Wednesday, November 7, 2012

We Now Return To Our Regularly Scheduled Program

Well! Glad that's over. The 2012 election is history. All's well that ends well.

I don't live in a state like Ohio or Virginia, so I wasn't bombarded with all of those Obama/Romney campaign ads. But I do live in Massachusetts, where the Senate election between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown was both intense and well funded. I don't watch a lot of TV, and I mostly listen to public radio, so I didn't have to endure too many TV or radio campaign ads. But I was surprised at how Scott and Elizabeth kept turning up in my YouTube videos or on web pages I was reading. Warren in particular did a good job of filling my mailbox with print advertising, and adorning my front door knob with those door-hanger thingies.

I couldn't be more pleased with the results. I of course (if you know anything about me) wanted to see Obama reelected. I was rooting for Warren as well. I didn't dislike Brown so much; he's a Republican, but a Massachusetts Republican, i.e., moderate rather than dogmatic, and voted with the Democrats a few times. But I wanted to see another Democrat in the Senate, and I especially wanted Warren to win in order to see the noses of all the Senate Republicans who so strongly opposed her as a possible head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rubbed in their own you-know-what. I regret that Barney Frank, my current Representative and one of the more colorful members of the House, is retiring and didn't run this time. But at least his seat is going to Democrat Joseph Kennedy III, who handily beat his opponent Sean Bielat, whose campaign sort of boiled down to, "Vote for me! I'm a Republican!".

Looking across the country, I'm struck by the fact that the Tea Party wave may have crested now. The Democrats picked up a couple of seats in the Senate, thanks in part to the defeat of champion nincompoops like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. They also picked up a half dozen House seats. It strengthens my conviction that while American voters may occasionally flirt with populist wingnut ideologues, those movements tend to burn themselves out over the course of a couple of election cycles, because slogans will only take you so far and at some point you have to show you can also govern.

One thing I think this election highlighted is the detachment of leading elements of the Republican party from reality. First and foremost is Mitt Romney himself. The "47%" incident really called this into focus—amazing how Romney was able to portray himself as some kind of champion of the poor and the middle class after essentially writing off half the country as parasites in his not-meant-for-public-consumption remarks in front of an audience of his wealthy peers, as if nothing had happened. It culminated in his election night plans that apparently didn't include the preparation of a concession speech. It's an expression of the Napoleon Hill-type teaching that if you convince yourself that you will ultimately possess something, your conviction soon will magically transform itself into reality. Well, sometimes when you open your eyes, reality comes rushing back in. Karl Rove, sitting on the Fox News panel as an election commentator,  found this out as well, as he stubbornly insisted that Romney wasn't losing even as the numbers proving him wrong were relentlessly piling up and even Fox's own statisticians were saying "game over"

"The question is, who can help the poor and
the middle class? I can! He can't!"

Then there's nutty old Donald Trump—you may object to me lumping him in with "leading GOP elements", but let's not forget that there was a time when he was considered a frontrunner for the 2012 presidential nominationcalling for a revolution over the election results. I can't imagine what a revolution led by Donald Trump could possibly look like, but I'm sure we would all ride into battle in the back of a really tasteful limousine while sporting elaborate hairstyles.

The revolution will be televised, and I'll be the star!

So where does this all leave us? Despite a few incremental changes in what for me is a positive direction, we're kind of back where we started. We have a Democratic President and Senate, and a Republican House. House Speaker John Boehner has made some faintly conciliatory remarks about cooperating to avert the looming fiscal cliff, but his statement that "we are willing to accept some additional revenues, via tax reform" sounds a little less than heartening to me.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, sounds anything but conciliatory. The statement in his remarks on the election result that "Now it's time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely divided Senate…" sounds a lot like "my way or the highway" to me.  He did go on to say, "To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we'll be there to meet him half way." But then this is a guy whose stated top priority after the 2010 midterm election was to limit Obama's presidency to a single term, so it's hard for me to take that at face value.

You shall not pass!

Still… it could be worse. With one eye on the fiscal cliff, I will enjoy the moment. Maybe hoist a drink to a reelected President, a newly elected Senator and a newly elected Representative. And maybe another one, and then—why not?—one more, and really just one more, and then this one last one, and I promise it's the last one, and then really just this one more tiny one, and I think I am not going to feel well tomorrow morning.

Friday, November 2, 2012

What Was, What Is, What Will Be—Part One

I was cleaning out my shed recently, going through piles of things that have been pushed from one corner to the other for years, until I finally got tired of tripping over them. I wasn't conscious of how long some of that stuff had been piling up until I started emptying out a box full of odds and ends and found a copy of the Boston Globe from August 22, 2001, before I even lived in my current house. I imagine this box came from some obscure corner of the garage in the old house and got tossed into the moving van at the last minute, then was tossed into some equally obscure corner of the new house and just sort of shifted around over the years without anyone ever looking to see what's in it. I'm bad about that sort of thing. I'm not a hoarder, but I am kind of an accumulator.

That paper looked like it had never even been read, curiously enough. The edges were a bit ragged, like they had been gradually harvested by mice for nesting material, but all of the sections were still there, just as they had been delivered over a decade ago.

I enjoy looking at old newspapers, seeing what the important stories of the day were years ago, thinking about what was happening in my own life at the time. This one from late August 2001 was an interesting find for a lot of reasons. It represented a time of major changes for me personally, and imminent changes for the country as a whole. Glancing at the date on that front page, I found myself immediately lost in contemplation of the events that had transpired in the year leading up to the date of that paper.

In August of 2000, I returned to the US after more than a decade living the expatriate life in Germany, along with My Favorite Wife and two young kids. It was the height of the dot-com boom and I was taking a job with an Internet consulting company in Boston. I'll call it XYZ Corp. XYZ provided soup-to-nuts Internet strategy and technology consulting. They had a whole list of top-tier Fortune 500 clients as well as a bunch of fairly well-known dot-coms, and a huge wad of venture capital funding, and it looked like a pretty reasonable proposition at the time I signed on. They offered me a decent salary, plus a relocation allowance that more than covered the cost of moving my family and all of our accumulated stuff across the Atlantic.

From the first day I was at XYZ though, I began having second thoughts. I had interesting projects with good clients. I had colleagues whom I found to be extremely creative and competent in their respective areas, whether it was visual design, technology implementation, business strategy development or whatever. But at the same time, I couldn't help but notice that there didn't seem to be any grown-ups in charge of all these smart and capable people.

Not to blow my own horn too loudly, but at the time I joined XYZ I had undergraduate and graduate business degrees and twelve years of pretty solid work experience under my belt, a third of it in a Big Eight consultancy (back in ancient times when there was such a thing…) and the rest in an international bank. I had run a department of 12–15 people and managed million-dollar budgets and project teams that were distributed across the globe. I had connections with peers in major corporations throughout the country and the world. I had to develop budgets and manage to them, hire and motivate staff and interact with people at fairly high levels of the company. I don't think I was even conscious of how much business experience I had accumulated until I worked at XYZ and observed how the company was being run.

To me, it looked our management was engaged in some kind of race to the bottom, in which the objective was to see who could shovel the most cash out the window before it all ran out. Crazy amounts of money were spent on stocking the kitchens on every floor of every building, from which employees could help themselves to unlimited quantities of cereal, soft drinks, cookies and other treats. There were pool tables and foosball tables and other toys. People who had been with the company for half a year had piles of company-branded clothing and trinkets. Food was ordered in for every lunch meeting, of which there were plenty. The building I worked in, which had been remodeled from industrial space at a cost of millions of dollars, was home to hundreds of office chairs, none of which had cost less than around $800. People flew at the drop of a hat all over the country for pointless meetings, staying in the finest hotels and eating in classy restaurants. Nobody seemed to notice that projects were staffed with way more people than could have possibly been profitable. Nobody seemed to know or care what a budget was. Clearly this was going to end in tears.

That's not to say that XYZ was necessarily run substantially differently than a lot of the "hot" companies of the time. I never really accepted the concept that seemed to be prevalent at some of the major dot-coms, namely, that giving things away is somehow a promising business model. I kept hearing phrases like, "It's about the eyeballs, man!", meaning that people looking at your web page would somehow translate into a large and constant stream of cash into your pocket, through some magic that nobody ever really satisfactorily explained to me. The epitome of this kind of thinking for me was a company called that operated in some larger US cities, from which you could order things like CDs or snacks and they would deliver it to you for free; I didn't see how a service that would cart a pack of gum halfway across New York City for free could possibly be making money, unless maybe they were charging you $10 for that pack of gum that was making its way to your door without any delivery charge. Hearing about this crazy scheme left me scratching my head and thinking that maybe the Internet joyride was approaching some kind of climax.

Of course, there was plenty of funny business going on throughout the economy back then; it wasn't confined to dot-com start-ups. I remember one meeting we had with representatives of Enron who were trying to sell some new technology service to one of our clients. I subsequently advised our client that what the Enron guys were peddling looked to me like some very expensive vaporware that could not possibly deliver the level of service they claimed it would, given the underlying technical infrastructure they described to me. Little did I know at the time that this was not some anomaly, but rather the way the whole company worked. It was not long after that that Enron spectacularly imploded.

It was fun while it lasted!

So end in tears it did. The first tears came in the spring of 2001, when a number of my coworkers came in one day to be met by security guards who stood over them while they packed up their personal stuff in a waiting cardboard box and then escorted them out the door, never to return. Following the exit of our now unwanted colleagues there was a company-wide meeting in which one of the company founders announced to the remainder of the now somewhat disoriented staff that we had to do an unavoidable "reduction in force" (RIF) in order to get leaner and be competitive, but the rest of us had nothing to worry about; we had been suffering a bit from the loss of clientele from the dot-com sector, but we still had lots of big projects with major clients from more traditional industries and this would shield us from the recent "downturn in the market", and so forth and so on blah blah blah. Later that day the same guy came to chat with the project team I was working with and asked a few of us if we wanted to join him in XYZ's VIP box in what was then the Fleet Center to watch the Bruins play hockey. I politely declined, thinking there is clearly a problem of priorities here and I don't really care to be part of that. I was reminded of the old saying that a fish stinks from the head down.

I think there were six or seven RIFs (or mass firings, as I preferred to call them) that followed in the ensuing months. The second one was somewhat less traumatic than the first, though not by much. By the fourth or fifth one a combination of resignation and gallows humor was the order of the day, and nobody seemed particularly surprised to come to work one day to learn that his number was finally up. People just sent a last farewell email with their private contact info, gathered up a few things and left. By then the company had long since dispensed with the whole security guard thing.

The first people to go were mostly the younger ones with the prominently displayed, ridiculously elaborate tattoos and the geek-as-fashion-icon horn-rimmed glasses. One could feel the median age and experience level of the company drifting steadily upward as the hipness quotient declined somewhat. But even if you were one of the older and more experienced consultants, if your latest project came to an end and you didn't have a new one to start on, i.e., you were "on the bench" in consultant-speak, the chance that you would be out the door fairly soon was high.

I would like to think that it was due to the indispensable quality of my own skills and experience, although I'm sure sheer dumb luck played a major role as well, but for whatever reason I somehow managed to hang on until the bitter end. That came when XYZ finally threw in the towel and declared bankruptcy in August of 2011. Even then I was actively engaged on a project for one of our remaining clients. It was entirely unclear what was going to happen next. I probably never got around to reading that August 22, 2001 edition of the Globe because I just had other things on my mind at the time, one of them being the fact that as my one year anniversary at XYZ approached, it was clear that there was not going to be a two-year anniversary.

But just like in the movies, when it looked like the situation had reached its most desperate, help arrived to save us. In this case the movie was Seven Samurai. Or more like Seven Sararimen, I guess.

We have come to save your company.

Let me explain. At some point senior XYZ management must have realized that if they were going to keep the party going, they were going to have to find some new dupes investors. Somehow they managed to get a major Japanese industrial company (I'll call them J Corp.) to take a minority stake in XYZ to the tune of an eight-figure investment. As XYZ went belly-up, J Corp. bought out the remaining assets of XYZ and founded a new, wholly owned subsidiary which I shall call Phoenix (because it rose from the ashes of XYZ… get it? Clever, huh?). So along with a little more than a hundred of what had been 800 employees in XYZ's Boston office at the time I joined, now I was a happy, or at least relieved, employee of Phoenix.

To be continued (whenever I get around to it)…

Sunday, October 21, 2012

I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

You thought it was 2012? Wrong! If you work for companies like Georgia Pacific (a subsidiary of Koch Industries), Westgate Resorts or ASG Software Associates, you just might be a coal miner living in a company town somewhere in Appalachia a hundred or so years ago. It seems that the Big Boss has certain preconditions for you to keep your job, and they don't end at just doing your job right. Nope, it's your duty to do everything in your power to ensure that Mitt wins the election, because if he doesn't, your next stop could very well be the dole.

It seems that all of the aforementioned companies have instructed their employees in one way or another—but all of them clearly and directly—that a vote for Obama is a vote for shrinking the company and maybe eliminating your job. Of course you shouldn't feel pressured or anything like that, because it's a free country after all, but you should sure consider what's in your own best interest when you step into that booth. You know, just some friendly advice from some of the wealthiest men in America, who always have your best interest at heart.

Besides, it's not like company management somehow cooked this up all on their own. It was Mitt's idea. All in a day's work for Forty-Seven Percent Man!

Hey, I told you I like to fire people… Now take a hike!

Out of Gas

I'm glad that election day is nearly upon us. I'd really like to get this thing over with. I can't take the suspense much longer. Or the campaign advertisements. My mind was made up long ago, so let's just get to it. I don't need another couple of weeks to figure out who should get my vote.

I'm sort of amazed that in the presidential race there are still supposedly large numbers of undecided voters out there. I don't see what there is at this point that anyone thinks he or she is going to learn about either candidate that we don't all know already. Interesting that the second presidential debate was built around undecided voters questioning the candidates directly.

I thought the range of topics covered by the questions was reasonable. Except for the one to Romney about how he is different from George W. Bush, they were the kinds of topics I would have expected. One question, though, really irritated me. It was this one: "Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?" It irritated me because it is symptomatic of an attitude toward energy use that shows that nearly forty years after the oil shock of 1973, we Americans still haven't learned a whole lot about energy policy. Our notion of energy policy still comes down to the price of a gallon of gas.

It's symptomatic of this foolishness that as the vital signs of his presidential campaign were growing fainter and fainter, Newt Gingrich decided to focus it on gas prices. Elect me, he said, and I will bring the price of gas down to $2.50 per gallon. I guess that's your proof that Gingrich is a historian and not an economist.

The Fool On His Errand

The honest, and proper, answer to that question would be this: "Yes, I agree with Secretary Chu. The price of gasoline is determined by supply and demand in the world market for petroleum. There is little that the president or the Department of Energy can do in the short run to influence either. In the longer term, we can pursue policies that encourage exploration and technological innovation that can increase the supply. If demand remains stable, that may bring prices down, but not necessarily, because as we extract oil from ever more difficult-to-reach sources, the cost of extracting that petroleum continues to rise, as does the environmental impact.

But we know that demand will not remain stable. As our own economy continues to recover, we know from history that domestic demand will rise. We also need to consider that the combined population of India and China is now about 2.6 billion people out of the world's total of around seven billion, and as those countries continue on a path of rapid development, we know that world petroleum demand is going to steadily increase, keeping pace with, and probably outpacing supply. Moreover, we know that the extraction, transport, refining and consumption of petroleum all take an enormous toll on our environment. And I should also note that a not inconsiderable part of our national defense budget is attributable to the need to ensure that Persian Gulf oil continues to flow unhindered to our shores.

With all this in mind, I believe it should be the policy of US government to raise gas prices, not to lower them. We should impose taxes that reflect the real cost of our continued dependance on oil as an energy source. That will give our citizens an incentive to conserve and our manufacturers of automobiles and home heating equipment an incentive to improve the efficiency of their products. That would be a much more market-oriented approach than trying to directly mandate efficiency standards such as we do with the CAFE standards for automobile gas mileage. Other industrialized countries follow this approach; gasoline taxes in France, Germany or Japan mean that consumers there pay significantly more for a gallon of gas than we do, but their per-capita petroleum consumption is also around half of our own, and nobody who has visited any of those places would seriously claim that their standard of living is lower than ours.

I understand that for some lower-income Americans, who have no alternative to driving in order to get to their jobs or to care for their families, any increase in the price of gasoline does represent a genuine hardship, and we need to address that. We can do so indirectly by using some of those increased tax revenues to make smart investments in public transportation where it makes sense to do so, and some of them to provide commuter mileage tax credits or other subsidies to lower-income Americans for whom public transportation is still not a realistic option.

Whatever happens, we need to recognize that focusing our national energy policy on keeping down the price of a gallon of gas is not the right answer for our country. We need to develop creative, market-driven policies to reduce our dependence on petroleum, especially petroleum that comes from some of the most politically unstable places on the planet, but also petroleum that is extracted in ways that represent a huge risk to the environment. It may be a very long time before we can fully wean ourselves from our dependence on petroleum as an energy source, but we need to start that process, and recognize that it is not a problem we can drill our way out of."

That's the answer I wanted to hear from Obama, but I didn't get it. At least in his answer, Obama did make a case for developing alternative energy sources along with the more traditional ones. Romney sort of paid lip service to that, but in the end, he also said, "I'll get America and North America energy-independent. I'll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses. We're going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline, I will never know. This is about bringing good jobs back for the middle class of America, and that's what I'm going to do."

And notice that line about "America and North America". I'm not sure what the difference is in Romney's mind. Romney likes to talk about North American energy, which is apparently Romnese for "energy from sources that are in North America but not in the US". That oil that's somehow going to usher in a new era of mass consumption is in Canada, not the US. In Romney's mind that may be "our" oil, but in reality that oil is going to go wherever it brings the best price. That may be to refineries in New Jersey or Texas or California. It may also be to customers in Shanghai or Mumbai. That's just how markets work.

For a guy who likes to go on and on about his successful career in business, market economics somehow doesn't seem to be Romney's strong suit. You'd think he'd really know better than to point out that at the beginning of Obama's term, gas was selling for less than $2 per gallon. "It's because the economy was in the toilet!", I found myself screaming at the TV (I'm not normally one for screaming at the TV—that function is normally performed by My Favorite Wife, when she watches the German national team in some soccer match). So there's that old supply-and-demand thing again. I'm glad that Obama made exactly the same point (though he didn't use the word "toilet").

When he moves a few more inches to the left, I pounce!

Romney's peculiar notions about economics, and mathematics, are also apparent in his tax proposals. I was glad to see Obama being a little more articulate this time around in dissecting Romney's plans for mending the budget. For my money, neither candidate has put a credible plan on the table. But Romney's plans to substantially reduce tax rates, vastly increase defense spending and pay for it all by closing some as-yet unspecified loopholes is simply insulting; it's Romney's "read my lips, no new taxes" moment. Don't take my word for it, ask the Tax Policy Center.

Hey Dad! Kind of reminds you of your tax policy, doesn't it?

The one area in which Romney sort of scored a point or two in my book was during the discussion of the attack on the consulate in Beghazi. The undignified yes-I-did-no-you-didn't exchange regarding whether and when Obama uttered the magic words "act of terror" that was clarified in Obama's favor by narrator Candy Crowley made Romney look a little ridiculous, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of very confused and contradictory information was (and continues to be) disseminated about what happened. Sure, Obama did use those words in his Rose Garden statement the day after the attack, but in his statement he also connected "efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others" to "this type of senseless violence", i.e., he was putting events in Benghazi in the same category as riots that resulted from the insulting (and just plain stupid) film about the prophet Mohammed that had appeared on the Internet shortly before (something I commented on ranted about previously).
Did so! Did not! Did so! Did not! Did… Moooommmmmm!

But the real issue, that of whether this attack on the Benghazi consulate could/should have been foreseen and prevented, still does not have any satisfactory answer from Obama. I find it sort of curious that Romney chose not to drill down on that, but instead preferred to split hairs over whether or not the president called it an "act of terror". I also reject his assertion that "this calls into question the president's whole policy in the Middle East"; to conflate this potentially preventable tragedy with what is happening in Syria or Iran, as Romney went on to do, is just incoherent and stupid.

It's too bad that with so much at stake in this election, the most memorable thing from this debate seems to be the "binders full of women" quote. Apart from the awkward peculiarity of the expression itself, it turns out to be yet another application of the Romney/Ryan facts-don't-matter approach. The source of the binder (not "binders") in question, the non-partisan group MassGAP, has made it clear that it was not Romney who reached out to them to recruit potential candidates; on the contrary, MassGAP provided the information to all of the gubernatorial candidates prior to the election.

Tonight's Bedtime Story: Mitt and the Terrible, Horrible,
No Good,Very Bad Debate

So now we're down to one last presidential debate. I'll be glad when that's behind us. It's all about foreign policy. I hope that the niveau of the discussion is going to rise above, "I got Bin Laden!" "You always apologize for America!"
Meanwhile, let's check in on what the VP candidates have been up to while their bosses have been duking it out on stage. It turns out that Joe Biden can read babies' minds! He demonstrated this neat trick recently at a campaign rally.

Paul Ryan is staying fit on the campaign trail! Apparently these pictures published in Time Magazine were actually shot some time ago, but I find them immensely inspiring. Congressman Ryan's own little Rocky montage!

Wants To Be Vice President—Doesn't Know How To Operate A Hat

The congressman is also apparently feeling himself drawn back to his fictional working class roots (we previously reported). He recently turned up at a St. Vincent De Paul Society soup kitchen in Youngstown, OH with his family and photographers in tow and proceeded to waste everyone's time with an unwanted and unneeded demonstration of his dishwashing prowess. Apparently the only lasting effect of this little stunt is that some of the organization's donors have pulled their funding because it is supposed to be strictly apolitical. Gee, Paul! I'll bet there are a lot of poor people in Youngstown who are grateful for your terrific charity work!

Dishwatergate Conspirators

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One Big Happy Biblical Family

I came across an interesting story today as I was perusing my usual news sources. You may have heard of Dan Cathy, president of the Chick-fil-A fast food chain and funder of Christian organizations with anti-gay policies. There was something of a brouhaha in the media over the summer as the result of an interview with the Baptist Press in which he talked about the Christian underpinnings of his company's management style and made statements like, "We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit." Gay rights activists took that as a signal to call for a boycott of Chick-fil-A restaurants and stage a "national same-sex kiss day at Chick-fil-A". 

I didn't really pay much attention to the whole thing, not in the least because Chick-fil-A restaurants are few and far between here in New England, so whatever nonsense their president may be up to doesn't register so strongly with me. I probably wouldn't patronize their restaurants if I did come across one, partly because I am now aware of, and disagree with, the anti-gay stance of their management, but also because I just don't care much for fast food restaurants and generally only eat in them on rare occasions when I find myself someplace like an airport or a highway rest stop and don't have anything else to choose from if I need to eat. 

But I was reminded of the whole thing today when I came across this story about Dan Cathy giving his first interview since the controversy erupted. He evaded questions about the topic per se, but did reiterate that, "Families are very important to our country… and they're very important to those of us who are concerned about being able to hang on to our heritage. We support biblical families, and they've always been a part of that."

So what exactly is this "biblical family" that Dan is always on about? I can hardly claim to be a bible scholar, but I have read it, and I can't think of any passages that explicitly lay out a blueprint for what a family is supposed to look like. I guess that leaves us to look for examples of families in the bible and live as they did. The only families I can think of off the top of my head that are discussed at any length are in the book of Genesis—Adam and Eve, Noah and his sons and, of course, the patriarchs.

Among the patriarchs is Jacob. Remember Jacob? He's the guy who had six sons with his wife Leah, two more sons with his other wife (and Leah's sister) Rachel, and another two sons each with Zilpah and Bilhah, the "handmaids" of Leah and Rachel. One big happy family! Jacob and his mates and their progeny aren't exactly obscure, minor figures in the Old Testament—they're pretty central to the whole narrative, with their saga taking up a couple dozen chapters of Genesis. From this I guess I can deduce that the Jacobean model is at least one acceptable version of a "biblical family"; it's all right there in black and white, without any kind of warnings or "don't try this at home" disclaimers. On the contrary, the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel, so clearly the Big Man in the Sky was cool with the whole arrangement.

Family Outings of the Patriarch

So am I now to conclude that Dan Cathy thinks it's OK for me to have two wives plus two semi-wives? Somehow I don't think that's what Dan had in mind, but it is right there in Genesis. It just goes to show that before you go waving the bible around as the operations manual for how we should all live, you should probably read what's in it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Idiot Cycle

Here comes another unnecessarily long and rambling essay on current events. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I am observing the current anti-American protests in the Middle East with a mixture of disgust and resignation. It wasn't very long ago that I watched with some amazement as the "Arab Spring" swept away one dictator after another. I was a little skeptical about where that would all end up, but on balance, hearing the words of those who were at the heads of the protests that later turned into revolutions, on balance I was encouraged to believe that a certain degree of modernity and enlightenment would characterize whatever came next.

Well… maybe not. I have railed on more than once in these electronic pages about the armies of the militantly ignorant who comprise a certain segment of our own nation, the ones whose extremist, chauvinistic interpretation of their religion, combined with crazy, paranoid notions about political conspiracies, enables them to deny even the most obvious facts that are not cognate with their worldview. But for the most part, their impact on the rest of us exhausts itself largely in voting for all the wrong policies for all the wrong reasons (in my view anyway). With very few exceptions, they generally don't turn violent. We have so far not seen mobs of right-wing Christian fundamentalists responding to the teaching of evolution in schools, or the "war on Christmas", or even South Park's sacrilegious depictions of Jesus by taking their grievances to the street in a smashing, burning, murdering rage.

But these days in North Africa, and increasingly in other places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia or Indonesia, we are seeing just that sort of thing happening in response to a stupid film. In fact, it's not even a whole film, it's just a poorly edited "trailer" of a film with the peculiar tile The Innocence of Muslims that apparently few people if any have ever seen in its full length. I'm not going to link to it here, since it seems to be one of those things that is regularly  posted on YouTube, taken down, and then reposted under a different URL, so any link I publish here may be obsolete by the time you read this—just go to YouTube and search for it. You can also find it (if the link is still valid) on this page from The Atlantic that gives a chronology of events leading up to the current violence. 

The film (or trailer) is undeniably gratuitously insulting to Muslims, depicting the prophet Mohammed as a lecherous, greedy, murderous pervert. But it's also hilariously badly made and it's absurd to think that without its current news-related notoriety, more than a handful of people would even be aware of its existence. But clearly there is no shortage of backward, ignorant people in the Muslim world who are ready to go on a murderous rampage over even the rumor that their religion has somehow been insulted. Now, I know all about the colonial history of the region, and I know that American concepts of free speech are foreign to these people, and I know that their religion is an integral part of their lives and culture, and I know I'm applying my western notions of morality to a non-western culture, and all those other politically correct reasons why I should be somehow understanding and tolerant of the current violence. But dammit, they're burning and killing and destroying over a stupid movie, which I am sure that 99% of the people involved in the rioting have never seen anyway. A few years ago we saw the same thing happening over cartoons, fer crissakes. How can this be excused by any standard? It can only be condemned.

Dividends of the Revolution

But this cannot be condemned without also taking into account that as primitive as the response may be, it's still a response to a deliberate and targeted provocation. The film itself was reportedly made by one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Coptic Christian (and convicted felon) who lives in the US. From there, it was picked up by another US-resident Egyptian Copt named Morris Sadek and posted with an Arabic translation on YouTube. Sadek apparently alerted various Egyptian jounalists to the post, while at the same time our old friend Terry Jones, the infamous Koran-burning fundamentalist pastor, attempted (pretty unsuccessfully) to promote the film in the US. These guys all set out with nothing more on their minds than to provoke Muslims. 

Nakoula and Sadek surely knew that if they could get Egyptian Muslims to somehow become aware of their film, the response would be something along the lines of what we are seeing now. (Eventually they did find the conduit they were looking for, an Egyptian TV pundit who, as part of his own twisted agenda, broadcast part of the trailer and set in motion the events we are now following.) They are no better than the rioting mobs. Say what you will about freedom of speech, there's no doubt in my mind that they have blood on their hands. As far as I'm concerned, to argue otherwise would be akin to saying, "It's not my fault that someone left that powder keg lying around. I just lit the fuse."

What we have is an entire cycle of idiots, all feeding off each other in a kind of perverse symbiosis. We have the idiot who invested time and money in this deliberately insulting piece of trash; the idiots who translated and promoted it; the idiots who communicated its existence to a wider audience and then the multitude of idiots who reacted with violence. The idiots at the beginning of the chain, or others like them, will take the response of the mob as justification to retaliate by generating the next provocation. And thus will the cycle continue.

Sowing the Wind

What will break the cycle? The best place to be start would be with the idiots at the beginning of it. But I'm pessimistic here. Publicity-hungry provocateurs like Terry Jones are the tip of the iceberg in this country; below the surface lies a vast mass of people who are not activists but who have bought into the whole Muslims-want-to-take-over-our-whole-society paranoia machine. Yes, I know that Muslims really did kill thousands of people on 9-11-01 on what they considered to be a specifically Muslim holy mission. But to believe that all Muslims in this country are part of some kind of secret conspiracy to subvert our way of life, introduce Sharia law and eventually take over completely—well, it reminds me of some darker periods in the history of my own tribe that were the result of similar thinking.

Reaping the Whirlwind

There is a whole Muslim-bashing industry that seems to be growing up in this country. Maybe I'm the one who is out of step when I'm  shocked to read about something like Pat Robertson's suggestion to a caller to his TV show that he become a Muslim so he can beat his wife. It's not the words themselves that shock me; it's the way that ol' Pat can feel comfortable making a casual joke like this on TV. This was a guy who wanted to be president, remember? As in president of the whole USA, not just the evangelical Christian part. With a sense of humor like this, I'm sure that Pat would have felt perfectly at home in Berlin in 1938.

Given that the idiots at the beginning of the cycle seem to have at least some constituency for their views within the larger population, I don't think that just asking them nicely to knock it off is going to make a difference, even if the request comes from someone like Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I am sure that the First Amendment precludes any sort of prosecution. So here's my suggestion: let's take up a collection. Let's collect enough money to send Nakoula, Sadek, Jones and a few of their pals on a world tour to promote their film. They can hold screenings and then take questions from the audience. The tour will start in Rabat and continue eastward through Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Amman, Baghdad, Riyadh, Karachi, Kabul… Armed with the courage of their convictions, let them take their case directly to the people they have their beef with and leave the rest of us out of it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pants On Fire

I have, to a large extent, stopped reading political blogs lately, and haven't posted any commentary of my own in some time either. To a large degree it's the result of being in another one of those phases in which I spend so much time every day hacking away at a keyboard on the job that the idea of doing that as a leisure activity loses its appeal. But it's also in no small part due to a general state of disgust and despair as I watch the current presidential campaign unfold. It's on my mind enough as it is, and reading and writing about it just leaves me that much more aggravated. Lies and more lies.

I realize that wild exaggeration and selective presentation of the facts to demonize the opposing side is a standard feature of any modern American political campaign. Having lived through numerous local and national elections while living in Europe for more than a decade, I will say I'm embarrassed by the infantile niveau of most American campaigns. I can personally attest to the fact that there are at least some places in the world in which candidates for high office have to make and defend actual policy proposals. They can't win merely by outspending their opponents on shrill television adds featuring scary music and menacing narration detailing all the ways that the opposing candidate will surely bring about the doom of the nation. In part that's because they have mainstream journalists who understand that passing scurrilous political assertions on to their readers and viewers, unfiltered and unchallenged, is poor journalism and not journalistic neutrality. They also have actual rules about how much candidates can spend and how they can spend it. But like it or not, I'm at least resigned to the fact that here in the land of my birth, elections from the local to the national level can be won by just shouting the loudest and spending the most. That's just how we do it here in the Beacon of Democracy™. USA! USA! USA!

Anyone who knows me personally, along with the two or three people who don't but occasionally read my impotent rantings here, knows where my political sympathies lie. Still, I would like to be fair. I'd like to be able to convince myself that both sides are equally dishonest and sleazy and it makes no difference who gets into office and how. Maybe then I wouldn't have to work myself up into such a lather for the duration of every election season. I could just tune the whole thing out. "A pox on both your houses!", I would gleefully shout, as I went skipping off to my cabin in the wilderness to raise my cabbage and asparagus. I've tried… I look at web sites like to see where either side is trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I find articles like this one that clearly document that both the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns have made plenty of assertions that that are misleading or inaccurate. 

Still, and maybe this is just my underlying political leanings talking (full disclosure), it sure looks to me like both parties are guilty of the sins of quoting their opponent's statements out of context, playing games with statistics or selectively exaggerating some facts while downplaying others, but the Republicans win hands down when it comes to just plain making stuff up. They're aided and abetted by the unwillingness of journalists to press those who profess obviously invented "facts" to supply evidence for such claims or to simply call them out on statements that are patently false. I despair to think that a substantial part of the electorate is so ill-informed and so devoid of any capacity for critical thinking—and so utterly clueless about where their own naked self-interest lies—that the tactic of just "making stuff up" is likely to be a powerful one in the coming presidential election.

Add to that the fact that we now live in an environment in which vast sums of money can be funneled through super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations to spread any kind of B.S. on an unprecedented scale. The people who have the kind of money that finances those kinds of efforts tilt lopsidedly in favor of Republican policies; that's not surprising, since they stand to benefit the most from them. At the same time, the Democratic incumbent is extremely hesitant to even get mixed up with the super PACs; in my book that's commendable, but I don't know that I want to see Barack Obama stand on principle and lose the election (see this article in The New Yorker for a pretty interesting analysis of that situation). It looks less and less like this election is going to be fought on that proverbial level playing field. But even beyond this election, in the wake of the Citizens United decision all signs point to a reshaping of the political system into a pay-for-play model that can't possibly be good for the future of American democracy. I don't relish the thought of living in the world's most powerful banana republic.

The more overt instances of the Republican presidential team's invention of an alternate universe are well documented. There's Romney's repeated claim that Obama began his presidency with an "apology tour", something he loves to repeat even though that claim has been roundly refuted. The most famous example would probably be Paul Ryan's acceptance speech for the vice-presidential nomination. Thankfully, that's been extensively discussed in the media, so I won't go into that here, but you're welcome to refresh your memory with this article. But there are other examples, such as Ryan's (discredited) claim to have run a marathon in under three hours or (strongly questioned) report that he climbed 38 of the highest mountains in Colorado. Where does this stuff come from? I'd like to say that it's intentional lying intended to bolster his image as a macho outdoorsman to play to the working-man faction of the party. But it actually comes across to me more as just a casual but pervasive disregard for the facts, which I find much more insidious. If the biography you have isn't good enough, you can just enhance it with a few embellishments here and there—who's ever going to notice?

No, seriously! I swear it's this big!

Ryan wants to enhance his biography in other ways. From his nomination acceptance speech"Now when I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey, where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happen as for myself. That is what we do in this country. That is the American dream." Apparently he is rather fond of this theme; this article about one of his other campaign speeches quotes a variation of it in which he adds de-tasseling corn and painting houses to his resume. Quite the young entrepreneur, our Paul! I guess these tales of working minimum wage jobs for pocket money are supposed to tell us a lot about the character of Mr. Ryan, how he worked his way up from being a lowly dishwasher to become a candidate for high national office. These stories of course ignore the fact that he came from a reasonably affluent family and never actually had to live off any of those low-wage jobs, and that after high school he went to college, and after college basically became a career politician who pushes policies that are anything but in the interest of the working man. It's an insult to someone such as myself who, though moderately successful now (thanks to an affordable public university education), actually did spend a few years of my youth supporting myself from low-wage jobs without drawing from that the conclusion that in life it should be every man for himself and if you're poor it's your own damned fault.

Of course, when it comes to defining and re-defining oneself, Ryan can take an example from his perhaps future boss Mitt. Mitt, who, as quoted here, a decade before was telling us, "I think people recognize that I am not a partisan Republican. That I'm someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive." Mitt, who was a driving force behind the Massachusetts healthcare law that was more or less a model for "Obamacare", an achievement that he has been trying to run away from ever since. Mitt, who has mutated into a "severe conservative".

Today's Lesson in Quantum Physics

I'm going to let you in on a very dark secret here. I voted for Mitt Romney when he ran for governor of our fair Commonwealth back in 2002. Yes, your dear Charlie, the bleeding-heart, tax-and-spend liberal, has occasionally voted Republican. Back then it was a clear choice for me; Romney appeared far more qualified for the job to me than his Democratic challenger, Shannon O'Brien, whose campaign seemed to consist mainly of silly personal attacks on Romney without any clear ideas of her own on offer. And I have to say that in some respects I wasn't disappointed; that aforementioned healthcare law was put in place by finding common ground with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, and I think that by and large it's been a success that the majority of people here are fairly satisfied with—including the "personal mandate" to purchase insurance. The one thing that really irked me after a while was that for the last two years or so of his term he seemed to have just sort of lost interest in being governor and was putting all of his energy into chasing the 2008 presidential nomination.

During the primaries for this year's Republican nomination, I thought Romney stood out among his challengers as the only one who, with the exception of Jon Huntsman (whose terminal integrity quickly eliminated him from serious consideration by the party faithful), didn't come across as a dangerous nut. It became clear fairly early on that he was going to be the nominee. I had no intention whatsoever of voting Republican, but thought that in a worst-case scenario, if Romney were to beat Obama, it would not be a complete disaster because Romney is, above all, a pragmatist and not an ideologue; he may say anything to get elected, but presumably once in the White House, he would moderate his rhetoric and reach across the aisle and maybe get something useful done, with his time as governor of Massachusetts as a precedent.

Now I'm not so sure; his rhetorical transformation from reasonable moderate to "severe conservative" has been so complete that I would be pretty apprehensive about seeing him elected, because I just have no idea what he might actually do. Take his tax policies: we know he wants to cut a number of tax deductions, but we won't find out which ones he has in mind until after the election. No doubt he will want to receive a second term, which guarantees that for at least the first term he may feel obligated to make all kinds of dangerous concessions to the wingnut faction of his party. I was glad to see him pick Ryan as his running mate, because it really draws a stark contrast and a clear choice between two candidates, two political philosophies, two world views. But the thought of Romney and Ryan in the White House doesn't exactly help me to sleep at night.

In the meantime, Romney will supplement his revised biography with fairy tales about how great things will be when he is president. A recent example: energy independence by 2020. We're going to drill so much that "[w]e're not going to have to buy oil from the Middle East, Venezuela, or any other place we don't want to… We may even be an exporter of energy, considering all our resources." What's wrong with this picture? Well, I confess that I haven't done extensive research into the numbers, but for starters, that's a lot of oil and gas wells. Assuming it's even there, it will probably take a lot more than eight years to bring all that capacity online. So apparently Mitt thinks that while he is doing away with all of the regulations that would need to be eliminated to even begin to achieve what he is proposing (something that I guess will somehow happen overnight), he is going to get rid of the laws of physics as well. 

Another consideration is that demand for energy is growing substantially as economies like those of India and China expand, and all that oil isn't "America's oil", it's Exxon's oil, and BP's oil, and Chevron's oil. If they can get a better price for it in India or China, that's where it will go. That's of course unless we decide to slap export tariffs or other restrictions on energy exports to other countries, but that's hardly compatible with Republican free-market ideology. So in the end this is not a serious proposal, it's just another fantasy being sold to a gullible public, like so many other ideas he has promulgated during the campaign.

Romney/Ryan Campaign Theme Song: My Nomination

Friday, June 29, 2012

A Voyage to the Exotic East

The one-year anniversary of my trip to India is approaching, so I guess I should haul this half-finished post out from under the couch cushions it seems to have gotten lost under for the better part of a year and finally finish it. I'm glad I unexpectedly found it in there, along with the loose change and the icky old hairbrush. I really should vacuum that out more often.

So here's the story. The consulting company I work for has an office in Pune, India. During the approximately two years I'd been with the company at the time of my trip, there were many people in Pune with whom I'd emailed and spoken on the phone, in some cases on an almost daily basis, but never actually met face-to-face, save for the few who have occasionally come to the US for management-level meetings or to work on a project. Periodically I contemplate what a weird facet of modern life it is to have this close and longstanding working relationship with so many people while not having the faintest idea of what they might actually look like.

Back in the 1990's I worked for a large international bank, where I managed engineering and maintenance of various IT security systems. That also necessitated a lot of cross-border interaction by phone and email. To promote collaboration I would occasionally take trips to some of the international offices to meet people in person. Sometimes my counterparts and I would coordinate a week-long meeting of people from the various global offices in some single location. Since we were spending company money to do this, there was always an agenda of dull presentations and discussions during the day, but the real value of the event was just hanging out together in the evening and getting to know each other, usually while consuming significant quantities of adult refreshments (something for which my British colleagues generally displayed a particularly outstanding proficiency). With this in mind, I agreed with my present boss that it would be a good idea to finally visit the Pune office and meet everyone in person.

Apart from that, over the past decade I have worked with so many people from India that I've had a general curiosity just to see what things look like there and to get a sense of what life is like where they come from. Also, I really like Indian food.

Curiosity notwithstanding, I was kind of apprehensive at the same time. For one thing, it makes no sense to make a long trip like that in anything less than a week, and I knew that while I was gone, it would be hard to maintain contact with the clients and project teams I'm responsible for here in the US. No doubt I would end up working a lot of long hours after my return to catch up again. Also, it would be likely that at least part of my travel would have to happen on a weekend, and those limited free days I have during the week are extremely precious to me. And then there was the matter of the travel itself; back in my banking days, I could fly business class on international trips, but those days are long gone. Nowadays I have to fly coach everywhere, and even a flight of a couple hours in length can be torture, so the thought of a 14–15 hour flight in each direction to Mumbai and back (Mumbai being the closest international airport to Pune) left me in a state of profound dread.

But anyway, it came to pass that I finally set a date. This was not done without some deliberation, because, at least if you are traveling from the Land of the FreeTM, you don't just hop on a plane and go there. First, you have to have a visa. Interestingly, to get a visa for India, you don't go to the nearest Indian consulate because, irony of ironies, they have outsourced that process (to a company called Travisa which, incidentally, processed everything fairly quickly and efficiently). Second, you have to get a bunch of immunizations for things like yellow fever that are pretty unusual here but not so uncommon there. The doctor who gave me the shots (a whole bunch in each arm, all at once, leaving me feeling like a pincushion) also gave me a prescription for anitbiotics to take before, during and after the trip as prophylaxis against malaria, plus some extra-powerful antibiotics which I was to take in case of a prolonged episode of severe diarrhea. The curious thing about the latter pills is that the bottle came with a warning sticker to admonish me that a possible side effect is—guess what?—severe diarrhea. There's something to ponder.

I ended up taking the trip when I did after I., a colleague who is the other senior project manager in the US operation and had been with the company even longer, mentioned that he was way overdue to finally visit the Pune office for the first time and was probably going to go at the same time that R., our company CEO, was planning to make one of his quarterly visits. I suggested that we make the trip together and, having heard about this, R. decided to ask T., a new PM, to make the trip as well and we would turn the week into a US-India company project management summit with a structured agenda. R. would already be in India when we got there, so I., T. and I would meet in Newark, NJ to take the same direct flight to Mumbai and back.

And thus did it come to pass that, armed with my visa and my drugs, I finally embarked on my trip. I can indeed confirm to you that 14 hours is a loooooong time to sit in an airline coach seat. I was lucky on the trip over insofar as I had a window seat and the middle seat was empty, so I had a little extra room and didn't have to engage in one of those subtle but determined battles with the person sitting next to me for control of the armrest.

The coach seats also featured individual video displays offering a pretty wide variety of different movies and TV show episodes. This was good, because I have an extremely hard time sleeping on planes. I didn't want to sleep anyway, because I was going to be arriving around 9 PM and I didn't want to get there so well-rested that I would be wide awake for much of the night. I think I watched four different feature-length movies that I probably would never have watched otherwise.

The only thing I was a little annoyed about was that the crew insisted that the passengers in the window seats keep their shades closed so that anyone who wanted to could sleep, as we would be in daylight for much of the trip. Given a choice, I pretty much always book a window seat on a day flight because I enjoy looking at the landscape. I periodically flaunted this ridiculous rule to see at least some of the sights. Among other things, I managed to get a fairly impressive view as we flew over Afghanistan; it was interesting to see high peaks separating valleys in which it looked like every usable bit of space had been carved up into agricultural plots.

Sitting there on that long flight, I had to think back to a time in the early 1980's when My Favorite Wife (at the time My Future Wife) was in Germany and I was in the US as we completed our respective university studies. During the summer and the winter break I would visit her by taking direct flights between San Francisco and Frankfurt which, if I recall correctly, were also a good 12–13 hours in duration. That was back in the days before personal entertainment systems, before laptop computers and before iPods. I can't remember if the Walkman was around yet, but I didn't own one if it was. In those days, if you were lucky, you might be close enough to one of the few video monitors to be able to discern what was going on in the one movie that would be shown. So relatively speaking, I felt pretty pampered in the entertainment department on this flight, although I think the legroom was slightly (slightly!) more generous back then.

Arriving—finally!—in Mumbai, my colleagues and I went through immigration, collected our baggage, passed through customs, changed some money and set off to meet our destiny. As we exited the secure arrival area, we found ourselves in kind of a large corral-like area that was ringed with metal barriers, over which the drivers from various limousine and car services had hung little tablets bearing the names of the people for whom each driver was waiting. We searched among the 70 or 80 such tablets for our own names, as arrangements had been made for a driver to pick us up at the airport and bring us to the hotel in Mumbai where we were to spend the night before heading out to Pune the following morning.

Before long we located what turned out to be two drivers who were waiting for us. The drivers insisted on labeling our luggage with little tags bearing our respective names and giving us corresponding receipts. There was immediate confusion, as the drivers couldn't quite understand which one of us was Mr. Charlie, Mr. I. and Mr. T. Finally this operation was completed, though. Then, before getting into the car, one of the drivers opened up a little ice chest he had in the trunk of his car and, with a flourish, asked us if we would like a Diet Coke. This was done with such ceremony and enthusiasm that I had to say yes, even though I have an intense dislike for the weird metallic aftertaste of diet sodas.

I started to open my complimentary beverage, but then I remembered something about which I had been admonished repeatedly by seasoned India travelers in preparation for my trip. The contents of that can of soda were almost certainly safe to drink, but where had it been before I took possession of it? In our driver's cooler, of course, swimming in partially melted ice. And with what water had that ice been made? Better not to put my lips on the outside of that can. I stuck it into my laptop bag, which the drivers had not succeeded in wrenching from my hands, and got into the car. My two colleagues got into the other one of the two cars that had come to collect us.

The driver was a nice guy who engaged me in conversation throughout the short trip to the hotel. Where was I from, he wanted to know. "Boston", I told him. "Ah, Boston," he said, with a touch of longing in his voice. "You know Boston?" I asked. He told me he had never been there, but from driving American visitors around, he knows about all of the major US cities—Boston, New York, Orange County, Texas…

That trip from the airport to the hotel was my first experience with driving in India. As in the UK, Indians drive on the left side of the road rather than on the right, as we do in the US; that was already a little disconcerting. The traffic was heavy, even though it was around 11 PM, and we seemed to be driving down one (sort of) paved road after another in what looked to be a gigantic construction site; apparently the Mumbai Airport is building some kind of elevated railway through its entire site, which is enormous. From what I could tell during that first short trip, the only traffic law they have there is the law of the jungle. More on this later.

We got to the hotel and attempted to collect our baggage from the cars, but the drivers would not have it, insisting on carrying the bags into the hotel for us. I hate this kind of thing; I feel very uncomfortable being pampered in any way. Maybe it's my American ethic of self-sufficiency on the frontier, or maybe it's just my liberal guilt, but I can't stand the idea of someone carrying my lugagge for me. The Young Master would probably say it's just because his father is a cheapskate, which to some extent is true—in hotels, for example, I get a little irritated when some bellhop joker insists on putting my little suitcase, the same one I've already trundled behind me for miles through the airport, on a little cart that will travel from reception to my room on the third or fourth floor and then stands around expecting a tip for this utterly useless service. But world traveler that I am, I figured this is the way they do it here, so I'm not going to fight it.

Checking in was a long and complicated process. In the US I am accustomed to handing the person at the front desk a credit card and (sometimes) a driver's license, and it takes only a few minutes for them to locate my reservation, check me in and hand me my key card. (It's been a really long time since I was given an actual room key at a hotel instead of one of those credit card-sized key cards. The cards are more convenient, and no doubt more cost-effective for the hotel, but why do they always insist on giving me two key cards unless I specifically say I only want one?) In the last couple of years I stayed in hotels in Europe, check-in speed was comparable. But in this hotel I had to fill out a big form and sign or initial what seemed like an absurdly large number of places in the form. It took around fifteen minutes for the whole process. Rather than handing our key cards out to us, the lady at the front desk then insisted on accompanying our whole party of three to show us where our respective rooms were and open each door for us. I don't know, maybe to her we looked like a bunch of helpless yokels with no knowledge of modern door technology. I think it took a good 40–45 minutes from the time I walked up to the front desk until I was finally alone in my room.

It was a nice hotel that the company had reserved for us. Often when I first walk into my room in a nice place like that, the TV is already turned on and tuned to an information channel; it might have some kind of "Welcome Mr. Charlie" message on it, or it might be advertising the on-demand movies or maybe some local attraction or other. True to tradition, the TV in this room was on, but it was showing a shampoo commercial when I walked in. Then came another one, and then one for hair conditioner, and then another shampoo commercial, and then the cycle repeated. I wondered if  was tuned to The Shampoo Channel. Each commercial featured a model with a head of long, full hair that sort of waved and billowed in an obviously computer-animated sort of way. The commercials were slickly made but to the point of being kind of over-produced and just sort of weird, at least for my taste.

I Wish My Hair Could Do That

I was pretty puzzled about the shampoo connection, but then I went into my bathroom and saw that it was well-stocked with samples of many of the company's hair care products. That's when I noticed that the shampoo is manufactured by a company called ITC, which I guess is one of those conglomerates that is involved in just about every imaginable business, including operating the fancy hotel in which I was staying. An interesting application of cross-selling, I guess.

After turning off the TV, the next order of business was to take a shower, brush my teeth and hit the sack. This posed a potential problem that we here in the US don't normally consider: What about the water—will it hurt me? It looked fine coming out of the tap, but who knows what invisible creatures might be lurking in there, waiting to work their magic on my insides. I didn't want to begin my trip with a major intestinal event. I decided I would shower normally, taking care not to get any water in my mouth, then brush my teeth using bottled water.

Another thing I learned later in my stay is that you have to be careful with even the bottled water. To be more precise, you need to be certain that the seal on the bottle hasn't been broken, as it's not entirely uncommon, especially in tourist-class hotels, to be given bottled water that is just water from the tap that's been filled into a used plastic bottle.

Having survived the night, the next morning I went down to the breakfast room, met my traveling companions and then the colleagues from Pune who had been sent to collect us. We didn't go straight to Pune, though. First we had to go with our local colleagues to the office of some other company that had just installed the same line of office furniture that our company was thinking of buying for the new building that we would be moving into soon, so that they could see the stuff in action. I can assure you after this experience that looking at office furniture in India is just dull as looking at office furniture here at home.

The trip to Pune, once we got our stimulating office furniture viewing excursion behind us, was somewhat more exciting. As I was soon to discover, pretty much all driving in India is exciting. About the only rules I was able to discern were (1) drive on the left side of the road and (2) honk whenever you pass another car. Beyond that, it's every man for himself. The roads are populated with a colorful mix of cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, an occasional bicycle and a few random cows thrown in just to make it interesting. I didn't have a vantage point from which to get a wide shot of traffic, so here's a taste from someone else's YouTube video:

Don't Try This at Home

What doesn't come across in that one, though, is the unbelievable racket of traffic. I am often on conference calls with my Indian colleagues, and sometimes it's hard to understand them through the incessant honking of car horns in the background. I always assumed that they must be speaking to me from a conference room that's right next to a road and that they must have all the windows open. Once I got there I saw that no, they have always been calling from inside an interior room in a building that has a farily reasonable setback from the street; it's just always that loud, I guess. Here's a short snippet of video I shot during the drive between my hotel and the office, for illustration.

Driving Through the Wall of Sound

You will probably notice in the above videos that two-wheeled transportation is pretty prevalent. The cost of even a small car is beyond the reach of many middle-class Indians, but they can afford a motorcycle or scooter. It turns out that you can fit a lot more people onto a motorcycle than I previously would have thought possible. It's not at all unusual to see a family of four or five traveling on a single two-wheeled vehicle. Also, the traditional women's garment, the sari, is not exactly motorcycle-friendly, so you frequently see women riding side-saddle on the back of a motorbike. Helmets are of course optional for all concerned.

Biker Chicks of the Subcontinent

I did all my traveling in one form or another of four-wheeled transport. Most of the time I was in a taxi or a car hired by the company, but I went for a few rides with colleagues who had cars. I would not even consider driving on my own without a lot more acclimation to the local driving practices. But if I did ever have a car there, it would almost certainly have a little idol of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, on the dashboard. It's the Hindu equivalent of the St. Christopher medal or the plastic Jesus dashboard figurine I recall from my youth (I can't remember having seen either recently, but maybe it's because I live in godless Massachusetts). I don't think I was in any car during my visit that was not under the protection of the elephant man.
I Don't Care if it Rains or Freezes
Ganesha also has his own little shrine in the company office I visited. Coming from a country in which we bend over backwards to avoid any overtly religious symbols in the workplace, this was sort of a surprise, but I'll guess that over there it's pretty much standard practice to enlist the God of Success and Remover of Obstacles to help keep an eye on your business.

The Remover of Obstacles Will See You Now
While I was speaking with one of my Indian colleagues about how he spends his free time, he mentioned that among other things, he goes on little excursions with his kids to visit various temples and perform the associated rituals. He went on to philosophize more generally about how important it is to him that they grow up with the proper devotion to their religion, so that they will turn out to be good, upstanding people. What, with no Jesus? No Moses even? People I've spoken with back home about the various religious expressions I observed on my trip find them amusingly weird, in a "How can those people believe all that crazy nonsense?" sort of way. I won't say that I don't share that sense of bemusement to a certain degree, but then as a Hebrew-American, I grew up fairly accustomed to being surrounded by people who believe, with varying degrees of conviction, in systems of supernatural order considerably different than the one I was raised with, so it wasn't a totally unfamiliar experience.

To us westerners, the notion that saying prayers to a little statue while rubbing it with butter and spices, and offering it food and money, could be the way to achieve eternal salvation sounds pretty crazy. But then, here at home I live among a considerable number of people who will tell me, in all seriousness, that salvation is at least partially the product of periodically consuming wine and crackers that have been literally (not just symbolically) transformed into the blood and body of their deity of choice. The more devout members of my own tribe will lay out for me, in excruciating detail, why it is that I can separately consume cheese or a burger, but by order of the Almighty himself, under no circumstances may I eat a cheeseburger. As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to explaining how the universe works, we all have our own familiar brand of crazy, and treat it as the baseline from which to judge everyone else's chosen brand of crazy to be a bunch of crackpot foolishness.

It was fun to finally meet in person so many people I have emailed with or spoken to by phone but never actually seen. They all seemed really excited to have me and my other two colleagues there; many of them have been to the US for varying lengths of time, but it's not that often that anyone from the US side of the company comes over to spend any time with them. They extended a tremendous amount of hospitality, especially in the culinary department. We went to a lot of buffet-type restaurants where I got a chance to sample all kinds of good stuff. I like Indian food a lot, so this was one highlight of the trip for me.

While enjoying this culinary extravaganza, it was hard not to be conscious of being surrounded by people who would have been thrilled just to have the scraps off my plate. Not that there are usually any scraps left on my plate, having grown up under the influence of the "clean your plate, mister" philosophy, but you know what I mean. Hundreds of millions of India's approximately one billion people live in pretty severe poverty, and you don't have to look very far to find it. Just a block from my hotel there was a kind of shantytown built along an open drainage ditch in between some more middle-class apartment buildings; driving past it on the way to the company office, one of my colleagues expressed considerable shock at the sight of a half naked guy who was apparently "bathing" by scooping up the murky grey water in a pan as it flowed by and then pouring it over his head.

The same daily ride to the office took us by a traffic island sheltered under a sort of highway overpass, a space maybe twenty by thirty feet in size, which appeared to be the open-air camp of a clan of around twenty or so people of assorted ages. When traffic was slow, a group of three or four small children, a couple carrying infant siblings, would wander out from their camp and into the traffic, begging for food or money by hammering on the closed windows of the cars that were stuck there waiting for traffic to start moving again. You think you have problems? Don't tell me about it.

How the Other Half Lives
What a relief to finally be in the office, where the houseboy (a kind of company servant, or go-fer, apparently a standard fixture in many Indian offices—his name escapes me so I'll call him Rakesh) would greet us with a large bottle of cold water or, sometimes, a Diet Coke. After being there for a few days, I started to wonder about this Diet Coke business. Did I say I hate that stuff? It started with the one the driver offered me on the way out of the office. Then there was Rakesh with his frequent offers of Diet Coke. Also, one night when my two traveling companions and I ventured out on our own to get some food, the semi-upscale place we ended up in had no fizzy drinks of any kind on its menu save for—what else—Diet Coke. I eventually asked R., who has spent a considerable amount of time in India, why everyone wants me to have a Diet Coke. He just shrugged and said, "It's what they think white people like." It's interesting to be on the receiving end of a cultural stereotype when you're not used to it. On a similar note, it also took some persuasion to get Rakesh to bring us Indian food for lunch instead of the horrible stuff he was bringing in from the local Pizza Hut franchise.

The whole business of considering what to put in one's mouth and what not was probably the biggest challenge of the trip. One day we were going to have lunch brought in for a meeting and were asked by Rakesh what he should get for us. "Something that won't kill us", one of my American colleagues joked. We Yanks all laughed; the Indians in the room nodded knowingly. Several US-based Indian colleagues called or emailed us during the trip to ask whether anyone had gotten sick yet; this may have been out of concern for our welfare, but I'm guessing that they had money riding on who would be the first of us to experience a sudden and spectacular gastrointestinal meltdown in a meeting.

At one point I was speaking to one of my colleagues who had relocated back to India after having spent three or four years in the US. I asked him how long it took him to readjust to the water, expecting to hear that he had problems for maybe a couple of weeks. "Six months", he told me. I had that in the back of my mind when, on my last night in Pune, rather than using bottled water to wet my toothbrush I absentmindedly wet it under the running tap and then began brushing my teeth. I imagine my eyes were about as wide as a pie plate when I suddenly realized what I had done and began frantically rinsing my mouth with water from the bottle.

Besides that one colleague, I spoke to a few others who had been living in the US and then relocated back to India. Interestingly, none of them said it was because they thought they had a better quality of life in India; invariably it was because they needed to care for elderly parents or had other family obligations that made relocation unavoidable. Otherwise, they would have been more than happy to put down roots in the US.

Sadly, it is becoming harder for them to do that anyway. Since the banking crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession, it has gotten harder and harder for the company I work for to get any kind of visa to bring people over to work in the US. Now, the latent conservative in me says that's only right; we should be filling those jobs with unemployed American citizens and not Indian immigrants. But the fact is, in the case of our company at least, we have a hard time finding people with the specific skills and training needed to fill a lot of open positions, so if we don't get a visa to relocate one of the Indian staff to the US—where, I should add, they receive a market-rate US salary—that means a project that does not get sold, value that does not get generated, and taxes that do not get paid on the associated personal and company earnings. I could probably spend a couple of pages reflecting on the political conclusions to be drawn from that, but buried in there somewhere are some implications for both immigration and education policy that deserve consideration.

Being there also put the whole globalization discussion in a slightly different perspective for me. There are many in the US who worry that countries like India and China will somehow overtake us economically, draining our jobs through their massive populations and their cheap wages and rendering us irrelevant. I have never been to China, but after spending a short time in India I can say that yes, that is a dynamic and striving society, but it has quite a ways to go with respect to development. Poverty and disease remain widespread, corruption was a constant topic on the TV news I had on in my hotel, and much of the infrastructure I saw while I was there was in a pretty sorry state. At the same time, I know that our company is seeing a steady rise in the salaries we have to pay the Indian staff due to stiff competition for what are still limited skills sets, so while the wage differential between US and Indian salaries remains significant, that gap may be much less significant in the future. I don't want to generalize too much from spending a week in one small city, but I came away with an impression that while they may be eating our lunch someday, it won't be tomorrow or the day after.

And that's my story. I look forward to going back sometime when I can spend a little less time in offices and a little more time seeing the sights.