Impressions from Washington DC visit


I visited New York and Washington DC (four days each) recently.

I am yet to meet a person who does not like New York, and I am no exception. I loved the buzz of the city, its vigour and life. Life in New York moves on its subway and on Time Square, it appeared to me. I saw several places in New York and will write about it sometime soon.

Washington DC appeared to me as a more relaxed place – may be that was because I was seeing mostly tourists everywhere. The metro subway network had newer trains and was not crowded even at the busiest stations. Traffic was there but not as heavy as it was in New York. I saw a lot more casual bistros in Washington, and the pace of life seemed to be at a slower pace.

However, the places of tourist attractions were overcrowded. For instance, I was at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument yesterday, and there were probably a thousand people. It was sometimes difficult to get a photo shoot. One thing for sure, Washington DC has some of the best buildings with architecture that could compete with any old European city, with a modern orientation that blends beautifully with old world charm. The huge buildings and the vast spaces between them characterize a global capital city, and its centre of power. The U.S. is indeed the world’s undisputed super power, and Washington is its capital city. It was easy to be over-awed by its enormity.

The other aspect which impressed me thoroughly was the free access to some of the best museums in the world. I had time only for two of them – the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum. Both offer fantastic experiences, and I relished every moment of my visit to these world-class museums. There are plenty of other museums to visit, may be for another time!

The White House view did not impress me that much but the U.S. Capitol was fabulous. I took a free tour of the same, and also attended live sessions of the House and the Senate. It was democracy in action at the heart of the U.S. politics and government. This is the place where U.S. laws are enacted and the country makes decisions which could impact the entire world such as going to war.

Though I did not have time, I took a ride to see George Town, and it was fascinating to see the beautiful townhouses and the riverfront. In my opinion, the whole city appeared to be beautifully designed and constructed with utmost care and attention to detail. Architecture has played a big role in determining the beauty of Washington DC and I would surely rate it as one of the best cities in the world, notwithstanding some unseemly comments that one could chance upon on things like crime rates, etc., It is indeed an impressive city with some of the best architecture one can see around in the world. Apart from the same, the enormity of the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House descends on you like it would never happen anywhere else in the world – these are the places in which decisions with global import are made regularly.

While there were lots of foreigner tourists visiting these attractions, I estimated that 6 out of 10 folks in any queue are Americans who are exploring their own capital city and the unique things it has to offer. Not surprising given the fact that the U.S. is a huge country and many people normally would not leave their city or state and even travel to the neighbouring state. But then Washington DC has a special attraction for even those kind of folks. Everyone wants to see Washington DC and New York at least once if not more.

Overall, an excellent visit, and I would love to visit again!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th June 2017

 

Largest and Most Powerful Democracies Meet


Indian Prime Minister Modi visited Washington DC earlier this week, and I happened to be in that city as well, and could witness the impact of his visit at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, wherein he was supposed to address American CEOs over breakfast on Sunday 25th June. I am publishing this blog post after his visit has been completed since I was on the road, but my thoughts obviously emanate from those couple of days 25th – 26th June.

I was meeting one of my mentors at the Willard, and the security checks at the hotel surprised me. They had the Secret Service and dogs to sniff at the patrons (similar to major Indian five star hotels). Usually, there is no security check when you enter any large hotel complex in the U.S. Apart from that check, I also noticed the big black suburban SUVs outside the hotel, and also a number of folks from India around the hotel.

This visit of PM Modi was unlike the one in 2014 when the White House and President Obama were rooting for him all the way, with his huge outreach to the Indian diaspora, etc., It was a more low key affair this time, and my guess is that nobody was sure how the meeting with President Trump will go – no one could guess it the way it turned out to be in the end. I have seen nobody hugging President Trump, and here the Indian PM hugged him not once, not twice, but thrice – counting the third one from the dinner event on Monday. And, from the expression on President Trump’s countenance, it was apparent he was enjoying the hug!

India was obviously a bit perplexed with President Trump, in contrast to the warmth it enjoyed over President Obama’s second term, when India was designated as “Major Defence Partner” of the U.S., the only one country which was a non-NATO ally. With President Trump, it was a mystery how things will go forward, given the fact that he complained about India reaping billions of dollars as a beneficiary of the Paris Climate deal.

The Indian officials must have heaved a sigh of relief after the world witnessed the personal chemistry of “hugging”, smiling and good mouthing that followed during PM Modi’s visit to the White House. Nothing major came out of the visit though. Critical differences on trade, immigration and climate deal were not probably highlighted given the fact that this was the first time the men were meeting. I would guess that given the right wing mentality and pro-business sentiment that pervades on both sides, it was not a surprise that things indeed turned out well for the future of the strategic ties between the world’s most powerful democracy and its largest one.

The one thing which did come out is a lashing of Pakistan’s terror ties, and it is no wonder that Pakistan immediately challenged both the U.S. and India on that count. The U.S. has been increasingly publicly assertive on Pakistan’s major problems centred on the origins of terrorism, especially on the Kashmir side. Just before the arrival of PM Modi, the U.S. State Department designated a Kashmir militant as a global terrorist, which was received rather well by India.

Overall, PM Modi’s visit was good for India, but the U.S. is likely to push for more open trade, and is unlikely to budge on climate issues. However a positive connection has been established, and it should go a long way in cementing strategic ties.

With India buying USD 2B worth of drones and USD 22B of Boeing planes (order from SpiceJet), the U.S. is seeing a strongly positive uptick on the business side, and that should please the White House.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

25th June 2017

 

Eva Air – a game changer


I flew Eva Air from Singapore to Chicago via Taipei earlier this week.

Last month, I flew Emirates via Dubai to the U.S. and have written about my experience on Emirates. See The Emirates Experience

This time around, I wanted to fly through one of the Asian hubs to the U.S. There were only a few options available – Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, ANA via Tokyo Narita, JAL via Tokyo Narita, Korea Air via Seoul or Eva Air via Taipei. You may wonder why I did not consider Singapore Airlines. The answer is simple – I cannot afford it, whether for a business trip or a personal vacation. SIA is overpriced in all sectors going to Europe or the U.S., for almost similar quality of experience with other airlines listed above.

After some serious evaluation which included the dates on which I have to fly, I settled on Eva Air, and this was the very first time I was going to fly with Eva Air. I purchased the Premium Economy ticket, considering the long journey and the need to arrive fresh for some urgent personal work that I had in Chicago. It was around 35% more expensive than the normal Economy Class ticket. Before I decided on Eva Air, I studied the Premium Economy Class comparison of the airlines I had shortlisted, and Eva Air scored at the top of the table due to the comfort offered on this class.

I was not disappointed. Premium Economy seats offered on Eva Air were comfortable with wider seats and much longer leg space. It was almost 75% of the usual business class seat in terms of width of the seat, and the leg space was not cramped – there was good space, and if one is on the first row of this class, it was great – I managed to get one such seat in the long haul from Taipei to Chicago. But even on other rows, the space was very good – I was on one such seat from Singapore to Taipei. Further the Boeing 777 planes were very new, and the flights were smooth sailing for the most part.

However, there were some issues which need to be fixed for the overall flight experience on Eva Air. One was the quality of food, especially for vegetarian selections. Since the point of origin for this flight was Singapore, Eva Air could easily source great vegetarian food, but they did not. It was of average quality (as per my family member). My special meal was better, though it was not as good as that offered on Emirates flights. The other problem was the choice of wines – being in Premium Economy, they should at least offer two white wines and two red wines, but they were offering just one of each type. Not adequate for the ticket price that passengers were paying. The third issue was the quality of service – most of the flight attendants struggled to understand English requests, since they were largely unable to get out of their mother tongue influence. Every one of the flight attendants was a Taiwanese lady, and non-Chinese passengers had to repeat their requests carefully and slowly before they could be understood. The good thing was that the attendants also repeated the passenger’s request so that they could unambiguously understand the same for fulfillment.

Considering the price and quality of Premium Economy offering from Eva Air, I am inclined to state and conclude that it is one of the best around. I was also happy that the 14 hours 20 minutes flight from Taipei to Chicago actually made it to Chicago in 12 hours 40 minutes, though the flight from Singapore to Taipei was delayed by 40 minutes due to rains.

If Eva Air could fix some of the issues, I am sure that it will give a run for the money to the other global Asian airlines on long haul routes. I have to say that I have not experienced the Economy Class on Eva Air, which remains as the Achilles’ heel for most reputed airlines. With its good reputation and mostly on-time performance, and latest range of aircraft, Eva Air has an excellent chance to become one of the top airlines from Asia for long-haul routes. However, the airline needs to look at feedback from global travelers, adopt some of the best practices from other successful airlines such as the Emirates and SQ, and induct a more globalized air crew.

Well, all the best to Eva Air. Keep it up folks!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

18th June 2017

 

 

University Town Experience


The last couple of days I have been walking around Evanston town which is some 20 KMs from the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The famous Northwestern University is located in Evanston, and one of my family members graduated from the University just yesterday. It gave me an opportunity to spend some serious time around town, see the university, and talk to a number of strangers who were visiting for the graduation commencement ceremony of their wards.

Evanston (which I was visiting for the second time) is a pleasant small and tranquil town, the serenity of which is only broken by student crowds which dominates the Evanston scene at every corner. I would, however, hasten to add that the crowds were subtly tuned with no outward interference to the normal affairs of the society in general. I guess this is mostly due to the exclusive nature of the university, which is private and rather quiet on its own, though it has several world-class departments and famous faculty. Its Kellogg business school is world renowned, and I was thoroughly impressed with its LEED 5 certified state-of-the-art new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan. Apparently, this new building which was inaugurated formally only 3 months ago seems to have drawn attention from potential MBA candidates! Almost every other building on the NW campus seems to portray an old-world charm, I was sure many buildings are in fact more than 100 years old. The way modernity merges with that old-world campus can only be discerned when one walks around the campus and witnesses the intermingling of technology in an unobtrusive manner.

The commencement ceremony was held at the Ryan Field football stadium on the campus in a professional, well-organized manner. It was a 2.5 hour function, and graduated 996 graduates of management from the Kellogg school – that was a huge crowd of students, and it was heartening to see the truly global nature of the school with students from many, many countries receiving their degrees. It clearly demonstrated that the U.S. still remains as the education and intellectual capital of the world, and still attracts the best and the brightest from around the world. Hopefully, this trend will continue to the mutual benefit of the global student community and the universities, and continues to produce huge benefit for the American economy. I am sure President Trump has already realized this fact, and that can only be good for the U.S.

Evanston has several interesting restaurants. I tried out the Tapas Barcelona Spanish restaurant, which was pretty good. All portions were a bit small but the paella portion was of good size. The Chianti wine selection was good, though they had mostly Spanish wines. I am in the process of checking out couple of other restaurants.

Lake Michigan is beautiful, and today I took many pictures of it from the first floor of the new Kellogg building as well as from the lake’s shore. It is almost like a sea with waterline disappearing over the horizon, huge and calm, with its enormity only broken by the occasional speed boats and water scooters. It gives a sense of calm to the visitors and the walkers along its long coast line.

One of the things that I like generally in the U.S. is walking into an enormous Wal-Mart or supermarket like Trader’s Joe or Whole Foods, and start shopping for things that I love to eat – like fruits and nuts for example, and pick up excellent wines on the cheap (compared to Singapore). Walking along the long aisles, and reading the labels could take up well over an hour, before I end up collecting the stuff that I would like to buy. It gives pleasure that I could buy a lot more for the same amount of money!

I noticed that the roads were broken in many parts of Evanston, and apparently this is the case in most towns. Infrastructure needs to be fixed and it is no wonder that the President is pushing for a spend of USD 1 Trillion, America needs it as most of its infrastructure is at least 5 to 6 decades old. Even the airports are dated, with modern facilities lacking in many of them.

All in all, I had a great time in Evanston and Northwestern University. I liked what I saw, and came to know a lot more than I did. That’s good news!

Enjoy your weekend folks!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

16th June 2017

India needs Free Internet


More than any other country on this planet, I would say that India needs free access to the internet to help it leapfrog to the next stage of its already large economy (the Indian GDP just surpassed that of the U.K.). In order to sustain its economic growth, remove system inefficiencies, open up new opportunities for entrepreneurs and alleviate poverty levels, India needs to subsidize access to the internet for citizens earning less than USD 10 per day.

That figure is a mind-boggling 500M people in my estimate, mostly based in rural towns, and villages. Even large cities have huge populations of people with no access to electricity, or even potable water. Given this situation, is it not laughable that I am suggesting internet as a free (or almost free) utility for the people to use ?

No, it is not a matter to be sniffed at. Given that tablets are now available at less than USD 50 (though not great looking), access to the internet utility becomes the major constraint for those masses of people who are at the fringe of the Indian economy which is still slated to grow @ 7.5% or more this year. The key enabler for these people is going to be knowledge and application of knowledge to their vocations and school learning. And, how is India going to deliver knowledge and actionable learning to the masses when its educational infrastructure is so weak ? How is India going to develop its intellectual capabilities beyond the IITs ? There are many questions but it is unquestionable that people provided with opportunities at the right times in their lives make it to a successful life later in their lives. Opportunity is critical and the Indian economy would not be in a position to deliver opportunities to the roughly 10M people coming into its workforce every year, most of them waiting for a job. That is close to 1M people every month!

Facebook and Google are opening up the airwaves in India by offering WiFi access in railway stations and other public places. While their goals are not entirely philanthropic, such initiatives by private corporations have to be commended when the national resources are tight to deploy access throughout the rural areas of India. I believe that India stands to benefit in a huge manner when all its villages and rural population are connected via satellite-based internet. Already 400M Indians are connected to the internet via their mobile phones.

India is not only a huge consumer market which is becoming more knowledgeable about the products the people wish to consume. It is also a melting pot for all kinds of experimentation that companies would like to pursue in the interest of testing their offerings. India is also an entrepreneurial nation of youngsters rushing to launch their new ideas or adaptation of ideas which have worked elsewhere. Given that the government is pushing the idea of a “Digital India”, it is not surprising that the population is warming up quickly towards the concept of all time and real time connectivity to test ideas, consume products, evaluate anything and everything. This is nothing short of a revolution in the making.

The good thing about India is that there is space for everyone. With its English-speaking workforce and modern orientation, India will become the third largest economy of the world by 2030, if not by 2025. It is critical that India offers opportunities to its aspiring people via the concept of free internet. Such an offering can even be positioned as free for 3 years, followed by USD 1 per month thereafter, for segments of the population which has an annual per capita income of USD 2,000 or less. For people earning above this figure upto a cap of USD 5,000 per capita, the rate could be fixed at USD 3 per month. People outside this cap would have to pay the commercial price. Such a subsidy scheme would go a long way in facilitating internet access to the teeming millions of Indians, transforming the country towards a Digital India.

I do hope this happens for the benefit of all Indians.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

11th June 2017

 

 

The Orchard Experience


This looks like another mundane post, and it probably is one.

After a very, very long time, I decided to do two things today (Saturday).

The first one was to leave the car at home, and take a bus. The second one was to accompany my family for shopping in Orchard Road, after a rather long time. For starters, I do not personally shop for my clothes in Orchard Road malls. For information on where I do shop, wait for another blog post!

Taking a bus in Singapore is always a pleasant experience – and I am doing that after some 20 months or so. The buses are clean and well maintained, with very effective air conditioning and prompt stop arrivals. I was a bit worried whether my Transit Link card (the magnetic card used in Singapore for public transport) will work after such a long time and if there was enough balance in it. It worked and it had some balance, so I breathed a sigh of relief though I had a back up card.

The advantage of having a small population dissolves quickly when one is on public transport or when one visits heavily crowded shopping places like Orchard Road. Today was no exception. Orchard Road was very crowded, and there were people everywhere – especially when I tried to cross traffic lights, the junctions were overcrowded. At any pedestrian crossing, there were some 100 folks waiting to cross. The pavements on Orchard Road are wide, and you can imagine if these pavements are crowded. It appeared to me that the whole of Singapore was intent on Orchard Shopping during the Great Singapore Sale which is currently in progress. The number of cars on the road was unbelievably high. I saw that the car drivers were violating traffic rules, but then their assessment of the change in traffic lights was probably skewed. I would prefer if they make all of Orchard Road car-free during the weekends. Then we can walk anywhere on the road and enjoy complete freedom and also have icecream stalls lining up the road!

Now comes the actual shopping experience. We shopped at Robinsons Heeren on Orchard Road, and Metro in Paragon. Both are good places to shop, though I felt that Robinsons was overpriced even after the hefty discounts. They seem to be inflating the prices and then taking off big discounts, which then appeared to me as “overpriced”. For example, how can a bermuda short be originally priced at SGD 59 and then offered at SGD 33 (which, in my opinion almost twice the price in Kuala Lumpur for example, and 50% more than what one can get in the U.S.). How is this a grand sale? Other examples can easily be cited, but after walking around the 4th Floor of the Robinsons Heeren (Mens Section), I came to the easy conclusion that I can afford only two things in reasonable price range – vests and socks!

Of course, my family went around buying stuff they liked. I realized that my price data switch was always switched on, and was not compatible with the expectations of youngsters. So, I did not comment on purchases made by the family, though I made mild protests on the prices of T-shirts.

We all took a break and went for lunch at the renowned P.S. Cafe located on Level 3 of Paragon Shopping Centre. The food was great, though again overpriced. But then the ambience was excellent. We had to wait for some 20 minutes but it was worth the wait for some very good western food.

My son and I wandered into the newly opened Apple Store located just next to the Heeren building. It was a fabulous sight and experience. All products of Apple and its partners were on display (including drones, speakers, various accessories, etc.,). Looks like a huge investment by Apple but then it could be justified given the impact of the Apple brand in Singapore. Few people were buying anything, but it is still early days I guess.

Overall, the shopping experience on Orchard Road (though limited to couple of places in one small stretch of the road) was very good and I enjoyed it. It has been a while since I did that, and though I did not purchase anything substantive it was good to mingle around and watch folks make their choices. Robinsons had a big walk-in crowd at any time, and it is a trusted brand of Singapore for a long time though I disagree with their pricing strategies. They have to make a big profit to be sustainable given the real estate prices in Singapore and that too, in the most prestigeous Orchard Road, which remains as one of the most reputed shopping areas in the entire world.

On the way back home, we took a Grab taxi which worked out rather cheap (in fact cheaper than the bus) as we got a SGD 5 discount due to the Fifth Anniversary of Grab.

Good shopping and Good public transport experience,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

10th June 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anti-Climate


President Donald Trump again made history this week.

He withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, which was signed by 195 countries, including the U.S. It was a signature achievement of President Obama, working closely with other world leaders. The U.S. became a leader in effecting positive climate change under the auspices of this historic climate agreement, in close cooperation with countries such as Germany, France, China and India.

Now, the biggest Carbon emitter of the world is leaving this agreement.

President Trump stated that the agreement was unfair to Americans. He promised to walk out of the agreement during his campaign, and he has done so, without so much as consultation with energy academics and the industry.

Good. Now the global climate leadership shifts to who else, but China. Increasingly, China is finding itself in leadership roles due to the vacuum created by the U.S. and it is happily grabbing the same with glee. Why not? Europe is looking for replacing the U.S. with China, and it is already happening this week, with the visit of the Chinese Premier to Germany.

President Trump needs to realize that he does not need to keep all his campaign promises. He is now President of the U.S. and the U.S. has a global obligation not to walk out of agreements that it has signed on. This is notwithstanding the fact that the Paris agreement is non-binding. Once signed, it should stay signed on for ever.

Climate change is for real, and if the global temperatures rise by 2 degrees there will be disaster. I am wondering how come the vaunted U.S. academics in the field of energy and environment did not make serious attempts to influence the thinking of the U.S. government and President Trump on this most critical challenge confronting the planet.

In any case, now that the damage is done, what next?

The world will go on, now with only 194 countries supporting the climate agreement. Who are the three dissenters? Nicaragua, Syria and the U.S. Does the U.S. want to be in this glorious company of nations? President Trump needs to think more carefully about making such critical decisions for the welfare of his own country. It is a wrong and completely misinformed decision.

I am sure that the decision will be reversed. If not by President Trump, by the very next President.

Coal is out of fashion in the environment conscious world. Citizens want clean energy. They want clean air and clean water. Fossil fuels is not the way to go. It should be nuclear energy, solar energy, wind energy, et al………the world is changing, old habits are dying, new habits are taking root with the young demographics……….how can anyone refute this positive momentum coursing throughout the world?

When China and India signed on to this agreement after arduous negotiations, the world heaved a sigh of relief. The most difficult country was India which did not wish to sacrifice economic growth and jobs for the sake of signing the climate agreement. Compromises were made and finally India signed on and the world celebrated, and now the U.S. which applied so much pressure on India to sign, has exited the agreement.

What kind of message does this U.S. action send to India, China and the rest of the world?

Let us hope no other nation exits the agreement.

Climate change is for real.

It will affect the future of our planet earth irretrievably.

If we do not take much needed actions today and strictly control carbon emissions.

So, let us all execute what our respective nation has committed to honour via this agreement.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

03 June 2017