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Columns


Tuesday 4 August 2015

 Envisage it: a world populated by dogs and dinosaurs; hominids and extraterrestrials; mamoths and butterflies; and all of us humans of course.

That’s our new world, the one we are currently starting to inhabit. Some of us just don’t (want to?) realize it yet. It takes some getting used to, but once transition is over, the knowledge hits you: it’s beautiful and bountiful. It can move our society, globally, to a place of greater humanity, justice and opportunity, if allowed to evolve unfettered by archaic sociopolitical and financial notions, and by all preconceptions.

Let’s check some stats: Americans, increasingly, buy more from the Internet than retail; and spend less on pricey stuff. True. Yet when it comes to local restaurants, cafes, candy-shops, frozen yogurt, even bookstores (in the age of Amazon, the big bad chain sellers of “You’ve got mail” have become stricken deer, and soon Meg Ryan will have to pay Tom Hanks alimony—of course they’re divorced in their current iteration) money flows, abundantly.

We have gone from small, to medium, to big, to mammoth, and now to a time of everything: small, medium, big and mammoth. Take furniture: there are the behemoths like Amazon; but there are also the big companies that are still selling alot, even if mostly online (latest casualty, the Crate and Barrel store on Madison in midtown that just closed.) Gazillions of small stores have all mushroomed: from insanely priced, “Deco” stuff, to mom and pop stores “Traditional American-made dinner table” (I always expect them to be manned by Laura Ingalls Wilder lookalikes.)

Old telecom and media blends with new, and private comes to the assistance of public (Google Fiber joins President Obama’s low-cost Internet initiative http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2015/07/google_fiber_joins_obamas_low-.html)

Newspapers have become like magazines; magazines more like platforms; sites more like traditional newspapers; and TV news has created a whole new niche, delivering relevant, often vital news to local communities (weather-alerts, train delays, even muggings in Central Park—something that the Press and Internet reported only after ABC Late Night News made it into a real, and not over-hyped, story.)

Through its digital iteration and attendant site, radio, like NPR, has gained a new lease on life and relevance, with a broader, young audience. 

And of course, the mother of all media, is Twitter. 

It’s a free, as well as free for all, world. Anything goes and everything does. Size and generation does not matter, only content does.

Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon are the big players in cloud computing; Cisco does battle against malware and hackers in a more traditional way () vilifying the kind of people Mr Robot makes us feel more ambiguous about. Github may still be small financially, but the software it shares and the value of what it freely provides users to evolve software, carries great potential. 

Streaming is something everything does, and has been doing “since forever”; it feels like Apple’s recent fudged foray into music streaming was too little, too late—one more initiative to follow ibooks to obsolescence. Some things, like music streaming, don’t work with some behemoths (same thing with Amazon Prime Music.) A bit like the universe asserting some balance: guys there’s enough here for everyone. Pandora, SoundCloud, YouTube, iTunes whatever one wants. From the pay-per-song model to the streaming business, people want different options.

Same thing with online payments. Banks (like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America who have launched an online app for transfers) compete with Facebook Messenger; Apple Pay with Google Wallet; and PayPal is warily considering Jack Dorsey’s Square, which is already being challenged by Stripe. 

Verizon bought AOL; NBC Universal is considering a stake in BuzzFeed; NASA, Amazon, Google partner to manage drone-traffic control.

Small, local and personalized, sell more than mass-oriented. The experience delivery industry is also on the rise, yet the products and services industry is not doing too badly, either.

Millenials love privacy and freedom, and value meaning in their lives and jobs, much more than they do money. 

The same goes for the new… dynamic demographic of 85+ people (as exhibited in a wonderful series by John Leland of the New York Times.)

This yet unexplored dynamic may very well in time, prove productive, in a way similar to that proven to the health, mental and emotional benefits generated when elderly people interact daily with infants or very young children. 

Life is both softening and hardening, in different ways. We are becoming more open-minded and global; and at the same time, more insular and local, individual-based.

This constant change and versatility in the way we are now increasingly living mirrors the new fluid equilibrium of big, enormous, small and tiny; of ideas and ventures; products and vision; private and public.

For example: “Big issues” such as artificial life, access, knowledge, innovation are largely dealt with only on the Internet.

On the other hand, it’s a fact that behind most practical local stuff like food delivery, car washing, the entire tourism industry,even real estate, we now have digital start ups. 

Original content that prices quality and social impact over profit, can be found on some cable providers (HBO, AMC, PBS) and on the “newbies”—Netflix, Amazon Prime. 

Our daily grocery-shopping involves “real world” shopping at outdoor vendors, Whole foods, Trader joes, and supermarkets; as well as online at sites like Amazon and Google Pantry, and Freshdirect. 

Social media is one of the major incubators as well as testing grounds for this free new world and state of being. Facebook and Twitter are two completely different animals (and one hopes Jack Dorsey will keep this in mind when initiating the changes he spoke of last week in an endeavor to make investors and markets happier) which offer diverse multiple experiences to their users.

Twitter is more media-geared, news related and more open to the ‘cosmos’. Vines and DM’s have not really caught on.

Facebook is more ‘local’ and ‘individual’. It mirrors the real world in the complexity of layers between friends, and its norms hew closely to social norms. Its Messenger app was so successful it became a whole another platform—one that includes free money transfers between friends and family. Its function as news medium does not seem to have been so successful (despite the involvement of the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the National Geographic etc); and its public platform for debate on “big” issues is starting to generate buzz only now, after the public sharing of the private woes of two Facebook executives—Sheryl Sandberg, and Mark Zuckerberg.

Still, even in this “sharing”, there can be striking differences. Zuckerberg and Sandberg have always been vocal about what their work encompasses, and reticent about their personal lives (philanthropic ventures included.) Their recent public “shares” used the power of Facebook to enlighten and free from shame or fear, people suffering in the specific ways Zuckerberg (the miscarriages he and his wife Priscilla Chang suffered https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10101322049893211) and Sandberg (the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg https://www.facebook.com/sheryl/posts/10155617891025177:0) had come to know. They did not paint idealistic self-portraits, they just divulged how they came to tap into wells of sorrow and misfortune that often fester in silence.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is the way the old masters of the Internet use the new media. Take Bill and Melinda Gates, for example: on Sunday, Melinda released photos of her carrying litres of water on her head, alongside women in Malawi who have to do this every day; and then washing the dishes with them.

One can imagine the vocal adulation and less vocal scorn this post received. Certainly self-aggrandizing and simplistically populist, it still manages to drive home the plight of women all over Africa; and it makes a compelling case about the difference…not being indifferent can make to millions of people there.

Politics too, portrays this fluidness and wide array of new choices open to everyone. We know how the system works, and that it will probably come down to Clinton v Bush in the 2016 election. Yet the fact that many voters prefer Trump to Bush or Perry; and Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden (but not Martin O’Malley) to Hillary, is indicative of new, quietly ground-breaking shifts in the economy.

The inequality gap is larger than ever, and the middle class and its traditional professions are languishing, horribly. Yet at the same time, people are saving their lives by learning how to code and are easily reinventing themselves as part of a growing, new, affluent middle class.

There are of course, certain aspects of the economy and of politics that appear obdurate, either because change is not in their interests (cable companies for example, re wifi; taxi-drivers re Uber; hoteliers re AirBnb; literary agents and booksellers re Amazon, etc) or because they have been calcified due to partisanship (certain aspects of the immigration issue, for example.)

Such problems have become endemic to the start-up (digital meets money) world too. Incumbents, preconceptions, illusions have permeated the new establishment too. 

On Twitter, recently, @cleantechvc recently engendered much empathy by writing: “Too often I see people just go radio silent because they mentally don't want to deal with a tough choice. In entrepreneurship, this can be deadly.” Everywhere else too, relationships included.

On Sunday, the New York Times published an article by Claire Cain Miller, noting that the “next Mark Zuckerberg” is 38 with16 years of work experience http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/02/upshot/the-next-mark-zuckerberg-is-not-who-you-might-think.html

The article mentions venture capitalists saying, on record, that they “can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg… a small number of data points ends up incredibly captivating our imaginations. The truth is we might just be wrong… it all depends too much on timing, luck and human judgment.”

The riposte was swift from the great entrepreneur, investor, and software engineer Marc Andreessen @pmarca “I can never figure out why people think this is surprising. It's obvious on the ground!”

He’s right. The truth is it’s a big brave free world out there, an eat-all-you-can and like buffet. Yet our primitive flaws, in mind and body (metabolism and mortality!) constrain us, making us gravitate to the small and individual, just when the numinously collective cosmos has swung into view. 

 

 

 

 

  




Wednesday 29 July 2015

Is man kind?

 

The news of Cecil's slaying came as I was standing at a bus stop on Columbus, skimming Twitter on my phone. “Go wild in New York” said the ad displayed on the side of the bus stop. It was a Bronx Zoo ad, portraying some of its cutest arrivals: the red panda.

I rested against it as I read about the torture and killing of Cecil, one of the most famous lions at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Cecil loved humans and often approached park visitors. He trusted them.

 A Minnesota dentist, is, according to the authorities, Cecil’s slayer. According to the allegations, Walter James Palmer of Eden Prairie, Minn., paid at least $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, who was a protected lion (wearing a GPS collar and tracked by the Oxford University research program.)

Together with his accomplices, Palmer—allegedly; although there is nothing alleged about this—lured Cecil from the national park to an unprotected area (to avoid legal charges) by strapping a "dead animal to his vehicle."

Once Cecil was outside the national park land, Palmer (allegedly) shot Cecil with a bow and arrow, but did not kill him. He and his companions then tracked the wounded animal for 40 hours, before shooting and killing him. Cecil was skinned and beheaded.

Palmer’s defence was that he relied on locals to make the hunt legal, and 

"had no idea that the lion…was a known, local favorite, collared and part of a study.”

This story will probably play itself out amid legalese that lawyers will throw at each other. Boundaries, whether Cecil transgressed them of his own volition or was deceived into doing so, and protected status will be the verbiage that will be used in an effort to administer a certain kind of justice to this atrocity.

It’s understandable: boundaries, status, rules and transgressions define the lives of all animals, including the human kind. Yet our rules also get to define the lives of all other animals. Not because we’re better, or less wild, or wiser. Just because we can. We need to, we also want to. 

It’s a very tenuous balance we need to keep with animals. Some we consider wild; others we breed to eat; others we keep as companions, to be loved and cherished. 

Although I do not eat animals, I can understand those who do. I would never wear or carry leather or fur, but after a double whammy of pneumonia two winters ago, I did get a Canada Goose coat. I don’t really mind mice and rats on the streets and subway, but I draw the line when it comes to inside. 

The northwest of Manhattan where I live, seems to have turned this summer into a refuge for bewildered wild ones: Two coyotes; one baby alligator ambling on the sidewalk; squirrels trying to cross Central Park West; racoons skittering down the underpass from Riverside Park to the boardwalk on the Hudson on 93rd; a family of groundhogs parked outside the Delacorte theater (perhaps they were Shakespeare-philes); racoons careening down 81st all the way to Amsterdam avenue, have all passed through, leaving behind a range of diverse emotions.

 

Not everyone loves the wild ones unconditionally, especially in the heart of our urban jungles. Understandably. Dealing with New York life is already too wild to celebrate encounters with any other (man or other animal) than our cat or dog. And even in smaller cities and towns, bears on your porch, foxes outside your apartment building’s garage, and stricken deer on the highway, are not always the stuff of Disney movies. 

Some do like the wild ones—at a distance. Like zoos—and I must agree when it comes to pythons and cobras, for example. Others prefer to visit them in sanctuaries for psychotherapy visits (wolf sanctuaries are recently in therapeutic fashion.)

Others just want to limit their contact to their own cats and dogs, as well as maybe those “of our kind” (animals and their human companions.) The class system rules supreme, especially in New York. We cannot expect to treat animals better than we treat humans.

And yet, we do. I have often wished I were a dog, here in New York. It’s like being stuck in permanent infancy with doting parents whose helicoptering involves just being loved unconditionally. 

We love our pets so because they are the only creature we are “allowed to” (normatively, pragmatically) love unconditionally. We do not fear their betrayal, we do not fear their competition, their ignorance and perversion. It’s safe.

Even so, it is a mark of civilization to be kind and respectful of the needs of those who have no voice or rights.

It is ingrained in American society. Initiated by the vital emotional need (to love somebody dammit, without wondering about potential cost) and refined by social norms. Responsibility, respect, as well as love, come with the territory of deciding to have a pet. Every time I see yet one more person patiently carrying a dog through a snowstorm, or pushing an incapcitated cat in a pram, or limping along with a companion who has a tiny artificial dog limb, I forget everything that divides us: money, connections, way of life, family, everything. Our humanity grows through our behavior to animals. Witnessing........ 




Sunday 26 July 2015

This is a story about those of us who have neither power nor money, and who need a basic modicum of both in order to survive in today’s world (where wolves act in a therapeutic capacity towards the more agressive species—humans.) 

 

The girl sitting on the sidewalk on the crossroads of 79th and Broadway does not belong there. Beautiful in an astonishingly innocent way, she does not appear to be more than 18. Wisps of dligently combed and demurely tied back blond hair frame her flawless skin and hopeful, self-contained eyes. She bites daintily at a sandwich, carefully brushing crumbs off her blue shirt and ironed buejeans. Although on the sidewalk, she is sitting on a clean orange duffel bag of the kind one can only imagine a mother choosing, to send her child off to college, fully-packed. Unperturbed by the traffic, she is greedily reading from an Emily Dickinson anthology. Hardback, pristine. She has not even crafted a “Pleas Help” sign yet; nor deposited a plastic cup or bag in front of her, to collect money from any willing to give.

People are noticing this child, sitting on the sidewalk, emanating desperate idealism and deep-rooted conviction that miracles and magic can happen in New York as long as you’re open and hopeful and in love with the city. We’re all shocked, and moved. For a brief moment, united in our consternation. What will happen to this child? We can see she does not belong there. She is not one of the hundreds—many of them, very young; almost all, artists—of homeless who roam the summer streets of New York. In a few days, this will change. The street will swallow her. She will disappear from our view, or altogether. It is what it is. The world can be a sad, bad, mad place.


A few days later, on the corner of Prince and Crosby in NOLITA, a group of pretentiously “destroyed” twenty-year olds peel out of a brownstone so grungy and dirty, that renting even its basement would be equivalent to renting a palazzo in Italy. On one of the walls, three words are spray painted: “Uber me a pizza”. Beneath it, a girl is sitting on the sidewalk. Early twenties, with an Asian-African delicate richness to her beauty, she is dressed to the nines. Lace beige shorts, a tight t-shirt, satin ballet flats. Her thighs are one with the dirty street. Immersed in a book (Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath”) she is unperturbed by the fact her apparently designer handbag rests on what could be aspirationally called an incohate compost heap. 


A purple long car pulls up. The brakes screech, slightly, like trying to make a point. She looks up. “Hey!” As she rushes I see the sign on the driver’s window: Uber. My intimations of dark things, die hard, happily. For the moment, this girl will not vanish. For the moment being the operative phrase. Fluidity is the nice name for the game, and you never know when you are the one waiting for Uber, or have become the one working for Uber. 


In this economy, it’s no secret, no shame. Everyone does Uber, and Uber is used to ferry everything: from people, to dogs, to pizzas. One hopes the list stops there (and dead bodies are still ferried about in the trunks of black limos driven by men who used to moonlight on the Sopranos, and work in waste disposal in New Jersey and on the East River.)

Uber is of course, just a symbol for a growing reality.

A recent www.newyorker.com piece about a house in Brooklyn whose residents claim it is haunted, and therefore seek a “ghost” discount on their rent, referred to one of the building’s doormen. In an aside, the piece mentioned that the man supplements his income by being paid to stand in line for Shakespeare in the Park tickets, as well as Cronuts. That is usual, as we all know. It’s the gig economy. Craigslist may seem to perceive of it as mainly “Pretty girls make big bucks easily. All safe, all legal. No clients outside Manhattan, above 100th street. Live the NYC dream!” and “Seeking arrangement with understanding woman with big bosom and small feet”, but in reality it encompasses everything and anything. From cleaning houses, to running errands, flying kites with kids, bartering, teaching yoga, cleansing karma, unclogging sinks, scaring off predatory ex-boyfriends, helping bored lonely pensioners fish in the Hudson. Outsource, Thumbtack, Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and many more. 


The gig economy is one of the driving forces behind the recent positive jobs report. 

Large swathes of the middle-class are surviving exclusively thanks to the gig economy. 

http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/23/new-york-strikes-a-welcome-deal-with-uber/

Millenials and many people of all ages are subsisting exclusively, or complementing their income, through these new venues. This reinforces them: both the new “middle little guys”, and the new ventures seeking to replace the old behemoths in power. This makes the establishment—the old “little guys” (e.g. taxi drivers, nail salon workers, hotel workers, fast food workers), and the old “big guys” (taxi medallion owners, hotel owners, fast food chains)—really mad. 

And it’s not just about the money. 

The old establishment powermongers envy the new juggernauts for their effortless ease, their sexy freedom in making people like them, and want to spend money on their services. Once they too were like that (although, it is hard to evoke a world when real estate and hotel entrepreneurs, taxi drivers, airlines, big industry, delivery services, and telecom were liked by the public.)

The old establishment workers envy the new gig-ers, their freedom in working when they need to, where they prefer, as long as they want to. The gig-ers wish they had a good, steady job with health insurance, holidays, and days off. The grass always looks greener on the other side, unless you’re at the top—in which case, it doesn’t really matter which side you’re on.


The de Blasio-Uber standoff highlighted the clash of the two worlds: the medallion taxi drivers and Uber. Charges of corruption and big-bank backing were exchanged. Public transport, as well as the vagaries, vicissitudes, and paradoxes of the gig economy (a comprehensive article on this can be found at http://www.fastcompany.com/3042248/the-gig-economy-wont-last-because-its-being-sued-to-death) became grist for the mill of the vicious war that broke out in the heart of summer. Things came to a head when every site, newspaper, prime time TV show, and even MTA bus (!) became festooned with Uber’s vituperation against de Blasio’s plans to effectively kill its business in New York.


It all felt unexpected and rather shocking, yet it shouldn’t have.

 

It’s a world of extreme competition for even the meagerest trophy. And when the trophy encompasses something less (traditional) than a steady pay cheque and the trappings of belonging to a larger entity that cocoons as well as demands, then we’re in unchartered waters. That’s when the jungle happens.

 

So, as de Blasio argued, that’s when the city (or state, when we’re talking federal level) should step in and put restrictions and regulations into place. 

Not so fast.

This concept works only when dealing with “traditional economy” jobs—and in many cases, it’s long, long overdue. It seems city/state step in to ameliorate conditions for the little guys, and establish the basics of justice and freedom, only when journalists raise the issues and campaign for them.

One recent such example: the introduction of a $15/hour minimun wage for fast-food workers http://ny.eater.com/2015/7/22/9008347/new-york-minimum-wage-fast-food founded on a probing article written by the New Yorker’s William Finnegan http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/15/dignity-4 a year and a half ago...





Monday 13 July 2015

‪#‎ThisIsACoup‬ was, last night, the most trending hashtag on Twitter. “Greeks Face 'Humiliating,' Anti-Democratic Austerity Demands from the Troika” was how Twitter explained it.
The hashtag was inspired by a New York Times OpEd written by Nobelist economist Paul Krugman, notorious for his fervent desire to apply his best intentions in “shapeing destinies” in a kind of Lawrence of Arabia way—but from a world of safety and entitlement away.
The truth, I believe, is different. 
Every story has its back-story, heroes, and villains. So does the Greek crisis epos (after nearly 6 years I think we can safely call it an epic drama.) But because it is a neverending story, everything is of the moment in the Greek crisis. There are no safe bets. “Trust no one” like Mulder told Scully in the X-Files.
Yet throughout this crisis, four things have become clear:
First: Everyone showed their worst sides. Everyone also botched things, at some point. The EU and IMF with their pig-headedness in insisting on Greece continuing to implement punitive measures that only deepened the crisis for everyone. The ECB refusing to take a haircut on the Greek bonds it held, thus burdening only the other shareholders—Greek banks and funds (and private shareholders) with the cost of the haircut purportedly done to alleviate Greece. Greek politicians who did not reform the economy as promised in the bailout agreements, and who consistently pandered to the worst instincts of the people-whom they never saw as “the Greek people” but as “voters”. Tsipras, for hollow brinksmanship, and for taking so long in understanding what was at stake (Greek survival.) Varoufakis-just through existing. 
The Greeks, who voted NO… demanding to remain within the eurozone on their own “others pay for us to sit around” terms. (Still, this Greek insanity can be understood better by the fact that many of those responsible for getting the country in this situation were “sensible Europeanists”—yet totally corrupt. And many of those who voted “No” in the referendum were anti-Syriza, yet the hits they had taken for far too long, blurred the lines between fighting and fatalism.)
The Twitter Marxists (Scandinavians, French, Brits, Greeks) and some American game theorists, who urged Greece onwards to jump off the cliff (leave the EU and somehow miraculously recover—in the arms of Putin? God only knows what is going on in their minds)
Second: Yes, there are villains. Two of them. Scaheuble and Varoufakis. 
All along, Schaueble planned to expunge the EU of Greece. This much was proven by the plan he had devised, that was leaked to the media two days ago.
Was Schaueble sadistic toward Greece and Tsipras? Of course he was. Schaueble’s tactics and intentions embody everything that Germany and the Germans have, consistently, for 70 years, been trying to change—in optics and substance. 
Schaueble’s best “ally” in giving his malevolence and nefarious plans, free reign, was the former Greek Finance Minister, Yianis Varoufakis. There is no denying that Varoufakis is charismatic, brilliant and informed. Yet his whole demeanor and “russian roulette” attitude to the destiny of Greece would have—and did—enraged even the most devoted Hellenist. He hurt Greece’s cause more than anything and anyone ever could, at a “life or death” moment. 
Third: Redemption came into the game too. Enter Merkel, Hollande, and Tsipras. 
Merkel is not Schaueble. Throughout the years, and especially throughout the months Syriza has been behaving like an arrogant, entitled, wayward child (to put it mildly) the German Chancellor has kept her equanimity and persuaded the other members of the EU to do the same. She may suffer from the same flavor of German truculence re inflation, but she has also proven to be the only one believing that the European Union cannot exist, as an ideal and shared endeavor, if any of its members are missing. She is also the one putting her (representing the German nation) money where her convictions lie. That Schauble may turn this against her, ending her political career, is something she knows. 
Tsipras also proved to care more for his country, Greece, than for his political career. He is already “over”: he has lost his own party’s parliamentary support, and will rely on the opposition parties (all mainstream, “establishment” ones—who, by the way, are the ones responsible for squandering and appropriating the funds Greece relied on to survive, and then, cooking the books) to implement the measures he committed to.
French PM Francois Hollande, during the past week, proved to be more than a man with a tumultuous love-life. The new Greek proposals that served as the basis for the final deal, were crafted by the French delegation. The French also, within the Eurogroup and EU summit, openly clashed with Germany and fought to preserve Greece’s existence (in the eurozone.)
Fourth: God Bless the USA. If it weren’t for US pressure, Europe would have jettissoned Greece long ago. The support that the US government (President Obama and Finance Minister Lew; Secretary of State Kerry was tied up with the Iranians!), media (from the New York Times’ OpEds and extensive reports, down to the last blog) and social media (Twitter) showed Greece was of invaluable. The right kind of words, delivered passionately and enduringly, become actions. And generally speaking, US actions are things the world—Europe, at least—respects. That almost every American with a Twitter account stood up yesterday and spoke for Greece, calling Germany’s bullying “indecent and sadistic and reminiscent of a Nazi past” changed the zeitgeist inside the EU summit negotiating room.
This, is more or less, how things went down last night. Crazy, unfair, wrong—or not, they may be. But a coup? No, they were not. Sometimes you have to sacrifice everything to get what you most want/need. It’s harsh. But still, a choice: #ThisIsNotACoup




Saturday 11 July 2015

 Eris, the Greek goddess behind the Trojan War, is now provoking a world war. It’s on Twitter and it’s about the ongoing Greek crisis. Around the clock, heads of state, economists, Europeans and Paul Krugman engage in verbal warfare that roils markets globally.




Monday 6 July 2015

The Gods Abandon Greece

 

“When suddenly, at midnight, you hear/an invisible procession going by/…don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,/work gone wrong, your plans/all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly./As one long prepared, and graced with courage,/… say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.” (Konstantinos Kavafys, Greek poet)

 

This is the story of my mother and myself. It is also is that of most Greeks. Our stories of who we and our families are, inevitably encapsulate the story of Greece—the circumstances, manipulation by great powers, corruption of Greek elites, and the internal discord that led to Greece now slipping to devolution, soon to be oblivion.

Everyone is a Greekologist at the moment. Still, the buzz is ending—and it’s long overdue I suppose. The world will move on to other things, other crises, other interests. We the Greeks will be remembered either as heroic victims (who did not pay their taxes) or as profilgate, arrogant madmen (who did not pay their taxes.) As Leonard Cohen says, there is truth that lives and truth that dies, and how my motherland and nation will be remembered, will shape whatever future it may have. So I am writing to preserve the truth I have known all my life.

On Sunday night, my mother and I watched the Greek referendum results, thousands of miles away from each other. On a bad Google hangouts connection (wifi is sketchy now in Athens) we were alone together, silenced by despair. Earlier in the day, my mother had, with trepidation, left the apartment to cast her “Yes” vote. Yes, to remaining in the eurozone. Even so, she was torn. Many of those responsible for getting the country in this situation were proponents of the “Yes” vote. Many of those rooting for “No” were anti-Syriza, yet the hits they had taken for far too long, blurred the lines between fighting and fatalism.

The only child of a single mother, I was born in a country where, even in 1980, the mother had no right over her child. My mother worked day and night, as an interpreter and guide (it was the only way she could be paid in dollars and not drachmas), in order to send me to an American school. To this day, the sight of dollars generates awe, fear and longing in me.

My American education came at a heavy price though, for my mother. Although licensed by the Greek state, travel guides were not recognized as a profession by social security until the ‘90s. This meant that when my mother retired after almost 45 years, all she received was a 300 euro pension—the kind the EU wants to further cut, making no distinction between high and low pensions, and no consideration as to the current age of the pensioner, as well as the age when he/she received the pension. European… thoughtlessness has made Greeks suffer for many generations.

In 1923, in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey) my mother’s father, Spyros, returned from his American school one afternoon to find his family slaughtered by Turkish troops. He watched people he knew, killing and being killed as the French and British looked on from their ships in the harbor. 

My grandfather, my mother's father, managed to escape to the Greek mainland. During the Nazi Occupation of Athens (especially brutal because when Greece was asked to capitulate, the national response "OXI" was so overwhelming it forced the dictator, Metaxas, to adhere to public emotion--and that led the Nazis to decide to make Greece an example of what happens to those who resist), my grandfather, like many middle-class people, he worked in an office by day, and by night fought with the Resistance. Like many Greeks, he used all the family savings to buy milk and eggs for the women and children starving in the streets. The milk and eggs were provided by the black-marketeers—a small group, some of whom, after the war, used their riches to become ship owners and industrialists. Now, they have decamped to London and Geneva.

My mother followed in her father’s footsteps. In 1967 the Greek Junta seized power. It was a Colonels' dictatorship supported by the CIA (thereby engendering an anti-establishment conspiracist sentiment in the Greek people that lingered for decades, adequately manipulated by politicians, from the center to the extreme left.) My mother left her well-paid job as flight attendant at Onassis’s airlines “Olympiaki” so she could become part of the Resistance, and the subsequent movement to constitutionally get rid of the German-imposed king. 

A few years after the Junta fell and the dethroned king fled, Greece came under the governance of PASOK, a center-left party founded by Andreas Papandreou, an American-trained economist, son of a former Prime Minister of Greece. The incipient democracy easily fell prey to his demagogery. “The EU and NATO are the same syndicate” and “Banish the US military bases (in Glyfada, Athens) because they kill people” were slogans he launched, fermenting anti-western sentiment in the nation. “The poor will become rich” was another. His charisma made him a demi-god in the eyes of half of the Greek public—the half he rained (the then, seemingly endless) EU subsidies on. His crony socialism created a new class of nouveaux riches, while creating an atmosphere of natural entitlement and discord among those who benefited and those who did not. For me, it practically meant that my mother and I could not afford to take a holiday, and—adding injury to insult—doughnuts, bubble gum, and American books were hard to get by and cost a fortune. 

My mother just worked and worked, taking care of me and my grandmother. When the Junta fell, she, together with some of her companions, watched people who at best tolerated, at worst collaborated with the Junta, receive a "resistance bonuses" (like a pension, regardless of age). It was one more event that created a rift in my people that endures to this day, through other guises.

After the restoration of democracy to Greece, my mother shied away from politics in disgust. Like most Greeks, she always hoped someone incorruptible and effective would come to power “some day”; like all Greeks, she never expected that to happen. Still, she never ceased hoping, not even after my grandmother passed away in a public hospital where, like all public hospitals, life and death was largely determined by what politician you knew, in addition to the size of the daily bribes the (underpaid) doctors and nurses received.

While studying Law, at 18, I became a foreign affairs reporter. 

I felt the limitations of my country and language, yet could not conceive of a life elsewhere. Besides, Greece was on the rise. In 2001, five years since Andreas Papandreou passed away, in London, in the arms of his decades younger spouse, known for her love of luxury real estate, psychics, and soft-porn selfies, Greece acceded to the Eurozone. In 2004 Athens hosted the Olympic Games with phenomenal success. Greek banks, as well as the Greek welfare system, grandiosely funneled money to all the Balkans, even Turkey. Greece was dreaming big dreams. 

Yet the country’s foundations were sinking. Papandreou’s successor, the correct yet pusillanimous Kostas Simitis succeeded in his endeavor for Greece to accede to the eurozone. Still. Many of the elites close to the government allegedly made billions during the final depreciation of the drachma, on the eve of the entrance to the eurozone. This set the tone for what was to follow. Everything was a business, and all business was black. It is telling that during the years that followed, all over  Greece, not just Athens, myriads of bouzoukia centers (something between a concert venue and a club) opened. In even the seediest bouzoukia, millions of euros were consumed each night in grand reserve champagnes, thousand-dollar whiskeys, flowers to rain on the performers who sang old rebetika songs of Greek expatriation and pain-nostos and ponos. European companies, like the German Siemens, were among the protagonists in this nexus of corruption. 

Greek life entails taking the incredible (and not in the surreal Chagall way) into stride. In 2006 a major scandal erupted involving Greek monks and the government of Kostas Karamanlis. The epicenter of this conspiracy was a monastery in Mount Athos, a peninsula in northern Greece where entry is prohibited to all females—from women to cats. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin frequently sojourns there.

The Greek people lost all trust in church and state. Despair started overtaking us. Overwhelmed by all that terrible and wonderful complicatedness with our roots that we never get over, some people forgot how to forgive; others forgave too much. Every line that was drawn soon became a bad mad farce...and then a gap.

On December 6th 2008, a 15-year-old Greek student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by two policemen in the anarchist ghetto of Exarcheia. The boy’s death resulted in large protests and demonstrations, which escalated to widespread rioting. The extreme left (Syriza, and its more extreme siblings) started rising in popularity.

On May 5th 2010, swarms of black-hooded, masked anarchists overtook a massive anti-austerity demonstration in Athens. One of the many gasoline bombs they threw, set fire to a bank building. Three people died, trapped in the burning building. One was a young pregnant woman. The divide between "us" and "them" started growing. For some, "them" were the anarchists; for others, "them" were the Europeans, as moral instigators. 

Like many middle-class, moderate Greeks, I started feeling an outsider in my own country.

Things got worse, even worse, then plateaued. We paid inordinate taxes; our property devalued; private sector salaries were cut mercilessly; even Greek yogurt became pricier than anywhere else. Banks that had served as vehicles to enrich to the already very rich, were bailed out by the state. "Good" banks were saddled with the rising public debt. The “blue chip” bank stocks the “little people” had sacrificed generations of savings to buy, turned to ashes. The loans the middle-class economy had relied on, stopped. Big companies downsized. Small ones closed. We all lost someone we knew to suicide. The escalating price of electricity made summers fatal for the vulnerable and old who could not afford to use their air conditioners. Throughout the winters Athens was covered the fog of pollution generated by people burning anything they could lay their hands on to stay warm. My mother with her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease could not breathe. Even so—or maybe, exactly because of the diverse hits nearly everyone was taking—we expected that things would get better, soon. 

In 2012, I abandoned all I knew and with astonishing naivete, came to New York, telling myself and everyone else, the timeless immigrant tale: it’s just for a bit; I’ll be back. The gods laugh at the plans people make, we say in Greek. 

The other day, right in the middle of Greece’s devolution, my mother’s time here was up, she had to return. Permanent resident status cannot be extended to mothers. Only to husbands and kids (even though I have neither). At the airport I cried. 

In Athens now, crime is rife, the supermarkets are cleaned out. No one knows what is yet to come. It is a world that my elderly mother will have to navigate entirely on her own. This endeavor becomes even harder without a pension, and no access to medicince for her very serious lung condition.

“What can we do?” I asked her helplessly over the Internet.

“Go on” she says. “What can we do? My one joy is that you are in New York. Because our home, is no longer home. It is nowhere any more.”




Saturday 4 July 2015

My America, Our America


Today, July 4th, Independence Day it's worth noting this: the last frontier, the unmentionable racism. The discrimination middle-class, adult immigrants face, here in the enlightened metropolis of the United States. 


I should know, I feel it almost each day ever since I came here to the US, three years ago. 

It’s an inbred racism born of an intrinsic connection to land, and the attendant xenophobia about having to share it with others. Strangers. Aliens, as is the official term for us. What makes this racism especially insiduous and rife is its target: those immigrants who are not rich, nor dirt-poor and/or fleeing war, famine, state prosecution, and other life-threatening extreme situations. 


Who are these people? Well it’s easier to say who we are not:


We are not the uber-rich globalites who make New York unaffordable for everyone else not in their income bracket, whether native or immigrant. These people may not be liked but the multitudes, but they can afford to—and do—rise above the general fray. They are also, rarely, immigrants; merely sojourners who can afford to spend gazillions on luxury real estate which they visit infrequently. 


We are not refugees of war-torn and poverty-stricken lands; workers doing the kind of jobs most Americans don’t deign to (like nail-salon workers, farm laborers, prostitutes) but patronise.


We are not “ex-pats”. The versatile definition of this word has been hotly debated over in recent weeks. By “ex-pats” I mean those middle to upper-middle class professionals who come to the US from generally stable and prosperous countries (e.g. the UK and France) on the wings of their employer—a large and powerful American company (think investment banks, private equity, tech, gene-tech, media) who sponsors them and generally acclimatizes them to the American way of life. 


We are not students either (I call them “ex-pats” in waiting.) We wish we could afford a US college education but we generally lack both the money and the time to do anything but try to survive alone in a foreign land. 


We are not undocumented immigrants. Our entire life’s savings are blown on (largely corrupt) immigration lawyers; on subjecting to the exploitation of landlords who take advantage of our foreigner status; on learning to move past the opaque peremptoriness we often encounter when trying to find a job requiring cultural assimilation; on doing whatever it takes to do things the arduous, legal way.


We are the dreamers without the capital D-that is reserved for the American-born children of undocumented workers. We are adult immigrants. We abandoned our homelands for a dream: the dream of America. It contains the American dream but also transcends it. Most of us are self-employed (writers, actors, artists, journalists etc) and we all know how farcially tragic and generic this condition can be, especially in New York. Yet the pursuit of happiness is an ideal to be found only in the US Constitution. 


As President Obama mentioned yesterday: ”One of the remarkable things about America is that nearly all of our families originally came from someplace else. We’re a nation of immigrants. It’s a source of our strength and something we all can take pride in.”

Not all do. Yet, I did not expect to read a proud declaration of xenophobia, a racist rant against us middle-class immigrants, the lowcase d dreamers, in the mainstream media.

I am referring to “Real New Yorkers Can Say Goodbye to All That” http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-06-01/real-new-yorkers-can-say-goodbye-to-all-that published on BloombergView by Meghan MacArdle. Ms MacArdle now lives in Washington DC, a place where, as she writes, "everyone I know is here because they care about ideas”--a truth I am sure everyone involved in politics will willingly attest to.


Although Federico Garcia Lorca makes the case for saying goodbye to all that (“The first to leave understand in their bones there'll be no paradise or leafless loves; they know they go to the filth of numbers and laws, to artless games, to fruitless sweat.” Poet in New York: A Bilingual Edition), Ms MacArdle still emanates a lot of rage for having had to do exactly that, noting that she was forced to leave New York when her “old life was torn down abruptly to make way for someone else's plans... ultimately because of all those people who flew in on the wings of their childhood dreams.” 


She may have a point. Natives have been bemoaning immigrant influxes since the first homo sapiens left their homeland in Africa and spread to the Middle East then Europe, then the rest of the world. There is a reason evolution and revolution are only one r apart. Adam Gopnik wrote of this in a recent New Yorker piece of his on Anthony Trollope. “The idea of progress is at the heart of his vision: that liberal Victorian faith in perpetual progress in lessening distances, with the understanding that a new proximity of peoples, however welcome, will always be as strange for the encroaching as for the encroached upon.”


Of course not everyone is a progressive (especially on Bloomberg.) Yet no one has the right to express racism, as does Ms MacArdle. In her essay she writes: “We did leave our hometown because of all these aspirational New Yorkers… For us, reading the impassioned essays of the city's adult migrants is a bit like reading the love letters from your father's new 22-year-old bride…If you are still marveling at the fact that you actually get to live in the city of your dreams…You are a tourist who has possibly overstayed your visa…Those people…the joyous immigrants penning paeans to the city…are so besotted by New York that they will cling to its towering walls with bloody fingernails if that's what it takes to stay there.”

Immigrants? Adult migrants? Visas? Tourist visas? So far as I know, moving to New York (or any state from that matter) from another state does not require a visa (yet!) So, according to BloombergView, the problem lies not with with those realizing the all-American myth of coming to the quintessential land of opportunity. It lies with those of us who come here as adult immigrants, from foreign countries, alone, on middle-class visas. With those of us who give all, even our life-blood as Ms MacArdle says, to come here to the US and stay here. We are the problem, in the eyes of this unchronicled, covert racism. 


Down at Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty gleams green hope in the gloam, juxtaposed against the city’s skyline. It carries all our hopes, gods and words; the many filaments of lives from every of the world. It signifies that my America, our America is not so much a mosaic or tapestry like they call it, but a living breathing unity of many different and multiple parts, even if sometimes jarring with one another. We are one.

 




Friday 3 July 2015

https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/1CBX4CZRUDZEJ

For the love of Greece

by PROMETHEUS SMITH
A CIA agent and a girl try to save Greece

It is a fictional account of real events currently unfolding in Greece. The story takes place over 7 days whose outcome will define the world's destiny. Greece is going bankrupt, terrorism and violence taking over. Anarchists are fighting neo-Nazis; hedge fund managers playing crooked games; in the ancient subterranean tunnels of Athens, Russia is hatching an evil plan for global supremacy. Carter (an American CIA agent) and Athena (a Greek Twitter journalist) try to save the day. But can they?




Friday 26 June 2015

 1. Facebook is the God of social media.

 

The people you follow on Facebook are your demi-gods. 

Their gorgeousness, goodness, intelligence, success is unmatchable. Do not even attempt it. 

Always remember to like their posts devoted to empowering adequately Instagram-photogenic calamity-stricken countries/women/children. Don’t worry this may lead to a display of opinionatedness (opinions are a tricky business; something only Lena Dunham should do.) Legions of media advisers, whiteshoe law firms and DC lobbyists compose what the demi-gods post, so you are safe liking and sharing it. 

In any case, it’s not just Hillary who knows the power of selective erasing and apologizing for past endorsements of little things, like wars. 

 

2. Do not post pictures you may ever want to be forgotten. 

We are not Europeans (the EU recently forced Google to implement the “right to be forgotten”            for any Europeans who had stuff—from convictions to bad selfies—they wished to relegate to oblivion.) 

Ensure that anything you share on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook etc will not put present you or future you or any of your family that you care about in a “challenging” (it’s Park Slopean for “compromising”) position. 

If you must have it spelled out for you, everything can be “challenging”. Exceptions: food, flora, fauna, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Never underestimate the career-building power of these categories. Pictures of cute puppies, well-lit images of the Brooklyn Bridge, and pithy captions to ethnic food-porn of yet one more New York restaurant will take you places—unlike your resume. Unless of course you’ve gone to the right schools. In this case, you do not have to conform to any of these rules. Or any others for that matter.

 

3. Do not take social etiquette in vain. 

Downton Abbey is a hotbed of anarchy compared to the conventions of social media. 

Favoriting but not retweeting makes you out to be a calcluating creep. Liking the post of a Facebook friend whom you do not know in person is OK. Sharing it, is not. Especially when it’s a pic of their girlfriend in negligible attire.

Poaching the friends of your friends is NOT OK. Unless you appropriate them entirely, and then some. If you are capable of this, then most of the other rules do not apply to you, either. 

 

4. Remember the sabbath day. 

It’s the most-read, most-posted day. Heaps of free time, no Sunday paper or brunches. A whole day of quality time to expend on posting our lives for the world to observe and envy, and for us to feel important and meaningful.

 

5. Honor your father and mother. 

Deliberate at length whether they are mature enough to be thrown into the multiverse. 

If they have reached the necessary level of self-knowledge, respect and yoga, lift the age-restrictions and limits from their computers and smartphones. 

Monitor them frequently. Otherwise you will create a Frankenparent (= a parent who—consider the monstrosity!—becomes more than just your parent.) There is no telling what worse horrors this may lead to. Think Bernie Sanders.

 

6. You shall not unfriend (social media equivalent of “kill”.) 

Exceptions to this rule may be granted in the case of some heinous breach of social etiquette. Prime example: a friend has sent you a direct message asking for something—from sex to a job. Anything, basically, that you are not at all disposed to provide. 

Following is another animal altogether. You can follow, unfollow and re-follow at your will. Even skilled users of social media (the psychiatric term is “egopaths of sociopathic dimensions”) cannot keep.........




Sunday 26 April 2015

Wistful Don Draper of these last episodes of the Mad Men saga, has made us feel a little heavier, a little older this season. Don is no longer a grade A asshole—why even Meagan got him apologizing to her (“for what exactly?” even feminists tweeted, ranting against her, devious seductress that she is) and after he handed her a million dollars for no apparent reason. He is wiser, sadder, more human, vulnerably loveable. We all know this cannot end well. 

Truth is, Don evokes the zeitgeist no longer of the Mad Men era, but of our times. We are all kind of sad these days, this year, 15 years into the once-new millenium. Through different paths, for different reasons, but in much the same way. Contrary to the trope “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, in our post-ironic, meta-content way, our private griefs have transmogrified into a generic melancholy spreading over the country like a wistful fog.

Ironically, this “non-happiness” is equally present in the lives of people with families, as well as those who do not and will probably never have them.

A recent slew of essays and books (e.g. the new anthology “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids” edited by Meghan Daum, and Kate Bolick’s “Spinster”) reveals that making the “right” (for each person, this is a different thing) choice does not, alas, directly translate into happiness.

At the same time, families are definitely not a font of unfettered joy for most people. We expend an inordinate amount of our lives working at loving/avoiding/hating/detaching from/forgiving our parents; then working at forgiving ourselves for everything we could have forgiven but didn’t, and everything we should not have not forgiven, but did.

Then we become parents ourselves, our entire life’s perspective shifts radically and becomes attenuated to our kids’ every breath and step in life. Helicopter parenting is now often criticized, as is the level of frenzy and sheer craziness involved in getting their children into those nursery schools that prepare them for those schools which have become select highways to the Ivy League, which in turn defines everything: whether you will become part of the entitled 1%, part of the large increasingly poorer, sadder, murkier sea of “mass middle class”, or-god forbid-part of neither of the two previous classes. Two recent books on this phenomenon are Frank Bruni’s “Where you go is not who you become” and Robert D. Putnam’s “Our Kids”.

Yet no one seems to have come up with a better way of doing things. And until some brilliant disruptor and innovator comes along and does just that, the rat-race for parents and their kids will go on pretty much as it is doing so already.

At the end of this race, sometime in the spring of our kids’ senior year, when college admissions are through, we know if we have won or lost. Either way, that is the moment we embark upon the small death that is called “transitioning into a separate life and identity”, which leaving for college signifies.

This reality which is celebrated as a result of successful parenting, leads many people in their mid 50s flocking to shrinks for help with their “empty nest” sad syndrome. Paradoxical yes, inevitable too, or so it seems anyway.

 

It’s not just in family life though. A feeling of unfulfillment seems to permeate the pursuit of everything else too: power, money, accomplishment, love. In seeking an elusive, ever-mutating “meaning” which we cannot adeptly pinpoint yet whose absence we feel intensely, as distress, even grief, the “no ones” of our world unite with the most important “somebodies”, in solitary, parallel harmony. (David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author of the “Road to Character” writes interestingly about this http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/06/opinion/david-brooks-the-problem-with-meaning.html )

 

The Have-nots are sad because… they do not have what makes most people (if temporally) happy: money, success, content personal lives. 

The Haves are sad because they have it all and yet their insides emanate grief because they often perceive of their lives to be devoid of meaning. Why sadness claims victims even amongst the scions of absolute privilege and entitlement, the kids of those “in whose favor the cards are stacked” as Hillary Clinton diplomatically put it in her official announcement video. Frank Bruni wrote about this movingly in his most recent article http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-best-brightest-and-saddest.html?_r=0

 

We become sad when we feel our potential going to waste. Sad too, if we feel so trapped into a Sisyphean state of constant transient “arrival”, that even if we have seem to have acheived and possess everything, we can credibly feel we have nothing. People use clinical terms like “depression” to explain what happened to exceptionally gifted, creative, rich, and successful individuals such as Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, L’Wren-Scott, Dr Frederick Brandt. Psych terms help us feel insulated from such conditions; as if defining something as a mental condition conjures a threshold we will never transgress. Yet feeling unfulfilled and lost is a feeling we all share from time to time, so we are all equally at risk.

  Stressed and weighed down by the norms our society lives by; sad when we see values replaced by situations reliant on money alone. Each of us, according to the class we belong to, the money we make, the dreams we had/have, the lives we lead, are sad about something we have too little or too much of.

 

And as any marathon-runner can attest: when you’re running, it all becomes about speed, constant motion and acceleration required to acheive a transient win. Yet what happens when we stop? Because at some point, we all have to. Faced with the omnipotent continuity of online life—Facebook, Twitter and the entire Web—it is hard not to feel alone, small, at a disconnect from everyone else, and even the person we were before we stopped.

 

That’s why no one really stops. Ever. Even for those few who defy the mainstream, in order to pursue more “meaning” in their lives, it’s anybody’s guess whether they will find what they are seeking. There are no guarantees and everything comes at a cost.

 

Yet even those who objectively lead lives that transcend the rat-race most of us are currently involved in, and whose lives are meaningful to humanity (like the doctors who left the US to volunteer in Africa, saving Ebola patients) can fall prey to the same sadness of those of us pursuing more individualistic lives. Meaningful rarely coincides with happy, scientific research has recently proven.  Making other people happy doesn’t always translate into becoming happy or feeling meaningful ourselves. We are all our own greatest paradox: solipsistic, parochial, far-sighted, generous, parlous and exemplary, individualistic and humanitarian.

That we know we are all this tangled mess, and we have enough intuitive intelligence, cognitive and verbal erudition...... 



 

My beloved terrorist
Published by: LIVANIS
First printing: 2001
Pages: 403
Hellenists: Greece does not wound them
Published by: LIVANIS
First printing: 1999
Pages: 314
 
 

 

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