The End Times

We are at crossroads. Never before has history repeated itself as one can see looking at the world around us. More than ever before, there is growing distrust and unhappiness in the world around us. We are in the midst of the crumbling of an old world order where people were divided or encouraged to divide themselves in the name of caste color or religion. In today’s world, such divisions are starting to crumble. The proponents of the old world order look at it alarmingly and try to rescue what they were used to, but they know that the time is definitely up.

If you look at the narrative of the past, one can definitely see how religion was cleverly used whenever there was a major power in the world. When the British empire ruled the earth, they used a form of Christianity which the missionaries took around the world so that the colonised people did not become self aware. They were successful. Later on after the fall of Berlin Wall, the American empire having vanquished its only enemy, used Evangelism as a fast food tool, to conquer the masses into its own narrative. As the oil boomed, Saudi Arabia used similar techniques to effectively subjugate Iran, remove all the moderate narratives of Islam and replaced it with a hardcore, ultra-conservative Wahhabi inspired version. With the advent of the information technology revolution, these world views have been threatened severely.

Yet today, we are definitely at crossroads. Brexit, Trump and now the emerging alternative movements in Europe and elsewhere do threaten to return us to the dark chapters preceding the Second World War.

For example. remove the word jew and replace it with muslim  and as you revisit the chapters of the past, you can see where this narrative may potentially lead us. I am not hinting that Trump may be the next Hitler, to me he looks more like a protectionist. But I do fear that the real reincarnation of Hitler will emerge in Europe which by its location and history is at a dangerous precipice today.

There will definitely be an implosion. Which may be a good thing as the world would need to move on from centuries old definition of religion to a new modern era of spirituality. May be that is what the end of times may actually mean from the holy books.

Cover photo: Auschwitz

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It is more or less the same

Eight years ago, as the world welcomed the first Afro-American president, yours truly was one among the millions glued to their television set as the purported (as it feels now) dawn of a new era commenced in the United States. It was a momentous and a historic occasion. Ever since the United States heralded the world into a brutal and bloody recession, all eyes were on the new incoming president with the hopes that he would reverse the tide, bring the perpetrators who were the reason for this in the first place to justice, change the way we see the 21st century and so on. He made tall promises that he will get it done, differently and responsibly.  Eight years later as he bows down from the office, nothing has changed. The world has become a more dangerous place to live in, the gulf between the rich and poor have grown, the middle class has been crushed and the excesses of the 21st century have grown to alarming proportions. When he took office, he promised to change all these, including fixing Wall Street. He did nothing.  To clearly show how nothing really changed during the Obama presidency, it is interesting to note that the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) that directly contributed to the 2008 financial crisis has been reborn today as the bespoke tranche opportunity, the number of convictions in Wall Street fraud is one, and the national debt grew the largest (dollarwise) in his presidency at 7 trillion dollars.

Obama came to power on a platform that was based on change, hope and belief. Hence it is safe to state the following: Do not be fooled by the allusion that things have changed – they have not. They may get better eventually there is a pattern to this madness. Everyone would like to proclaim that they want change- change themselves (I have a slogan for the year- #unbecomeyourself), change their way of life, change their family, change their car etc. But do you think that anything changes? It is all but an illusion; a perception of change. Nothing changes for real- especially when it is hoisted upon artificially.

Then there is a natural pattern to things. The change that is foisted upon by the universe- sometimes gradually or sometimes disrupting. It is like the classic Aesop’s tale of the hare and tortoise. Humans yearning for change are like the hare. They start the race and sprint like the hare. Midway on seeing how far they have come with regards to everyone they have left behind (tortoise) – friends, family, circumstances, home etc., they just get complacent and go into a rut. Once they come out of that rut, they open their eyes and realize that the tortoise has reached the destination and patiently await their return. The defeated hare will again challenge the tortoise for another race at another day and place. However, the results don’t change.

I am a student of history. Nothing excites me more that reading history and drawing parallels with the exciting times that I currently live in. The founding fathers designed the United States of America in the shape and form of the values exhibited by the Roman Empire. The difference was the timely inclusion of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence where it was explicitly stated that the land of the free will grow and prosper based on the simple premise that-

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Did you know that Washington DC, the capital was built referring to the erstwhile Rome before it was ransacked by the barbarians? If the United States turns a blind eye to justice, equality and fairness, the fate of the erstwhile Roman Empire awaits it. Because that is all it takes for history to repeat again and for us to recollect later that- it was more or less the same!.

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A truthless world

​The other day while glancing through the website of my alma mater I chanced across a headline that read like this. ‘Trustworthy advice for a post-truth world’. It was an interesting headline one that made me think for sometime. 

Disruption is an act of nature. If you see the world around us, everything is in a state of constant and consistent change. As seconds combine to minutes, minutes combine to hours, hours to days, days to weeks and so on; with the passage of time, things change. It all seems natural and any change assisted by time is often considered to be lasting and right. However Mother Nature also has another trick up its sleeve – disruption. One that shakes up everything vigorously. It’s like being in a sudden winter storm, earthquake or for that matter an even worser natural calamity. It comes sans any warning and then jolts the living daylights out of you.

There is definitely a sense of anger and frustration in today’s world- one that is accentuated by political, economical and climatic turmoil. The recent election of Donald Trump has completely upended the world we know today on a larger scale. I remember in 2014, when Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, a Facebook friend remarked, ‘hope the Modi wave doesn’t become a tsunami’. With the pathetic condition of India at that time driven to its knees by scams and a deteriorating law and order situation, Modi’s election was the last straw for millions of Indians frustrated with the status quo.The verdict is still out on his election, yet with the recent demonetisation and surgical strikes, one can see a powerful leader determined to influence the destiny of the world’s most populous nation.

The election of Trump was entirely different. If Obama came to power as a retribution to the schmucks that drove us to the worst economic recession since the 30s, Trump’s election was a frustration from the  lack of/ or no tangible benefits from Obama’s two terms. Apart from the inflammatory statements made by Trump during the election campaign, both these ‘newbie’ politicians contested on a platform of disruption. Obama due to his tall talks of hope and positivity was a darling of the press, Trump strived on despair, bullying and had a contentious relationship with media. His election despite  relentless mudslinging by the media (which was the same in the case of Modi’s election) basically shredded the propriety of the fourth estate and made them weak. It was long overdue.

Now no one knows who is speaking the truth. Information is pounded at the poor citizens from various sources and no one speaks facts any more. It is easy to belittle or slime anyone’s character effortlessly in today’s world. It has become noisy and truthless. Is it a bad thing? No. It is during times such as these that one must truly discover oneself. Because somewhere in the noise, there is a ferocious battle between what is true and what is false. Truth will always last. It is the natural way of life. 

But it will take time.

Environmentally Correct

If the war on terror dominated the headlines in the beginning decade of this century, the issue of climate change will dominate for the foreseeable future.

Last week Alberta saw one of the worst forest fires that led to a massive evacuation of a town of nearly 80000 people. The unusually hot, dry spell of weather especially during the beginning of May provided good fodder to the fire now currently and aptly named ‘The Beast’. Being in the El Nino phase, the weather patterns have been changing in North America for the past couple of years. This warm phase should end and the cooler La Nina phase should commence soon. Nowadays ever since oil hit rock bottom prices and the growth of the oil and gas industry effectively stalled, there has been no mention of the eminent environmentalists that have been consistently dominating the headlines earlier when the prices were high. Leonardo DiCaprio won his Oscar, many of the environmentalists have either entered the polity or gone underground and so on.
Climate change has taken precedence with almost the entire world endorsing it and all doubters effectively silenced through aggressive marketing, relentless posturing and acts of intimidation etc. In a recent comedy show on Netflix, one of the supporting characters was remarking that ‘climate change is a way for Californians to sell books’. It is clear that the message of climate change has been accepted widely across the world and stringent climate rules and regulations are on its way that may affect the 21st century lifestyle that we have been accustomed to till date.
If the war on terror dominated the headlines in the beginning decade of this century, the issue of climate change will dominate for the foreseeable future. It will continue till a day when the people of this world will finally realize the true fact that climate changes consistently. The only difference here is the burgeoning population and the increased appetite towards materialism and the resulting consumerism. These factors has had an adverse impact on nature. Never before has the world’s population ballooned into such astronomic numbers and with the passage of time, the living conditions on earth will only deteriorate. Lack of clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink or hospitable conditions to work and live would make conditions hellish for a good majority of the population on this earth. The only solution would be to traverse the outer space and build space colonies and find newer worlds to live.
If the human life was meant to be a journey, may the journey to find newer worlds be the correct thing to do. I do think that climate change will be the inevitable trigger for that journey.

 

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We are all refugees

The refugee crisis in Europe is a stark reminder of human suffering. The picture of the young boy, Aylan Kurdi was startling not because he was not the first one to have died like that- infact over 2000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean fleeing the oppression of ISIS from Syria. However unfortunate it is, the world community would need to clearly define as to how it would take care of refugee problem, anytime it occurs in the world.

Refugees are a byproduct of calamity-man-made or natural. In today’s 21st century, nothing about of our lives can be said for certain. Whether it is being slaughtered by ISIS or forest fires burning your house and all your possessions down, calamities can be considered as thieves-they strike you at the worst time in your life and they carry away with them something that you treasure the most. It is a pity the Syrian people had a rough time for a long period in their history-first under a brutal dictatorship and now refugees in an unknown continent.

Everyone will have a perspective on this story-that the Europeans should shed all their prejudices and accept these refugees with loving arms. Except Germany, most of the countries are in a state of decline with the European Union acting as a glue to keep many of these quasi-failed states together. People calling for other developed countries like U.S and Canada to accept more refugees are missing the point that-is it the solution? These countries are already accepting more refugees per year that they can actually do.

What then is the solution? Since religion is the root cause to all these misery, no one would want to talk anything about it as there wouldn’t be no rational argument to be made about anything regarding it. I think the United Nations should urgently meet and discuss a lasting solution with all its member countries. In this 21st century with Internet and social media breaking apart all the barriers that separate us, a unified framework should be developed where people should be allowed to travel anywhere in this world provided they have the basic identification documents. Every human must have the right to apply for and work anywhere in this world. Every human should be allowed to co-exist with each and every one of his kind-peacefully. Nationalism must be defined in such a way where the citizens of each country must learn to accept other humans to their country and work together so that all nations of this world co-exist peacefully.

If you see the countless videos and pictures of these refugees, we can see the despair of having lost everything they had and running with the only thing they have left-their lives. Our sense of having any sense of worth in this world will only be when we can accept any other human being regardless of the colour, caste or creed. It is easier said than done as I am also sometimes susceptible to my own prejudices. But how can we allow a blind eye to this suffering and expect someone to take care of us when a similar calamity of this magnitude strikes us?

In one way we are all or will all be refugees at one time in our lives.

Image courtesy: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/02/us-europe-migrants-turkey-idUSKCN0R20IJ20150902

The Art of Questioning

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Albert Einstein

Among the many traits that I was known for from childhood, one that stood out was the unstoppable trait from my vocal cords asking ‘Sir, one question, please’. Traditionally in a school environment, the teachers asks questions to students based on an information-seeking model which relies on a predetermined subject taught by them. In my growing up years, I remember subjects such as biology, geography etc., where I simply crammed text books to get good grades in exams. The right answers in these subjects were praised and the wrong ones were corrected. Most of the time we were discouraged from articulating our thoughts. These subjects never struck an emotional chord with me and I never meandered even near them once high school was completed. However in some rare classes we had teachers who provoked us to articulate what we thought about the subject and why we thought differently.  We were encouraged to elaborate on our previous answers and ideas, and thus the process helped us to have conceptual knowledge. I still remember subjects like maths, computer science, physics and chemistry to this day because of this approach taken by those teachers that taught them. The fact that I chose my profession as a Process Engineer bears strong testament to the questioning method permitted by the second approach.

Questioning is rarely encouraged and generally frowned in organized communities including religious societies even though the religious texts do sometimes encourage questioning. Prior to Renaissance, the christian catholic church encouraged a credulous medieval spirit that accepted any picturesque tradition or marvellous tale without inquiry as to its source or credibility. However during Renaissance there was a new found questioning and critical spirit which first awoke Francesco Petrarca, also known as the father of Renaissance in Florence and then spread around the world. Renaissance had profound effects on humanism, arts, science, music and even religion. It actually propelled our civilization to the modern age that we currently live in. However even to this day, organized religion dissuades questioning and refuses to evolve causing incessant human grief and suffering.

“The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth.” Peter Abelard.

How to question? Have you ever heard about the 5 Why method? Two years ago, I was introduced to this method by one of my mentors in the company I earlier worked for.  5 Why is an iterative questioning method which helps explain the cause and effect relationship to any particular problem or situation. It is very simple. Suppose you have a problem or an issue at hand and you want to know how fix it so that it doesn’t happen to you or anyone again. You ask 5 Why questions, iteratively based on the answer to the preceding questions. For example let’s consider an imaginary conversation between Bob and his son Sam.

Bob: Why is the car not clean, Sam?

Sam: I did not get time to clean the car.

Bob: Why did you not get the time to clean the car, Sam?

Sam: I was busy in the afternoon.

Bob: Why were you busy in the afternoon?

Sam: I was busy as I had friends over.

Bob: Why did you have friends over?

Sam: I had friends over as we had a game session.

Bob: Why did you have a game session with your friends and did not let me know?

Sam: ……I am sorry.

Without understanding the root cause, simply trying to resolve the effect may/ may not prevent the reoccurrence of the event. Sam in this story was clearly hiding the fact that he had friends over and he did not take cleaning the car as a priority. Note how within a span of 5 question, Bob was able to understand why the car was not cleaned by Sam. Thus by questioning, one is able to understand the root cause of any problem and then find the fix or solution. 5 Whys were first used by Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s who describes the method as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach, i.e.,  by repeating ‘why’ five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” It is a very simple process and can be used for a wide range of applications from problem solving to even questioning beliefs, assertions and even daily issues.

Summarizing the ability to question is a necessary skill one needs to have in this ever changing world. It is important to ask the right questions to obtain the right answers. I agree that sometimes it is hard to make sense of this world that we currently live in or the people that we meet each day. However by questioning and never conforming, one should be able to see his/ her world in a new light and carve a new path for themselves.

Image courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcobellucci/3534516458

All images follow Creative Commons license. Slightly cropped the source file.

The Hydrocarbon Conundrum

Hydrocarbons have always been a blessing and a curse. Their utility remains a conundrum of the 21st century.

Since 2003, one of the main events in world history would be the astronomical surge of the oil prices. In 1999, the oil price was at $20 and the forecast for the next ten years was that it would hit $10. But everything changed from 2001 when the Bush administration allowed a trillion dollar tax cut that favored the upper income groups so as to increase spending and another trillion dollars to wage two never ending wars. This depressed the dollar causing the investors to buy oil futures as an asset play and as a surrogate currency to protect against a weakening dollar. The oil prices surged to $147 in 2008 before plunging again in 2009. It did increase for following four years as the American economy began recovering and the Chinese economy grew at a rapid pace. During this time, there was a marked increase in conflicts across the world, creating economic boom and opportunities for many countries with higher costs of oil production like Iran, Canada, and Russia etc. With a strong dollar and slowed growth in China it has decreased significantly this year causing economic stagnation in many places that enjoyed the fruits of the boom earlier.

Welcome to the hydrocarbon economy. As the name suggests, organically hydrocarbon is comprised of hydrogen and carbon with a majority off them naturally occurring in crude oil. They are the primary energy source for the 21st century mankind, contributing to most of our human progress since the late 18th century. One of the earliest mentions about hydrocarbons were in the usage of asphalt during the construction of the wall of Babylon (as per Herodotus) and during the time of Moses’ birth, where he was placed in a papyrus basket coated with tar and pitch. There have been documented uses of oil at various times since then across the world in Persia, China, Burma and in places that constitute the current Middle East. Since 1847 when James Young first discovered the process to distill kerosene, hydrocarbons have changed the course of human progress for the better by their uses in lighting (kerosene), lubrication (heavy ends that remained from distilling kerosene) during the early stages to wars (most of the conflicts since Second World War) and modern transportation (till date 90% of the transportation needs are met by hydrocarbons). Between 80-90 million barrels of oil are being produced daily (this figure was in 2014, in January 2015 it stood at 94 million barrels) and the consumption rate slightly north of 90 million barrels. The margin between consumption and production is around 5-10 million barrels and the main consumers were US (19%) followed by China (12%). Technological, political and economic developments in these countries play a major factor in determining oil prices, till such a day when the Indian economy should take off.

The greatest uses of hydrocarbons are as fuel of combustion, particularly in motor fuel and heating application. When hydrocarbons are burned, they release carbon di-oxide which is a greenhouse gas that causes ocean acidification and increase in world temperatures by one degree Celsius contributing to global warming and climate change. As explained in an earlier post, many of the commodities, which are created to feed the urge to consume, are derived from an increased use of hydrocarbons. If materialism can be a cause for climate change, the effects from an increased consumption of hydrocarbons cannot be denied.

Conundrum in its simple definition by Merriam Webster means a confusing or difficult problem. A majority of the hydrocarbons being consumed today are being used to feed the world’s surging population because the whole concept of Green Revolution has been built on the availability of cheap oil. One startling estimate by world renowned Michael Pollan puts its as follows:- 10 calories of fossil fuel energy is needed to produce one calorie of food energy. The major consumers in this wasteful equation are the industrial practices on which the food system is built- inefficient growing practices, food processing & storage and the food transportation system that stretches for kilometers between the producer and consumer. 40% of the energy used in the food system goes towards the production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, 23% percent is being used in processing and packaging and another 32% is used in home refrigeration and cooking.

Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo once said, “Oil is the Devil’s excrement”. Most of the conflicts in today’s world can be traced to petroleum politics a fact highlighted by movies like Syriana including others. Much as today’s evangelists on climate change and global warming doesn’t want to confess, hydrocarbon economy remains a conundrum till date. Whether you like it or not, the course of modern human history will continue to be determined by hydrocarbons.

Image Courtesy: BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2014