Grave matters

Comedian Joe Wong takes a page from Late Night: he follows Van Halen’s Jump soundtrack to open his acts. “I had a near death experience yesterday. I walked by a graveyard”. Mind you it’s China where smoking is finally banned in public places. Speaking of public space, I too had a near death experience. I visited Ba Chuc, where Pol Pot’s genocidal bones and skulls were on display. That entire village, population 3,150+ was wiped out except for 2 survivors, one of whom was interviewed for a New York Times piece in 2004. To Ba Chuc villagers, it was “apocalypse now”. This event, along with recent atrocities along the Malaysia – Thailand border- is a strong testimony to humanity’s Achilles Heels. We have made progress, only in fits and starts. Can’t catch them all. ( On a brighter note, Holland has tended to the graves of WW II US heroes for 70 years.) Ethics aside, many of these lives could have been put to good use, like Stephen Hawkin’s. What can be more real or lessons hit closer to home, than seeing bones and skulls. I was glad this genocide had been stopped. Part of growing up is not to repeat the same mistake. Humanity – liken to a grown person – is going through a  learning curve. BTW, comedian Joe Wong, before locked into his new vocation, was a Ph. D. in bio chemistry. He admitted to have read the Oxford English Dictionary 8 times ( yet can’t get rid of  his inborn accent ). He went through his own learning curve.

But, you got to give it to the man, who was on Late Night as a guest. With Letterman’s departure, the chair of comedy department was immediately filled, but an entry-level position is now opened. With syndication and translation, maybe Asian American can someday tune in to enjoy Joe Wong’s acts in China. He’d better not lose the English he had worked so hard for. Jokes tend to get lost in translation e.g. “I had a near death experience yesterday”. For me, nothing was lost in Ba Chuc , with bones and skulls up close. For these are grave matters.


North Star

A generation has grown up in the shadow of 9/11, two subsequent wars and one huge recession. Graduates face dim job prospects and heavy burden of student loan. Yet Tim Cook of Apple urges them to follow their North Star. It must be you, he said.

He must be kidding!

It’s Washington, where skepticism morphs quickly into cynicism. He mentioned meeting Wallace and Carter, the latter more humane and honest.

Then his meeting with Steve Jobs, a hard-to-work-with 3rd shift co-worker.

Steve was credited with saving the music industry from Napster.

Tim Cook is still finding his footing in history, still “thinks different”.

Teilhard de Chardin suggested that human had appeared suddenly and “quietly” thousands of years ago. But will together face one end point, the Omega.

Instead of “the mass living in quiet desperation”, Tim Cook suggests “the mass empowered with pocket phones/cameras to be in the arena, not sitting on the bench”.

Graduates want to hear “what’s in it for me”, not “how together we can make a difference” (bring out the guitar and the harmonica, and take a selfie while at it).

At least, his “painted house” Alabama story ( hand-writing his Rural Electrification Contest speech to qualify for the White House tour) speaks volumes. Young Clinton was in one of those tours as well. Good impressions last forever. In Tim Cook’s case, he finally owned his I-phone to take a pic of George Washington University graduates, his commencement audience.

This audience know they cannot allow recent history to repeat itself i.e. One World Trade Center must stand tall and financial instrument crooks must be jailed and stay there.
So ethics and economics can co-exist, doing well and doing good at the same time. Apple has made good on its promises, from improving worker’s conditions in its China factories to doubling down on minorities hiring in Cupertino.

Apple space ship might be unmanned  but will be inclusive.

It starts at the top, not just “think different”,  but “be different”.

The more authentic it allows itself to be, the harder for the likes of Samsung to play catch up. After all, you can copy someone’s invention, but you cannot reproduce his identity. Maybe Chardin was right about combining all the brain powers in the noosphere (collective consciousness) – today’s equivalent of supercomputing power in the cloud – to process information, to do well and to do good. It must be you

Consumer’s hypocrisy

If asked, we all say we buy on values.

When not asked, we buy on price ( never mind all the time searching for the bottom price).

Trade pacts and trade policies. We shifted manufacturing jobs South of the border, only to ship them across the pond. Then what happened? China grows its industrial muscles, and figures, they too can apply the same lesson: shipping the jobs further South to Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. These countries, which have already taken a page from the Filipinos play book, shipped workers to Eastern Europe and Middle East for years. Until now, when jobs are finally coming their way.

Jack Ma of Alibaba even goes on the offensive by recruiting bi-lingual 2nd year US MBA students to rotate in different departments. Mr Tien, another Chinese billionaire, treated his 6,000 workers to France and Macau. In short, Chinese labour market is now overheated, competing for high-valued talent.

Consumers said they wanted more for less.

So it goes. Machine replacing human, cheaper labour replacing more expensive one etc…

In the middle of 19th century, bicycles from France were highly sought after in the US.

(my pre-conception was based on my familiarity with the US Highway system, another copy of German autobahn). No wonder in one fell swoop, Henry Ford built both the automobile and the US highway system (boasted being door-to-door).

Not to mention his pitch  “you can choose – model T – in any color as long as it’s black” and policy to pay workers enough to buy the cars. In today’s environment, both the bikes and the automobiles (or most of them) would be made in China.

Back to our labour lamenting and consumer’s hypocrisy. At the heart of the debate on trade and labour is competitiveness. The US is ranked 5th on road condition (its D.C. and Philie Amtrak line has just killed 8). Someone is paying the price for the value rendered.

So from Portland, Oregon (where Nike is) to Portland, Maine (near where L.L. Bean is), we bought sweatshirts and shoes made from overseas (where factories, workers and environmental effects are expendable). As long as the status quo continues with Black Friday rush and Dads and Grads gifting (which BTW, no one really makes practical use out of those flowery shirts. And where is Mrs Marcos now with her 3,000+ out-of-style pairs of shoes?).

For this Father’s Day, think sustainably and globally. Examine your conscience and question your hypocrisy as a consumer. Am I truly shopping for values or on price. And at what price to the many who helped make those products.

Long ago (during the Clinton years), I read about the proliferation along the Texas border. Then, for a while, the jumping of Apple workers from the Foxconn’s dormitory in China. Now, it’s the Chinese turn to start reading about their Vietnamese sub-contacts getting drunk on cheap vodka and DUI’s at the city’s outskirts. Some day, Nike will learn from Henry Ford to make those shoes affordable even to its workers. Now, that will not be hypocrisy.

Learned leaders

Let’s pretend you are invited to give a commencement address to 2015 graduates.

What role models should we recommend to these future leaders? Most subjects have been touched on by earlier speakers like Steve Jobs (get going) and Jill Abramson (get real).

Let’s brainstorm, or SWOT, to find a more realistic leadership model.

First is King David.

Courage in battle and faithful in life.

Yet, on the roof top, he had a momentary lapse of judgment (so was the IMF guy): he wanted another man’s wife (to add to his collection of thousand).

One false start led to another i.e. murder plot (sending Beersheba’s husband to the war front to qualify her as widow).

Lesson: that which gets you there, in this case – courage, won’t keep you there.

Second is Hitler.

Norman Mailer’s A Castle in the Forest explored Hitler’s childhood, surrounded by and observed how bees behaved. Result: an efficient army – killing machine and coding machine (one way or another, a precipice for  our digital world today, with IBM being slightly tainted). 6 failed assassinations, only to succeed at the end: he took his own life.

Lesson: efficiency alone is good only for managerial and logistic layer. Leaders need to place the ladder on the right building, not just climbing efficiently up.

Third is Colin Powell

He distilled war wisdom out of the Vietnam experience. The Powell Doctrine states that one only engages in a conflict when there is 70+ chance of wining it. Once in, one needs to deploy overwhelming force to ensure swift and decisive victory. In short, no quagmire. Sun Tzu knows this well: the best  battle is the one one doesn’t get involved in.

Fourth and last. Water Margin (Chinese Confucian Robin Hood)

To lead a band of 108 brothers who curse, drink and have strong disregard for the “corrupted” authority was no easy task. Yet Song Jiang, a filial and moral but defunct officer managed just that. He took humility to heart. Song Jiang bowed and stuck with them more than stuck it to them. Instead of saying “go ahead and make my day”, Song Jiang often untied his captives and recruited them into the fold. To win hearts and minds. To him, it’s easier to destroy than to build, to revenge than to restore.  Lesson: what one believes affects how one leads.

So graduates, from this day on, choose your leadership style. What’s your core belief; self-assessment or self-aggrandizement?

Are people to be manipulated or motivated, humiliated or honored?

What kind of aim and end do you wish? At what costs? According to Mr. Powell’s manual, go ahead and place the ladder on the building even in the thick of smoke, only after you have ascertained and arrived at 70% confidence. Like King David, one wrong can lead to many more down that road. The end never justifies the means: if you can’t be taken down after six attempts, you might end up doing yourself in any way, Queen Bee or worker bees.

Leaders learned what not do to most of the time. You have learned what to do. Now comes the hard part. From here on out, it’s not a case study to be graded. It’s your life-long learning on how to lead.

New Race New Rules

Mr Ben King has died. From here on out, we are on our own in Spanish Harlem. No one is going to “stand by me”. He described his singing career as “accidental” and that he felt like he’d been cheating (fate?). A lot of great things in life are just that: accidental. Last week, I read a bunch of April 30, 1975 accounts (as if there were an essay contest on victim-hood). Why didn’t you say so? You here means both sides of the Vietnam conflict. One side wants to avoid the fallen dominos (ironically, more Domino’s (Pizza) are now standing, not fallen here in Vietnam). The other just wants arm supplies to fend for itself against aggressors, this time, the very arm supplier of the past up North. No one is going to “stand by me” this time. One can play the victim card for so long. Like a hacked spam mail, asking for money to un-jam the sender who had been robbed in far-away land – sent to a stolen distro list to cry wolf. On other matter, Baltimore reminds me of Watts (and the LA Riot). Both places have fenced off neighborhood, their Spanish Harlem, where at times, police breaks the law to enforce it. What’s so hard to just get along even “accidentally” (to paraphrase Rodney King). We have done well with Native American land, back-breaking contribution of African slaves, Chinese rail-road coolies, all single men (and ironically, Chinese goods in containers that passed through those rail ways), Saudi oil, Mexican muscles, Moore’s Law and Asian savings. In the words of Don Corleone, it’s been “an offer one can’t refuse”. So long as we don’t forget the Golden Rule. It’s a new race (technology such as EV batteries for home, poop but drinkable water) with new rules. But some old rules endure: first dance with the bride was for the groom. But ” Darling save the last dance for me”. RIP Ben King. Good to be “cheated” by you and your Drifters’ friends.

Red Coke Red Cross

Right about this time – 40 years ago – that we decided to hell with the car and the comfort of home. We stepped foot on a barge and started for the unknown. As we found out later, there were many of those. Luckier than others who had to pull down the flags before allowed to starboard Subic Bay, Philippines; we got pulled, intermittently, by a tow boat and eventually aboard an US navy ship. The abandoned barge made for poor helipad: one chopper’s wings just did not fit the width, since it was walled on both sides with sand bags. As a result, the detached rotor blades swung wildly, causing all of us to duck for one last time. One man found himself with a duffel bag full of then-worthless currency, payroll intended for the stateless troop maybe. In the back of the ship, he tossed them one handful at a time, the way CIA men had shredded classified documents at the embassy the day before. I was quite thirsty by the time we landed three days later. Had there been an E-bay, it would make it easier to push those currency as war souvenir. But necessity was the mother of invention. I solicited (direct sales) to any Navy personnel there. My first earned sales dollar went to the Coke machine. And the classic Coke brand delivered: thirst quenching with a tang. Later on, when I needed to apply for college, it’s the Red Cross that offered services such as document translation and bulletin board to find relatives (the same way college students would share a ride to and from campus on holidays). Had there been a Uber back then! I was among a few who applied to Penn State with a Red Cross high school document. It stated that this grade was an equivalent of that grade. The Red Cross was facilitating a transition as much as providing a translation. Much later, when Bill Murray was sitting beside Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation”, he was quite perceptive and graceful under jet lag. The bartender was pouring him drinks, the stuff that greases the social wheel. Sophia Coppola directed this flick, while her father had been much well-known for Apocalypse Now. Somewhere between traffic of Saigon, which never stops even at intersections, and the field of Pennsylvania, where traffic came to a full stop at the STOP sign (even in pouring rain and deserted street), I found myself lost in translation, of culture, currency and common language. Yet through it all, Red Coke and Red Cross endure ( I am sure the organization is now mobilizing for Nepal quake victims). Those translated documents got me in school, heavy (used) text books got me thinking, questioning and reflecting. Scarlett Johansson also played “Lucy”. And in one of her swipes on the presumably I-phone, Times Square of yesterday and today, were just a blink apart. For me, every turn, even unknown unknown , is a good turn, in the grain of time.

Pardoned and paroled

President Ford, before swearing-in, had been a good team player on the football field as well as in politics. He pardoned his predecessor and “paroled” more than 130,000 of us into the four corners of the nation. In the process, he “de-obligated” the Treasury from the burden of a fiscal nightmare whose value (democracy advocacy) was having a diminishing return (body counts).

Reinhold Neibuhr once said that, despite, we still have to seek justice in a sinful world. In practical terms, he must have meant those tasks within our purview. Other “none of our business” like genocide and pesticide are up to regimes and tribunal courts to define and apply justice.

A 93-year-old Nazi bookkeeper is finally put on trial (hope he wear his hearing-aid). Other massacres e.g. Armenian, Ukrainian, Cambodian and Nankinese are too far out there – the latest so horrified that after researching and writing about it, the author of The Rape Of Nankin ended up killing herself.

I am a believer in Common Grace – pray for rain on both the fields of good and evil men. Yet I want to be reminded that when it does finally rain, it doesn’t mean it’s because of the hypocrisy of good men, or the invincibility of evil ones. We cannot allow a repeat of Holodomor or Holocaust. And we know it’s women and children who disproportionately bear the brunt of suffering.

That summer of 1975, I learned to wrap my fingers around a football (ready to be a Nittany Lion fan) in between helping unaccompanied minors placed in their new foster homes. I never caught what is now called “compassion fatigue”.

Perhaps I had already been inoculated with untold suffering of my own. Helping others has been my best cure. And unpopular interventions like Pardon and Parole did help – not to mention a few hundred bucks to get started. My Staten Island was Indiantown Gap, once occupied by Native American. They too may be wondering what all the fuss with White Men and Yellow Men, Holodomor and Holocaust, a few hundred bucks to spin the wheel or to start a life. In the game of survival, one first needs to be a team player. Then say a prayer for rain.

President Ford seemed to know that, having kneeled and prayed too many times  before each college game of football. It’s not those winning games that shaped the man. It’s the lost ones that had formed his characters, as a Congressman and President who pulled the plug on the war.

Reinhold Neibuhr was more famous for his Serenity Prayer – “…the wisdom to see the difference between the two (changeable and unchangeable nature of man)”. For many of us, that wisdom is still a gem buried deep down underneath.