Monday, March 31, 2008

INSEAD Memory: Vietnam

We went to Vietnam in March 2007.  I remember this because I celebrated my 28th birthday on the final day of the trip.  Strange to think that its been a year.  Damn.  The INSEAD crew for Vietnam was big because it was the break between P1 and P2.  I'm not sure exactly how many we had but we had over 30.  Either that or 15 really fat people. (I'm looking at you, you fat Spaniard you)

We arrive in Hanoi and like all good travelers we exchanged our cash for the local currency which was - I am not making this up - the Dong.  Apart from the name the Dong really is funny money.  At current exchange rates 16,000 Dong equals 1 dollar.  For $62 you too can be a millionaire.

We chartered a junk boat to do a 2 night cruise around the renown Halong bay.  It is a channel of green topped islands of exquisite beauty.  Floating about the bay feels like how you'd imagine going through the Bermuda triangle.  You wade through dense fog on top of translucent turquoise water and out of nowhere jagged volcanic rocks come into sight.  This is where Loch Ness or fire-breathing dragons call home.  Certainly not any place you'd recognize on earth.

Nightfall.   Although INSEAD students weren't the only guests on the boat, with 30 people we had the most solid contingent on the deck.  Using our 51% stake the Business school students took control of the boat and the boat became a booze cruise.  We played cards, drank, and became kids watching the night sky snuggling under warm blankets.  No cell phones, no computers, no distractions.  Just the company of friends from all over the world.

We traveled to Hanoi.  The Vietnamese landscape outside Hanoi city is sparse, wet and green.  Tall narrow houses built in french colonial fashion rise systematically like palm trees on a California Boulevard.  Mopeds are ubiquitous on the highways.  We see one industrious Vietnamese man with 4 live pigs rope tied to the back of his 50cc bike.

Hanoi is an amazing city.  I've been to developing nations before.  There's no politically correct way for me to write this.  People in developing nations are poor and they live in filth.  Vietnam is the same, however what astonished me was how optimistic everyone was.   I've been to a lot of 3rd world countries before, and although people are nice you get the sense that people are resigned to live their lives in this manner forever.  11pm in Hanoi anywhere you go you hear cars and mopeds honking their horns.  Shops are open and trading.  The city is alive with the sounds of night market merchants calling in customers and young Vietnamese drinking beer eating BBQ prawns on the street.  This is not just the case in the affluent center of town but in the outskirts as well where they don't even have electricity.  They do business in the dim of candle-light.
It is as if the Vietnamese are saying "we are poor today, but this is just a temporary setback".  When I was growing up, my father would tell me stories about post-war Tokyo and the sentiment of the time which led to the Japanese economic miracle.  Hanoi is how I envisioned my father's stories.  I wonder what Vietnam will look like in the future? I wonder if I will recognize it. 

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Exit, tshirt and jeans. Enter, suit and tie.

Wish me luck America.  I'm moving to Europe!


Friday, March 21, 2008

Some Scumbags Are Worse

There are scumbags and there are scumbags. 

Here's the thing.  We NEED guys like Spitzer.  He went after corporates like a man obsessed.  When news hit, the New York Stock Exchange trading floor cheered.  Not me.  He prosecuted price fixers.  He put the hammer on investment bankers inflating IPO prices (sub prime anyone?).  He exposed payola taking DJs plugging the record company's agenda.

Even if they are just individual cases, they and the long history of Spitzer as a hardline attorney general acted as a strong deterrent for cheaters.  This is cheating by individuals, ala Ken Lay and cheating by big business ala Worldcom.  The definition of a cheater is someone who screws you to get ahead.

As far as I know, the only people who got screwed by Elliot Spitzer are his family and more literally, his hooker.  Incidentally his family stands by their man.  I don't know if that makes Spitzer not a cheater.  That's up to him and his wife.

As I said, there are scumbags and there are scumbags.  Elliot Spitzer may be a scumbag but he never screwed me.  Hence, I don't care about what happened.  He did on the other hand screw the scumbags that screw me financially every day, and now that man is out of office.  NOW, you have my attention.

At the end of the day, why should you care about Elliot Spitzer?  Is he going to steal your girlfriend?  Clearly not.  He pays $1000 an hour for that.   What difference does it make in the kind of governor he is?  The kind of prosecutor?  And so why do we care?  Why do we get involved in this political freak show that often brings down our best politicians?  JFK had Marilyn, Clinton had Monica, and don't get me started on Martin Luther King.  We didn't care so much then.  Maybe because in that time their priorities were our priorities.  If that's the case, what are our priorities today?

Roadtrip! SF -> LA -> LV

Day 1 ~ 3:

Got into SF.  This is a strange city.  It's simultaneously advanced and backward at the same time.  Nouveau dotcom millionaires abound but so do fecal stained homeless.  I've been to lots of places where income disparity is far and wide but SF is the first place where the millionaires and the homeless dress more or less the same.  EVERYONE has an iPhone out here.  Sad ruins of the 90's tech bubble are scattered about the city.  Loud futuristic architecture mesh with minimalists designs combine with years of neglect to create landscapes both vapid and sanguine. 

Day 4, 5:

Drive down the famous PCH down the California coastline.  It's like driving on the edge of earth.  To your left are desert mountains bold and mighty which hint of death.  To your right are hazardous cliffs that drop down to torrential ocean swirls.  Jagged rocks come out of the sea like the tail of a Stegosaurus.  Waves crash violently upon black earth.  The beauty of Big Sur makes you fear God.

We take a rest in Cambria.  A charming little town whose residents seem about as old-fashioned as the 150 year old hostel  we stay at.  We eat pot-pie for dinner and wake up to Ollaliberry jam in the morning.  One funny note - the first hotel we tried to negotiate the price down.  The guy says "Sorry.  Can't give you a discount.  It's spring break".  Not to sound sarcastic, but if I was a young frat boy looking for some "Girls Gone Wild" action, Cambria California might be the last place on earth I'd go.  I sure hope that guy isn't counting too much on the Cancun crowd. 

Day 5, 6:

We go to L.A. I used to watch TV shows like "Blind Date" and listen to bands like "Sugar Ray" and I would think, WHERE do these people COME FROM?  Then I went to L.A. and suddenly it all made sense.  I have to give L.A. this.  As mainstream media as L.A. is, this is the place where mainstream is born.  If other cities could broadcast their vibe worldwide as good as L.A., then by definition they'd be mainstream too. 

Day 7:

Las Vegas = The Palms hotel.  When we checked into the hotel we saw "The Playboy Club" and were hesitant.  What sort of crowd does "The Playboy Club" attract on a Sunday night?  Sounds like a sucky party until you realize ... yup ... it's Spring Break and you're in Las Vegas.  Almost as wild as Cambria California.  Almost.

A road trip for the ages.  I love you America.  


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I turn 29 today

30 in a year and .... as you know .... it's all downhill from there.  This year - I'm making it count.  (cue guitar riff)

Thanks for the birthday wishes everybody.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Case for McCain

I like Barack Obama as the Democrat.  The problem though is the longer he has to campaign - the more promises he'll have to make - the more beholden he'll be to the Democrat behemoth - the less likely he'll be the transformative figure we want once elected.

Here is something I did not know about John McCain.  His 18 year old son is a Marine serving in Iraq.  George Bush can't claim that.  Neither can Dick Cheney nor Don Rumsfeld. 

Given his hawkish stance on the war that's quite an ace up his sleeve.  You'd think candidate McCain would blast the news from the rooftops, bring it up at every stump speech, and retort every critic with his son's name.  He doesn't. 

He doesn't hide it, but refuses to talk about him in any detail.

My guess, McCain's like that for 3 reasons.  First, because he is old school enough to keep candidate McCain different from citizen McCain.  Second, he doesn't want to put a target on his boy's head.  Third, it wasn't his decision.  It was his son's.  Perhaps a son raised by a Vietnam war hero wanting to make his old man proud, but a son nonetheless.

I'm not sure what's going to happen.  I predict John McCain will lose in the general election.  It's highly unlikely that he'll get the Republican base going and the Democratic turnout in November will slaughter him.  As a life-long Democrat, I say this with subdued joy.

For as much as I like Barack Obama the fact remains he wasn't there when Congress voted for war.  He didn't see the intelligence.  He claims to be a maverick but saying what you would have done in hindsight doesn't make you as a maverick.  Being a maverick makes you a maverick.  Hillary Clinton will tell you its not easy to oppose a Republican majority in Congress.  Well.... it's even harder when you're a Republican.

People like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are FURIOUS that McCain got the nod because of his continued history of defying the party line to do what he feels is right.  North-East liberal that I am, McCain warms my bleeding heart.  More than that, he shows me he won't trade integrity for popularity.

John McCain is a straight shooter who will never get his time.  Sad.  He would have been a good one.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Are Asians Smart?

I don't see color, I'm color-blind.  People tell me I'm Asian, and I believe them because they copy off my math test. 

After a little googling I found this very pretty chart with all sorts of cute colors and racial stereotypes on the NSF website.  As you can see, teenage Asians in America schools are freakin' dweebs.  I couldn't find a more recent study presumably because the NSF has done enough damange to the self-esteem of Asian kids who score below 600 on their SAT Math.

A lot of people try to explain this highly complex and multifaceted phenomenon in the time it takes to eat a biscotti.  "Culture" they say!  Asian have an education-prioritizing culture.  Asian parents see education as a way to move up in society.

But I always wonder if this is true.  I've lived in Asia.  I've met lots of Asian parents.  Here are two impressions that strike me now as I reflect on my 5+ years travelling through multiple Asian countries, living and working among the natives
  1. There are a lot of stupid Asian people
  2. There are a lot of people
I am highly skeptical and often offended by "culture" arguments. Yes, I think Asian cultures stress education.  Conversely, though is that to say that white, black, and latin culture do not stress education? 

The other problem I have with "culture" arguments is that it completely ignores common sense numbers.  The United States has 300 million people.  Compare that to China which has 1.3 Billion.  India has 1 Billion.  Japan looks small but they've managed to fit 130 million people on that island.  When you talk Asia, you're talking a big haystack.  Of course you'll find more needles.

Asians in the United States tend to be first generation immigrants.  This means two things.  First it means that the people who are coming over from the Asian nations are self-selected.  A Chinese beet farmer making a $100 a year is not relocating his entire family to Omaha Nebraska to become a beet farmer here.  The HK engineer who graduated top of his class to study at Harvard is more like it.  Second, it means that the people who come over work abnormally hard.  As a parent, you do not move your kids thousands of miles from the Filipines just so that they could sit on their ass and play video games all day.  You worked your ass off to give them an opportunity and you'll be damned if they mess it up.

Here's the thing about Asian-Americans.  It's not that they're not smart.  The SAT scores, the enrollment in top Universities all say otherwise.  It's just that if you want to contexualize them as Asians you find they're not really representative of Asians as a whole.  Come to think of it they're not really representative of Americans as a whole either. 

Nothing about their background makes them smart.  It's they themselves.

update - Doh! How could I forget?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Does time fly when you're having fun?

I've heard people say this before and I always wondered if it's true.  From the New York Times today: 

Inner time is linked to activity. When we do nothing, and nothing happens around us, we’re unable to track time. In 1962, Michel Siffre, a French geologist, confined himself in a dark cave and discovered that he lost his sense of time. Emerging after what he had calculated were 45 days, he was startled to find that a full 61 days had elapsed.

It would seem that time flies when you're NOT having fun.  Actually, time flies when you're bored shitless in a cave for 2 months!  Time or - more accurately - the way humans perceive time is a lot longer when you're enjoying your life. 

I find this information very useful when it comes to the choices I make in my life.  I think everybody has faced something like the
  1.  Do I take this job I hate that pays a lot, or
  2.  Do I take this job I like that pays very little

That's an oversimplification.  In real-life it's way more complicated.  Regardless, the conventional wisdom in this kind of decision making is:  Maximize Your Time.  If you made this into a mathematical equation it'd look like:

If you follow that logic one way to make your life better is to increase the benefit - i.e. make more money, have more fun.  That makes the decision hard.  People generally don't know what makes them happy, and if they do they don't know if it'll make them happy in the future.

The genius of Einstein was that he did not consider time a constant.  I'm no Einstein (obviously), but I think something similar.  Think back in college when you went by semesters.  Those semesters feel like entire years.  The fact is, they're only 7 months long.  That is major shrinking of perceived time.  A lot of people say that college were the best years of their life.  Part of it is I think you do so much in such a short time.

My point is this.  Maybe you're like me, you don't know what makes you happy in life.  It sounds strange, but for me it's like I don't have a choice in what makes me happy, what benefits me.  Hence I don't pay much attention to increasing the numerator.  I pay attention to time.  I focus on shrinking the denominator.

If this blog feels like it's taken an entire day write and it's taken 20 minutes - Life is good :)