Something mundane after a while………


The world is ever-changing. There are a number of things happening around the world about which I can blog (I usually do), but there comes a point when fatigue catches up with you and tells you to step away for a while. I am sure to come back to the global happenings scenario sooner than later, as it is simply irresistible.

So what am I going to blog about this Sunday morning (I shifted to the morning from my usual evening rendezvous with my blog as I have some engagement in the evening)? Nothing heavy, it is simply the experience of breaking my old iPhone 6 and replacing it with a new iPhone 8Plus.

Once someone gets locked into the Apple world, it is very difficult to get out. This is the way Apple (many examples come to mind from the past, like IBM) holds on to its client base, which is anyway enchanted with whatever Apple is doing all the time. There is of course, no question about the fabulous technology packaged in art form by Apple as compared to other bland competitors. Clearly, Apple does not have a direct competitor of similar stature. This is the primary reason why Apple is also able to charge higher prices to its customers who are ready to pay those prices, which sometimes appear atrocious.

Apple has had its missteps in the past like with the Mac line of computers. But with the iPhone, Apple hit the perennial jackpot, though it is not the top-selling mobile phone in the world. iPhone is something which you desire to own because of its elegant appearance, functions and features, and it kind of makes a fashion statement of sorts. Apple continues to innovate, though at a slightly slower pace.

Let me come to my iPhone 6, which I had owned for almost 2.5 years. It has had rough times during my possession (I still have it) as I am good in dropping the phone on office carpet (which is OK), on pavements (not OK at all), and in car parks (absolutely not at all OK). At one time, I had the entire screen cracked, and at another time, I had the bottom left completely cracked when it fell down with a swoop of the hand (mine of course) in the car park and went under a parked car. I did try to protect the iPhone with special screen which will allow me to drop without damaging the original display of the iPhone. However, one day I came to the sad conclusion that my nice handy iPhone6 has to make way for a newer and bigger phone.

Most of my friends and colleagues who are iPhone users had by now (over the past just 3 months!)  migrated to the iPhone X. I did not like the fact that the iPhone X does not have a home button, and everything needs to be done with a stylish wave of the hand, so to say. After some deliberation, I decided to get the somewhat unwieldy (though almost same in size as the iPhone X) iPhone 8Plus. I liked the display and the familiarity of the home button. The size of the screen also made it easy to read and play around, almost making the laptop redundant. While the battery capacity is higher than the iPhone 6, it still could not sustain more than 24 hours of usage, which was somewhat disappointing. It is necessary to keep charging the phone once the charge drops below 20% and build it up to 80% every day, or keep a battery bank handy all the time while on the move.

I know that Android phones have made huge progress, and in some cases cost almost as much as the iPhone 8 series. One has to look at the prices of the Samsung S9 and make a comparison. The display and battery performance are more brilliant than the iPhone for sure. The speed of operation is more or less the same. The whole hassle is that of the “familiarity” quotient – you like what you have been used to, and you like the fact that there is not much of a change in the way the phone functions.

I am getting used to my new iPhone 8Plus, and have kept the iPhone 6 for other uses (for example, I am going to use that old phone with the Jio SIM when I travel in India). Since I have kept both the old and new phones almost identical in terms of settings and apps, they feel the same. I do have an Android phone with an Airtel number for use in India, which I am thinking of jettisoning soon.

Well, well, that is my story of phone transitioning. There was not much of adjustments required while moving to iPhone 8Plus, except that the cloud restore was not possible due to the lack of space on the iCloud. So I went in the traditional way – connected my old iPhone to my laptop for a full backup using iTunes, and then restoring that backup on to my new phone. It took some tweaks and effort, but I managed to get everything restored on the new phone. It was a wonderful feeling when the new phone started behaving as though it was the old phone with a new clothing.

Apple makes these processes somewhat painless, though if you forget any Apple ID or password or passcode, you are in for a big touble. It happened twice to me in the past, but luckily it didn’t happen this time around.

So folks, that is my experience. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and avoid drinking alcohol,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

15th April 2018

 

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The News Bias


There exists a political bias in almost all news organizations. Most famous ones such as CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post are considered liberal, which means “leftist” in the U.S. News organizations such as Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and countless others are best characterized as conservative, which means “rightist” in the U.S. There is hardly any neutral news organization or publication anywhere in the world. The closest that I have seen are The Hindu newspaper in India, and The Guardian in the U.K. There may be others that I do not know, and my lack of mentioning others does not mean that there are no other neutral publications or TV news channels.

There is nothing wrong with some bias, as news editors are, after all, human beings, and have certain orientations and thought processes in their heads as they handle news and news analyses. However, they are not supposed to twist or tweak the factual news to their advantage, with an insidious purpose in mind. It could be that they wish to provoke an anti-government or anti-establishment public reaction, which goes against the grain of news gathering and publishing. The editorials could convey what the editor(s) wants to comment on the main news of the day, but the reporting has to be absolutely factual, as otherwise it could turn dangerous, as we have seen recent instances especially in India with fake news (“faked” news) dominating and corrupting the public’s view of the happenings. Such reporting happens in many countries around the world, and is designed to serve the political orientation of the editor or owner of the publication.

It is becoming increasingly clear that there has to be a law to regulate news, much like in the old days when news publications could be prosecuted for incorrect news reporting which results in public mayhem, destruction, deaths, violence, etc., (this used to be called “censorship” in old times). There is nothing wrong in seeking to enforce law and order against what is famously known as the “Fourth Estate”. I am not inclined to believe that a carefully calibrated law and order enforcement against an erring news publication or TV channel or news organization can be termed as shutting down press freedom. Everyone is subject to the same laws, so what is so unique about one segment of the society?

Well, we might need a “news ombudsman” to ensure impartiality, and to enforce actions against all publications without fear or favour. It is easier said than done. Any government appointee is going to be at least slightly biased, and so it is critical to select someone with the involvement of the government of the day, the political opposition in the parliament and the judiciary, and to embed sufficient powers in the office of such an ombudsman, who can issue orders to law enforcement, much like the Election Commissioner, or the Head of Anti-Corruption Agency.

News organizations should also include all social media platforms such as FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, et al. They need to be regulated simply because they are more powerful than any brick and mortar news producer. News on such platform posted by anyone spreads at exponential speeds and rumours could create havoc. We have also recently witnessed how FaceBook sacrificed the personal data of millions of people who use their platform for monetary benefit. Given the proclivity of the younger generation to take up social media platforms with amazing speed, it becomes essential to moderate such platforms without causing damage to the neurons of youngsters at a very young age.

I enjoy flipping the news channels between CNN, BBC, Fox News, CNBC, and other local / regional channels. The priority given to news coverage varies across the channels. Sometimes what you think is a very important piece of news does not even merit a mention in some of the channels. If things do not go well for the audience of Fox News, then the anchors distract them with some unimportant sidelights. And so on and so forth. Of course, it requires a worldly intelligence to segregate fake news from what is real. It is not an easy skill, as fake news could easily be debunked and thrown away upon a refresh of the news website; it could be worded in a convincing way which reflects in certain measure some amount of truth, or it could be covered by a famous news anchor. If Russia is disliked by most news channels for ideological or political reasons, it is very easy to spot that dislike. If China is berated for trade or intellectual property thefts, that also gets highlighted in a big way. There are hardly any counter arguments that you would hear in the world famous TV news channels against their own governments or allies. It is not unnatural, but it is not normal in a news reporting organization. There are, of course, good examples of news reporting which is balanced and also good analysis of news with differing viewpoints which we get to see sometimes, but such balanced coverage is slowly declining in my opinion, as the audience wants “supportive” analyses, not “destructive” analyses by political commentators. There is also disdain of these commentators or opinion-producers amongst the common public, as they are repeatedly used throughout the year, with more or less the same views. They are either “supportive” of the government, or in some cases “destructive” of the government’s stand on issues. Eventually, people will realize that anyone on this planet can have a view of his/her own on any issue which may or may not affect him/her. Nothing wrong with that position either. The point is that fast-talking commentators have not helped to define a news organization, they only reflect their own biases in their opinion piece.

Looking at the overall stained news scenario, it is but normal to conclude that we should make up our own news – what I mean is that, you pull together pieces of news from various publications using some software which can generate your own news as per your own criteria. If I am a conservative, rightist kind of person, then my filters would produce news that I am looking for! Tomorrow, I could become a liberal and I will then get to enjoy the “liberal” view of world news and happenings!!

Well, folks have a good weekend, and avoid drinking alcohol,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

14th April 2018 (Today is TAMIL New Year, Wishes to my Tamil Friends and Families!)

The Mechanism


Institutionalized corruption has been the bane of good governance in most developing countries. Even in developed countries corruption masquerades as expensive lobbying, with quid pro quo for almost all favours done by the powers that be. Unfortunately, corruption is instinctively embedded in human psyche – the premise is that almost everyone has a price, like everything has a price, and provided that price is paid, that everyone is available to provide a service. It sounds obnoxious and bothersome to say the least, but it is a practical reality most of us have encountered in our lives. There is no denying it, it is very rare for a person not to have experienced or seen it.

When corruption is institutionalized in the system, like it is feeding upon itself in embedded circles, then we have a very serious and dangerous problem to handle and fix. When public money (basically taxpayers’ money) is siphoned off by government-owned companies through the well-oiled system of awarding contracts at inflated prices to chosen contractors, who then reward the politicians and ministers who appoint directors on the board of these companies via a money laundering scheme, then corruption is well entrenched. It is not possible to eradicate the scourge of corruption irrespective of change in governments or officials. The law enforcement becomes part of the system as it comes under the Justice Ministry, which is just another government machinery to ensure that the above-described system stays in place.

“The Mechanism” is a Netflix serial which just started running – it is about the systemic corruption in Brazil, which is still playing out in real life. You might have seen that the ex-President Lula da Silva has been arrested and sentenced to years in jail, and his successor Dilma Rousseff is also facing corruption charges. I have been seeing the serial for the past couple of weeks, and it has got my full attention. I can visualize how the same system would work out in other countries that I know of.

What surprised me in the serial is the passionate commitment of the law enforcement officers and their loyalty to each other as they fight the corrupt villains together sometimes, and on a disjointed basis on other times. It is funny to see how the lead officer fights off the prosecutor during a press conference. At the end of the day, it is all about human emotion, and how that plays out while the almost real story spins out of control. The Mechanism also shows how important it is to have an impartial judge who carefully evaluates the evidence before signing off the search and seizure or arrest warrants. When someone cannot be bought, then the story turns in favour of ultimate justice.

Many of us have experienced the most simple variety of corruption – like the official at the property registration office demanding a cut before registering the sale or purchase of property, or the driving license official asking for a price, etc., Many of us have only “read” about institutional corruption – how public funds that otherwise could be usefully deployed to pay for much needed infrastructure or citizen services, are tapped by unscrupulous public companies and politicians which keep developing nations poor for ever. This is a sad story playing out in most countries. There are only a very few lucky countries which do not have this plague afflicting their system of governance.

I was never that much interested in Brazil, but The Mechanism brought Brazil right front and centre – a fascinating country indeed. It is the 8th largest economy in the world with more than 207M population, and a GDP per capita of over USD 10K. It is the largest economy in South America and prior to 2012, it was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, meriting its inclusion in the McKinsey BRIC group of countries.

Large countries do have large problems, and Brazil has not been an exception.

Corruption has roiled the country out of shape over the past several years, damaging the presidencies of multiple presidents. It is always surprising to find that the pressure to maintain the status quo is just phenomenal – as we see in The Mechanism, the previous Attorney General (called the “wizard” in the serial) tries to negotiate a deal with the incumbent Attorney General on behalf of the 13 corrupt contractors who, he maintains, are crucial for the survival of the Brazilian economy! And, when that pressure builds up all the way to the President of the country (as is shown in the serial as well), then one can imagine the enormous stress that can be applied on honest law enforcement officials and judges.

The serial is not over, and I have not seen all the episodes. But is easy to figure out the impact of corruption in the Brazilian society, as the water utility company which comes to fix a broken pipe in the serial demonstrates the corrosive influence of systemic corruption by passing off the work to a small time contractor who will then feed back the bribe to the company officials.

I have not seen serials on corruption – this is probably the first one. The creator of the series has done an amazing job (his name is Jose Padilha), and the key actors have performed exceedingly well, though personal animosities do take an overarching role disturbing the main theme of the serial. But let me forgive that distraction and focus on the positives of the serial!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

08 April 2018

 

Flirting with Gymming


What kind of title is that? I had to call it something while trying to figure out what I am going to write about this Saturday evening. I decided that it should be about my new experience at the gym, which is kind of changing me in several ways. I also thought it is appropriate to write about the experience, as I have just completed 50% of the 44 classes that I signed up for, as of today.

I have had several flings with gymming over the years, but nothing has been consistent. Most of the time it was just visiting the gym at the condo and checking out the various equipment without any expert guidance from a friend or a trainer. Sometimes I get an urge to go to the hotel gym when I am travelling, again to check out how a gym at a nice hotel is equipped. I just used to run, sorry walk, on the treadmill and lift some weights and that justified the need to carry my gym shoes and dress while travelling. The condo gym never worked out as usually there was no support of any trainer.

And so it went………with no physical gain from gym related activities over all these years. The only benefit I got was from my usual walking which I have maintained consistently every day of the week – currently my average is 18,000 steps a day.

So one day my wife asked me what I am doing at the gym. I smiled sheepishly and she anyway knew. She forced me to take up a 44-class trainer led program at a leading gym not far from where I live, and to start with I was quite reluctant giving various reasons why it will not work out for me. But she rejected my rationale, and made me start up from the last week of December. Now I am going into my 14th week with 2 classes per week, but then when I travel I miss my classes.

I should say that my trainer is pretty good – let us call him R. He has been tasking me from the very first class in serious gymming, and for the past couple of classes I have been inducted into “free weights” – using my own body instead of the benefit of the machines (which I have been doing almost in every class anyway). Free weights like dumb bells and weights task you like anything and are significantly tougher and more beneficial than the usual gym machines. R told me that repetitions are what matter the most, not increasing weights. It can even be 4 or 6 KG dumb bells, but the work these do on one’s muscles is just incredible. The other technique is “isolation” – instead of using both hands, just train one hand at a time. It is very tough but it is good in building the weak arm. I am learning a wide variety of techniques and approaches towards muscle building from R, and he has been doing this for the past over 2 decades.

As R says, if there is no pain, there is no gain. The machines look good, are easy to understand and operate, and one feels good using the various machines at the gym. However, a collection of machines only delivers overall exercise, not specific muscle-building activities. R told me that I am weak in my arms, shoulders, and legs – and over the past 14 weeks or so, he has been addressing my weaknesses progressively. It is like going through a university course, with all the work being done by the student and the professor just providing appropriate guidance only.

Sometimes, I feel totally drained even after 30 minutes of the 60 minutes class. It is occasionally “back-breaking” so to say. But I get encouraged seeing other trainees under other trainers who are going through similar experiences (only that they are all much younger!). R, however, told me that age is not an issue or hurdle, as long as instructions are followed and muscles are addressed appropriately by the various exercises.

I should say that my perspective on life is beginning to change. I know that I am not into gymming for the “body building” passion; I am into gymming to ensure my muscles do not waste away, and I am able to carry my frame as I age. It may or may not work, but I believe that going to gym under a professional trainer is the right approach. If you throw in your “weight” behind the program, you might start to see some improvement. I wonder at these trainers at the gym, who are into training for 12 hours every day for six days in a week – incredible commitment to a single pursuit. I do strike up conversation with R almost during every class while resting between two exercises, and I was surprised to learn that he trained as a mechanical engineer, but chose this profession to follow his heart. Amazing guy!

So, here I am, almost at the middle of my training program. It is getting increasingly tougher every class as I navigate the program, but there is no escape from this serious commitment designed to help myself. I would strongly encourage my audience to consider the possibility of gymming under a professional trainer, it is something which will be highly productive given the right quality of training.

It took me more than an hour to recoup my energy with some good coffee and snacks after the gym activity, but at the end of the day I feel good about this commitment and investment. It may not turn into a passion, but it is likely to persist during the rest of my life.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

07 April 2017

 

The Dead Arm Shiraz 2014


Excellent wine from d’Arenberg winery, McLaren Vale, South Australia. McLaren Vale has a climate resembling the Mediterranean, suited to growing a wide variety of vines. Shiraz is the best known varietal from McLaren Vale, thought there are other popular ones also cultivated.

When someone gifted me this wine, I was curious to learn about the origin of its name. Who would call a wine as “the dead arm”? Dead Arm is a vine disease caused by a fungus, and the part of the vine which is affected becomes dead wood. However, the other part produces vines of intense complexity, and the “The Dead Arm” Shiraz from d’Arenberg is the product of such vines.

Please read up about this unique wine at “The Dead Arm”.

The website of the vineyard is at The D’Arenberg Winery.

This wine has a deep purplish colour, dominated by dark fruits with strong intensity driving up the flavours. Highly rated by various reputed reviewers, The Dead Arm remains as the flagship Shiraz wine from the d’Arenberg winery which was established in 1912. I enjoyed this wine, very much influenced by its complexity and richness on the palate. The concentrated tannins in this wine provide a spicy and long finish, lingering for quite a while.

I have tried a number of Shiraz wines from Australia – I will not deny the fact that Australian Shiraz is world-class with some unbeatable vineyards. However, after a fairly long time, I am witnessing the resurgence of Shiraz in my household as the preference has always been for Cabernet Sauvignon, or Malbec, or Pinot Noir. This is good news, now I have a chance to explore some Shiraz wines when I go wine-shopping!

If you are looking for a full-bodied, intense, fruity Shiraz, you cannot go wrong with The Dead Arm. It is somewhat expensive and not easily available in Singapore, but can be ordered online in other countries. I would suggest that you bring out this bottle after a few years of cellaring, say after 3 to 5 years, and you will see that you have a winner in your hands to please your guests.

Wine is like golf, it requires a lot of understanding and time investment. There is never an end to the array of good wines from around the world. Of course, most of the time we choose the wine that we are already familiar with – which means that we intimately know the wine that we are predisposed to choose. So, it is necessary to keep the memory strong. I use the Vivino App on my iPhone which keeps track of the wines I have enjoyed in the past. It is almost like my wine database!

It is not true that I drink a glass of wine every day. Of late, I paced it out so that I drink a glass of wine twice every week, which means I look forward to it, and when it happens to be some new wine that I took a chance upon, it becomes even more inviting.

Be a responsible drinker, and do not drive under the influence of alcohol. I leave my car at home in case I am joining a party or get-together. It is much more convenient when you do not have to drive, as then the evening is “open” for some investigation and experimentation!

Today is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and for all Christian friends it is a very important day – have a great Easter Sunday folks.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

01 April 2018

 

Why is the West always against Russia?


In the world of geopolitics, there are two constants: spying and deterrence.

Almost every major nation has an army of spies – whether they are directed to obtain the military, political or technological secrets of their most important competitor nation(s) or not, it is a fact that they do exist formally (as part of embassy operations) or informally, as undercover agents. Both Russia and the U.S. are masters in the art and science of spying, and we have to include the U.K. and increasingly, China, in this list of major spying countries of the world.

Deterrence is a simple concept which has evolved into a key policy initiative of large countries. The idea here is that the arsenal of weapons at the disposal of a major power is such that it would make any potential attacker think many times before launching a direct attack, or even a proxy attack. An important extension is that nations communicate their policy framework allowing them to cause an asymmetrical, disproportionate damage on the attacker, ensuring that it is almost impossible for the attacker to defend himself or launch a second attack. I am only providing a layman’s understanding of these important concepts, and there are many resources from which one could derive a better and stronger understanding.

When combined, these two constants form the basis of a “siege” or war-like mentality, at least in the minds of military planners. Options such as pre-emptive attack, and counter-attack dominate the minds. Various military scenarios are played out in computer simulation, laying out options and the abilities to deal with these options. The whole idea is how to put the enemy out of business for good. But then, such a conclusion is not inevitable. The enemy never goes away from the world ecosystem.

In the past, the U.S., the U.K., and France justified spying as legitimate activity as something which is crucial in a cold war mentality. It was necessary, no doubt about it. Spying was used both for good and bad outcomes, as we all know. Any student of political history which has transpired in the past seven decades would understand that not all decisions made by the so-called “good” nations were actually good for anyone, and not all decisions by the “bad” countries were actually bad, and vice versa. Nations have their reasons for taking decisions, but unfortunately the cost of those decisions were never fully understood at the time of making decisions, and we all know the repercussions.

In today’s world, the West is not unfortunately enjoying the good name it had in the past. Due to various misdeeds, and misguided decisions taken by the West, millions of people have been annihilated all around the world. This cannot be justified based on the principle that “good” outcomes trump the means to achieve them. Means are as important as the desired ends, and no sacrifice, intentional or otherwise, should be planned into decisions.

Russia is not guilt-free either – it has been the cause of millions of deaths in the past due to the power of the Soviet Union. Communist ideology failed to take off in the Soviet satellite countries, and even in Cuba. In a clear analysis, it is not impossible to conclude that the five Security Council Members have been the cause of the maximum number of war deaths in the world, post the Second World War. Most of these wars were unnecessary, as these were fought on ideological grounds.

So, now the West is against Russia due to multiple reasons, not the least of which being the chemical poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. While no proof has been offered, it is clear that the chemical was invented in Russia. What is not clear is how it made its way to the U.K. Diplomats have been ejected from many Western countries as a show of support to the U.K. Russia has countered by ejecting similar number of  Western diplomats last week.

So, who is going to gain? No one is going to benefit as a result of this tit-for-tat expulsions. The diplomatic situation is fast deteriorating, and it is not inconceivable that we will very soon see the advent of Cold War 2.0 with the world getting divided into two blocs. Of course, China will always be behind Russia, so there you have two veto-wielding Security Council Members fighting back against the West.

I also believe that the West is strongly against Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia (who just got re-elected for yet another 6 year term). It is a strong personal revulsion of the individual. They cannot trust him, and they want him to go away, hopefully to be replaced by a more pliant president that they can control in some way. Russia as a country is a big market, with a preference for Western products, and why would the West walk away from a market of 160M people? Further, Russia seems to be doing all right economically, though not great. It is all about one individual, who is intimately controlling Russia, and who has apparently no flexibility at all towards the West.

Now that Putin is re-elected, what would the West do? They will create disturbance in Russia, support the opposition candidates (like Alexei Navalny), and do a variety of things that Russia could not find and retaliate about. The West will continue to constantly irritate Putin on a number of factors on which they have better control. They will push Russia and China into a tighter bond. We do not know if Putin or his coterie is responsible for the chemical attack in Salisbury, probably we will never find out. Given that plausible scenario, it is surprising how the U.K. reacted and pushed forward with the formation of a “coalition” of like-minded Western countries to expel Russian diplomats. It is an unusual act by a country which cannot do much against a bigger superpower at its doorsteps, with or without NATO. Likewise, the U.S. chose to retaliate rather strongly against Russia, which was promptly returned in kind by Russia.

And, so on and so forth. It will never end. There is simply no dialogue happening, and I will not be surprised if the diplomatic relations are downgraded which will be a very serious setback to normal relations between world’s most important military powers.

No one knows where all this will end, but one thing is very clear. Vladimir Putin is an ex-spy and spymaster, and he is not about to give up his chess game easily. He has the tools, techniques, weapons, and the most important thing – nuclear deterrence.

Have a good weekend, and a great Easter break,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

31st March 2018

 

 

 

The terrible loss of privacy


Privacy is a funny aspect of life.

Most institutions and corporations we deal with in our lives demand that we sign off on dotted lines when it comes to providing them access to our very personal data. Most consumer companies do the same thing. Governments have always asked for our data. However, the phenomenon of giving away our total freedom and personal data to social media giants did not bother us for a long time. Until last week.

I am referring to the data breach on 50M Americans who have accounts with Facebook. Well, this is not the first instance, but in terms of scale it is the biggest ever. There have been hacks on Apple’s iCloud, releasing personal data of celebrities. There have been other hacks such as the bad one on Yahoo mail.

But, people forget and forgive, the reason being that they still need the services of the social media companies, cloud service providers and email operators. There is just no alternative to leading one’s life today – if an individual is not on Facebook, he does not exist – not just virtually, but physically as well! He or she is ignored for lack of digital savviness, or inability to be in sync with the rest of the world which seems to be rushing into Twitter, Instagram, Snap, WeChat, WhatsApp, Line, Google’s variety of offerings including of course Search, and so many such digital tools.

So, things will be back to normal after a few months for Facebook. They will undergo detailed investigation that is reserved for Russian hackers, questioned on Capitol Hill, excoriated in the “adult” networking circuit, and punished in some way, like being forced to implement tougher security measures. Facebook’s reputation currently is in the dumps, and they should not be trusted as they have traded their users’ data. But apart from all this, do you think that anything substantive will happen to them? There are more than 2B users who depend on Facebook for communication. Not me however – I never seriously used the consumer version of Facebook, though I have an account with very sparse data on myself (I however use a corporate version of Facebook behind my company’s firewall for internal teamwork and collaboration, along with other tools such as Microsoft Teams and Yammer).

So here I am – not a regular user of the consumer version of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al, but a serious blogger on this WordPress platform and LinkedIn user. I select what I wish to do, and cannot be led to use some tool that I do not wish to use. Further, I am careful not to accept terms and conditions of these tool makers and platform owners, and do not click to give access to all my data voluntarily. Neither do I agree for unsolicited marketing communications from these folks or their marketing collaborators, though sometimes it is made difficult not to agree.

The question is – what is more important: maintain privacy or lose it due to either the lack of security of the provider or his desire to sell off my data for money? In my case, the answer is crystal clear – I would rather forego the convenience of “checking into” Facebook and detailing what I am up to, or posting my photographs enjoying a vacation with my family, but safeguard whatever little privacy that I still have. It is not necessary for the entire world or my friends and relatives, or for any government, to know what I am doing at this moment (I am blogging now!). It is irrelevant to them, but it is critical for maintaining my sanity. It is not that I am anti-social – I am in multiple WhatsApp groups – but I wish to remain private. I do not respond to LinkedIn invites from people who I have not yet met. I should know the person through a referral or I should have met that person before I would even consider accepting the invite.

Nothing wrong with wanting to be a private individual. However, we know that most teenagers willingly give away their most personal data on the Facebook platform. The issue is that Facebook cannot be trusted to keep that data totally private and secure.  We do not know for sure that the data is safe and secure. We also do not know if they had traded our data for money. We never knew that Facebook gave away the data on 50M Americans to a U.K. Professor for some vague research, who in turn handed that out to the now infamous Cambridge Analytica.

It is more important to spend F2F (“Face to Face”) time with friends, relatives and family, like in the old times. It is more important not to be influenced by hate speech and lectures that are posted on all social media platforms. Did we live without a mobile phone or social media platforms in the past? Did we live a life without networking? We did live well, but I believe we did not learn to adopt technology well in the 21st Century. We just blindly jumped into all that is new without much analysis.

I am not against any of these innovative tools and platforms which have created enormous value to equity investors and users. I think we need to be extra careful in how and why we use these in our lives. Do we give our date of birth or place of birth to our neighbours or strangers? We don’t. We do not share any personal data in public. The same caution applies when we venture into digital space. We cannot ignore the fact that digital platforms are fast proliferating across our lives, and will come to dominate all facets of our existence. We may not be able to order ice cream without a social media account in future, or something as ridiculous as that.

Welcome to a world less private, more intrusive, less secure, and more dangerous as a result.

Hope you enjoyed your weekend.

I am happy to share the fact that I am now allowed one glass of wine, and I will soon be posting on the wine I had and the experience of de-addiction to wine.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

25th March 2018

Falling Markets


We saw that the major equity markets around the world suffered steep losses during the week which just ended.

There are always multiple reasons why the equity investors fret at times and start a major selling operation of their holdings. Mostly it is sentiment, sometimes emotions, but almost always there is a reason or many reasons why the market sell-off happens.

In the current scenario, the negative sentiment is driven by multiple factors afflicting the U.S. economy, aggravated by bad government policies which appear to keep shifting all the time under the wise administration of President Trump. To start with, there has been a series of exits of experienced people from the administration – the latest being General McMaster who was the National Seecurity Advisor to the President. He has been replaced by the rather hawkish hothead – John Bolton, who is likely to plunge the U.S. into another back-breaking war, either with Iran or North Korea.

So, you have a combination of the following factors:

  • a huge deficit budget of USD 1.3T which has just been signed off by the President, necessary to keep the government running till end of September 2018, which has a massive allocation for the military (not all of that is necessary);
  • a possible credit squeeze, with the Federal Reserve planning to raise the interest rates at least twice if not more times during this calendar year;
  • a high dependency on China which buys most of the U.S. Treasury Bills;
  • a looming trade war primarily with China, with the President planning to impose tariffs worth USD 50/60B on imports from China, and the already planned retaliation by China;
  • a strong noose tightening around the President’s neck – the Russia investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller – Trump cannot fire Mueller as that would lead to unforeseen consequences, but he might still do it, plunging the U.S. into uncertainty;
  • more potential exits from the Trump administration – Jeff Sessions is one clear possibility;
  • sex scandals threatening Trump from a series of women – the courts are admitting the cases against the wishes of Trump and his lawyers;
  • the clear possibility that Kim Jong Un might refuse to enter into talks with the U.S. if John Bolton is involved; North Korea termed Bolton as a “scum” and a “blood sucker” in 2003/04 and is unlikely to talk to him if Trump deputes him or brings him along to threaten Kim Jong Un, which will very likely happen;
  • the Iran nuclear deal imbroglio; Trump might refuse to certify the continuance of the deal when it comes for his quarterly certification signature as required by the U.S. Congress, in which case Iran will be free to walk away from the deal, and that might lead to Bolton arguing his case to bomb all of Iran’s nuclear facilities;
  • the continuing loss of elections to the Democratic Party as just happened in Pennsylvania – the potential loss of both the House and the Senate majority, which is not likely, but appears possible now;
  • and, so on and so forth…………there are many such factors

So, the equity markets falling was expected by all and sundry. If I recollect, the U.S. market ran up by more than 6,500 points (DOW) in about 14 months from the time Trump took office, allowing him to tout the market gain as one of his signature achievements. Now out of this increase, 3,000 points are gone, and it is likely that the sell off will continue into next week.

A government that is so critical for world peace and stability cannot be tottering every day. One has to just see CNN News and the U.S. Talk Shows by major news organizations, to get the full import of what is going on in Washington D.C. The Trump administration has become a laughing stock, even within the U.S.

The only silver lining is that Trump is the first U.S. President who has succeeded in pushing North Korea to the negotiating table (mostly by harsh tweets from Trump!), though both Koreas claim that they decided to play the Olympic game together and cool off the rhetoric. The other achievement of Trump is that he is the first U.S. President to stand up to China without any fear of repercussions and challenge them to a trade war.

While these are great to see and hear about, we have to recognize that Trump has still not won any battle with either one of these countries. He could not even win the Border Wall case against Mexico, which refused to foot the bill. It is going to be very tough for the U.S. to negotiate when Trump has surrounded himself with foreign policy and military hawks such as Mike Pompeo (the new Secretary of State, yet to be confirmed by the Congress), John Bolton (the new National Security Advisor who does not need Congress confirmation), Gina Haspel (the new CIA Director nominee who needs to be confirmed by the Congress), and the perennial lady hawk Nikki Haley who is the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. A war is surely looming with such hot heads around the President, who himself is a strong hot head who will not take a slight from anyone, or advice from anyone. All the major departures have happened apparently due to the fact that the concerned person begged to differ from the views of the President.

So, here we are, with markets having fallen all around the world, including India’s SENSEX. We are entering an uncertain phase in world history and diplomatic relationships. Everything can come off unhinged. No relationship is going to remain sacred. Continuous drama at the White House is going to rock the markets on a daily basis. The markets can no longer afford to do their own business disconnected from political and economic realities.

So, we are all in for a rocky ride, folks.

Enjoy the ride however.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

24th March 2018

The most expensive city


According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2018, Singapore has been ranked as #1 most expensive city in the world. If New York’s cost of living index is taken as 100, Singapore works out to be 116, topping the list. Paris and Zurich are at 112, and Hong Kong is at 111. Seoul is at 106 and Sydney at 102, amongst Asian cities.

According to the EIU Survey, a bottle of wine (my favourite topic!) costs USD 23.68 on an average in Singapore, while it costs only USD 11.90 in Paris, the second most expensive city in the world. There are many things which are more expensive in Singapore than in other countries, like clothes and cars. Certain things are fine to be more expensive, as land-strapped Singapore needs to control the population of cars and road usage aggressively. Clothes can surely be cheaper – it makes no sense to buy branded clothes in Singapore when the same brand costs less than half in the U.S. for instance. But then not everyone travels, so locals look for heavy discounts and bargains; sometimes the same brand is made available at half the big store prices, via a third party in an industrial estate outlet (akin to the outlet malls in the U.S., but the ones in Singapore are just single makeshift places in a very cheap location and exist only for a couple of weekends). Since Singapore needs to import almost everything, prices tend to be higher, but the extent of price increase in the hands of the consumers is sometimes not acceptable, but we have to carry on with our lives in any case and need to buy at least the essentials.

The tag of the “most expensive city” in the world is unpalatable to most locals, as that designation just tends to increase the costs further. Expats who come to work in Singapore get increasingly higher salaries based on the EIU’s Cost of Living Index for Singapore (it is a popular survey), and that action increases the cost of living further, as the expats are just willing to pay more for everything. This in turn, increases the cost for everyone living in Singapore.

The demand for quality accommodation has pushed up market prices of housing in Singapore over the past year or so. All in all, Singapore is surely an expensive place to live, but is also probably as safe as Tokyo, which is widely regarded as the safest city in all of Asia. Rule of law and enforcement of law dominate the city state, keeping most people honest, whether they are locals or foreigners.

Coming back to the issue of cost of living, I “feel” that Tokyo is much more expensive, especially when I am having lunch or drinking coffee. I get the same feeling in Hong Kong. Clothes seem to be expensive everywhere, except in Vietnam and India. So, the major aspects afflicting Singapore with regard to cost of living pertain to things on which nothing much can be done – personal transportation when it involves owning a car, and accommodation. Wines and cigarettes will continue to be expensive, so the only way is to curb their usage. I believe hawker centre food from ‘A’ category outlets still remain affordable in Singapore – it has gone up over the past decade, but still manageable. A good quality plate of Chicken Rice can be had for around S$ 5.50 and a Bento Box of Teriyaki Chicken can be had for S$ 7.00 in most hawker centres. I am afraid when these prices will double making them unaffordable for most people. Foreigners tend to spend more than S$ 10.00 to 15.00 for daily lunches, but locals are sensitive to the S$ 5.00 mark. I see this everyday. It is sometimes funny to notice that the locals would not mind spending S$ 2.00 or more for a bus ride to their favourite hawker centre, as food plays a central role for them (like it is for most of us). I consider myself as a “local” for all practical purposes, so I tend to adopt similar benchmarks as these help when you are with Singaporeans going for a lunch session.

Cars are expensive, and enough has been written about cars in Singapore, so I am not spending any more time on this topic. I see some people shifting to App-based taxi usage away from their personal cars and other modes of transportation, and this is increasing the traffic density in an already crowded city. However, traffic flows along almost smoothly due to a very effective implementation of traffic rules. These are getting affected a bit by the big number of cycle riders who are using the same road space in a city where the average car speeds are in excess of 60 KMPH. Then there are also these personal mobility devices – like e-scooters, and you have the most infamous bike riders who twist their way between two high-speed car lanes at tremendous speeds, which will not be an acceptable way to drive in most developed countries.

Cost of credit is cheaper in Singapore than in most other developed nations, so that could be a positive. Food, as I stated above, for common daily lunches/dinners are not that expensive, but beer and wine are very expensive. Electronics items are reasonably priced, though not as cheap as in Hong Kong.

Hopefully, Paris will overtake Singapore in the next EIU Survey – most people recall the #1, but not the #2 and #3 ranks, so it is better for Singapore to slip to #2 or #3 rank soon.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

18th March 2018

 

Six More Years


What could this title possibly mean?

Any guesses?

Is it the time taken to accomplish something momentous in the history of this planet?

Is it the time that India will take to supercede the U.K. and Germany and become the fourth largest economy in the world?

Is it the time that will need to transpire before all wars in the world come to an absolute and final end?

Does it indicate the time when most of us would have retired for good?

None of the above, of course.

We are going to have 2 plus 4 more years of Donald Trump as the President of the U.S. and 6 more years of Vladimir Putin as the President of Russia.

You don’t agree?

Then you must be really out of touch with world affairs.

Donald Trump has no serious contender, either within his own Republican Party, or in the opposition Democratic Party, today or in the next U.S. Presidential Elections due by November 2020. Do you honestly think that the Democratic Party veterans can fix their house and elect an electrifying politician as their leader (like they did with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama)? I do not think so given the state of affairs afflicting the Democratic Party. If a Democratic Party candidate (Conor Lamb) had to embrace Trump’s philosophy and policies to win the Pennsylvania House Elections, then you can understand the ideological challenges that they are facing. According to the Democratic Party, more of Trump’s policies are good as these will help them to win elections in a convoluted twist which can only happen in the U.S.

So, my conclusion is that Trump will start working with Democratic Party House Representatives and Senators ever more closely in the coming months, as they will keep winning elections against Trump’s own party! Trump will be known as the first ever President to cross the aisle!!

Given that the heartland of the U.S. is unlikely to give up on Trump, and given that there is no serious contender, it is likely that he has a good chance to retain the Presidency, and continue his policies (albeit in a watered down fashion as he has to increasingly work with the Democrats to pass legislation) for another 4 years after 2020. This is a hypothesis which I would like to challenge, but I am not finding coherent arguments in favour of any one else at this time.

Trump will do several things to retain the Presidency. He will surely launch a war (potentially against Iran), put China on the dock for trade violations, censure Russia to please the Democrats, and get back to the negotiating table for trade deals with NAFTA and TPP. He will continue to tweak Tax Reforms to ensure that Americans have more money left in their pockets to spend on, well, America-made goods. And so on, and so forth.

Let us now look at President Putin. He is an amazing guy, with a toughness that the Western Allies cannot emulate easily. He flexes his muscles at the time and place of his choosing. He has put the ex-Soviet states on notice, and it is not a secret that countries on Russia’s borders are feeling shaken by his actions (like his recent announcement on missiles that can take out any part of the planet), and his feelings about ex-traitors (as we recently witnessed in the U.K. though there is no proof linking the chemical attack to Russian operatives). Putin has also been measured when it comes to dealing with the U.S. He is yet to take retaliatory action against Obama’s expulsion of Russian diplomats and his shuttering of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco. But it does not appear that he is that considerate when it comes to smaller nations such as the U.K. as we read today that he has retaliated against the U.K.’s expulsion of Russian diplomats, and also tacked on additional measures to incite the wrath of Theresa May and Her Majesty’s Government.

President Putin has a 80% chance of getting re-elected for a third time as the President of Russia, and that should be real bad news for most of Western Europe, the U.S. and its allies. Putin does not forget or forgive slights that others invoke on his Mother Russia, and we can expect the emergence of a new Cold (Hot) War in the immediate future. Whether Russia is in the top 10 economies of the world or not (it is not) does not matter to Putin. He wants Russia to be respected and feared. As long as the West disrespects Russia and Putin by extension, continues sanctioning Russia against its perceived or real misdeeds, and challenges its world view, things are going to deteriorate toward the levels that the world witnessed in the 1960s to 80s. Looks like Putin is not going to go away anytime soon, and the Democratic Party of the U.S. has to put up with him for a fairly long time, it appears!

So, there we go – two Presidents of two of the top countries of the world, are going to continue as Presidents till 2024. On the other hand, we also saw that President Xi Jinping of China has been accorded the very rare privilege of continuing as the President of China for his lifeterm. So only the U.K. and France are left out!!!

We are going to have some real fun watching how the world morphs under these three hugely important and historically significant leaders in the coming years. Belt up, folks, here we go.

Enjoy your weekend, I am off wine for a few weeks under duress, so I am writing this post without wine, and am discovering the fact that I am still able to think and write some decent English while expressing some thoughts of value to my readers.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

17th March 2018