Obama’s Nobel Prize: Why Ambivalence is a Beautiful Thing

When I heard of the Nobel Prize for Peace being awarded to President Obama, I blinked my eyes in disbelief. My next reaction was laughter. One, because I could imagine the Twitter playground going amuck but two, because it was a fair response.

While I get why the Committee did it – and I congratulate my President on the honour – I’m definitely ambivalent about the result because of what it says about how far Americans are willing to continually apologise for George W. Bush, act as if they had nothing to do with electing him (twice) – and how far the world community is willing to drum on about it ad nauseam.

Simply put, it’s not clear to me at all how President-elect (then President) Obama earned NPP (Symbolic Gesture v2.0) in the months between 4th November and 1st February. I’m actually surprised to feel a level of (dare I say it) disgust over this, but I think I’ve nailed why:

While I applaud the Committee’s bluntness – that it’s a symbolic gesture which has less to do with Obama himself – I’m not pleased that the world community (at least those represented by the Committee) has chosen this particular method of saying, ‘Well Done, America’ with the 2008 Presidential results. And many people (including some I’ve tweeted with) don’t seem to appreciate the dark side of this coin, which is this: America must really get over having elected George W Bush and apologising for it via its almost messianic idolatry of Obama. Despite what many non-Americans may believe, we are not so feeble minded that we need the world to approve our choices, or sanction our democratic process. Despite my not having voted for Bush, I respected the fact that my country conducted a fair and free election and that he won. Yes, America went to a dark place for some time. But again, we chose that path. We are accountable for our leaders’ actions as a free society because we have elected them. I don’t recall any serious movement to impeach Bush, or otherwise remove him from office because of his Iraq decisions. And we need to get some acceptance around that.

Power to Persuade versus Ability to Lead
I’ve tweeted with people today who support the Nobel decision, and I respect their opinions. But it seems that people are equating Obama’s NPP with supporting him in the change he’s promised. But here’s the thing: Obama has not actually changed anything yet – and the decisions I’ve seen from him so far suggest a man who’s more concerned with getting everyone to agree such that nothing gets achieved. I get the strong sense that many Americans confuse the power to persuade with the ability to lead. Leading a course of change means not everyone will agree on that course – but you forge ahead away – and it’s this ability which seems underdeveloped in Obama: he tries to please everyone including his opposition who have made it clear they won’t support anything he has to offer. One only need look at Obama’s leadership style on health care reform to see that he’s no Tommy Douglas – and we need him to be.

And so until Obama addresses this aspect of himself (which borders on the pathological), then I don’t foresee any change actually happening, especially the type of which the Nobel Committee and the rest of us are so desperately hoping for.

Open Letter to Miss Serena Williams

12/9/09

Dear Serena -

It’s not a good thing to kick someone when she’s down, but your behaviour at today’s US Open beggars an exception. What the fresh hell were you thinking? You NEVER verbally assault a line judge, and to use John McEnroe as some sort of legal precedent as if you’re ‘Law and Order’s Jack McCoy to justify your behaviour is just not on.

I predict that your career will suffer repercussions after this. Think I’m being dramatic? Well, let’s see: for starters, by your own actions and attitudes, you’ve made it spectacularly clear you’re not in the tennis world to exemplify what a true Champion is because you don’t even bother to play in all the tournaments. (NB: I’ll give you Indian Wells as the justifiable boycott that it is.) The point is, unlike the pantheon of great tennis champs before you, such as Navratilova, Steffi, and Billie Jean, you seem to treat tennis as a side show, a diversion, just another interest of yours. So it’s really no surprise that you’ve not developed the character required to be classed with the rest of the Tennis Goddesses.

Your colour has nothing to do with it – and nor does your lineage. I, for one, would never expect to see this with your older sister. Venus Williams has emerged as a stateswoman for the game; her eloquent and persistent persuasion towards getting equal pay for women in the Grand Slams – Wimbledon in particular – speaks volumes about her fortitude and grace under pressure, how she looks beyond herself and sees what she represents to current talent pools and future dreamers.

How does your behaviour speak to the future, Serena? It speaks spoiled brat, ungracious loser, and short sighted sulk monster. And how sad for you! Look how hard you’ve worked to win people over, how hard you’ve striven to amass 22 slams by the age of 27, how you’ve had to endure the petty jealousies of the Hingis, Davenports, and Mauresmos of the world, and the legitimate racism from places like Indian Wells. All for what – so you can be accused of basically trying to jack up an Asian lineslady.

You absolute simpleton.

Sure, your defence is that you’re an athlete, and athletes tend to lose it under pressure. And almost predictably, you raise your patron saint, John McEnroe, as a template for your hot mess. In the Women’s game, Martina used to be another hothead, too. But I don’t recall ANYBODY doing what I saw you do today. Please. Accept responsibility for your stuff – don’t go back 25+ years to collect dusty news clippings of someone else’s antics to rubberstamp your own.

With that, I’ll say goodbye – goodbye to you as a former fan, and goodbye to your career as a tennis professional, because I’ll wager anyone today that you will never live this down. But that’s okay, you only play the Slams anyway – in your words, ‘to pay the mortgage’ – and what do you care? Being a true Champion isn’t for everybody, right?

9/11 from an American in London

Everyone has a vivid memory of that event – this is mine.

At the time, I worked for a very large Dutch investment bank as an expatriate in our London office. My focus was Front Office Derivatives Trading, so my desk was on the trading floor. That morning was an average day: vendors with new electronic commercial network applications (known as ECNs) were showing us some upgrades, and trading was fevered due to what we call the ‘New York Surge’ – as London is 5 hrs ahead of NYC, lunchtime for us is around the time NYC trading kicks off in earnest. It’s also the main reason why most trading floor personnel eat at their desks.

One of the flashy treats you get working on a trading floor is access to cable television – massive screens all over a space the size of half a football field, all usually tuned in to economic programs and the occasional live sporting event, like Wimbledon or Cricket. On that morning, I and some traders met with 2 people from the New York office of a vendor called Cantor Fitzgerald. Their latest cash cow ECN was called ‘E-Speed’, and they were doing a demo of their latest version, with a view to get our company to upgrade.

When the first plane hit, we didn’t see it of course, but traders linked in to Bloomberg and Reuters read on their screens that a small plane had collided into one of the World Trade Center towers. Initially, some people laughed because they were thinking of that chap in Florida who earlier in the year had run his little one-seater plane into a building. Building was unscathed, he less so.

But once CNN started reporting the story, all the screens showed the smoke surrounding the Towers. People realised immediately that it wasn’t anything like the Florida incident. Then the impact of seeing the second plane was numbing, like trying to process information that didn’t make sense. Everyone on the floor looked at the screen in front of them, and were confused. ‘Did that plane just go into the building intentionally?’ was the look over all the faces. For some reason, many people on my IT team and other desks started walking towards the bigger monitors to get a better view of what was happening – as if that somehow would clarify in their minds what just didn’t compute otherwise.

The 2 people with me from the Cantor Fitzgerald E-Speed NYC office stopped their demo. One was a petite, conservatively dressed dark-haired lady, the other a big, garrulous guy with suspenders and mustache. I lived in NYC briefly in ’93, and I remember his accent being from Queens.

As the Towers continued to burn, Queens Guy walked to the screen closest to him, pointed at a section of building and said, ‘there’s our office.’ I remember at the time being struck at how matter-of-fact he was, although looking back it was just him processing what he saw. The petite lady dropped in her seat and just stared at the screen.

Note: The world would soon find out that Cantors sustained heavy casualties during the attacks. These two people were watching the deaths of their colleagues, while safely an ocean away. (That was the last I saw of them – and they have *always* been on my mind. I wonder how traumatised they must have been, and how their careers and lives must have been impacted from them taking a flight a few days early.)

I couldn’t believe what was going on, but for some reason remained at work. It was only when I heard this Aussie guy yell out, ‘they’ve hit the Pentagon too, mate!’ that I got scared. I went to a screen which had CNN broadcasting in large letters ‘AMERICA UNDER ATTACK’ with pictures of the Pentagon and smoke billowing out of it.

I remember something clicking. I went back to my desk, called my team to say I was leaving, calmly packed up my notebooks and started to leave the building. I didn’t know what was going on, but something told me that both financial and government institutions were under attack in America, and who was to say that Britain wasn’t on the list as well. As the only American in my department, my manager said, ‘Just go C, we’ll probably be right behind you.’ But the main point was I didn’t ask to leave – I told him I was going.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one thinking this: streams of people up and down Bishopgate Avenue EC2 were flooding out of buildings on that gorgeous afternoon (it was hot and sunny in the capital, I remember the sun gleaming on the pavement and off the glass walls) and making their way to transport to leave the financial centre known as ‘The City’. I didn’t want to risk being on the Tube, so I took a bus all the way home into the safe suburban hills of North London. I spoke to no one, I cried on the way, but not sobs. The water fell out of my eyes just like a function of my face, I didn’t notice it happening that much.

I got to my main neighbourhood road, known as the ‘high street’, where all the shops tend to be, and went straight to an Oddbins wine seller. I bought a bottle of Glenmorangie (single malt Scottish whiskey) and went to the only Americans I knew in my area: Mike and Linda. Mike was actually Irish, but his wife was from Chicago’s Wicker Park area. Mike was a trader friend who I used to work with. I showed up on their doorstep, and without asking why I was there (because of course they knew), they just let me in, took the bottle, and hugged me.

We watched the aftermath on the telly, and, between the 3 of us, drank all the whiskey. Weeks later, I ran into friends who got jobs in NYC to fill in the hundreds of positions now vacant due to those murders. One mate in particular was conflicted. ‘John’ was a temp junior developer at Cantors who was promoted to a management role because – to be blunt – they had no choice but to promote quickly from within. He said the whole thing was ‘bloody awful’ over many pints of lager one night before he left. I could tell he wasn’t thrilled about the move. It’s not every day you get promoted at least 3 tiers above your current position, and not because those above you were fired or left for a competitor, but because they were dead, and were killed while in the office. And the evil of it was that, as singular as that experience sounds, thousands of people knew exactly what John was going through. They were in the boat with him.

Hillary Clinton vs Herself: Rumble in the Jungle, Part Deux


For the savvy Pfizer shareholder, the over-the-head light bulb should have gone off this week; the Next Big Pill for Big Pharma could make jet-lagged “Silver Citizens” chill the hell out upon landing after long-haul flights – they could call it Prozac for the Tarmac“: first Henry ‘Skip’ Gates losing his rag, and now Hillary Clinton. NB: put ‘Sugartits’ Poster Boy Mel Gibson and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly in the placebo group, and you’d have one hell of a clinical trial…


Experiencing Hills’ reaction (video from the BBC) was like reliving Michael Corleone having his diabetic stroke in ‘The Godfather, Part III’, when his body betrayed his paranoia about who tried to assassinate him moments before. So out of character, and yet so revealing as to what Corleone was really thinking, how just under the surface of a carefully constructed and silkily professional veneer lurked a complex mind fuelled by ambition, ego, irritation, constriction, and general all-purpose simmering anger.


Much of the post-game analysis I agree with: that Hills should have realised the potential for translation error, that it was just perhaps a verbal boo-boo, that the student asking the question meant ‘President Obama‘ and not her ex-husband. But, as we Chicago South-Siders say, Clinton ‘played herself’ with that outburst. And while everyone can have a bad day – be it at the hands of jet lag, or philandering husbands globetrotting to save hostages from a nuclear enemy, or the damning humiliation of limp 60-yr-old blonded hair after a long flight, or even aggravated elbow injuries (Hillary suffered a fracture back in June) – you really want the US Secretary of State to get a grip when addressing college students in a Third World country. You’d not be unreasonable to hope that the Secretary can capably restrain her “Inner Gangsta” whilst speaking to a populace whose biggest international claim to fame in the last 100 years was hosting the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (I swear, I thought Hills was thisclose to bustin’ out the Sistah Girl Neck Roll on the poor student). Because clearly that’s far more important than negotiating the release of journalist hostages from a cruel dictator, with said dictator having declared himself your boss’s sworn enemy, and who just happens to have those pesky nuclear capabilities.



Ahem.



Surely Hillary must know that, despite the most uber-Herculean of efforts – I mean, she’d have to capture Osama bin Laden a la Jack Bauer and the rest of al Qaeda just to begin to equalise – the likelihood of her coming out from under Clinton The Masculine’s shadow is a starkly remote one: to begin with, he’s a former POTUS, arguably one of the most successful of the 20th century – despite having been shamed by both the Lewinsky affair and an impeachment process. Bill Clinton also happens to be one of the world’s most successful public speakers and thought leaders – far more so than Obama (imo) given Clinton’s bilateral command of vision and specificity, the latter of which to this day borders on the prodigious. And lastly – if not more portentously – his personal cache is still worth loads within the geopolitical stream of consciousness: the very sea which Clinton the Feminine (as SoS) must swim in.



So, Hills – just suck it up. Had you won the ’08 Democratic nomination, and afterwards the Presidential election, you might have had a chance to step into your own arena sans Bill’s Armour. But you’ll live longer if you acknowledge the obvious: this will never happen so long as you’re in a Cabinet position. And given a) your age, b) your current boss’s (albeit shaky) potential for a 2nd term, and c) the Republicans’ fervor to come up with a credible and youthful 2012 frontrunner, your POTUS chances have sailed, and not just across open waters, but down the River Styx: Never To Return. Which is okay. Take stock, take pills, and take comfort: at least you have a sense of how the rest of your career is likely to play out, and how history may regard you, because when looking at the sums and despite the Limbaugh Legions who thrive on going apoplectic at the very sound of your name (well, with Obama on the scene, face it – they’ve got bigger effigies to burn), your track record’s fairly benign up to now. And hey, there are far worse political destinies which could befall you. Just ask John Edwards.

Legalisation vs Decriminalisation: Getting our Hands Dirty in The War on Drugs


Recently a friend on Facebook kicked off the following discussion: should the US make marijuana legal? For me it’s not just about making the drug itself legal, it’s about decriminalising the drug distribution process as well. While it’s natural to believe them both to be one in the same, I feel the latter is the result of the successful process which can allow the former to happen without issue.


If we accept that the marijuana and cocaine drug businesses are like any other legal going concern, then we must accept that they have personnel and networking infrastructures in place that directly contribute towards its success. And given the ongoing discussion regarding drugs and the continued demand coming from the US and UK towards this industry, we know the routes and trafficking do indeed have intrinsic value. And let’s face it: these guys are just like any other business organisation – they need to communicate ideas and create a ‘team culture’. Instead of using PowerPoint to communicate complex ideas, drug ‘project managers’ use guns and physical intimidation. To enforce standard operating procedures geared towards optimum success, drug enforcers use killing penalties instead of poor appraisal ratings to get the results they need.


Here’s the rub: it’s the decriminalisation process of an existing (and successful) trafficking infrastructure that’s the Big Question to answer. If every single ‘enforcer’ point were to be identified within this network, to be replaced by legally established law enforcement officers, then we’d have an almost mind-staggering number of unemployed people, who didn’t have much education to begin with, as so therefore can’t really compete in the world without some serious educative remedies. As If.


What do you think?

John Hughes

Somewhere in the deeply forested recesses of Hertfordshire, the members of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, and Culture Club are convening crisis talks with only one agenda: How To Stay Alive in 2009. With key 80′s icons such as Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson dying this year, and now the revered and beloved director John Hughes, one can imagine that health checkups, cholesterol screenings, and alcohol reduction will headline the minuted action points – with the immediate goal being to successfully survive the Summer without incident.

While watching a Sky Tribute to the late Mr Hughes – first up was ‘Sixteen Candles‘, ‘The Breakfast Club‘ in second, and ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off‘ as the final overture – it’s easy to overstate the man’s influence, but equally easy to dismiss the emotional undertow of those 3 movies as a triptych of teen angst, humour, and irreverence. And it makes me sad that Hollywood doesn’t even bother making films like those anymore. What does it say that they still seem relevant, both to Generation X as it approaches middle-age, and today’s youth, in a way that teen films from the 60s were never relevant to young people in the 80s. This was Hughes’ gift: he helped create an entire genre which legitimised teen thought, articulated them as responsibility-miniatured adults, as people who could express anxiety in a way which made sense to their adult overseers, showed them as three-dimensional bundles of confusion, and whose depiction was directly at odds with the ‘Porky’s‘-type movies which caricatured the Teen Species.

Hughes, while responsible for legitimising the Teen Movie as Art, was also indirectly responsible for inspiring loads of silly, Brat Pack-cast movies (‘Wild Horses’, or anything with Judd Nelson apart from ‘New Jack City’). Hughes’s films were more about his directorial artistry than that of those who acted for him. It says a lot that not many of them had stellar careers post-Hughes. (NB: A notable exception is Charlie Sheen, and even his appearance in ‘Bueller’ was a cameo.) That Hughes was able to create such insightful and angst-ridden tapestries from these actors despite their limited ranges speaks directly to his prowess as a writer/director.

In some ways, Hughes had at least one thing in common with the great Alfred Hitchcock: Hitch’s films was similar in that – for the strong exceptions of James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Ray Milland – not many actors went on to have strong careers despite having benefited from a Hitch reference on the CV. The main guy I’m thinking of here is Anthony Perkins in his seminal role in ‘Psycho’. Norman Bates is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that he’s practically an archetype. Yet it’s the rare person who can name another non-’Psycho’ film that Perkins starred in, let alone shone. At least Molly Ringwald and Nelson can take some comfort in that – Maybe…

In a nutshell on giving props to this man as he goes on to his Great Reward, just ask yourself: who’s the next John Hughes for this decade, or the next? Anybody? ‘Bueller?…Bueller?…Bueller?…’

John – RIP. And, like, Thanks, Dude.

So I’m not a Banker Anymore… What Do I Do Now?

Losing your job can be a tricky thing, even if you didn’t really like it to begin with. And if it was in an area which may be undergoing permanent shrinkage (like Investment Banking), it can make you think of making some serious directional changes. Am keen to hear from anyone who’s looking to switch careers.