Rajat Rex


This is a fall from grace of Greek tragedy proportions.”

Thus spoke Gary Naftalis, Defense Counsel for Rajat Gupta, in reaction to the sentence pronounced on his client by Judge Rakoff. The learned judge himself reinforced this theme of a tragic hero facing nemesis: “The Court can say without exaggeration that it has never encountered a defendant whose prior history suggests such an extraordinary devotion, not only to humanity writ large, but also to individual human beings in their times of need.” On a somewhat philosophical note, albeit one that raises more questions than answers, Rakoff added: “The history of the world, I’m afraid, is full of examples of good men who do bad things”.

Anita Raghavan’s book “The Billionaire’s Apprentice”, which I just finished reading, does a fine job of chronicling the meteoric rise and equally monumental fall of Rajat Gupta. An underlying subtext of Anita’s work is to examine “the rise of the Indian American elite”. This “twice blessed” breed of Indian immigrants benefited from what historian Vijay Prasad describes as “two of the greatest social movements of the twentieth century: India’s successful independence struggle and the American civil rights movement.” Over a period of 40 years, these aspiring immigrants have made dazzling inroads into the pinnacles of power in America. The ultimate poster child for this group, and the role model for many, was the very urbane and erudite Rajat Gupta, a man whose exalted position as CEO of McKinsey made him the unofficial High Priest of American business. Which of course begs the deeply profound question – why did he do it? In fact, wtf? And in this regard Ms Raghavan’s otherwise thoroughly well researched journalistic work falls woefully short. In fact, it completely evades the question. Her concluding throwaway quip from David Ben-Gurion  – “When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other” – may well explain away the existence of a roguish Raj Rajaratnam or a sleazy Anil Kumar, but offers nothing by way of answers to the philosophical, even existential, questions raised by the fascinating saga of Rajat Gupta.

The construct of a tragedy, both Greek and Shakespearian, provides a useful framework with which to come to grips with the conundrum presented by Gupta’s actions. At the heart of every tragedy is a hero, a man of nobility and good intent. In fact Judge Rakoff’s description of Gupta would doubtless have Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus – or Shakespeare for that matter – nodding in approval. To be clear, Raj Rajaratnam, Anil Kumar, or the ingenious Bernie Madoff for that matter, do not make the cut. After all, if you’re not a hero to begin with, where’s the tragedy in your downfall? Central to all Shakespearian tragedies, burdened with Anglo-Saxon notions of morality, is that the hero must have an obvious and glaring “fatal flaw”. With Macbeth, Othello or King Lear, for example, any high school student would immediately point to unbridled ambition, irrational jealousy, and childish vanity being instrumental in the downfall of the respective protagonists. Bill Clinton might fit the bill for an obviously flawed modern version of an Elizabethan era tragic hero. In a Shakespearian tragedy, just as Judge Rakoff says, good men do indeed do very bad things. They murder kings, suffocate wives, disown daughters, and even have sex in their office with plump interns – occasionally using cigars as a prop.

As for Gupta, if you consider him to be a Shakespearean tragic hero, the most obvious candidate for a “fatal flaw” would be greed. But to attribute his actions to avarice defies logic, and the one thing even Gupta’s detractors will concede is that the man was anything but stupid. Even someone endowed with a fraction of his considerable intellect could have figured out a way to make exponentially more money in an infinite number of clandestine ways were he or she so inclined. Besides, there was no direct benefit to Gupta on the trades that resulted from the information exchanged, and even the notion of ingratiating himself to the unctuous Rajaratnam, perhaps in the hope of a bigger piece of the action in future ventures, doesn’t quite cut it on the basis that it would have barely moved the dial for a man worth in excess of $100mm. Hubris, or the sin of pride and arrogance, always seems to rank high on the everyone’s list of favorite fatal flaws, but in this case it only serves to potentially explain why Gupta might have rationalized getting away with it, not why he did it.

Greek tragedy, on the other hand, is less about relatively modern notions of morality than it is – much like Gupta’s native Hinduism – about man’s insignificance in the face of a divine power. Human flaws, what Aristotle called hamartia, certainly play a role, but in Hellenic tragedies these tend to be catalysts for destiny to take its course. For example, take Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, arguably the most famous of all Greek tragedies, if only because of its association with the ultimate taboo. The question of what, if anything, was Oedipus’s hamartia, has been the subject of much scholarship over the years. Hubris seems to be the consensus among the cognoscenti, on the basis that Oedipus chose to interfere with his destiny. Fair enough, but think about this for a moment – if someone, even if it was a Delphic oracle, predicted you would kill your father and sleep with your mother, would you simply lie back and let it happen? Call me fatally flawed, but I’m with Oedipus on this one. Rajat Gupta, in this regard, has much in common with Oedipus, inasmuch as an evaluation of his life suggests no evidence of a glaring flaw. Like Oedipus, was he the victim of forces beyond his control, whether cosmic or as prosaic as the desire for scapegoats in the wake of the financial crisis? In which case, this is less a case of “good people doing bad things”, rather a matter of “bad things happening to good people”. In other words, the quintessential Aristotelean Greek tragedy.

Speaking for myself, I’m at least willing to allow the possibility. From first hand experience, people like Rajaratnam and other Masters of the Universe in New York’s testosterone laden investment community have an uncanny knack of throwing you off-balance. Coming into New York from the genteel world of consulting in Copenhagen and Chicago, Rajat was, to use a delightful Michael Lewis metaphor, like a “small furry creature raised on an island without predators removed to a pit full of pythons“. He was played like a finely tuned piano, and his error was to unwittingly drop his guard, in conversations he deemed to be casual and confidential, in a subconscious effort to establish his status as the consummate corporate insider. As far as flaws go, lets just say I’ve seen a lot worse.

There is one final twist in this tale that might lead one to conclude that there are forces at work here that are beyond the comprehension of mortals, a case of Wodehousian wheels within wheels. In the type of ironic twist the gods delight in – Greek or perhaps Hindu in this case – Gupta’s arrest in 2011 was on Diwali, the most auspicious day of the Hindu calendar. Apparently a keen student of Hindu scriptures, Gupta must surely be convinced this was payback for sins committed in a past life. A Greek tragedy then, but with a distinctively Indian twist.

In the parlance of our time, I believe what Aristotle was really trying to say in Poetics is this: shit happens. And shit surely happened here. If you buy into reincarnation and divine retribution, you know this shit happened before. And if you care to extrapolate, this shit will happen again.



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Don’t Worry, Be Happy


“Sometime’s there’s a man, I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? I’m talking about The Dude here, well, he’s the man for his time and place.” (The Stranger, The Big Lebowski)

There are two kinds of people in the world – those who don’t really “get” The Dude, and the enlightened one’s who worship him. Those who dismiss Lebowski as trivial, and the fortunate few who appreciate it for achieving the impossible – being inanely comic and profoundly cosmic simultaneously. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, do yourself a favour and take the Lebowski test – download it on iTunes, stream it on Netflix, or if you’re into a retro flashback, get the DVD. Let the saga of The Dude and his rug unfold at its own pace, and at some point in your second viewing, as The Dude deals with the birdies and bogeys of life with remarkable equanimity, the realisation dawns that this is a yarn as deeply philosophical as Homer’s Odyssey, and much funnier besides. Worst case you’ll get a few laughs, hopefully enjoy the soundtrack (my favourite is the Gypsy Kings’ rendition of Hotel California), and appreciate some of finest actors of our time, including John Turturro in a memorable cameo role. The upside scenario? New shit will come to light with every viewing, and your life will change in ways you cannot even begin to comprehend. And if you really don’t like it – as The Dude says “yeah, well, that’s just like your opinion, man.”

To call someone an evangelical atheist might be the ultimate oxymoron, but Ethan Coen fits that description. Ethan studied Philosophy at Princeton, and wrote his thesis on Two Views of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy. I know jack shit about Wittgenstein, and even less about his later (or earlier) philosophy. Personally I think Ethan just drops that into his bio for the same reason I throw it in here – it sounds cool. In any case, Ethan is on record as saying that “belief in a benevolent omnipresent creator is the height of stupidity”. Fair enough, and while even I wouldn’t care to be quite as blunt, this is a world view not far removed from my own. Conventional religion requires a suspension of logic that has always been a bridge too far for me, and Richard Dawkins’ brilliant The God Delusion provides an infinitely more palatable alternative to your average holy book.

Much of the Coen brothers’ work explores complex theological and existential questions suggestive of an alternative belief system, but none more so than Lebowski. Starting with the appearance – the hair and beard, the robe and sandals – there is no shortage of comparisons between The Dude and Christ. Like Jesus, The Dude is described sacrificially as “taking it easy for the rest of us”, according to theologist Rabin. In her book The Dude Abides, Kathleen Falsani draws upon the Old Testament and suggests that The Dude be thought of as one of the menschen on whom the fate of the world rests. Eddie Chung, in his documentary The Achievers, believes that if Moses were to appear today, he would receive his commandments from The Dude. Buddhism teacher and scholar Bernie Glassman, whose book The Dude and the Zen Master (co-authored with Jeff Bridges) makes for entertaining reading, compares The Dude to a Boddhisatva. And if you really want to dig deep, try William Irwin’s The Big Lebowski and Philosophy, which enlists Plato, Nietzsche, Gödel, and Freud to unravel the movie’s hidden depths, and makes the persuasive case that The Dude represents the contemporary version of the ancient Taoist way of life. Finally, we have Dudeism, whose spiritual leader the Dudely Lama proudly claims his to be “the world’s slowest growing religion”. Apparently, he’s in no hurry, which of course is the whole point.

All of which – and admittedly some of it is total nonsense – is a long winded way of addressing the insecurity the highly educated among you might feel about getting spiritual guidance from a pot-smoking ex-hippie from Venice Beach, let alone adopting The Dude’s laissez-faire attitude to coping with the vicissitudes of life.

What follows below is a hypothetical conversation between The Dude and me, my version of  communion with a divine incarnation, in the sense of someone who in an earthy way is a living manifestation of much that I find useful about ancient spirituality and the search for happiness. Why this way? Quite simply, I like The Dude’s way of expressing himself, and its fun besides. For those fortunate enough to count themselves among the legions of Lebowski fans, every line contains an inside joke, some of which might make you laugh out loud; this is after all the most quotable cult classic of all time. For the unfortunate uninitiated – an affliction easily remedied – hopefully you find the exercise somewhat insightful, and at least modestly amusing. So here goes…

Me: Mr Lebowski, it has been suggested you may be the happiest man alive. I’m here to seek your wisdom on the path to this sublime state.
Lebowski: Nobody calls me Lebowski, man. I’m The Dude. So that’s what you call me. Or His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.
Me: Ha ha, of course Dude. But back to my question, your cortisol and adrenalin levels are practically non-existent, your serotonin levels the highest on record. Unbelievable. How do you do this?
The Dude: My what? Wtf you talking about, man?
Me: Sorry Dude. I mean, how come you’re so chilled?
The Dude: Ah ok. I mean I guess, I uh…lost my chain of thought there, man, do you mind if  I light up a J? I guess, its because, uh, let me think, I guess I don’t really give a fuck, man. I mean I never worry about shit. Look at Walter, he gets all wound up about Vietnam and his fucking ex-wife, but I never really look back, man, you know what I mean? I think the world would be a better place if everyone said “wtf” every four hours, ideally shout it out loud.
Me: Ha ha, that’s wild Dude. So no looking back, no regrets, no guilt, no anger, no resentment. Great. You worry much about the future Dude?
The Dude: Yeah, I mean we got the semis for the League coming up tomorrow, we’re up against that pervert pederast Jesus Quintana. The guy exposed himself to an 8-year old, can you fucking believe that?  But the creep can roll, man. Its not like it bothers me tho’, its just a fucking bowling match, you know what I mean? I got no family to worry about, I got some cash saved up, so I just make it up as I go along, man.
Me: But you have a special lady Dude, what about Maude? Any thoughts on love and family attachments?
The Dude: She’s not my special lady, she’s my fucking lady friend. I’m just helping her conceive, man.
As for love, that can be cool for some, and family is awesome, but it doesn’t always work out the way its supposed to. People listen to The Beatles singing All You Need is Love, and think that’s the way to Instant Karma, but Lennon also said I Am The Walrus, and wtf does that mean, man? I just think you need to make sure you don’t lose your head. Look at Walter, can you believe he brought his wife’s fucking Pomeranian bowling the other day? If my fuckin’ ex-wife asked me to take care of her fuckin’ dog while she and her boyfriend went to Honolulu, I’d tell her to go fuck herself. You know what Othello said, most people love “not wisely, but too well”. And kids too – what’s that King Lear line about children  and snakes?
Me: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have an ungrateful child”. You’re right Dude, King Lear really did get screwed over by his daughters, drove the guy nuts. You like Shakespeare Dude?
The Dude: Yeah, he’s cool, just about the only useful thing I learned in high school. But sometimes all those guys talking to themselves, they take life way too seriously. I mean look at Hamlet, I know the guy had it bad, and that’s a real bummer, man, but he’s just messing himself up with all that “to be or not to be” shit. Why not just say “wtf!” and get on with it? Strikes and gutters, that’s just the way it is, man. I think Macbeth was on to something with his “life’s but a walking shadow” thought. Life is too short, too complicated, and nobody seems to know what the fuck to do about it. So keep it simple man, fuck it, lets go bowling. Or golfing, if that’s your thing…
Me: I know exactly what you mean Dude. You remember what Caesar says about Cassius? A “lean and hungry look” because “he thinks too much”? I think I’ve always been that way. Been trying to meditate for the last few months, which is really great. You meditate Dude?
The Dude: Yeah, I guess I do, pretty much every day. Usually in the bathtub, by candlelight, drinking a White Russian and listening to whale sounds, kind of cleans up my mind. Tho’ there was this one time, these fucking German nihilists with their marmot wanting to cut off my “chonson”…
Me: Ha ha, I remember that Dude. I know you love bowling Dude, you know there’s this theory out there that people are happiest when totally immersing themselves in something they’re passionate about. This Hungarian psychologist Mihali did a lot of research on how people react when they’re “in the flow” or “in the zone”. There’s elements of the Bhagavad Gita in that, doing your duty being a key element of the path to inner peace.
The Dude: Yeah I get that. But you know the problem is you’re happy when you’re doing your thing, in the flow or whatever the fuck you call it, but what about the rest of the time? Wtf does Arjuna do when he’s not firing arrows from his fucking chariot? I think its less about doing what you love, instead love what you’re doing. Like that Stephen Stills song, “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with“? So I think being “in the flow” is cool, but “going with the flow” is even cooler, which I think is what Heraclitus says also, and he was a real dude…
Me: That’s profound Dude, there’s elements of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus in that, imagining yourself to be happy even if you’re condemned to a lifetime of pushing a rock up a mountain…and I think what Heraclitus said was “you cannot swim in the same river twice”, which is pretty much “going with the flow”, I guess, in the parlance of our times.
The Dude: Yeah man, or Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching, when he says “he who gently yields is a true disciple of life”, and he was a total dude…
Me: Wow Dude, this is amazing. Now I get why Buddhists believe you are a genuine Zen Master, truly living in the moment. In fact, they call you the Duddha, the second coming of the Enlightened One! No fear, no baggage, just going with the flow. You know it takes Vedic and Zen Masters years of practising transcendental meditation to get to this point Dude, using techniques developed over 2,000 years ago?
The Dude: That’s fuckin’ interesting, man. So you mean no new shit has come to light in 2,000 years?
Me: Something like that Dude. What about some type of code of conduct Dude, you know all these ancient scriptures believe that doing the right thing is what makes a man?
The Dude: Yeah, that and a pair of testicles…
Me: Ha, ha, that’s funny Dude! And what about the role of suffering? Zen Buddhism insists that overcoming a world of pain is essential to attain the sublime state you seem to be experiencing. I suppose there’s a transition point where, very much like Schrodinger’s cat, you’re effectively in two parallel states of existence…sort of like the top of the backswing where according to Hogan you’re effectively moving in two directions at the same time…
The Dude: Wtf you talking about man? And who the fuck is Schrodinger?
Me: Sorry Dude. Schrodinger was a physicist, he came up with this theoretical paradox where a cat can be alive and dead at the same time…and Hogan was a golfer, you know the one-plane swing…
The Dude: I hate cats, man. And I hate the fuckin’ Eagles too, man…and I don’t get the whole world of pain thing. I mean shit happens, but wtf? And I’m telling you, keep it simple, man, you look fucking anorexic, you’re thinking too much again. Might help your golf game too…
Me: Ha ha, of course Dude. I think I get it. Nice rug, by the way.
The Dude: Yeah, it really ties the room together, man…you know there’s this whole story, it all started with Woo peeing on The Dude’s rug…
Me: Ha ha, I know! One final question, Dude, do you really have to curse so much?
The Dude: Wtf you talking about, man?
Me: Ha ha, never mind. Take it easy, Dude, I know you will.
The Dude: Yeah, well, The Dude abides…

So there you have it. Go on, be a dude. And if you must latch onto a tune, as an alternative to Pharrell Williams’ ubiquitous Happy, try Paul Simon’s very dude-ish 59th Street Bridge Song:

Slow down, you move too fast
You’ve got to make the (moment) last
Kicking down the cobble stones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy







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Pharell Williams’ song Happy made it to the #1 spot in 24 countries simultaneously, topping the charts in the US and UK for three consecutive weeks. It’s a nice enough song, a catchy, exuberant, singalong kind of affair, but we’re talking rarefied territory here, occupied by The Beatles at their peak or Michael Jackson at his irrepressible best. Pharell himself is an unlikely star, at age 41 well past his sell by date in the brutally fickle world of pop music. All of which suggests that the phenomenal success of this relatively modest piece of music must have something to do with our collective fascination with the notion of “happiness”, as if clapping along “if you feel like a room without a roof ” magically puts nirvana within reach.

Being “happy”, it seems, can be absurdly simple for a fortunate few, but is a lifetime odyssey for most. Jumping Jack Flash, for example, was performing in Berlin last night, and he still can’t get no satisfaction. Lennon says All You Need is Love, but Tina Turner counters with What’s Love Got To Do With It. Mark Knopfler’s  “money for nothing and chicks for free” anthem became the Holy Grail for the MTV generation. But Jim Morrison had both, yet wound up in a Parisian grave at age 28, a bloated phantasm of the beautiful man he once was. So what does that tell you? This stuff is confusing, and bears closer examination. And that’s without getting into the 40,362 books (wtf?) available on Amazon with “happiness” in the title…

Economics, ironically described as a dismal science by Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle, actually has an entire branch dedicated to the study of happiness. Richard Easterlin from the University of Southern California – presumably a very happy place – is the pioneer in the field thanks to his seminal research based on surveys conducted in 19 countries since World War II. Easterlin concludes that within a country, without exception, happiness levels are strongly correlated with levels of income i.e. the rich really are “happier”, which is exactly what one might expect. But in his work, Easterlin observed that across time or across countries, happiness levels cannot be explained by changes in income level. The implications for this so-called Easterlin Paradox are profound, the suggestion being that there is no link between a society’s economic development and its average level of happiness. A possible explanation posited by Easterlin and others, is that relative rather than absolute levels of income are better predictors of happiness, invoking a key element of the Marxist theory of revolution. Thomas Piketty – who is so hot right now – would of course be banging on the table at this point, no doubt joined by his cheerleaders Krugman and Stiglitz. But Easterlin’s work, published in 1974, has been refuted, most notably in 2008 by Stevenson and Wolford from (predictably) The Wharton School, who concluded that there is in fact an unequivocal link between happiness and per capita GDP across countries, and no evidence of a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries have no further increases in well-being. In other words, The Wharton School, without a hint of irony, is effectively telling you that you can never be “too rich”. (They are silent on the related matter of being “too thin” but that’s another discussion…).

Enter Prof David Blanchflower, who found this analysis one-dimensional, and introduced a crucial independent variable into the econometric happiness equation – sex. Blanchflower is a tenured professor at Dartmouth, and a former member of the UK’s Monetary Policy Committee, impeccable credentials that suggest that he be taken very seriously. In his paper Money, Sex and Happiness:An Empirical Study, David examines the links between income, sexual behaviour and reported happiness, and concludes that sexual activity enters “strongly positively in happiness equations”. No shit Sherlock. Some of Blanchflower’s conclusions, such as the headline finding, are somewhat banal, while others confirm popular clichés . Apparently African American men really do have more sex, which creates a public policy conundrum regarding affirmative action; shouldn’t “getting more” be more important that “having less”? Other findings seem contrary to popular belief. For example, more income does not buy more sex, nor more sexual partners. So perhaps The Beatles were right after all? But then again, I suspect David might get radically different results if he conducted his survey in St Tropez. Apparently married people have more sex than singles, and the “happiness maximising” number of sexual partners is – wait for this – calculated to be exactly one! No comment. And here’s another precious nugget. Sex seems to have a “disproportionately strong effect on the happiness of highly educated people”. I think, therefore I get laid?

The economist’s analysis of happiness may be lacking in depth, and potentially flawed in methodology, starting with the logical trap of confusing causation and correlation. Are you happy because you have money and sex, or do you have more money and sex because you’re happy? The brilliant Daniel Kahneman, whose book Thinking, Fast and Slow is required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the working of their own mind, exposes the fallibility of the human consciousness with a series of tests that illustrates what he calls “the focus illusion”. In one of his experiments, a group of subjects, mostly students, was asked two questions (in order), “How happy are you with your life?” and “When was your last date?”, presumably having a date being a crude proxy for sex. The correlation was -1.2%, not statistically different from zero. However, when the order of the questions was reversed in a separate group of completely comparable subjects, the correlation rose to +66%! According to Kahneman, people in general have no clue how happy or satisfied they feel at any point in time, at least not in any measurable way, highlighting the folly of any of these self reported studies of happiness. So much for those econometric happiness equations.

According to psychologists, the singular pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behaviour, as Emily Smith explains in an excellent piece in The Atlantic. There is an evolutionary explanation for this; happiness as commonly understood is all about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire – like hunger or sex – you satisfy it, and that presumably (quality being the obvious qualification) makes you happy. Said another way, people become happy when they get what they want, an underlying subtext being that how much you want, be it food, money or sex, varies by individual. By implication, humans are not the only ones who can feel “happy”. Animals have needs and desires, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy.

What sets human beings apart from animals is not this relatively mindless pursuit of happiness, which is common across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is completely unique to us as a species. Having a meaningful life is associated with unselfish behaviour – taking care of children, for example – but not necessarily correlated with reported happiness; in fact, quite the contrary. In general, having a happy life is equated with being a taker, and having a meaningful life is associated with being a giver. Having a clear sense of purpose – the key to a meaningful life – correlates strongly to a consistently higher level of satisfaction, even in the face of inevitable adversity. Suffering frequently serves to reinforce one’s sense of purpose, a message most poignantly and powerfully delivered by Viktor Frankl – Auschwitz survivor, eminent psychiatrist, and author of  the monumental Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl believes that happiness cannot be pursued, rather it must ensue from a meaningful life; indeed, it is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.

If you buy into Frankl’s thesis, after a 30-year near evangelical commitment to philanthropy, Bono may finally have found what he was looking for. Jagger, on the other hand, will be performing in Paris tomorrow night, and its a safe bet he’ll still be craving satisfaction. The answer to his problem, ironically, may be right there in his song – Cause I try and I try and I try and I try try try

This is powerful stuff, and difficult to refute, either theoretically or empirically. The cynical among you may well invoke Pink Floyd’s Money (“don’t give me that do goody-good bullshit“), but even for the converted there is a pragmatic impediment to the pursuit of this genuinely meaningful life. For most of us, the selfish and frequently lazy gene gets in the way.

But hang on, before you throw up your hands in despair there is wisdom out there, albeit somewhat unconventional, that gives us hope. But more on that in Happy-Part II, coming soon to an iPad near you. Meanwhile “clap your hands if you feel like that’s what you wanna do”.

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Big Swinging Dick

MichaelLewisAs an investigative journalist, Michael Lewis is a Mozart to Gladwell’s Salieri, a distinction Malcolm, to his credit, most graciously acknowledges. Lewis has a remarkable talent for crafting entertaining and powerful narratives, usually centred around quirky and unlikely heroes, that make the idiosyncrasies of finance, business and professional sport come alive. But for me, Michael’s greatest quality is his mastery of comic prose, particularly his use of metaphors and imagery that makes one laugh out loud. In this he rivals PG Wodehouse, the greatest compliment I could bestow on any writer. An equity investor who gravitates to the bond market is like a small, furry creature raised on an island without predators removed to a pit full of pythons. A group of techno geeks at a Wall Street dinner sit around at the table staring at the piles of food like a conquering army of eunuchs who had stumbled onto the harem of their enemy. And who can ever forget the Human Piranha, the grand master of Fuckspeak,  whose world was filled with copulating inanimate objects and people getting their faces ripped off.

Michael is every bit as entertaining in person as he is in print. Last night, I attended a delightful “fireside chat” featuring Michael in conversation with British journalist Dominic Lawson, who (almost!) matched Lewis in repartee. Michael of course is in the midst of promoting his latest work Flash Boys, already #1 on the charts and his best selling work to date. I personally enjoyed Flash Boys and found it an easy read, but then again I have the advantage of a Wall Street background and more than a passing familiarity with the economics of data transmission networks. Nevertheless, the success of a book on the arcane subject of high frequency trading (HFT), with its protagonist Brad Katsuyama a geeky Canadian-Asian bro’, is baffling, and presumably driven by a public that cannot get enough of the “Wall Street stealing money from Joe Blow” cliché.

The facts, at least in my humble opinion, do not support the seemingly outrageous yet much touted thesis that the US stock market is “rigged”. What the intrepid Katsuyama and his band of brothers discover, following their frustration at the inability to consummate trades at prices indicated on their screens, is that the variable speed at which trading and pricing  information travels down fibre-optic cables to the exchanges was being exploited by high-frequency traders to jump the queue, buy the stocks in question and sell them back at a higher price to the person who expressed the original interest. While this sounds like and effectively is front-running, albeit completely legal, this “arbitrage” exists almost exclusively in the US market due to relatively recent SEC rules (the now infamous Reg NMS) which require brokers to “go out” into the marketplace and seek the best possible execution price, thereby disseminating to a bunch of “techno scalpers” market information that allows them to make a minuscule profit. Does this make me believe that the US stock market, arguably the most efficient in the world, is somehow “rigged” against me? Not really. From my perspective, all it means is every time I go out and trade an individual stock, which in my case is not very often, there is a real possibility that an extra 0.05% is tagged on to my cost of getting in or out. Does this bother me? Of course it does, particularly since it is undisclosed, but I’d be inclined to dismiss it as yet another case of the unintended consequences of misguided regulation. While the matter will no doubt be investigated to death – indeed the New York Attorney General has already labelled HFT as “insider trading 2.0” – the reality is Katsuyama’s own newly launched IEX, supported by the ubiquitous Goldman Sachs, effectively provides a market solution to the problem.

One could take the extreme cynical view, as indeed some already have, that this is all about Katsuyama promoting his new business model and Michael scaremongering to sell books. I for one have too much respect for Lewis to buy into that story. But Michael’s evangelical outrage bears further examination, and to really understand where he is coming from, one has to rewind to his masterful 1989 cult classic, Liar’s Poker. When he wrote his book, Michael believed that sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance. I hope that college students trying to figure out what to do with their lives will read it and decide that it’s silly to phony it up and abandon their passions to become financiers. Speaking in 2008, he says In the two decades since then, I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. At some point, I gave up waiting for the end. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?

Clearly, Michael was befuddled and perhaps even frustrated by the reaction to Liar’s Poker. A book intended to be a scathing indictment of Wall Street’s trading floor culture instead spawned a generation of twenty-something alpha males who aspired to be that most revered of species – a Big Swinging Dick. In Michael’s view, Wall Street sees only the legal dimension when it looks at an opportunity like high frequency trading: there is absolutely no consideration of the moral aspect, and therein lies the rub. For him, and this comes through loud and clear in person –  one can almost hear Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On playing in the background – there is something inherently wrong about exploiting an information or regulatory arbitrage for profit, the legality notwithstanding. And much of Michael’s work since Liar’s PokerThe Big Short and now Flash Boys – is intended to expose what he sees as the moral turpitude of Wall Street. Michael’s other pet peeve with Wall Street is OTM – Other People’s Money. He saw the transformation from private partnership to public corporation, and the implications for accountability and risk appetite, as the death knell for Wall Street, and of course he was almost right. For the record, he believes Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley should have been allowed to sink alongside Lehman, that Dodd-Frank (specifically, the Volcker Rule and the restrictions on proprietary trading) does not go nearly far enough, and finds it a complete travesty that the only Goldman Sachs employee who has gone to jail since the financial crisis is the one person Goldman actually wanted to put behind bars (renegade programmer Sergey Aleynekov). 

GordonGekkoMy own views on the subject? As an industry veteran, it is difficult not to be cynical about morality on Wall Street. While in all my years I never saw anything even remotely approaching the “pump and dump” bucket shop mentality so hilariously parodied in The Wolf of Wall Street, it is tough to argue with that other great sage, Gordon Gekko, when he says if you need a friend on Wall Street, get a dog. In my brief sojourn on the trading floor, “ripping off” a naive analyst at a Fortune 100 corporation, with a clever derivative trade that camouflaged a tidy profit for “the Co”, was considered fair game.  Likewise, constructing an off-market currency swap to help a European sovereign “manage” its liabilities, or selling an esoteric equity-linked bond to a Japanese insurance company to manipulate its income…all par for the course!  To be clear, none of this remotely approached the wrong side of legality, its just that there was never any consideration of “rightness” or “wrongness”, it was all done with the detachment of a plumber fixing a hole. To this extent, Michael certainly does have a point. Even so, I don’t necessarily share his outrage at savvy traders exploiting a (legal) penny arbitrage opportunity because they are alert enough to identify a loophole and find a technology solution to exploit the situation, particularly since the biggest “losers” in this case happened to be the hedge funds.

Liars-Poker-938923On a lighter note, I do think Michael has started to take himself too seriously. As I listened to him speak last night, I yearned for the autobiographical authenticity and sheer outrageousness of Liar’s Poker. Amazingly, over 20 years on from reading the book, I still remember these lines which for me capture the essence of Michael Lewis at his satirical and supremely ironic best. Michael has just completed a trade where he effectively “stuffs” a French hedge fund client with one of Salomon’s toxic proprietary positions, and here’s what the Human Piranha says to him when he calls to congratulate:

That is fuckin’ awesome. I mean fuckin’ awesome. I fuckin’ mean fucking awesome. You are one Big Swinging Dick, and don’t ever let anybody tell you different.

 It brought tears to my eyes to hear it, to be called a Big Swinging Dick by the man who, years ago, had given birth to the distinction, and in my mind had the greatest right to confer it upon me.

Watch out Wall Street, the Big Dick is Swinging, and its coming at you.








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It’s a Dog’s Life

20140401-175415.jpgFor a Colombian diplomat, one would imagine that being appointed Ambassador to Brazil is a real prize. Therefore, when Señor Angelino Garzon turned down the job citing “personal and family reasons”, it raised a few eyebrows. While one is inclined to be sympathetic in these situations, surprise quickly turned to indignation, at least for Colombian officialdom, when the real reasons emerged. Apparently, Angelino has a dog that according to him “is very hairy and the hot climate of Brasilia could harm its health”. Foreign Affairs Minister Maria Holguin seemed rather hot under the collar at this revelation; in fact, she thought the man was barking mad. “When he mentioned personal problems, you would expect something deeper than that”, she said. To which the intrepid Angelino responded as follows. “The dog is not government property. Wherever Angelino goes, it goes.” Fin de la historia.

MessardiereBemused, the story triggered a chain of reflections on my own experiences with canophiles. Take the French for example, who I suspect would would have awarded Angelino a Legion d’Honneur for such magnificent defiance. According to the New York Times, there are twice as many pet dogs as there are children in France, and they consume as much meat as all Spaniards put together. Which means absolutely nothing unless you’ve had the delightful experience of being hosted at the Château Hôtel de la Messardière, overlooking the stunning Bay of Pampelonne in St. Tropez. The Messardière is the type of establishment one associates with betches of an altogether different variety, the type that grace P. Diddy’s yacht or the very risqué La Voile Rouge on the beach. Angelino’s hairy dog, however, would be very welcome here, and particularly enjoy the Service en Chambre Pour les Chiens. Lamb Chops for €40, cooked to order of course, with a side order of Basmati Rice for €10. (Wtf, do dogs eat basmati rice?).

As we meandered through the lobbywe noticed a loud commotion around the Assistant Manager’s desk. A very tanned middle-aged American, cheered on by that most essential of St Tropez male accessories, the blonde trophy wife, was berating the establishment for its “mindless” policy of allowing no children – theirs had been checked in to the hostelry next door – while welcoming smelly canines of all variety. The ranting continued as we chatted on the shuttle on our way down from the hills, like Brutus and Cassius, to do nightly battle at the infamous Les Cave du Roy. What was the deal with the French? They’d be speaking fucking German if it weren’t for us. And how about those ridiculous French accents?  I nodded sympathetically, but pointed out that they did make nice wine, the food wasn’t bad either, and as far as tokens of appreciation go the Statue of Liberty was as good as it gets. Besides, this was the nation of the Hermès €500 dog collar and Brigitte Bardot, who once kept a cow in her living room. Calm prevailed at the mention of the wonderfully eccentric Ms Bardot, and the anticipation of the delectably bubbly Cristal to come. Vive la difference, as they say.

ElleMacMy own attitude toward dogs has been through a transformation over the last few years, thanks mainly to a lovely leggy blonde named Ellie, who has this (mostly) endearing habit of snuggling up in bed with me, and whining insistently until I stroke her neck and face. Ellie is our golden retriever, named after that ultimate blonde goddess, Elle “The Body” Macpherson. Ellie is watched over with a devotion Señor Garzon, or Brigitte Bardot for that matter, would approve of, and in return gives us the types of magical, occasionally comical, moments only a dog owner can relate to. The etymology of the name always makes me smile when she (I mean Ellie, not Elle) graces my bed. But what really cracks me up is the time Ellie ran loose chasing after Elle, who just happens to live in the neighbourhood. Elle was jogging in the direction of the Serpentine while our Ellie tracked her leggy namesake heading straight for the water with my wife screaming after her. Apologies, explanations, and a mutual display of unrestrained blonde affection followed; harmony was restored in Hyde Park.

This weekend our Ellie had an adventure of a different variety: walking alongside master and mistress on the Queenwood golf course, an experience she qualified for after a screening almost as rigorous as the one the very rarefied membership is subjected to. She ate a divot, protested loudly every time I attempted to “pop a second shot”, and cheered equally loudly when I whacked one into the woods, where she would threaten to run off with every intention of looking for anything other than my ball. As we followed her down the lush fairways in this idyllic Surrey springtime setting, I was reminded of a favourite quote from Charles Schulz’s “It’s a Dog’s Life”, wherein Snoopy poses the following conundrum: “My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?

SnoopyWe could all learn something from our dogs, and thank you Señor Garzon for reminding us. And hang in there with your hirsute friend. If there’s any justice in this world, your next assignment may well be Paris.

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Windmills of my Mind

meditation-6The royal poinciana, also known as the flamboyant for its flaming scarlet and yellow flowers, is arguably the most beautiful tropical tree in the world. As I settled into a comfortable meditative pose, looking out over the leafy tree tops of the Sandy Lane estate as the morning sun reflected on the stunningly blue waters of the Caribbean, it occurred to me that if there was ever a time and place to “transcend”, this had to be it. My mantra kicked in, and the mind gradually descended into an increasingly comfortable layer of consciousness. Exactly on cue, the random chain of thoughts began, mostly trivial, frequently interesting, and sometimes profound. Some pretty cool stuff happens under trees, I thought. Take the Buddha, for example, didn’t he receive his enlightenment under a peepal tree in Bodh Gaya…was the dude actually meditating naked? sort of creepy…ok, back to the mantra…how about Newton, didn’t an apple fall on his head and he shouted “eureka!”…fuck no, that was Archimedes, Newton was a Brit, he probably apologised to the apple…back to the mantra…funny how Callaway started using the Newtonian apple and the “can’t argue with physics” tag line for the new Big Bertha woods, maybe I should buy one…back to the mantra…does Tiger Woods meditate? he could almost will those putts into the hole, wonder if I could do that…actually screw Tiger, I want to be like Yoda, would be so cool to do Jedi mind tricks, actually move stuff with my thoughts…back to the mantra…is it 20 minutes yet? no, 3 minutes to go…back to the mantra…wonder what’s for breakfast, love those almond milk blueberry smoothies…ok, time’s up back to reality…shit, that was pretty cool, now chill for a couple of minutes…

While the setting is never quite as surreal, this stream of consciousness is fairly typical of a transcendental meditation (TM) session, for me and apparently for most others according to my guru, the inimitable Michael Miller. Michael is the complete antithesis of what one might expect a Vedic instructor to look like. To start with, he’s from Iowa. No saffron robes, and instead of a flowing beard he sports a manicured two day stubble that is de rigueur for millennial GQ man. He is articulate and silky smooth, has an engaging manner and infectious laugh, and most importantly has the ability to reduce the incredibly complex to the absurdly simple, which is the hallmark of any great teacher.  In four two-hour sessions conducted in a labyrinthine mews house in London’s tony South Kensington, Michael proceeded to show us the path to transcendence. While the process requires disciplined instruction (i.e don’t try this at home),  the fundamentals are straightforward. To start with, a unique mantra is assigned to you by your teacher. While this is essentially a meaningless sound, it is fundamental to the Vedic meditation process, serving both as the trigger and the anchor for your mind. In fact, one could define a meditation session quite simply as an interval of time – 20 minutes is the standard – where your intention is to focus on your mantra. For reasons I don’t quite get, if I told you mine I’d have to kill you, but lets just say it sounds very much like a Pakistani cricketer’s first name. Somewhat counterintuitively, you embrace rather than reject the random thoughts that inevitably come your way i.e it is perfectly fine if much of the 20 minutes is spent reflecting on what’s for lunch. The distinction from plain daydreaming is simply the intent to reflect on your mantra, which after some practise and instruction, genuinely does seem to take you to a different level of consciousness.

Deepak Chopra, the self appointed Dean of the “alternative spirituality” community, says that the essence of TM is “finding the space between your thoughts”, which is also the key to finding “yourself”. Sort of an anti-Cartesian (non cogito ergo sum) view of the world I suppose. This is interesting, but I’m not necessarily looking for myself, actually I’m afraid of what might turn up. Finding nothing is my greatest fear, in which case (according to Chopra, at least) I would be nothing, which is sort of depressing. Chopra also has this all encompassing theory that unifies ancient religion and quantum physics, and in his world TM provides an Einstein bridge to an alternative existence where connected souls live in harmony and make the world a better place. My personal view is to leave world peace to Bill Clinton, spiritual awakening to the Dalai Lama and quantum physics to Richard Feynman, the reality is most of us don’t really give a shit.

Which of course begs the fundamental question; why bother? My natural cynicism about modern prophets like the controversial Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or the unctuous Deepak Chopra was a significant impediment to signing up in the first place. At a personal level, I was persuaded by my father, who despite his scientific training routinely prescribes TM as a panacea for diseases of all variety. Those in the finance world might be swayed by Ray Dalio, the legendary hedge fund manager who is surpassed only by George Soros in the all time investment sweepstakes. Dalio has his own magical version of the “2/20” formula – twenty minutes of meditation twice daily – and he is on record as saying that TM is “the single most important reason for whatever success I’ve had.” This from a man who started with $300 and is still going strong at $10bn plus. As it says in the Vedas, or so I’m told, “money talks, bullshit walks”.

67_beatles_maharishi-mahesh_yogi_002Parenthetically, Dalio got his inspiration from the Beatles and the Fab Four’s famous trip to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh in 1968. This was of course the Swinging Sixties, and John, Paul, George and Ringo, having recorded Sergeant Pepper’s while tripping on LSD, needed a fresh creative boost. The enigmatic White Album was an immediate by-product, along with a cult following for the Maharishi and TM in the West. In a sense, much of 60s rock music reflected this yearning to somehow “transcend”, with hallucinogenic drugs or TM, and frequently both, being the preferred means of transportation. My idol Jim Morrison said it best in Track One, Side One (if you’re old enough to know what that means) of the monumental album that introduced The Doors to the world – Break on Through (To the Other Side).

My own experience thus far is encouraging. I cannot claim to be putting like Tiger, but now when I miss a tiddly three footer – as I did twice on Tuesday – I laugh. In the grand scheme of things, that may well be a greater gift. Tangibly, my heart rate and blood pressure have both dropped materially, presumably suggestive of reduced systemic stress. Every session is different; some drag on forever while others reduce to a single blissful moment. There is almost always that one experience, the golfing equivalent of that singular perfectly struck shot, that keeps you coming back for more. Along with shedding daily baggage, occasionally pockets of stress – anger, guilt, sadness – long held in the system somehow bubble up to the surface. Last week, for example, a memory from the distant past appeared on my TM radar. “Never trust statistics”, said the man, “if you did you would believe the average American has one ball and one tit”. The time was 1984, and this was Professor Shiv Gupta’s opening line for his Quantitative Analysis MBA course at the Wharton School. This quirky old man was in fact instrumental in persuading me, then a clueless 20-year old, to attend and in fact admitting me to Wharton. Shamefully, I never bothered to stay in touch, nor did I ever really think about him until I read he had passed away twelve years after my graduation. Too late for the warm embrace that was his minimum due for engineering one of the pivotal turns in my life. Yet, somehow in this one transcendental moment that is difficult to describe, I made my peace with the memory of Prof Gupta. One less bag to carry.

o-YODA-facebookAs Yoda might say, Mother Teresa I will never be, but less of a jerk I may become. Buddha I am not, but more chilled out I am. Live forever I will not, but like James Brown, I feeeel good. Move stuff with my mind I cannot, but wtf, give me some time. Meanwhile, may the Force be with you.

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Rock Me Amadeus

Don GiovanniMadamina, il catalogo è questo – 1003 in Spain, 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey. But what might il catalogo refer to in this case? Bank failures following the financial crisis? Best value wines rated 90+ by Wine Spectator? Active Champions League footballers? All reasonable guesses, but unfortunately completely wide off the mark. Opera buffs, of course, would instantly recognize Don Giovanni’s catalog of carnal conquests from Mozart’s eponymous masterpiece, which we saw performed at London’s always magnificent Royal Opera House last week.

My own views on opera are somewhat mixed, and aligned with Napoleon’s thoughts on warfare – there is frequently only a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous. Take Verdi’s Rigoletto, for example, which combines the rollicking aria La Donna e Mobile and the haunting quartet Bella Figlia dell’Amore with a plot that borders on the downright silly. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, with the ultimate tear-jerking aria Un Bel Di Vedremo, is ruined by the “wtf” construct of Cio-Cio San performing a ritual suicide using her father’s hara-kiri knife while her blindfolded son sits by, calmly brandishing an American flag. Some operas are worth watching for sheer spectacle alone; for example, Aida performed under the stars in Verona should be on everyone’s bucket list. Others fall short despite an extravagant staging. Turandot performed in Beijing’s Forbidden City, with Zubin Mehta conducting, verged on the spectacular but casting proved a fatal flaw. Quite simply, for a man to risk decapitation his prize must look more like Gisele Bundchen rather than a female Sumo wrestler. But Mozart is in an altogether different league; if his operas have an element of ridicule, it is either laced with irony or intended as outright comedy. One gets the sense, for example, that a contemporary Wolfgang might be a fan of The Big Lebowski. Love and romance feature, but never of the maudlin variety favored by Puccini. The music always has an element of lyrical playfulness, so that when Mozart resorts to the dramatic – the finale of Don Giovanni for example – it truly resonates, in this case exploring complex themes of divine retribution, morality and mortality. A healthy dose of sexual innuendo is a Mozart trademark; at Covent Garden last week, the Director exercised some license and introduced a delightful menage a trios involving a couple of shapely blondes whose auditions presumably involved more libido than libretto. Mercifully, and such was his genius, Mozart operas almost never feature fat ladies, I’m sure a very deliberate function of the vocal range scored by the maestro for his elegant divas. Keep the plump Turandots, give me that sleek and sexy Queen of the Night anytime.

AmadeusSpeaking of genius, this brings up a question I have frequently reflected on over the years – what is the essence of genius, musical or otherwise? I suppose everyone has their own take on this, but for me the answer is simplicity and elegance, which in turn leads to a beauty that stimulates the mind in a fashion that sometimes defies description. Conversely, complexity is all too often confused with true brilliance. Take literature for example. Golfer’s, or at least those with a bookish disposition, have an expression for a putt that seems impossibly difficult to read – a “Salman Rushdie.” It took me three attempts to get through Midnight’s Children, and fellow victims of Rushdie’s pomposity will relate when I confess to some sympathy with the Ayatollah’s fatwa. But if you think Rushdie is a tough read, try Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, the 1971 Pullitzer Prize winning classic treatise by Douglas Hofstadter, I started the book while in college in 1983, fascinated by the notion that someone might unlock for me the threads that connect mathematical, artistic and musical genius. 30 years on, I finally gave up, concluding that life is too short for these mental space odysseys. A Wagner opera evokes a similar reaction – wtf dude? Mozart, on the other hand, turns me on in much the same way as does Einstein’s General Relativity and John Nash’s Equilibrium – I guess I’m a math geek at heart – the common thread being the monumental ability to take the incredibly complex and profound and reduce it to a simple message, delivered via an equation or a musical score, or a work of art or simple prose for that matter.

einsteinSounds flaky? Turns out Mozart’s greatest fan was Einstein, who saw a great affinity in their respective creative processes. Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart’s “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.” Einstein believed much the same of physics; that the laws of nature were “waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear”. Neuroscience is constantly coming to grips with this phenomena of what truly energises and activates the mind. For example, in 1993, neurologists at the University of California (Irvine) observed the so called “Mozart Effect” in a laboratory experiment. Students who had a Mozart sonata playing in the background consistently scored 10% higher in spatial IQ tests relative to a control group who listened to random “relaxation music”. More recently, in an experiment conducted on 60 mathematicians, neurologists at the University College London discovered that the same emotional brain centres used to appreciate art and music were being stimulated by “beautiful” math. Euler’s Identity – simple and elegant, yet profound – topped the charts in terms of generating the maximum level of excitement in the medial orbito-frontal cortex (the “emotional brain”), while poor Srinivas Ramanujan and his Infinite Series brought up the rear. As harsh as this sounds, this would make the gifted Rushdie, at least in my estimation, the “not so beautiful” literary counterpart to Ramanujan, which of course begs an altogether different question – wtf is the deal with these Indians?

falcoComing back to Mozart and dragging this all down to earth, the last word must surely go to German one-hit wonder Falco, who has the singular distinction of outdoing Einstein on what was always Albert’s favourite subject. In his 80s classic hit Rock Me Amadeus, Falco captures the essence of Mozart more eloquently than Einstein ever did:

With a bottle of wine in one hand and a woman in the other
‘Cause he was a ladies man
He never stopped to worry what the next day would bring
Because the girls would sing:
Rock me Amadeus

His mind was on rock and roll and having fun
Because he lived so fast he had to die so young.
But he made his mark in history.
Still ev’rybody says:
Rock me Amadeus

Now that’s my kind of genius.


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Dum Maro Dum

Rocky_Mountain_High_previewOf all the stars that have graced the peaks of popular music charts, John Denver may well be my least favourite. While Abba and Dancing Queen get under my skin, John Denver’s nasal drawl drives me nuts. The nauseating Annie’s Song, the eponym being John’s wife who apparently filled up his senses “like sleepy blue oceans and mountains in springtime” is bad enough, but then he drones on about “country roads taking him home” and “leaving on a jet plane”. Wtf dude, you driving or flying? Not that I have anything against romantic ballads, it’s just that Cream’s classic Sunshine of Your Love or John Lee Hooker’s racy  Boom Boom Boom – are much more my thing. If you must drag oceans and skies into it, Van Morrison’s ethereal Sweet Thing does the job nicely.

But perhaps I was too hasty in my judgment. What if Denver was not, as I assumed dismissively, a cowboy crooner with geeky oversized glasses, but rather a cool prophet and early evangelist for a noble cause? What if Rocky Mountain High, officially Colorado’s  “state song”, was never about forests and streams, but instead the sheer joy of smoking weed out in the open, both literally and metaphorically? We will never know, but regardless, effective January 1, 2014, the State of Colorado made the sale and use of marijuana legal, not just for medicinal purposes, but for “recreational” purposes as well. Washington is next, and hopes are high that California and Florida follow. From Clinton’s “I tried it, but did not inhale” to Obama’s “I inhaled frequently; that was the point”, the times they truly are a-changin’. It is high time.

The arguments for the legalisation of cannabis are well known and increasingly accepted. The Economist, for example, has been a consistent advocate for the cause since 1993. There is no evidence to suggest that the side effects of consumption, whether in moderation or in excess, are any worse than those of alcohol. Why should cannabis therefore be banned when booze and tobacco, or Big Macs and fries for that matter, remain legal? Rather than waste state resources on enforcing a ban – and that too selectively – much better to legalise, regulate and tax production and consumption, with all the appropriate disclosures and safeguards in place, including of course restrictions on sale to minors. Even more fundamentally, I have a visceral negative reaction to the state – any state – imposing these seemingly arbitrary laws based on past prejudices. Governments that allow guns in the hands of any retard with a pulse abrogate their right to dictate what people should drink or smoke. I have infinitely more faith in my kids’ ability to decide for themselves what “works” and equally, what doesn’t; it is a basic rite of passage.

Lest the reader dismiss these as the rantings of a pothead, let me clarify that my personal interest in the subject is – regrettably – almost completely academic at this stage in life, and a function of perhaps overly romantised nostalgia. The garbage we were sold as students was mostly hashish that looked and smelled like something that came out of the wrong end of a goat. Joints – I took great pride in rolling mine artistically – were passed around in a daily communal male bonding ritual, with the customary acknowledgement of “this is good shit, man” after every puff. Occasionally you lucked out and someone delivered the genuine article, and then the effect was something to be savoured. You laughed compulsively, lost track of time, and your senses heightened; food tasted great and music sounded awesome. Smarter minds than I, physicist Carl Sagan among them, reported a distinct sharpening of cognitive ability, and I somewhat disingenuously encouraged the myth of my academic success being attributed to a daily spliff. However, candidly, my experience was quite the contrary. I tried to dive into fractal geometry while stoned, and mostly I just giggled. Almost without exception, the “trip” was better than the cheap booze we had access to, with none of the immediate side effects of being sick and bloated. An excursion to Mussoorie – in the foothills of the Himalayas – lingers fondly in the memory, thanks to a prized supply of the finest Afghani hashish and an even more treasured recording of Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer. 

ZeenatMusic is of course completely integral to the stoner’s experience. Almost any music worked, just as long as it wasn’t Abba or John f**king Denver. My own preference while under the influence was bluesy and somewhat edgy rock. Led Zeppelin (Dazed and Confused, Stairway to Heaven), Pink Floyd (Brain Damage, Time) and Jimi Hendrix (Red House, Purple Haze) always did the trick. Morrison was monumental, for me always a poet (“have you been born yet and are you alive”) more than a rock star. I suppose you have to throw Bob Marley into the mix, but he always had that strange thing going with religion that I never really got.

But for all that the world of rock gave us, Bollywood went one up with the cult classic Dum Maro Dum (“Puff, Puff, Take a Hit” might be a loose translation). The image of the delectable Zeenat Aman in a hypnotic trance, swaying and crooning Dum Maro Dum , the inspired lyrics that captured teenage angst with poetic precision…that was good shit man, and those were good days.

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Auld Lang Syne

times-square-new-yearsLike MacArthur’s old soldiers, great hotels never die, they simply fade away. Sadly, this is the inevitable fate of Goa’s Taj Holiday Village at Fort Aguada, our December holiday destination for over a decade. The sine qua non for any fine hotel, particularly one that thrived on being a “party” destination, is its clientele. In this case, the celebrities and assorted movers and shakers that made Taj the place to see and be seen seem to have moved on, replaced by the crassly noveaux riche. Think leery fat men in white suits and gold chains, with the odd Russian budget tourist completing the picture of tragic decline. The last straw was a tasteless New Year’s Eve entertainment act featuring three scantily clad, overweight and utterly vapid Ukrainian burlesque dancers. Time to move on.

The fading glory of the Taj notwithstanding, sunny Goa was fun as always, with the usual combination of friends, family and assorted “old acquaintances” contributing to the richness of the experience. London’s fifty shades of January grey beckon, I suppose the only consolation being, as the poet Shelley says, “if winter is here can spring be far behind”.

The New Year is inevitably a time when we wax alternately nostalgic and reflective, as though the arbitrary break in the calendar should have some meaningful effect on fortune or fate. Of course it doesn’t, except for the fact that enough people subscribe to that line of reasoning so that it feels as if it actually matters. Social scientists say that this affinity for New Year’s resolutions actually has a name – “fresh start effect.” In their paper, The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior, researchers Hengchen Dai and Katherine Milkman from The Wharton School and Jason Riis from Harvard Business School attempt to measure this phenomenon. Not surprisingly, Google searches for terms such as “diet” and “gym visits” all increase markedly following temporal landmarks such as New Year’s Day or birthdays. The researchers posit “that these landmarks demarcate the passage of time, creating many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviours.”

This is sort of interesting and fairly obvious, but in my view complete bullshit. According to a Times study, the average New Year resolution is broken by January 24. I always wonder about these studies, but the point stands; meaningful and committed goals are invariably set in response to trigger events, not phases of the moon, and the truly disciplined do not wait for a ball to drop in Times Square to get going. For the rest of us, Oscar Wilde has it right. “Good resolutions are simply cheques that men draw on a bank where they have no account.” Sometimes dates do matter, most notably in financial markets where a combination of psychological and technical factors make the “January effect” a measurable phenomenon. Mostly, however, year end machinations of the mind tend to be exercises in mental masturbation. Resolutions are invariably hopelessly cliched – “lose weight”, “work out more”, “work less”, and “spending time with family” all feature prominently on the list. Perhaps my “wtf” reaction is a function of being a living anti-cliche. Shedding a few pounds would put me on the wrong side of anorexia, my ageing joints struggle to keep pace with my gym routine, I really should be working more, and my family wishes I got a life and left them alone. Maybe I should resolve to spend more time with my dog.

Over the years, another one of my pet gripes with New Year’s Eve has been the saccharine ritual of holding hands and singing Auld Lang Syne on the midnight hour. Apparently even the Chinese do it now, though India mercifully sticks with the latest Bollywood “item number”, Radha being the choice for 2013. Wtf does that Gaellic shit mean anyway? But then, following an accidental visit to Jimi Hendrix’s former London home, I discovered this remarkable rendition (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwTO54hXu3U) that changed my view completely. I’m not sure what Robert Burns would think, but this is vintage Hendrix improvising at his irrepressible best. Enjoy it – the Fender Stratocaster kicks in after a minute – and in 2014 resolve to simply “rock on”. Unlike those other resolutions, at least you’ll have fun trying.


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L’affaire Devyani

DevyaniOpinions are like assholes, everybody has one.”

Clint Eastwood’s classic line comes to mind as the storm surrounding the saga of Ms. Khobragade unfolds. The Indian reaction is evocative of the Ramayana; it is as if Sita herself had been abducted by Ravana. Unless these rakshasa Americans recant, Hanuman himself will be on a MiG-29 to New York, tail blazing and all. The US liberal media, moderately condescending in its attitude, is taking the moral high ground and gently chiding India for not recognizing worker rights, and of course pointing out that the rakshasa in this case is in fact a Punjabi desi boy. Meanwhile, new facts about the protagonists are dredged up by the minute. Ms. Khobragade is a real estate tycoon, speaks German, and her husband is a “wine philosopher”; evidently a true renaissance couple. Ms. Sangeeta Richards, the silent victim at the center of the storm, is allegedly a CIA agent.

PreetBhararaMy own take, aside from being in awe of Ms. Khobragade’s dazzling portfolio of smiley photos, is that while the Indian over-reaction is symptomatic of a country still coming to terms with its place in the new world order, the US handling of the matter raises some serious issues. To start with, the blanket arrest protocol – handcuffing and strip searching – for an offence of this variety is pointlessly humiliating and completely out of line with practice in most civilized societies, including India. In the UK, handcuffing is classified as a “use of force” and justifiable only when the accused poses a threat; likewise a strip search needs to be authorized by a senior officer, and only for the purpose of searching for a concealed weapon or drugs. The comparison with the arrest of Dominic Strauss-Kahn, put forward as a shining example of the even-handedness of the US justice system, is rather ludicrous. Monsieur Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexual assault, while this lady allegedly underpaid a domestic helper. Moreover, the entire episode smacks of an underlying political agenda involving New York District Attorney Preet Bharara, perhaps part of his transformation from Preet to Peter to fulfill his political ambitions. Clearly, Ms. Devyani exercised extraordinarily poor judgment for someone in her position, and her “drama queen” act seems right out of Bollywood. But by the same token there is no evidence of maltreatment of her housekeeper, or at least none that has come to light. Wtf, Sangeeta even had an iPad!

The Indian reaction is of course shockingly immature; I personally would have loved to see India claim the moral high ground. While lodging an official protest, which prima facie seems entirely justified, I would simultaneously apologize for and take disciplinary action against Ms. Khobragade. Perhaps assign her to the Frankfurt consulate, which might be punishment enough, where she can speak German and her erudite oenophile husband can sniff spatburgunder and study Schopenhauer. Which might then have opened the door for the US Justice Department, its misguided Punjabi crusader notwithstanding, to back down under pressure from the State Department which presumably had nothing to do with this sorry mess in the first place? As for Ms. Richards, she should be given a Green Card. Armed with her Apple device, she can now be every bit as American as Preet Bharara. Next step the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Meanwhile, if India beats South Africa today, all will be forgiven and forgotten. After all, we are like this only.

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