Two Dictators and their Antics


Singapore was witness to a historic summit between two dictators earlier this week (on the 12th June 2018) in the idyllic small island of Sentosa off the main Singapore island.

One dictator has established himself as a ruthless governor of the pariah state of North Korea (NK or otherwise known as DPRK – Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea). He has been the leader of NK for the past 7 years only, but has amply demonstrated his cruelty by murdering many of his people in the shortest possible time, including his own uncle. His citizens are starving. He has channeled all his slush funds into developing ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs, and his unstable government has incited fears even in his closest ally, China. I do not understand the relationship between NK and Russia, however. May be technology transfer? In a nutshell, NK is neither democratic nor socialistic – people are just slaves of the Kim family for over 7 decades.

All these things are well documented, with news coverage of NK being incessant over the past 12 to 18 months or so, with the aggressive posturing of its young leader, often against the U.S.

The other dictator I am referring to here is of course, Donald Trump, the President of the U.S. who is unpredictable, unstable, and easily incited into drastic actions. How can he be the so-called “leader of the Free World”?. Under his stewardship, the U.S. is being castigated for a series of diplomatic and trade-related missteps. No one in the U.S. government or even the White House knows what Trump is up to with his early morning tweets setting government policy and heavily criticizing his opponents and the media. He wants his way in everything that matters to him, and appears to be totally devoid of careful counsel. And, that is exactly the way he made the trip to Singapore to meet with Kim Jong Un.

The meeting was totally unscripted and was deemed to be a “relationship” meeting as Trump continually attempted to downgrade expectations, having built up those expectations to a feverish level in the days leading up to the “dictators’ meting” in Singapore. Kim was wiser, he hardly stated anything publicly, and kept his counsel, and demonstrated a cool head during his Singapore visit without appearing to be unduly excited.

Why should he be? He was, in any case, not giving away anything to Trump. The meeting was hailed as an outstanding success by Trump, though many observers thought it was a complete waste of time having accomplished nothing of substance – no complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization; no stopping of missile launches; no resolution to the thorny issue of abducted Japanese citizens by NK agents; no tight time schedule for anything; no way forward on the big human rights violations by NK against its own citizens; and no, no, no for many other demands.

For Trump, it was a public relations exercise, becoming the first ever sitting President of the U.S. to have met with the leader of NK – ever. He thinks he has figured Kim out and can handle him well. How? All by touch and feel, as Trump claimed in his media interactions? Why would he think and then say that Kim is a “talented” guy? Trump expressed his appreciation of the fact that Kim took over as Chairman in 2011 when he was barely 26 years of age, and brushed aside questions on the very bad human rights record of NK.

In my opinion, it was a waste of time with no solid returns for the stakeholders – South Korea, Japan and the U.S. It was a failure.

It was horrifying to see that the leader of the Free World has now become a close friend of the worst dictator on earth. For a very long time, the U.S. has entertained dictators all over the world, and antagonized democracies. Any one who has followed world history will attest to this fact. The U.S. always hid behind domestic compulsions, national security, and cold war antagonism. In the past one week, Trump has even alienated his closest allies in the G-8 meeting in Canada, and blasted Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, as a dishonest person and a liar.

So, the world is heading towards a circus play of these two dictators. We have no choice but to play along, as otherwise the world will be headed towards another war – as Trump himself stated during his Singapore trip, he has saved 28M lives! Totally ridiculous, unacceptable and irresponsible.

Singapore spent a lot of money in organizing this summit of the two dictators – upwards of $15M. Many locations, especially the hotels in which the two dictators were staying, and the meeting venue in Sentosa were all in locked-down status. Thousands of police personnel were pressed into duty. For Singapore, it was beneficial as it gained worldwide attention as the venue of the summit, having been friends with both sides over the years. Singapore is a close military ally of the U.S. and it also has other wide-ranging business, trade, economic relations with the U.S. Singapore has also maintained diplomatic relations with NK, though it complied with the U.N. sanctions against the regime.

Chairman Kim Jong Un gained big publicity as well – he was treated as a visiting head of state and acquired legitimacy as a leader in his own right. This would not have happened for a long, long time under the U.N. sanctions scenario (which still apply).

So, in a nutshell, lot of noise and fanfare for a very weak 4 points agreement which has been touted as something huge back in the U.S. by President Trump, and deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Nobel Prize? Forget it. NK has a long way to go before the world recognizes it on par with South Korea (unless there is a merger).

In any case, visit Singapore and see the Capella Hotel in Sentosa Island – you might like to walk along the same corridor that both the dictators walked on!

Here’s Wishing all Friends a “Selamat Hari Raya or Eid Mubarak”.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

16th June 2018

 

Advertisements

Feeling Good in Today’s World


Feeling good becomes a continuous challenge as one gets older and his/her social engagements continue to drop from the peaks of corporate, family or social networking, which allowed the “feel good” factor to flourish.

This is to be expected, however people who are entering or encountering such a phase in their lives sometimes struggle to deal with the challenge. It is more because they did not hone their strategy of continuous engagement with all their networks before hitting the slow down. Once such a slow down occurs, the struggle starts and re-connection with networks becomes an issue as the position from which one used to operate is now gone. It might appear that others tend to ignore you, but that is mostly not the case. Compounding this issue is the global scenario which sometimes makes anyone feel despondent. It appears the world is splitting at its seams with unnecessary conflicts.

Feeling good is a critical aspect of living well. It is crucial to keep going with a positive mindset and orientation towards life and others who are involved with you. It may be simple things like catching up with someone you have known for a while and just talking shop – like what is happening around the world, how is the weather shaping up, who is doing what, etc., The smiles and the bonhomie of meeting with someone known to you are important elements of every engagement, and keeps you full of life’s zest.

When we work in a corporate or academic setting, there are always lots of things to do, meetings to attend, deadlines to meet, targets to chase, and friends to network with. Life is full of activities and actions which keep you moving from one day to the next, looking forward to the future in a continuous but relentless fashion. Things happen, or you have to make things happen, you need to collaborate with lots of folks, talk to remote colleagues, prepare pitches to present to or convince a client, and so on and so forth. This non-stop series of activities slows down at some stage, and then declines completely once you retire from active duty.

The ability to feel good on shaping things in corporate life drops down, as the retired life is all about shaping yourself to face the oncoming uncertain future – may be you shape your spouse as well so that the journey to future could be congruous. Suddenly, the scope and variety of challenges and problems to solve reduce dramatically. Your kids have grown up and moved on. The only thing which can then keep you engaged in life is to develop a meaning or strong purpose.

A strong meaning or purpose lends a sense of direction to you, and as you keep executing and fulfilling the duties generated by that purpose, you achieve a sense of fulfillment, which in turn leads to a feeling of positivity and goodness. About yourself and about others around you. This is a very important feeling which we all should aim to achieve during every day of our lives. It makes your life credible and purposeful, with a sense of orientation towards accomplishing meaningful objectives, similar to what you were doing during your corporate life.

I assign a huge value to feeling good. I used to drink a glass of chardonnay every other evening and reminisce on what I have done during the day; but now that I have given up drinking, I do the same thing with a glass of oat or almond milk (which have become my favourite drinks, along with soda/tonic water when I go out pubbing). I was (and still am) able to focus on the positive aspects of the day to day interactions and engagements with a glass of wine. The feel good factor stayed with me till I went to sleep, and I believe it was a strong reason why I never struggled to sleep.

So, in a nutshell, I am advocating that you develop a sense of purpose – you should have meaning in your life. Think about your life and its impact on others around you. What have you done to help people? Did you mentor anyone? Did you help your colleague solve an intractable problem? Was that person happy with your help? Did you walk out of the office everyday feeling a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction on the role you had played during the day?

If the responses to the above questions are positive, then your ability to feel good is firmly in place. And, once that feeling is in place, you would look at the world around you in a positive manner. You would go out of your way to help the destitute, or your neighbours. You would not discriminate against anyone. Your helpful dispensation will not go unrecognized by the people around you, your colleagues, your neighbours and the society at large.

All this make a big difference to your own life, and it could well mean that you would live longer than the average life mortality figure. You have a strong reason to exist, and that would keep you going. This is despite all the reasons to feel down in today’s uncertain world. This is despite all the wars, conflicts, and other bad things which happen in the world every day.

So, feeling good is essential. Always aim to feel good about yourself, your family and friends. Don’t forget it has a direct impact on your mental well-being and health.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

3rd June 2018

 

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

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