The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Archive for February 2011

We interrupt this programme for a brief message…

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Hello, ye all few but faithful visitors to my blog,

Sometime in mid-2010, I decided to stop working for “the man” (despite my not being fully ERE yet) because of several reasons… I don’t feel like talking about it again — too depressing. After consulting with DW, I’ve become an (social-)entrepreneur since, and I’ve deliberately chosen Bootstrapping model over the OPM/OPT model. So, it has been a rather slow plod, but I’ve got patience. Last week onwards, things have stirred up a little in this line, and I’ve had to travel more than usual. I am setting off again(!) in this regard, and won’t be on the Net till coming Monday/Tuesday.

Normal programming (subsequent parts of the globalisation doombat-ism) will resume from next week.

Please do keep tuned. Thank you.

Written by Surio

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Posted in Uncategorized

“Worker-Bees” of the world, unite? Part-I

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Don’t be alarmed by the title, I am more Groucho Marx (Hurray for Captain Spaulding!) than Karl Marx! Now take a brief look at this embedded video below from The Story of Stuff Project. It is a simple video, depicting trade as practiced today, and IMO, is very skewed. The references for her video can be accessed at her website.

(Pay close attention at 4 minutes and at 7 minutes into the narrative).

So, if you have watched it (at least to 8 mins), and are continuing to read on, I would now submit my polemical thought that for most nations, modern trade is nothing but some form of “slavery”. Usually, when I make or endorse statements like that, I run into a few well-meaning arguments countering my POV. Let’s lay them out here.

  1. Trade is a great thing. You can get the best product at the best price from the most efficient producers in the world.
  2. Look at Hans Gosling’s TED talk and you’ll see an amazing progress in the 20th century as both income and life expectancy increase dramatically for many developing nations. If not trade, what else is causing it? Would you rather be “insert some Asian country here” or would you rather be “North Korea” (that last bastion of self-sufficiency, but with other ideological issues)?
  3. Trade between nations is very good. It is vital to the interests and progress of the entire world
  4. So, you spend considerable effort arguing that trade is bad and like slavery, yet you go ahead and engage in it. E.g., The PC you are typing this blog from was probably “Made in China” employing ‘slave labour’ as you submitted up there?

I hear them, because, in the past, I was told exactly those very things and I did believe in them. But now I see them to be fallacious arguments. I will address them all, one by one. As the posts got a little involved, I have split the posts into many parts, based on the questions. But first, let us see, what is the meaning of the word “trade”, as in a dictionary? (Thanks to DW for suggesting this)

Trade (n):
1. The commercial exchange (buying and selling on domestic or international markets) of goods and services
2. […]
5. An equal exchange
7. [….]

Perhaps, I am biased by my own history of the famous “Silk Road” in which India was an equal (dominant even, maybe?) and an important player. So, (5) was always my first thought when someone suggests the word “trade” to me. So, it won’t take a rocket science degree to see straight away that modern trade immediately loses (a little?) ground by means of just the definition.

Trade is a great thing. You can get the best product at the best price from the most efficient producers in the world.

Let’s begin with a small thought experiment:

Close your eyes. Imagine there are huge factories in many states in some part of the World, and each of them that are manufacturing these specific items: Conical hats, dhoti, Kimono, Saree, Sarong, Rickshaw (older varieties), tanga, Cart, equipment such as Water wheels, etc…….

So far, so good. Now imagine these factories are located in the West (USA, Germany, etc…), and the goods are in turn supplied to the East. Whatever surplus produced in these factories due to productivity improvements in “Taylorism”, can be used to supply the local populace (American, German, British…etc…).
RMB 500, Rs. 250….etc are going the prices for them too. Very reasonable and lots of deals in “Cart-Mart”, “Tanga-Land”, “Sashes-R-Us” and “Gimee-Kimono” outlets!

Now, all those in favour of “free trade” ideas mentioned above, please raise your hands? Are you still with me? Or have I offended every one of you? If I have, I am truly sorry. Those above mentioned items in that thought experiment were every bit part of those colonised/recently liberalised Eastern civilisations’ sociocultural fabric (as American as Apple pie comes to mind) and had enabled them to engage in a quality of life, leisure and enjoyment that the West is now increasingly wanting to escape to all the time. (Backpacker/Tourism stats, anyone?). But that is unfortunately how it reads if you’re not from the West. Dmitri Orlov puts it scathingly in his longnow foundation talk:

Professor Fukuyama told us that history had ended, and so we were building a brave new world where the Chinese made things out of plastic for us, the Indians provided customer support when these Chinese-made things broke, and we paid for it all just by flipping houses, pretending that they were worth a lot of money whereas they are really just useless bits of ticky-tacky.

Here’s another “thought” question: Would Thomas Friedman have gone all fruit-cake over “Flat” world (I cringe every time I hear that phrase!) if the tables were turned the other way? What I intend to convey is best illustrated by this:

Some of them, eager to land one of the customer service jobs from India, are attending special training sessions in New York City, led by language specialist Dave Ramsey, who goes by a simpler name for his Indian clients: Devendra Ramaswaminathan.

Professor: “Okay, Gary, Randy and Jane, first we need to give you Indian names. Gary, from now on, you’ll be known to your customers as Gaurav. Randy, you’ll be Ranjit. And Jane, you’ll be Jagadamba. Now imagine you just received a call from Delhi. What do you say?”

Gary: “Name as tea?”

Jane: “How can I be helping you?”

Professor: “Good try! You’re using the correct tense, but it’s not quite right. Anyone else?”

Randy: “How I can be helping you?”

If you are interested, read the rest of the blog post in full here. Now imagine if this is NOT a satire (either on call centres, nor on the stupid fixation of Indians with English), but this IS the reality. Would it have been so “welcome”? That is why I wanted you to go through these thought experiments, to see how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot.

The reality is, before globalisation was forced into many of these so-called “developing nations”, all the people from these places, had “their place” under the Sun, not as in a 2-bedroom-house-for-every-family, but as in “a sense of belonging”! Think I am making it up? This is Bill Watterson reminding us that uncomfortable truth in this comic strip.

I am significant, like everyone else.

I am also significant, like everyone else.

If you had read my detailed review of Blue Zones, you will have noticed that jobs-or-no-jobs, being part of a close-knit family unit clearly helps in maintaining one’s health, well-being and overall happiness. Now, you can put a price on your job, but can you put a value to those three things mentioned? As Oscar Wilde summed it so long ago: “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

The real problem is, these aspects are rarely if ever honestly discussed, before considering the need to “open up”. Anyone who mentions these is a “nostalgic”, “romantic-head-in-clouds” type, or worse, an “enemy-of-progress”.

Elsewhere, H.H the Dalai Lama says in one of his talks:

No matter how attractive a traditional rural society may seem, its people cannot be denied the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of modern development. However, as this book suggests, development and learning should not take place in one direction only. Amongst the people of traditional societies such as Tibet or Ladakh there is often an inner development, a sense of warm-heartedness and contentment, that we would all do well to emulate.

And this, in my view, has been the biggest failure of modern “trade policies” practised. More and more of “this is how you all ought to live, because we live like this, and so it MUST be good for you too, deadly no?” is thrown at the rest of the World and less and less of “that sounds like another good way of doing things” (based on my own experience). Indeed, most off-shoring operations are beset with back-biting, unnecessary nitpicking, rubbing about “lack of English” when it is not at all needed, putting down offshore centres’ work quality, even when the original blueprint used in the execution originally came from the mothership. There has to be a different way, plain and simple. This is the first of the many times I will be quoting this passage from Ivan Illich, since it is relevant in many places:

By now it should be evident to all America that the U.S. is engaged in a tremendous struggle to survive. The U.S. cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on-Earth. The survival of the U.S. depends on the acceptance by all so-called “free” men that the U.S. middle class has “made it”. The U.S. way of life has become a religion which must be accepted by all those who do not want to die by the sword – or napalm. All over the globe the U.S. is fighting to protect and develop at least a minority who consume what the U.S. majority can afford.

Here’s the irony of it. This speech was made in 1968 in Mexico! And the writing hasn’t changed at all, simply Vietnam has been replaced by Venezuela or Afghanistan, or some other place I’ve forgotten (Bolivia happens to come up as the bad guys, on and off!). And dare I say it, the American dream itself has soured as we write in 2011, so why persist in this notion of “trade” between the World? Why not, let’s all become self-sufficient as it was, just 4 generations ago.

So, before you praise trade for all its “greatness”, “convenience”, “efficiency”, etc… Think about it once again. Is it all that and more simply because it is a replica of what “you” are used to living, doing and dealing with, or will you still think it is great, if reality was as mentioned in those thought experiments above? I leave you with that thought. And I will take up the next question in Part II.

Read Part II here.

Written by Surio

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Life in Pictures – II

with 4 comments

Another weekend comes and goes… Actually, I am not in the best of spirits, but still decided to post something here. Thoughts that follow may not make for funny or thoughtful reading. There, you’ve been warned!

Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice broke in upon my thoughts:
“You are right, Watson,” said he. “It does seem a most preposterous way of settling a dispute.”
“Most preposterous!” I exclaimed, and then suddenly realizing how he had echoed the inmost thought of my soul, I sat up in my chair and stared at him in blank amazement. […]
“Do you mean to say that you read my train of thoughts from my features?”
“Your features and especially your eyes. Perhaps you cannot yourself recall how your reverie commenced?”
“No, I cannot.”
“Then I will tell you. After throwing down your paper, which was the action which drew my attention to you, you sat for half a minute with a vacant expression. Then your eyes fixed themselves upon your newly framed picture of General Gordon, and I saw by the alteration in your face that a train of thought had been started. […]
You were recalling the incidents of Beecher’s career. I was well aware that you could not do this without thinking of the mission which he undertook on behalf of the North at the time of the Civil War, for I remember your expressing your passionate indignation at the way in which he was received by the more turbulent of our people. You felt so strongly about it that I knew you could not think of Beecher without thinking of that also. When a moment later I saw your eyes wander away from the picture, I suspected that your mind had now turned to the Civil War, and when I observed that your lips set, your eyes sparkled, and your hands clenched I was positive that you were indeed thinking of the gallantry which was shown by both sides in that desperate struggle. But then, again, your face grew sadder; you shook your head. You were dwelling upon the sadness and horror and useless waste of life. Your hand stole towards your own old wound and a smile quivered on your lips, which showed me that the ridiculous side of this method of settling international questions had forced itself upon your mind. At this point I agreed with you that it was preposterous and was glad to find that all my deductions had been correct.”

–– Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

An excellent piece to demonstrate, how there’s no controlling how the mind jumps through hoops, or switches gear instantaneously. You may read the full conversation in the link provided. This conversation occurs right at the beginning of the story. So, my train of thought went somewhat like that in the last few days:

First there was this excellent post on Monevator about inflation that I read! Some highlights (emphasis mine):

If you could know with any degree of certainty that high inflation is on the way (or, equally, that it’s definitely not) then you could capitalize on it by buying or shorting government bonds.
For that very reason, tens of trillions of dollars is wagered in the government bond market worldwide, utterly dwarfing the equity market. This bond market sucks up the brainpower of thousands of smart people who are paid a small fortune to guess the direction of interest rates.

If you think you know better than this vast voting machine because, for example, you read on a blog that Mexicans are having a stand-off due to a tortilla shortage, then please get over yourself(*).
Fears of high inflation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as workers push for higher wages and consumers and companies start stockpiling.

Alternatively, the prospect of higher interest rates to come to tame the inflation can curb spending and borrowing, and stop companies investing in expansion – even before rates have moved by very much.
UK QE can be blamed for the weaker pound, but it hasn’t driven the oil price. And for its part the US has so far seen very little domestic inflation, despite its own massive QE operations and super-low interest rates.

History, as ever, remembers the winners. Still, that’s more than most bloggers, who seem to remember neither the winners nor the losers, but rather just that morning’s headlines.

Instead of being a hawk or a dove on inflation, as private investors we should play chicken to protect our wealth. This means having a healthy fear of the consequences of inflation, but not going crazy at every headline (that just makes you a headless chicken).

(*) That would be me most of the times! 😦
Thank you, “The Investor” I said, and thought no more about it. As (bad) luck would have it, in the next few days most discussions I had on the ERE forums seemed to highlight the fact that inflation was present in the US (also pushed up petrol prices, as I recall from the conversation), and was a noticeable enough phenomenon! Over here, inflation has been a bug bear over the last 4-6 monts, and shows no signs of abating. The latest Govt. pastime seems to be unloading one scam after another over for the World’s entertainment! Our stock market had some prolonged ups and downs lately (yes, yes, ordinarily the market tends to do that, but inflation and poor governance are not ordinary events!), which has provided enough grist to the mill for the damned media. One main reason was the FII pullout due to the instability of inflation and governance combined (That’s one theory – many more abound, but that one’s found more traction). I had held my peace over inflation for several months (as Monevator says good bloggers ought to) before raising it on my blog lately. And then the things that I (or for that matter, Monevator) hadn’t accounted for, like the US inflation with oil included in the upswing, and the sudden see-saw on the Indian market is highlighted to you rather sharply (Now with this new info, go back and re-read Monevator’s post and re-assurances – you’ll be a tad worried (just a tad, mind you), just like me).

It set me wondering, when was the last time these combinations went into freefall, Surio? Not so far off, the answer came: Remember the Argentine economic crisis brought about by inflation and poor governance? And don’t forget that capital flight was part of that equation too! And it seems it hasn’t left them completely either! (Sorry, Monevator, but I hope this doesn’t count as latest headlines :-()
And there’s more Surio, said another tiny voice, now warming up (Damn you, voices!!! :x)! Don’t forget Zimbabwe too! And that was a prime case of bad governance! Hoo Boy. That slipped my mood down a few notches.

And then, there was an impressively titled report from the WWF with much fanfare. Are they living in this same planet as the rest of us? Are they aware the kind of uphill struggle humankind is up against in this switch to renewables. Here’s a some quick visuals for the time challenged (Yes, the title of that post is also impressive! :-|) That was just the science part of it. Then as another commenter (impressive title there too, notice a trend here? :-?) had already taken note that there was a pronounced use of the “Imperial We” throughout the report. Sample these:

“We must introduce legally binding minimum efficiency standards world-wide”

“We need strict energy-efficiency criteria for all new buildings.”

“Developing countries must phase-out the inefficient uses of traditional biomass.”

“We need to massively expand our capacity for generating electricity from renewable resources.”

“We need urgent investment into smart grids.”

“We also need efficient grid management.”

“We need to consider the rights of communities and indigenous people.”

“We need to carefully analyze, country by country, what land and water is available for bioenergy.”

“We should limit growth in areas that depend on liquid fuels.”

One needn’t have more than a rudimentary understanding of European and American colonialism and its legions of missionaries, technocrats, investors, philosophers, explorers, and engineers who have in the past carried out the latest fantasy of world improvement in order to see where this might all be going. Despite the emphasis on equity, the belief that “a sustainable energy future must be a fair one, in which the equal right of every person to benefit from the world’s energy resources is recognized” (56), what is imagined in The Scenario is in fact an expansion of European and American globalism to an unprecedented level of design specification. We might refer to it as hyper-globalism, Plan B on steroids in which “we” provide the central intelligence needed to make “country by country” analyses, or to provide the “efficient grid management.” Indeed the report looks forward to a time in which not only is electricity shared within the world’s 10 regions, but eventually between them (150, note 32)

Yes, that’s all we need…. 😐 More puppet strings on everyone, everywhere! And then just when I didn’t need more bad news about collective myopia, this piece of slightly old news floats past me!

Bill Gates’ inane comments were just a little bit too much (I had tried hard to forget it, but this week’s mood just got me wound up straight away!). How about telling Americans to use only as much energy as an average European, Mr. Gates? And while we are there, how about telling the Europeans to use only as much energy as the average Asian, Mr. Gates…. Sheesh, that “Imperial We” again! Our ways are the aspirational ones, so naturally there’s no “reverse gear”, right? (Tony Blair’s an old pro on reverse gears Bill; ask him for pointers! :-()

OK, all things said, I’ve come to the topic of this weekend’s cartoon strip! This strip reflects how I am feeling right about now!

Bill Watterson just about nailed it here. Assumed fair use. Leave a comment if you want it removed.

Actually, I am sorry if this was all very drippy and negative. I sometimes wish I had a Blackadder streak in me…

(Blackadder enters the room and kicks the cat right off the floor.)
Baldrick: Oh sir, poor little Mildred the cat, what’s she ever done to you?
Blackadder: It is the way of the world Baldrick, the abused always kick downwards: I’m annoyed, and so I kick the cat, the cat (mouse squeaks) pounces on the mouse, and finally the mouse…
Baldrick: Ahhhh!
Blackadder: …bites you on the behind.
Baldrick: And what do I do?
Blackadder: Nothing, you are last in God’s great chain Baldrick. Unless of course there’s an earwig around here that you’d like to victimize.

That would be so easy. Step one: Find a cat! Step two: All is well! Hrm… Perhaps, I am Baldrick, and I don’t realise it still! 😐 And just to reassure you all, I swear I wasn’t doing something like this strip either!

assumed fair use...etc....

Ironically, that Holmes story ends with this rather grim soliloquy:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Indeed! What is the meaning of it all, folks? — GDP/GOP/ROI/PPP/TLA/TLA/TLA!

You know what? I’m Sorry! Just close this tab/window and enjoy the rest of your weekend! Let’s hope I shake off the blues by next week. I hope!

PS:Stop press!

And bless my dear DW! She reminds me that Valentine’s day is upon us. So, here’s a bonus strip that shares that thought, to say goodbyeeeee from me!

Fair use...etc.... See Last Panel. Nuff said! Happy Valentine's day to everyone!

Written by Surio

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Tale of two cities: Then and Now

with 2 comments

Dear readers. I would like to place two contrasting stories before you in this post. Chronologically, they are almost two generations apart. There is a unifying theme in both stories. In both cases, “nature” was the taskmaster that issued a series of challenges to humankind. How did we fare? We’ll find out.

Story I: Floods in Australia.

I came upon one woman’s account of the aftermath of the recent floods in Brisbane in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Firstly, two days after the hatches were battened down in Brisbane, her family went shopping for essentials, only to find that the Supermarket had shut its doors. I quote the circumstances:

[…] sales assistants who seemed close to tears and a handful of angry men remonstrating with security guards. It later emerged that this Coles was one of almost 30 across Brisbane that had been temporarily closed after shelves were stripped, staff abused and fellow shoppers assaulted.

Why did that happen? Denise wryly puts it with journalistic flourish:

[…] if there’s one thing uglier than cars and furniture being tossed around in murky brown water, it’s the furious, spit-flecked faces of the affluent hungry.

Well, I never!

Sample eyewitness accounts:

  1. A push in the milk aisle and a shove near the bread racks, eventually led to fistfights of a ferocity that left the manager no option but to summon the police.
  2. Two women were fighting over a loaf of bread and were warned that if they didn’t desist, the shop would be shut, leaving people with naught!
  3. Her husband was charged for 1.2 kg for a handful of snow peas (last ones left)!

Adding to the unfolding farce was this observation: Unhappy men on mobile phones were clearly being instructed not to dare come home empty-handed. The author herself was not too perturbed though. She had, “Plan-B” in her own words:

I started counting chickens […] sixteen of them. […] we would have at least two weeks’ worth of roast dinners […] before we ran out of food entirely

What about the others that didn’t have their own backyard coop or vegetable patches? This article really made for shocking reading for me.

  1. I think it is a godsend that this kind of reporting has been allowed to reach the wider world. I suspect, Denise Cullen being a freelancer was unencumbered by syndication laws and so could send in any story.
  2. There’s no reason for the rest of us to cackle at the Aussies. This could happen anywhere. Indeed, I shudder by just imagining the kind of chaos a similar scenario would produce in an Indian supermarket.
  3. It simply echoes the vulnerability of “modern marvellous living” with its overdependence on fossil-fuels and a centralised logistic warehousing model!
  4. Lastly it also highlights a very uncomfortable, unpalatable fact: despite years of affluence and prosperity over the last 2-3 decades, the “thin veneer of civilisation” is actually grown thinner, rather than the other way around.

I would like to place my second story before you, and perhaps that juxtaposition should help you place that last remark in context.

Story 2: 1925 serum run to Nome

A massive Diphtheria epidermic was averted in the city of Nome, Alaska (and its surrounding communities), due to the selfless act of 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs who travelled for 1,085 km and relayed the vaccine from Nenana to Nome by dog sled in a record-breaking five and a half days. This heroic act is commemorated by the “Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race” to this day.  

The town of Nome had ~1500 residents when this incident happened. From November to July, the port on the southern shore was inaccessible and Nome was linked to the rest of the world during the winter through the Iditarod Trail. This said incident took place in Dec 1924–Jan 1925. Without the vaccine, the number of people threatened in the area of was about 10,000, and the expected mortality rate was close to 100 percent!

Here’s how nature decided to cooperate: The temperatures across the Interior were at 20-year lows due to a high pressure system from the Arctic, and in Fairbanks the temperature was −46 °C. A second system was burying the Panhandle, as 40 km/h winds swept snow into 3.05m drifts. In addition, there were limited daylight hours due to the polar night. Let’s sample what happened to man & dog during the relay:

  1. Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm (−52 °C), first musher Shannon developed hypothermia and part of his face went black from frostbite. Resting for four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs out of his nine and left with the remaining 6. The three dogs died shortly!
  2. Second musher Kallands took over and headed into the forest, and hot water had to be poured over Kallands’ hands to get them off the sled’s handlebar when he arrived!
  3. Musher Evans relied on his lead dogs when he passed through ice fog, but forgot to protect the groins of his two lead dogs with rabbit skins. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite and died!
  4. Gonangan saw a storm brewing and decided not to take the shortcut across the dangerous ice of the Sound. The whiteout conditions cleared as he reached the shore and the gale-force winds drove the wind chill to −57 °C.
  5. Leonhard Seppala and his team, with “Togo”, had travelled 146 km from Nome into the oncoming storm, met up with the runners, decided to brave the storm and once again set out across the exposed open ice of the Norton Sound. The wind chill with the gale force winds was −65 °C. In one day, they had travelled 135 km! After resting awhile, the team once again ran into the full face of the storm blowing at 105kph. More heroics followed!
  6. Olsen was blown off the trail, and suffered severe frostbite (−57 °C) in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs.
  7. In the final leg, “Balto” led the team through visibility so poor that Gunnar Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled! Winds were so severe that his sled flipped over and he almost lost the serum cylinder when it fell off and became buried in the snow. He acquired frostbite when he had to use his bare hands to feel for the cylinder.

The book where I first read about the exploits

Together, the teams covered the 1,085 km in 127 hours, incredibly done in extreme subzero temperatures in near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds. Some dogs froze to death during the trip. A second relay was also organised, but acceding to political pressure it was decided that half will be delivered by plane. The plane failed to start when a broken radiator shutter caused the engine to overheat. The plane failed the next day as well, and that mission was scrapped! K

Thanks to the above altruistic heroism “The death toll is officially listed as either 5, 6, or 7, but Welch later estimated there were probably at least 100 additional cases among “the Eskimo camps outside the city.”

So, what made those dogs and owners risk life, limb and sanity to do this? Was it love of adventure? – these men were too hardboiled for that IMO! Was it a belief that a common bond of community is stronger than their individual selves? Was it the spirit of kinship for those suffering children (many of whom were not related to the runners themselves)?

I don’t know, but today when I read that story from Australia, I couldn’t help but remember these heroes at the same time. If the Nome people showed what resilience is, then the Brisbane story exposes Human brittleness! Keep the perspective, and thanks for reading.


  1. 2010–2011 Queensland floods
  2. Looking after No.1 in a time of deluge, Denise Cullen, 15/01/2011
  3. 1925 serum run to Nome 
  4. Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
  5. Togo, Balto, Tribute website of the incident run by Earl J. Aversano   

Written by Surio

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Posted in Musings, Philosophy

Life in Pictures

with 7 comments

They say, a picture speaks a thousand words. I agree. When I was growing up, my father would go out of his way and buy a lot of Sunday papers because we would nearly have a full page of cartoon strips. One of my favourites’ was Brickman’s small society. The exclamation of “Hoo Boy” in every strip and the messages from each strip has stayed with me and my father to this day…… I realised during my earlier posts on old age and retirement that many of those cartoons that I grew up with are still relevant today. Throughout my wrting those posts, my mind wandered back to the many discussions that I had with my father while I was trying to understand the meaning behind those strips. 🙂 Universal Press, which holds the copyright on them has stopped syndicating the strip (Alas!) along with Calvin and Hobbes my other favourite (Alas! Alas!).

But Oklahoma State University hosts some of Brickman’s cartoons as culturally, aesthetically and politically significant (no mean feat) and carried a feature around him, following his death (RIP).

Fun fact: Brickman took “early retirement” and spent his time playing “Jazz Piano”! I am a fan of the Jazz genre myself and early retirement sounds fun too. Good to realise, one of my childhood favourites also had similar inclinations. Nuff spoken. Enjoy the strip.

Brickman’s “small society”. The lack of capitals was meant to be an irony.

Have a good weekend!

Written by Surio

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Live long, not work longer: Final Thoughts

with 5 comments

This post is the third post on the series about “Old age vs. Retirement age”. The earlier posts can be read here and here.

The posts revolved around my thoughts on retirement ages with increased longevity. I had the pleasure of interacting with ermine and HSpencer in the blog comments on this topic and had an interesting exchange of views in the ERE forums as well. I would like to bring the topic to closure by summing up the conclusions from all those comments.

In previous posts, I had not touched “health” as a concern because the post was getting quite long already. I shall address that one here briefly:

A health aspect concern

When the pension policy was formulated, it was supposed to pay out for a period of say 20 years. And the average age expectancy matched that payout. So far so good.

Brief History: Instead of dismantling the world-war industrial complex after the war, it was decided to put that framework to use in food production, specially the chemical weapons part. The Army Corps were also put to use for building those massive dams. These two technologies and man-power were loaned out to the rest of the world (whether they asked or not – The Indian Green revolution was a by-product of this part of world history). So, food supply became abundant and more nutrition simply meant longevity and less infant mortality. The fact that this setup is beginning to show its age and expose many more problems than its initial show of strength is getting more evident now, but I do not want to digress. The net result of all this is longevity! People who were expected to pop their clogs by 75 are living into their 90s.

Meanwhile a few points to consider:

  • The pension policy assumed for a higher mortality and that calculation has gone boink!
  • The nature of jobs in economies with pensions have also changed. Varietyof jobs are missing; sedentary desk-based jobs (service jobs) became the norm.
  • The jobs carried more stress and unpredictability because they farmed out, re-organised, made redundant… etc…
  • This has led to other forms of ill-health than the previously thought life-threatening ones. New types of illnesses that often involves invasive surgery, presription medicines and major lifestyle changes: blood pressure, cholestrol, heart disease, insomnia, diabetes, etc…
  • Meanwhile, all this sedentary lifestyle (office and home – TV!) has caused a spurt of joint failures, lack of functional fitness and poor motor coordination in an entire generation.

As an aside, old people are not as mobile as the young to look for jobs. So the kind of jobs old people can hope to find for themselves is usually jobs around the cleaning services sector, jobs in supermarkets, some community volunteer services (e.g., lollipop man), guides, museum guards… OK, this list is getting tiresome, but you get the general idea. Basically, these are tied-to-a-location jobs. Often there’s competition with young people for these jobs too.

But the critical moot point to remember is this: Living long and being functional for your entire lifetime are two radically different things.

So, while they may be living longer, a coupling of all the above means: In terms of finding them a job, there are several riders attached to the clause. 9 out of 10 may have undergone heart surgery which makes jobs with lifting and lugging a liability for them (so, bread-loaf stacker job in a supermarket is perhaps ideal in such a case). But here’s another problem, if there are too many goldie oldies, how many bread loaf stacker jobs are likely going around at any given time? Therefore, even if there is a compulsion to put them to work, they are not functionally fit enough for any job. Rather they can be matched to only a very few jobs. That’s the sad part.

I will not belabour this point any more. I hope it brings out the general picture.

Summarising the interactions and conclusions over the posts

  1. The consenseus was that the tenet of “putting them out to work since they live long anyway” “may not be/is not” the humane/correct way to approach this.
  2. While I had deliberately neglected the workforce’s part in this ongoing story for the simple fact, it would have hampered my “highly charged” narrative, the comments left in the blog more than compensated for it. (thanks ermine/HSpencer. In one sense the comments complete the post 🙂 )
  3. There’s a lot of slash-and-burn attitude that’s entered people’s attitude to living… instant gratification has replaced prudence or calculating the cost and affordability of the same. iFads, granite kitchentops, top of the line furniture, that ‘must-have’ holiday… well the comments are fun read on their own!
  4. Realisation of the fact that things aren’t hunky dory with them, their lives or their finances is not at all clueing people to wake up to their reality. People are resorting to magical thinking of “wishing”, “hoping”, ….. anything but asking themselves long, hard, practical questions about solid actions to take. (I shudder to think of the stories from the AARP magazine ;-))
  5. While it may be too late for the older generation, any incentive (even the (shudder) lottery scheme) to entice and involve the younger generation into a savings culture is welcome. This should also set the trend where Govt. pulls out from the Florence Nightingale business and passes the baton of responsibility back to the people for pensions and healthcare.
  6. A thought revolving around increasing the pension/social security tax contribution from its current levels found no favour with anyone. This is mainly because of a distrust with the Governments because, in the past they have been naughty with their squandering of this resource. Again, the comments in the posts put it eloquently.
  7. Ominously, both commenters (UK and US) were independently unanimous in hinting that the retirement age would be put up and the tax bracket won’t be raised within the next 2-4 years. In all sincerity, one has to defer to the “experience of life” that speaks the same truth across continents!

Finally, I want to close this by drawing attention to this newly released book by Sage Publications, UK.

Aging: International Perspective

Brief summary of the book:

Community-based carer support programmes such as low-cost respite, and day and night in-home help options are a part of a larger array of community-based services that already exist, but the policy challenge here is to determine the mix of universal and targeted community-based programmes to be more effective. Virtually all countries, with the exception of Africa, have experienced or are on the verge of experiencing a marked growth in their aging population.

India occupies in the ‘Percentage increase in elderly population – 2000 to 2030,’ after Thailand and Brazil, but ahead of China, each with a 150-plus percentage increase(*), even as European countries are expected to experience a smaller percentage increase in their elderly population over the next 30 years.
(*) Likely explanation: For India it is mass immigration of young people in a “flat world” that has tipped the balance wildly out. For China it was the one child policy.

A grim fact brought out in the book is the impact of greying on the budget. The authors highlight how the question about how much to spend on aging social policies can be framed. Public policy debates tend to be about what we value, yet most debates eventually narrow to the question of what we can afford.

This anecdote stood out for me:

Former US defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s appearance before the Senate Committee on Appropriations to testify on the president’s emergency supplemental budget request for $87 billion for post-military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. “In his prepared remarks, Secretary Rumsfeld posed a rhetorical question: ‘Is $87 billion a great deal of money? Yes. But can we afford it? Without question.’ His point was that this request was of such high value that the money was not an issue. This request was ‘the price of freedom.’ Funding this request would send a clear ‘message to terrorists that we are willing to spend what it takes.’” Alas, such an importance does not usually get accorded to aging social policy issues.

If you are interested, read the rest of the review here. And Thank you for staying with me through the story.

Written by Surio

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Live long, not work longer: Some (Radical) solutions – I

with 8 comments

With regards to my earlier post, Deeply prevailing PWE sentiments: Redux, I got a few comments already as to the fact that I do not have alternative proposals lined up. I must confess I too would hate to be in the hot-seat for making such a decision, but please tell me, why is it that the easiest solution that does not inconvenience us but does inconvenience others, adopted all the time?

Some (Radical for many) proposals to keep the pension coffers running

It takes a lot of courage to do something as radical as this but certainly many of those cold-war fat cats and brazen hawks who continue to milk the war machine can be sent scurrying back to the holes they came from. An interesting film (with eye-candy) would be The Russia House for sound bites on how the war machinery triumphs by feeding falsity and fear. This sentiment is unacceptable in India too, as China/Pak are frequently cited as an excuse to procure armaments!

How about reinin in the healthcare industry (even the Indian ones) that are driving the costs up all the time (but we know how that one panned out in the USA), dismiss a culture of litigation that is source of much irony, both in US and UK. But I understand how the modern system works in the World today! We are a plutocracy!. Two illustrations from elsewhere.

Roy Brown, a homeless man from Shreveport Louisiana walked into a local bank, put his hand under his coat to mimic a gun, and demanded money. He rejected the pile of cash the teller offered him and took one $100 bill, saying that he was hungry and needed money for a place to sleep. He then turned himself in the next day, saying that his mother didn’t raise him that way. He was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 15 years in prison

Christian Milton, was an executive at American International Group, the international insurance firm bailed out with tax money. Mr. Milton engaged in a back-room scheme that defrauded AIG stockholders out of $500 million. Milton, a company vice president, committed securities fraud when he cut a secret deal with General Re Corp. to falsely inflate the asset value of AIG. He then lied about it to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The judge agreed with the prosecutor that Milton had known that the deal was a scam and had shown no remorse. Milton was sentenced to………wait for it…………4 years in prison.

Homeless, hungry, ashamed, and honest: $100 gets you 15 years
Rich, sleazy, brazen, and dishonest: $500 million gets you 4 years

Back to today, we have the oil mafia stealing headlines away from Egypt and Tunisia.

Forgot to mention earlier:

How about increasing the social security tax rate (*) to make up the difference, with a strict constitutional mandate the the Government is no…I repeat….not supposed to touch it under any ciscumstances?
(*) Gaaaasp! Sputter! Blasphemy, Heresy! Burn the Wicker man!

So all in all, it is likely that the soon-to-be-retirees would be asked to pack their lunchboxes again and one more round of bonuses will be paid out for “injecting experienced workforce into the global economy with radical proposal to increase working age”… Anastasia de Waal, are you listening?

Written by Surio

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