumbai where it played to packed houses, and in the rest of the country. This notwithstanding its serious theme and lack of box office "masala" that typically lures the masses. Deliberate or not, it also carries a message, sensitizing viewers to some Muslim sentiments which should strengthen communal amity. While the major source of this movie's revenues is domestic, it has broken records in the Middle East and other Islamic markets, as well as in the rest of the world.

In contrast to the Shiv Sena's antics against SRK that are merely a nuisance, the German Bakery blast in Pune was an act of malicious terrorism claiming 17 innocent lives and injuring over 50 others. A little over a year ago I visited this place every other day for almost a month while Anita's parents were in Inlaks Hospital a few hundred yards away.

The victims couldn't have been further removed from any jihadist angst. The patrons of this modest eatery were typically carefree young people or foreigners of limited means seeking peace and solace in the nearby Osho Ashram. Like in the Mumbai Nov. 26, '08 carnage, what would have really played into the terrorists' hands would have been a backlash against India's Muslim community. The main purpose of these acts seems to be to disrupt the India-Pakistan renewed talks as well as to create a communal divide in India.

That has not happened, and the credit for that goes to Hindus and Muslims of India alike. This has also elicited praise in the Western media (like from Tom Friedman after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.) There's no guarantee for the future but every successive instance of collective restraint and a mature response to provocations augurs well for this country's greatness.

Of course it has not always been like this. After the 2002 Godhra violence and communal riots in Gujarat (with alleged state government lapses) the good times started in the time of Prime Minister Vajpayee. Though he headed a nationalistic and supposedly pro-Hindu government, he helped select the widely respected Muslim scientist Abdul Kalam as President of India.

Despite the inevitable hiccups and dissent, further developments have strengthened the climate of inclusiveness and tolerance. In his now famous November 2009 speech, Shashi Tharoor describes the 2004 appointment of Dr. Manmohan Singh to prime minister. Here was a Sikh chosen to lead a predominantly Hindu India, sworn in by a Muslim President, and all this made possible by an Italian woman Sonia Gandhi who headed the largest Indian political party. What could be more eloquent testimony than this?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The (Lack Of?) Mind Of The Voter

Both Democrats and Republicans have die hard core constituencies. They each average almost a third of the voters, with the proportions varying in Blue and Red states, and rarely stray from their party. Both parties can rely on these bases, so long as they to turn out to vote.

In Republican Scott Brown's surprise victory over Martha Coakley for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat it was the swing of independent voters towards Brown that made the difference. This was unexpected in a solidly Democratic constituency when most voters knew about the high stakes involved in giving Republicans the 41st "filibuster enabling" Senate vote.
What led to this voter behavior? Pundits talk about dissatisfaction with the economy and lack of jobs, anger at a do-nothing government (even though Republicans as a block were largely responsible) and anxiety over "bad" health reforms. I've this to add:
  • Trivials can matter a lot. Scott was out there campaigning vigorously. He was in front of the cameras. He is telegenic. Martha was lax. She celebrated her Christmas at home and shunned "standing in the cold" at Fenway Park. She flubbed with some silly sports comments. She took voters for granted. So they punished her.
  • Do not underestimate voters - part 1. That is, underestimate their ability to make wrong judgments or outright mistakes. Americans re-elected George Bush in 2004. I supported Joe Lieberman in 2006. Democrats chose Obama over Hillary in 2008 (okay, I couldn't resist this cheap shot.) They do that - just take it in stride.
  • Do not underestimate voters - part 2. That is, underestimate their ability to blame the wrong people. The economic and jobs debacle was created in GWB's time (with some roots going as far as in Clinton's time.) AIG was bailed out along with Wall Street players with 100% coverage of counterparty commitment also during the Republican era. Obama's administration and Congress opted for too small and misdirected a stimulus package despite Paul Krugman's early and repeated warnings because of solid Republican (and some Blue Dog) obstruction. Ditto for the long and torturous evolution of the convoluted health reforms bill. But voter anger is rewarding the bad guys.
  • But there are hopeful lessons, including from elsewhere. In India voters are often ignorant and seem irrational. Convicted murderers, bandits and thugs have been elected as Members of Parliament. In some states corrupt and inept governments are successively elected for decades at a stretch. Voters frequently are driven by very narrow considerations (like caste) that don't reflect their larger interests and longer term preferences. But in the last election last year even they seem to have rewarded the Manmohan Singh / Sonia Gandhi Congress government for trying to do the right thing. People are the same. If Indian voters with a 66% literacy rate and under 1.5% of US per capita income can ultimately "get it", then why not US voters?
So it's good for the Obama administration to read the Massachusetts outcome to adjust strategy and message as Bob Herbert suggests in his NYT OpEd today. But they shouldn't be spooked away from bold policy initiatives. Obama said as much in his State of the Union speech today, and we'll know soon enough how much he means it.