Stunning Infrastructure


I was in Shanghai earlier this week. I was visiting Shanghai after several years (I had been going to Beijing more often).

The Pudong Airport was big and clean, and the immigration and customs processing was fast, though they follow the Indian procedure of scanning every bag of every passenger which takes some time as compared to Singapore or even Kuala Lumpur. The other similarity with Indian airports was that there was a long line of placards held by hotel drivers to receive the arriving passengers, and this exists only in pockets at Singapore Changi Airport (and most other global airports).

I picked up some coffee at the Airport Starbucks upon clearing customs, and was surprised to note that the “baristas” at Starbucks understood my English and also had my choice of flat white coffee. As I knew already, China is the second biggest market for Starbucks worldwide, and one can see countless Starbucks outlets all over Beijing for instance.

I was a bit confused as I stepped out and looked for exiting the airport. Of course, my benchmark of Singapore does not always do good at most other airports, as the differences aimed at passenger convenience are often glaring.

The previous times I had taken a taxi from the Pudong International Airport. This time around, however, I decided to take the Maglev high speed train, though I had to anyway take a taxi to the hotel from the destination.

Though the Maglev has been running for more than 15 years, it is still a tourist sensation with a top speed of 430 KMPH. It makes the journey from the airport to its destination (Longyong Road) in just 8 minutes over a distance of 30 KMs. However, when I travelled, the Maglev train reached a maximum of 301 KMPH as displayed on the LED display in every carriage. I could not “feel” the speed but could see that fields and trees were whizzing by. There was no shake or any kind of inconvenience to passengers. It was very smooth, and before I realized, the train had arrived at its destination.

Taxi drivers in China generally do not communicate in English, and I am sure they do not understand spoken English. I always download the Chinese characters for my destination hotel (for example) and show it to the driver – I had to do this anyway at the Longyong Road taxi stand as there was no sign for special areas designated for picking up passengers by call taxis. In China, I use the DIDI app (Uber sold their rights to DIDI), which is as good as any with quick service, reasonable rates, and a unique facility of communicating with driver using English language messaging which will be read in Chinese by the driver (and his reply though keyed in Chinese will come to my app in English).

While inability to communicate to any taxi driver is surely an inconvenience, I would not place much emphasis on it as the DIDI app is wonderful and has worked for me effectively every time I had used it. The e-invoices are mailed to my email account, and there is an option to add tips to the driver if you are happy with his service.

Coming to the road traffic, I am happier comparing it to Indian cities or Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur. While Shanghai roads are good with expressways dotting the city, the traffic is really bad at peak times, and as congested as you might have experienced in Bangalore or Mumbai or Bangkok. There are simply a huge number of vehicles plying the roads, and it is apparent that people have not been weaned away from cars though the subway system is superbly constructed and convenient to use. Since it takes significant time to travel by road from one part of the city to the other, or to the airport, or to the main railway station (Hongqiao Railway Station), one needs to plan the route and add extra 15 to 30 minutes to the journey time. After seeing the impact of traffic and witnessing some road accident on an expressway, I came to the conclusion that this is not something that can be fixed quickly in such a huge and densely packed city like Shanghai. The only solution is to use the subway.

I liked the Pudong area and wandered around near the main riverside area. There were thousands of tourists and city dwellers taking a stroll, and it did not appear to be a so-called “controlled” city of China, I could feel that it was more like Mumbai’s cosmopolitan culture with emphasis on networking, socializing, partying, dining, enjoying what the city gives, and of course, making business deals.

I saw the beautiful Fairmont Peace Hotel on the Bund, which is an iconic landmark in Shanghai (though I could not afford staying at this 80 years old hotel which has been wonderfully maintained). I walked through the hotel, and I should simply say I was astounded.

Finally, on the railway station infrastructure of China and specifically the one I saw in Shanghai, the Hongqiao Railway Station, I thought that China has perfected the art and science of building infrastructure for its 1.4B people from concept to execution times which are simply unbelievable. I came to the quick (and bad) conclusion that India will never be able to catch up with China on infrastructure – and I believe that even most Western countries won’t be able to catch up with China. It is amazing to witness what has been accomplished just in the past two decades (of course, money was never a problem for China, and manpower came in cheap as well). India specifically is very far behind, and the Indian Government should make it mandatory for Indian Ministers and top bureaucrats to attend China’s world-leading university programs on planning and execution. They just have to take a walk along any railway platform or walk outside the platform areas in the Hongqiao Station which is so spaced out with ability to accommodate thousands of travellers at any time. They even run a free mini-bus service from one end of the station to the other end – probably a little over a KM.

Even the processing of passengers is super efficient. If you have the ticket, you proceed to security check (yes they have like in airports!), or else you show the printout along with identification to collect the ticket. Then you just proceed to the respective gate, which opens only 15 minutes before the train departure time (they maintain accurate departure and arrival times, and all trains run like clockwork). Passengers are disciplined and queue up in front of the respective carriages (marked on the floor of the platform – no need to ask anyone), they get in upon arrival of the train, and within a few minutes the train departs. If you are late, sorry.

Simply amazing infrastructure with money very well spent – and which is being used by millions of people in an efficient manner. For people who want to travel by train in China, please note that First Class is actually one notch below Business Class. I did not know this till I saw the difference. Business Class section is separate, and it has only few seats (like, less than 10 in the train I took). First Class is like a good and well spaced out Premium Economy Class! I did not see the real Economy Class on the train. For a 200 KM high speed train (which ran at 260 KMPH), I was charged SGD 23 which I thought was quite reasonable.

So, am I embarrassed? No, but China’s achievements cannot be pushed under the carpet stating simply that they are a Communist country with hardly any democratic decision making. I simply do not agree with the foolish arguments from many Indians that India operates under different conditions so lack of achievements is totally justifiable. Another day, another blog post for us to thoroughly argue out on this fascinating topic!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

12th May 2018

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The fragility of human life


When I take a long walk (around 90 minutes) in the morning, I tend to do one of three things – either I walk in total silence focusing exclusively on the terrain ahead, or listen to my old-time favourite songs (almost always Abba or Carpenters or Lionel Ritchie or Michael Jackson, or sometimes Norah Jones), or engage in some serious thoughts with good clarity of mind in a very calm environment (there are very few people walking or jogging at the time I usually go in the morning).

I have always found that thinking hard is tough when I am stationary, or just at home doing mundane things. When I am on a solo walk, I tend to be able to think more vigorously. While there are strong positives for thinking in a calm manner while walking a long distance, there are also some downsides. For example, when the mind flies into the future (or into the past occasionally), I tend to be less careful on the terrain ahead, and have fallen down a few times because I failed to “see” some obstacle on the path (there are many stones before I reach the wood-tiled pathway around a lake that I usually go to). I realized that it is not a good idea to keep falling down and hurting myself (especially on the knees) at my age, so have improved my caution while walking which reduces the intensity of thinking somewhat. The other challenge usually is the speed at which some runners tend to overtake me on a narrow path, forcing me to move to the extreme edges of the pathway which could push me into the lake if I am not careful.

This post is however not about my walking per se. It is more about thinking. I always felt that I should have devoted more of my time in my life to thinking hard about every choice open in front of me, or to every issue in my life crying for my attention and resolution. I spent far less time on thinking, or took the easy short-cut of personal advisors, or fell back on just my previous experience.

I still take advice from others close to me, but I spend more times thinking about all issues and come back home with a clarity which is difficult to beat. The result is that I am able to engage with my family members in a calmer manner, and others in a more effective way. As I walk more, I think more. The latest issue surrounding my thought process is the fragility of human life.

We see death and destruction all around the world when ideologies clash and countries end up fighting unnecessary wars or engage in unwarranted conflicts. A beautiful life which existed yesterday with lot of hopes for its future, is suddenly gone today. The ability of man to pluck another life out of this world has only grown tremendously over the years, and that man continues his life without remorse under the guise of morality, the necessity of a “good” war over evil people, or the essential nature of law enforcement – I am sure there are hundreds of reasons that a man can devise for taking the life of another human being for which he needs to answer in his own after-life – such offenses cannot be hidden or explained away under the guise of moral explanations that a government or religion can provide to the man who is plucking the life away. There is no real serious explanation that can be offered for shooting a suspect twenty times all over his body, especially on his head and chest. There is no rationale for bombing a country with cluster or chemical weapons. There is absolutely no possible reason for trying out one country’s latest weaponry on a country which cannot defend itself against such attacks.

So, what could be the reasons why bad things continue to happen all around us establishing the total fragility of human life, which should have always had a “precious” status in humanity?

While no explanations could be acceptable, the lack of fierce responses from religious guardians is absolutely stunning. When defenceless countries and people are bombed, where is the question of religions taking sides with the perpetrators? Where is the neutrality of religious intervention to stop or deter such devious things from happening?

As I think more and more on such topics, it is not unusual for me to get depressed on our inability to stop or vote against such things – there is no possibility that poeple could question or challenge a conflict or a war, unless there is a direct referendum on the most serious matters affecting this planet as a whole. However, that is unlikely.

Our own lives are so fragile, that we are not in a position to devise suitable advance responses to what is happening to our own bodies as we age. Any amount of preparation or planning is not going to help when the inevitable thing eventually occurs in our lives. We go on steering our lives taking some precautions as and when we feel necessary, but one day the fragility of our own lives will be exposed in a natural manner.

So how do we get ready for such a 100% clear possibility at an unknown date?

Try to think of whatever you had ever wanted to do, but could not do or achieve. Create a “bucket” list of such things. Spend more and more time with your family members. Do some charity. Do not expect any returns, and do not think that you will get to heaven or hell. None of that sort might exist. At the end of the day, what matters is whether you have helped people around you, stood for some good cause, made your family members successful in their respective lives, and garnered respect and admiration from friends and relatives for your ability to successfully steer your life and contribute to society in a manner that you could. Forget about emulating other successful people, or investors, or businessmen. It does not matter.

Well, more in future posts on this topic.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

6th May 2018

Great Truths


Courtesy: My Classmate

  1. In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a Congress.

— John Adams

2. If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.

— Mark Twain 

3. Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But then I repeat myself.

— Mark Twain

4. I contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.

— Winston Churchill 

5. A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.

— George Bernard Shaw
6. A liberal is someone who feels a great debt to his fellow man, which debt he proposes to payoff with your money.

— G. Gordon Liddy 

7. Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

— James Bovard, Civil Libertarian (1994)

8. Foreign aid might be defined as a transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.

— Douglas Casey, Classmate of Bill Clinton at Georgetown University 

9. Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

— P.J. O’Rourke, Civil Libertarian

10. Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.

— Frederic Bastiat, French economist(1801-1850)

11. Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

— Ronald Reagan(1986) 

12. I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.

— Will Rogers

13. If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free!

— P.J. O’Rourke 

14. In general, the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one party of the citizens to give to the other.

— Voltaire(1764)

15. Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you!

— Pericles (430B.C.) 

16. No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.

— Mark Twain(1866)

17. Talk is cheap………….except when Congress does it.

–Anonymous 

18. The government is like a baby’s alimentary canal, with a happy appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other.

— Ronald Reagan

19. The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.

— Winston Churchill 

20. The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.

— Mark Twain

21. The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.

— Herbert Spencer, English Philosopher (1820-1903) 

22. There is no distinctly Native American criminal class…………save Congress.

— Mark Twain

23. What this country needs are more unemployed politicians.

— Edward Langley, Artist (1928-1995) 

24. A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.

— Thomas Jefferson

25. We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.

–Aesop 

FIVE BEST SENTENCES

1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity, by legislating the wealth out of prosperity.

2.What one person receives without working for…another person must work for without receiving.

3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.

4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.

5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work, because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work, because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation!

Courtesy: My Classmate

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

5th May 2018

 

Benefit of Doubt


President Trump has to be given the benefit of doubt for the rapid rapproachement that is happening between North and South Korea. If the Summit held yesterday between President Moon of South Korea and Kim Jong Un of North Korea eventually leads to a peace treaty between the two Koreas, President Trump will claim credit for accomplishing what all the previous U.S. Presidents failed to achieve over the past 70 years.

Does the world believe that President Trump deserves credit for achieving what was almost an impossibility? Of course, any credit can only be given if North Korea agrees to destroy its nuclear weapons and loses the ability to threaten the world. I am sure that the U.S. would also demand that there is a verifiable, irreversible process put in place to achieve complete denuclearization. The U.S. would also demand that North Korea destroys its ballistic missile program, among other difficult and challenging demands.

The unfortunate situation in the Korean imbroglio has always been the involvement of the super powers. The Soviet Union, China, and the U.S. were all involved in the 1950 -53 conflict which ended in an armistice agreement rather than a peace treaty, which only means that the two Koreas have been technically in an unending war all these years. The super powers have always been engaged and always have hoped that they would be the beneficiaries in some way if there is eventual peace on the Korean peninsula.

Notwithstanding all the bad rhetoric between President Trump (via his infamous tweets) and North Korea, it is apparent that both sides are carefully evaluating the option of achieving peace. While that may not be good news for the arms manufacturers in the U.S. and the war hawks in President Trump’s cabinet who have been thirsting to launch attacks on North Korea, it is excellent news for the rest of the world and especially for Asia. North Korea’s eventual integration with South Korea could create potentially a large consumer market and attract global investments. The last Cold War era conflict would have officially ended, opening up opportunities for peace and prosperity for the Korean people.

In my opinion, President Moon of South Korea deserves full credit for giving the final push towards peace settlement via the great occasion of Winter Olympics, and constant persuasion of Kim Jong Un which seems to have worked out for both so well. He had the challenge of keeping both the U.S. and Japan at bay while working on his charm offensive. He did not want unnecessary and uncalled for escalation with an erratic President Trump and an almost helpless but whining Prime Minister Abe of Japan who is wary of anything to do with North Korea. President Moon persevered and it is clear that he achieved within 8 weeks what none of his predecessors achieved. He not only made Kim Jong Un cross over into the South for the meeting yesterday, he also stepped into the North in a show of friendship towards Kim.

Symbolism plays a big role in Asia, and a lot more in Korea. All the right moves were made yesterday, niceties were exchanged, pleasant speeches were made. What one does not know for sure is the inside of Kim Jong Un. He may be only 34 years old, but appears to be savvy and somewhat calculating. All these efforts may go to naught if he decides that the U.S. demands are not workable for him, or if the U.S. insults him publicly, or if the planned meeting between Kim and President Trump does not go all too well. Both Kim and Trump have big egos and are very pricky, and if Trump allows one of his leading hawks like John Bolton to say bad things in the meeting, then there goes a great opportunity for achieving peace in one of the last frontiers of war. I am worried that President Trump and his team may not listen to President Moon and may not prepare adequately for the summit in June. Kim seems to be well prepared. While he might agree for certain broad principles and a timetable, that might not satisfy the trigger happy bunch of Trump team.

Then what happens?

Stalemate and more sanctions. May be a limited war. North Korea will respond with more ballistic missile launches and more nuclear tests.

However, if the summit goes well and the peace treaty indeed happens, then the future is bright. And President Moon and Trump will be nominated along with Kim Jong Un for the Nobel Peace Prize!

So, here we are in a global conflict situation wherein the most impossible stuff are happening at a whirlwind pace. And, we can probably “hope” to see a Nobel Laureate in President Trump which people did not even dream about. This may be pure luck for President Trump. Tweets and threats would have earned him a Nobel Prize which gives big hope for potential Nobel Prize aspirants in future.

All said and done, let us give President Trump the benefit of doubt for what is happening in Korea, and offer our hearty congratulations to President Moon. Both deserve a round of applause from the international community. Also President Xi of China also deserves some credit for applying pressure on Kim Jong Un to come to the negotiating table.

So, hopefully we should be able to sleep in peace with one less nuclear threat in the world.

Cheers, and enjoy the weekend with no alcohol of course,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th April 2018

 

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!)

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

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

 

Doing the right things for America


I have been ambivalent when it comes to judging President Donald Trump of the U.S.

In my initial observations (more than a year ago), I took his side, and even my family did not like my views. There were a number of friends who disagreed with me on this subject, especailly my point that “President Trump is the best thing that could have happened for America”. I tried to justify my orientation towards Trump but it did not carry weight.

Then, I became vexed with his constant shift in stance towards global foreign policy matters, and the constant barrage of almost stupid stuff that his people in the White House were spewing out on a daily basis. I started moving away from my earlier position in support of Trump, but then I had no one else to support as the Opposition Democratic Party was in a worse situation with no coherent strategy or leadership to counter Trump (they still continue to bask in President Obama’s legacy and their great idealism). So, here I am with no one to propagandize in the U.S. Politics (please take note that I am not a U.S. Citizen, however I feel that as a global citizen concerned about global affairs, I have not only an obligation but a right to express my views and debate with others who are equally concerned about the status of affairs in global policy matters, which should bother and concern all of us).

Of late, I am seeing a new Trump (though inconsistent in messaging and incompatible with his own team due to lack of coordination apparently) from the manner in which he is tackling (a) gun violence; (b) budget-related issues; (c) trade matters; and, (d) immigration.

Let us look at gun control issues, now raging in the U.S. due to the most recent mindless killing of 17 people in a high school in Florida. The gun lobby (read NRA – National Rifle Association) has come under severe pressure from the student and teacher community, and also from the general public. As I have written in my past blog posts, the U.S. is unique in allowing gun ownership in a rampant manner under the cover of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the U.S. which permits citizens to bear arms. I do not understand how this will be relevant in the 21st Century. Not only that, even a 18-year old can buy “assault rifles” which are used only in times of war by the military. What is the need for such high velocity, high magazine rifles in the hands of normal citizens, and more specifically, in the hands of a 18-year old?

President Trump has taken a tough stand, and is holding his ground against his own Republican Party and the NRA in a high-profile standoff. He is more credible in this effort than President Obama would ever have been. We have to of course, see what happens eventually in the gun legislation that needs to pass both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and I believe given that both Parties have avid gun owners amongst their ranks, it is unlikely to pass either legislative body. However, let us compliment President Trump for his principled stand, and his threats to sign executive orders banning “bump stocks” which converts an ordinary rifle into a high-discharge rifle.

On Budget issues, again President Trump has won where President Obama failed. The U.S. has to reduce Corporate Taxes to enhance its business competitiveness and bring trillions of dollars stashed away by big corporations in offshore locations. There are pros and cons, but it is critical to pass a Budget Reform Bill, and then may be they will keep tweaking it. This is a very important and significant legislative victory for President Trump and his Republican Party. The Democratic Party failed in its strategy to modify the bill, and finally let it pass without much of a fight.

On Trade matters, President Trump is finally taking action against countries which dump their goods below costs in the U.S. Yesterday, he imposed tariffs of 25% on Steel and 10% on Aluminium, and more are coming. While such tariffs will distort trade, anger important allies, and raise the cost for U.S. Manufacturers, nevertheless the action sends a very important message to the world that the U.S. will make its own decisions to suit its own government and people, rather than engage in endless persuasion. There is a strong message to China in this whole matter, though China is not one of the top 5 steel or aluminium exporters to the U.S. China should be aggressively rethinking its strategy as its “take no prisoners” kind of tactics will no longer work with the U.S.

Eventually, the trade matter will settle down and the stock markets though rocked will reach some equilibrium status. Nothing much to worry on that count. However, President Trump is sending decisive communications to all countries that he is his own man – not even a “party man of the GOP”, and he has innate thoughts on many global affairs that he thinks would require reckoning under his rule.

I will write separate blog post on the U.S. Immigration Policy changes.

Welcome to the new U.S.

Enjoy your weekend,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

3rd February 2018