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

Why I hate M&A?

I am a big big opponent of mergers and acquisitions and no matter whatever is being promised, most often people who spend day and night striving to build the company end up paying a heavy price.

On the morning of March 28, a horrendous news broke about Best Buy closing all the Future Shop locations in Canada. Eventually that day which was feared for a long time by many Canadians loyal to Future Shop finally happened. Future Shop was a Canadian-only brick and mortar consumer electronic store, which was purchased by Best Buy years ago. I was a frequent visitor at both these shops,  but the better terms and conditions meted out to the Future Shop employees made it a better place with a great customer experience over Best Buy. If you have visited any Best Buy location in North America you would know why the company is in red mainly because of the poor customer service. Sadly Future Shop is no more and the brand has been terminated with 500 full-time and 1,000 part-time positions that will also be eliminated. I am a big, big opponent of mergers and acquisitions and no matter whatever is being promised,  most often people who spend day and night striving to build the company end up paying a heavy price.

The true reason why a company gets bought in majority of cases is purely commercial in nature. When a big company gobbles up a smaller company,  it’s a period of transformation for both companies. If proper infusion of talent is allowed between the companies, often it ends up being a good business proposition. When two companies with different cultures collide and amalgamate,  most of the time it ends up acrimoniously. The last company I worked with was gobbled up by a large state owned foreign company.  Even though promises were made to retain all employees, hundreds of people were sadly laid off eventually. I moved on quickly before anything like that happened to me. But I personally witnessed the bloodshed of the culture,  values and the spirit of the company that I once was proudly part of. There are many examples like that all over the world. One good example would be when Microsoft took over Nokia’s mobility division, it led to one of the most beloved names in cellphone business ceasing operations for a while and in the name of consolidation, it butchered the livelihood of thousands of people.

Another fact that you must have noticed is that M&A might be designed to stifling competition but  doesn’t always achieve the desired outcome. I hate monopolies created by M&A and most of the time they falter after a while as they forget to innovate. Sirius and XM were two satellite radio companies. Today they are one company that was formed when Sirius Radio purchased XM radio. Recently I was reading how the company is faltering as no one cares about satellite radio anymore and would only day prefer a music streaming app like Spotify. When Best Buy monopolized the Canadian electronic market,  it wasn’t able to match up to the nimbleness of an Internet giant like Amazon.com, which rendered the brick and mortar shops to the status of window-shopping centres. It would be years before Best Buy could come up with a coherent strategy to counter the latter.

I have always believed that each company has an agenda for profit making, set of values and culture that it wants to follow to conduct the business and the humans who toil to perform and achieve the business outcomes or objectives. The leadership sets the culture and the vision to steer the company forward. Most of the time, I have seen that once the leadership runs out of ideas, instead of gracefully stepping aside, they end up selling the company, with deals mostly done over a  round of golf (P.S:- I am being figurative here :)).

Today everyone speaks volumes about wireless charging.  Did you know that over a century ago an amazing man called Tesla discovered wireless charging? Since he was unlucky to stand against the might of Thomas Alva Edison, many of his inventions today are sadly footnotes. If the mighty utility companies had the courage to adopt his inventions,  we wouldn’t be seeing these ugly electric transmission lines in our eyesight in today’s modern towns and cities. Also energy would have been made available seamlessly to millions of people who till date live without the benefits of energy.

I have read tales of how Google buys up independent apps, absorb the developers,  shut down the app and move on by trying to incorporate it as a feature in one of their offerings. Most of the time the app developers,  fattened with a huge paycheck leave after couple of years to a relaxing life elsewhere. This pattern has seen itself manifest again and again in the Silicon Valley with all the major companies. Hence due to this profit motive, M&A renders any technology disruption initiatives to a mere whimper.

I understand that the true nature of a business is to generate profit and also to maximize it’s potential to generate greater incomes year after year. But I do believe that it can only happen with a leadership that has the vision and a nimble, inspired workforce that can execute the vision and in fact exceed the expectations demanded by that vision. The company should always keep disrupting it’s field of business through continuous innovation and relentless pursuit of creative, sustainable and meaningful ideas. It should take calculated risks and learn quickly from them to become bigger and better each year. This is the hard way.  M&A is the easiest. Which one would your company take?

Image courtesy: http://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/800*600/FullSizeRender[1]2.jpg

Be your narrative

However, everyone has the right to script their own narrative. No one should be forced to accept what is notion of how others think about them or their viewpoint on how they should live their life. We are all the Masters of our own destiny. And we cannot allow anyone to dominate that belief.

Does anyone remember the year 1998? It was the time of adolescence and the emergence of a powerful tool called the Internet. I still remember growing up in the Middle East, how this service that seemingly connected you with the world made its way into our lives. It was an expensive service that gave you the latest information from across the world and the ability to chat and see everyone from strangers to loved ones. It was expensive then at 10 AED ($3 USD) per hour that came with a connection using a telephone dial up connection. It was an exciting new technology and showed how computers that were used in those days for making word documents and playing car /cricket games could be used for connecting with people. Those days were famous for breaking news with the last significant one being the OJ Simpson trial that wrapped earlier keeping the whole world in its tenterhooks. 1998 however came to be known for a different reason. The Clinton Lewinsky affair and the Starr report.

Bill Clinton was a very successful president. He had a fabulous first term where he rescued America from post Gulf War recession onto the path of prosperity. He was rewarded handsomely with a second term and the future of the U.S looked bright like never before. Then came the sex scandals. It hit him hard with revelations from every nook and corner from various women who had sexual flings with the president. One of them stuck on to him like a blood thirsty mosquito-the Lewinsky affair.

What happened next was simply a tsunami of news. People were talking everywhere on how the most powerful man on Earth used the respected White House to have a fling with a intern. It was the topic on the newspapers, radio, television, friends, coffee shops, and even religious places where voices were heard on how absolute power corrupts. Even in this strange new medium called the Internet, we had chat rooms where you could hook up with any random stranger online and discuss the Clinton Lewinsky affair. It was the topic of discussion everywhere. Even though both of them were criticized heavily, however the narrative went against Monica Lewinsky.Then came the grand confession from Clinton that he had lied under oath to the American people. It was hard for the people to forgive the president but he did escape impeachment. During that time till 1998, this issue was the staple diet for news media across the world. Bill Clinton was heavily insulated from many of the criticism because of the immunity he enjoyed as the president. But Monica Lewinsky totally disappeared from public light. She was ridiculed for years and no one heard of her or even spoke of her.

It all changed last week. In the TED talk held in Vancouver last year she came as a keynote speaker to speak about her life and the harassment that she faced. During her hiatus, the Internet developed itself into a mammoth of information including its presence in toppling governments, spearheading change, discussion and also a place where people who freely express themselves without limits. The world of 2015 has shrunk itself into a village place where millions of people have discussions over the color of a dress to choosing the name of a celebrity kid. It is into this world where Monica has resurfaced herself as a champion against online bullying or in some words trolling. She aspired to get hold of her life’s narrative back and also help others script their narrative in a world where you would be booed, jeered and even insulted by strangers before you can take a single step.

Online bullying or trolling depicts the brutal nature of human hypocrisy. It facilitates easy mudslinging in the guise of an online identity to tar individuals and the hard earned reputations. I have seen bullying in both real and virtual worlds. Though it is easy to stand up to real life bullying, it is however not entirely easy to do it in the same way online. Last year during the Indian election, yours truly supported a nationalist candidate for the position of the Indian Prime Minister. Any post if posted on social media drew fierce debates from people misinformed by a corrupt Indian media narrative. Friends quickly turned foes and any difference of opinion was construed as betrayal and was shunned by either blocking or losing of the online friendship. But eventually when my favoured candidate won, many friends were never seen after.

I am not saying that no one has a right to their own opinion. Maybe many of the friends might have felt that by having a different opinion and boldly broadcasting it to their timelines, I am also being a bully. It is hard to say is there a fine line segregating them. However, everyone has the right to script their own narrative. No one should be forced to  accept what is notion of how others think about them or their viewpoint on how they should live their life. We are all the Masters of our own destiny. And we cannot allow anyone to dominate that belief.

Confrontation

Is face-to-face confrontation a good thing? This is a perennial question always being asked in management circles. Most of the time from what I have seen or heard from till now, leaders/managers try to avoid face to face confrontation by delegating it to soft forms like email, letters or even delegating it to HR or other specialized agencies. In today’s world, especially since the 2008 recession and the unstable economy since then, careers have been rocked too many times due to continuous and relentless churning from companies. This has led to the development of systems and processes that ensure face-to-face confrontation is kept to a minimum and people are ‘being let go’ through other means.

Why are leaders avoiding face-to-face confrontation these days? I had a chance to converse with many people who were at many times being laid off from different companies; and the common refrain that they keep mentioning is that- we were hurt the most when our immediate supervisor was no where to be found as we were being let go. If they are so scared of confronting us with our failures, it makes us wonder as to what did we actually do wrong?

Is confrontation a bad thing? I was searching some literature over confrontation in the hopes of writing a blog post on confrontation. I came across the following quote from David Bowie- Confront a corpse at least once. The absolute absence of life is the most disturbing and challenging confrontation you will ever have.

During my school years, much ado was made about the fact how medical students have to watch a corpse all by themselves for few hours in a closed room for their very first lab class. Some people have commented how much of a nerve-racking experience it was. But most of them mentioned that practical truly prepared them for the future. I remember an incident from secondary school years, when I had to view a suicide in the hostel I lived in India. The manager of the hostel was accused of financial embezzlement and before he could be formally charged, he decided to end his life rather risk the shame and notoriety afterwards. What made it challenging to me was that couple of hours before he decided to end it, I ran into him while doing laundry. He was happy at that time and we had a fun conversation. He was nowhere to be seen the next day and a day later, his decomposed body was found from the woods, with a rope around his neck and a broken tree branch. Seeing his body being taken from the woods shocked me to the core for weeks.

After that incident, I have seen how my grandparents and many relatives both young and old moving on from this earthly life. Each and everytime you get emboldened to face the inevitable and be immune to the fear and the fact that-one day you might be next. That to me is the naked truth behind confrontation. It is to realize the fact that everything is finite. Confronting the issue or the person can portray exactly your viewpoint on this matter and also to listen to the other person about his view and why the decision was made in this regard. It is important to clear the air and move on, as life is simply finite.

Most of the time whenever I end up in confrontation, I try to do justice in the first go itself, but sometimes, it doesn’t turn out the way I intend it to turn. But that is not to be worried. It is essential that communication is made face-to-face and if needed supplemented by the soft tools like email etc. Confrontation has to be clear, concise and if needed brutal. Be prepared for the feedback and try to channel it in a positive manner so that a realistic outcome is achieved.

To read more about confrontation, check out this book:

The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Handle Conflicts at Work, at Home, Online, and in Life, completely revised and updated edition

 

Decisions

Have you ever wondered about how you take critical decisions in your life? If not, do think once in a while. Did the decision and the subsequent action of yours amount to anything? Did it achieve its desired objective? Did it make the change that you hoped from a situation? Did it change your life for the good or the better? Was it necessary to make such a decision? What would be your rationale in making such a decision? Yours truly asked a few people about this issue. Most of them said that the most important criteria in making decisions to them were to do what they felt was right for them. Then I asked, have you ever thought about the consequences of your decision? The answer I received was that, No, as long as the consequence dint affect us, we dint bother. When the dear reader of this post thinks about this assertion, please think for a moment what would you be doing?

Our decisions are important components of our legacy that we leave on this earth. If there is something that is really certain in this life is the fact that we would have to leave this earth one day. Since that is the only thing that can be assured in this mundane life, why don’t we make a conscious effort to do the right thing?

Why is it important to do the right thing? Because in the end, only that is right and just will endure. For example, I have heard tales of people facing difficult choices when it comes to their career, relationships, family life etc. Most of the time, the choices are down to the following.

  • The right thing I feel is apt to my immediate (short-term) interests.
  • The overall right thing which may not be apt to my interests but looks right in the long term

The good thing about the former is that results are known beforehand and the chances of anything to the contrary are very remote. But deep down inside, you know that it’s not a lasting choice and you might consciously end up regretting the decision for a long time. However in the case of latter, it may cause deep and profound short-term pain but has the potential create lasting long-term gains.

In the end, the simple question that one needs to ask him is that, what is the point of gaining the world and yet losing your soul? It is important to take decisions that are right not just for yourself, but that which is the absolute right thing to do. Your intuition, conscience, beliefs and experiences will guide you as you make this choice. But remember you will die once and never leave for yourself a grieving soul.