Monthly Archives: September 2008

Please Don’t Judge Me For Judging You

Most of the time, I try my best to be a tolerant, open-minded person. However, personal beliefs can often get in the way of broadmindedness, and that’s when prejudice may rear its ugly head across the narrow maritime border to Russia. We each have our own values, our rights and wrongs, and our preferences and pet peeves. As such, it’s easy to assert that what we know is right. We can often end up judging others based on their appearances, political beliefs, favorite TV shows, aptitude at Scrabble, etc. We can find ourselves questioning the intelligence of blondes, recoiling at the sight of obese people, and raising our eyebrows at the loony with her alien theories. As different people with differing opinions, we all judge.

Even though there may be legitimate reasons why we judge others (um…aliens for world peace?), that doesn’t mean that our inclinations are defensible. We have seen how judgments may lead to societal prejudices that can be harmful and degrading: racism, sexism, and crimes against those of a different religion or sexual orientation are still prevalent. While many countries have made some efforts to eradicate institutional discrimination, it’s harder to erase the predispositions of individuals.

So what is one way to reduce the existent partiality in society today? Honesty. If we admit to every ugly, narrow thought we have, then perhaps we will be shamed into having fewer of them. The following, then, is a list of groups that I have inexcusably looked down on. I’d like to think that I treat all individuals the same, regardless of whether they fit into any of these groups, but perhaps this is untrue. Either way, this exercise is rather enlightening…

Top Ten List of People I Judge: (apologies in advance)

10. People with Southern accents (I don’t know why, exactly, but I hate when people say “y’all”. I’m sorry. You can make fun of Bostonians.)

9. People who type liKe tHiS aNd uSe LoTs of ExClaMaTiOn pOinTs!!! (It was mildly annoying in 6th grade, and it’s even more so now.)

8. People who say “dang”, “heck”, and “fudge” instead of the real thing (Although I would hire them to babysit my children in the future.)

7. People who do volunteer work just to put it on their resume (I suppose the act of doing it is better than doing nothing at all, but I wish more people had pure motivations… But perhaps that is being too idealistic.)

6. People who make spelling errors on important presentations (It’s called a dictionary.)

5. Vegetarians who make you feel bad for eating meat (I’m not waving a hot dog in your face, so relax. You made your choice, I made mine.)

4. Compulsive whiners (If you’re reading this on a computer, you probably have a good life compared to other people in this world.)

3. Fundamentalist Christians (Even though I know not all of them are Bible-thumping zealots, I tend to blame them all for advocating creationism, rejecting science, and re-electing Bush in 2004.)

2. People who don’t think global warming is happening (Really??)

Finally, the number one group of people who I judge…

1. People who misuse “your” and “you’re” (The fact that this is at #1 really speaks to my anal-retentiveness with punctuation. But it’s true: I really hate when people do this.)

 

3 Comments

Filed under Life

Random Thoughts on… Aliens

On this blog, we have talked at length about the problems that have challenged our country and our economy. The next few weeks will be a trying time for Americans as we maneuver through the throes of a recession, uncertainty, and increasingly ugly politics. The presidential election has become a public boxing match, complete with low blows, meritless jabs, and an attractive woman to draw the crowds. Several accusations of racism and sexism have been raised. Democrats and Republicans have continued to blame each other. The United States is divided once again: red vs. blue, white vs. black, old vs. young, creationists vs. educated people. To make matters worse, with a lame duck president, an unpopular war, and the fallout on Wall Street, our country’s standing in the world has continued to decline. So, not only are we struggling internally, but the rest of the world is saying, “I told you so”.

Thus, I am here to propose an all-encompassing solution to our problems, one that will boost our economy, bring people together, and elevate our relations with countries around the world:

Bring on the aliens.

Yes, aliens. Imagine flying saucers, little green men, and Joan Rivers’ face.

An alien attack on the White House brought people together in the movie Independence Day

Think about it: President Bush calls up the command center in Houston and says, “Let them in!” Thousands of alien spaceships fly through the hole in the ozone layer created by global warming. These aliens are smart (since they have spaceships) and angry (since they’ve been on a very, very long road trip with no rest stops). They quickly identify their U.S. target for alien invasion–the continental Midwest, because of its flat plains and welcoming, unassuming people.

Americans are soon alerted about the alien invasion, and boy, we are afraid. Afraid, and mad, because these damn spaceships are blocking satellite reception for DirecTV. John McCain and Barack Obama immediately deliver a joint speech about togetherness in the face of adversity. Sarah Palin enchants us all with a story about how she can see outer space from Alaska. The Sci-Fi channel switches to reality programming. Bound together by fear, and a renewed belief in our collective humanity, we shed our ideological differences and stand hand-in-hand with our human neighbors. A modern-day New Deal is put into place, creating thousands of jobs for ordinary Americans to build alien entrapment plants and spaceship bombers. And the rest of the world looks to us for a plan, as we are still the global leaders in science, technology, and alien objects (this is where Joan comes in). A U.N. coalition is quickly formed to fight the aliens, and confidence in American leadership is restored.

…Now, this is all assuming that the aliens want to attack us. Before we go ahead and bomb them, we might want to try a bit of diplomacy first. If the aliens come in peace, then I’m fine with them taking over Kansas. And who knows, maybe all of our current problems will actually be solved by one of the human candidates… With several swing states in the Midwest, I’m hoping that Obama’s got the alien vote.

2 Comments

Filed under Random

Justifying Our Love for David, Justin, Britney, And Of Course, Madonna

It starts with shortness of breath. Next comes the hyperventilating, the eye twitches, the body spasms, and mangled speech. The flailing arms come out soon after, trying to seek reassurance from anyone passing by: “Did you see that? Did you see him? That was him! That was him!” Deep breaths. Regain composure. Put the crazy face away, and try to look nonplussed that David Beckham just walked RIGHT by you, and grazed your shirt with his arm. David Beckham. His arm. Your shirt. That shirt will never get washed again.

Sound familiar, or likely?

It can be easily argued that we live in a celebrity culture. With resources like People.com, TMZ, and the ever-infallible Perez Hilton, we know more intimate details about celebrities than we do our own friends and family. I may not know the name of my best friend’s ex, but I do know that Jared Leto used to date Cameron Diaz, who used to date Justin Timberlake, who used to date Britney Spears, who used to date Kevin Federline, who used to date nobody famous… that is, before dating, impregnating, marrying, and divorcing, Britney Spears. Through the celebrity-stalking bible known as Us Weekly, I’ve learned that Michael Phelps likes Chinese food, Ricky Martin likes boxer briefs, and Lindsay Lohan likes women. From watching E! News and listening to Ryan Seacrest on the radio, I have developed a wealth of celebrity trivia that would make my high school US history teacher cringe. What year did Madonna’s first album come out? 1983. Who played the little girl in Remember the Titans? Hayden Panettiere. What did Jessie take that got her “so excited” but yet “so scared”? Caffeine pills. No, I may not know exactly what Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do, or where to find Pakistan on a map, but I can tell you that back when they were married, Dennis Quaid cheated on Meg Ryan. (Plus, I’m guessing that Fannie/Freddie and Pakistan/Iraq aren’t all that important anyways.) It may be hard to justify, but celebrity stories trump news stories every time.

For many of us, celebrities are just incredibly fascinating. Typically most of us would think that it’s crazy to camp out on the sidewalk for hours, just to get within screaming distance of a children’s book author. We would find it odd to reach out and grab at random strangers’ arms, legs, and (other) body parts. Perhaps we want to get close enough to verify that celebrities are, indeed, human. And so we change our shopping route to follow them at the supermarket. We stare at them, enraptured, as they do mundane things that all of a sudden seem fascinating. We try to take a picture of them buying carrots with our camera phone. Maybe all of it is just to confirm that they too eat food, walk places, and have boring days. Maybe it’s to reassure us that they are, kind of, just like us.

Then again, if they were really just like us, they wouldn’t be celebrities. So we live vicariously through their awards nights, champagne parties, airport rampages, and drug busts. We dedicate our whole day to wait in line for tickets to see Madonna, and we set aside The Shirt That David Beckham Touched for framing. It may not be right that we place celebrities on a higher pedestal than prime ministers, Congressmen, royalty, philanthropists, teachers, doctors, firefighters, police officers, community organizers, war veterans, environmentalists, public defenders, public servants, social workers, human rights activists, and often in the case of young people, parents… BUT, celebrities have brought us entertainment in the form of Britney & Kevin: Chaotic. So, I feel quite justified.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arts and Entertainment

Tuesdays Suck… And I Have Evidence

While most people may not admit it, we all share an innate love for numbers. Everyone has a favorite number, an unlucky number, and an entirely neutral feeling about the remaining number of numbers. Numbers are everywhere: Google is a real number, i is an imaginary number, 1 is the loneliest number, and Ocho Cinco is a football player. There is even a TV show called Numb3rs, which appropriately airs on Friday nights, giving all us number geeks an excuse to get together, hold parties, and serve… pi (sorry). But in truth, numbers today are as popular as chocolates, fireworks, Thanksgiving, and toilet seat covers. We use numbers to do everything, from measuring the height of mountains, to the strength of earthquakes, to the ratio of blood to alcohol in Amy Winehouse’s body (have we talked about negative numbers yet?).

Similarly, as much as we love numbers, we also love ourselves. Now, I’m not trying to throw Dr. Phil on us here, but I think we can all agree that there are a few people who may suffer slightly from narcissism. A few. Typically we use numbers to judge other people: calling someone a 1 on a binary scale means “I’d hit that,” while a 7 on a ten-point scale means “maybe after a few drinks”. However, we rarely use numbers to learn more about ourselves. Therefore, to capture our universal love for numbers, and our singular love for ourselves, I propose the following:

The Happiness Scale.

The Happiness Scale is simple. It is a percentage, from 0% to 100%, of your happiness at a point in time. 0% means that you are absolutely miserable: friends are obligated to listen to you rant, feed you chocolates, and hide all sharp objects. 100% means that you are giddy, exuberant, and bursting with joy. 50%? Well, it’s just an average day; you’re not hugging strangers on the street, but you’re not contemplating a bridge jump, either.

So, at some point every day, make a note of how happy you are at that moment. You may have just learned of a promotion, or you may have just spilled coffee on your pants, but either way, record the date, the time, and your happiness score. If you are extra ambitious, you could even provide a breakdown of how you got to that point. For example:

70%: Had great fajitas for dinner

-60%: Realized I gained 5 lbs over the weekend

10%: Monday, 8:33 pm

Then, armed with your happiness data, the magic of numbers can turn this exercise into an insightful, Chicken Soup for the Soul-like guide for daily fulfillment. Should you avoid all human contact on Tuesdays? Are you extra cranky after 5 pm? Does your happiness drop with the stock market, the weather, or a Red Sox loss? With your scores, you can take week-over-week averages, calculate means and medians by day, and make pretty bar charts like the one below. You can identify patterns, plot out trends, and perhaps run a regression or two to predict how next week will turn out (if you are worried about endogeneity in your independent variable, you should build a -10% handicap into your daily score immediately).

You could do this exercise alone, or with your friends, as it’s always comforting to know that someone else is having a crappier day than you. In essence, incorporating the Happiness Scale is just like maintaining an easier, more manageable diary–there’s just one entry, and only one question: “At this moment, where are you at on the scale?”

And even if you don’t do this on a daily basis, the Happiness Scale can still spice up your dinner table conversations. After all, the scale is not just for mathletes who like pi jokes, but for everyone who needs a little self-introspection now and then. So instead of asking “What’s up?” or “What’s going on?” (and getting the requisite “Not much, you?” response), ask your friends and family about where they’re at. You never know when “not much” actually turns into something interesting: “Well, I’d say 50%. I got a piece of debris stuck in my eye so I had to wear a pirate’s patch all day. But on the bright side, I saved three baby seals from drowning without risking infection to my cornea… So I’d say it was an average day.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Life

What Does It Take to Be Successful?

Having attended many business panels and conferences, I’ve always hated it when people ask a panelist, “What does it take to be successful?” First, I dislike it because the questioner assumes that there’s a simple path that leads to success: do this, this, and this, and you’ll have yourself a prosperous career. And, I also hate it because the respondent will inevitably give a typical answer about hard work, diligence, perseverance, etc.

If I were to re-phrase the question, I believe that defining “success” is far more insightful than talking about “what it takes”. When we were younger, most of us started out with the belief that success was something tangible: good grades, prestigious schools, high-paying jobs, and climbing up the corporate ladder. After all, we can show off our gold stars and shiny plaques and BMWs. Success stories followed a linear path, and always ended with riches.

study hard = good grades = good college = good job = $$$ = SUCCESS

But, now that we’re older, there may be different end goals that drive us. We may want to spend more time with our family, cultivate relationships, and build quality friendships. We may not want to work more than 40 hours a week. We may seek gratification outside work to define our interpretation of success.

Overall, I believe that most people fall into two camps. Those who are “Type A” think that professional success begets personal success. They believe in the formula above, that hard work and its resulting career will yield further opportunities and happiness. Those who are “Type B” think that personal gratification is more important than professional success. They believe in optimizing time spent with family and friends, rather than a life solely focused on our career goals.

Some people are just so accustomed to external definitions of success that they end up working only for their careers, titles, and paychecks, becoming Type A by default. Others are Type A out of necessity, working to provide a better future for themselves and their kids. They tend to see Type B folks as lazy, unmotivated, wastes of potential. At the same time, those who are Type B tend to think that the other side is made up of friendless, soulless, cutthroat workaholics who will end up sad and alone.

However we define our success, we are still not immune to what others think of us. In particular, high-profile women are often saddled with societal pressure to conform to a Type B archetype. As much as I disagree with her politics, I agree that Sarah Palin should have the right to accept the VP nomination, even if she just had a baby with Down syndrome. I agree that Hillary shouldn’t have to apologize for being ambitious, and Michelle Obama shouldn’t have to show off her softer side in order for people to like her.

So… what does it take to be successful? Well, what do you want out of life? A high-flying career? A happy family life? Are these two mutually exclusive? Can we have a healthy combination of Type A and Type B? And do we have to cater to what society thinks as well?

It’s a question that can’t just be answered with hard work and diligence.

1 Comment

Filed under Careers

Random Thoughts on… Nostalgia

We all have bouts of nostalgia every once in a while. Today, I don’t want to think about the stumbling i-banks, the housing slump, the credit crisis, global warming, oil prices, or even the final episode of ER. Instead, I’d like to bring myself back to a simpler time, when my main concerns revolved around deciding what to wear to school, and remembering to feed my Tamagotchi.

Ah, yes: elementary school in the early 90s.

Remember Lisa Frank, and those neon-pink folders with pictures of dancing unicorns and rainbows? Remember plastic lunch boxes, Five Star notebooks, and pencils with really big erasers? Remember Lunchables? (Looking back, eating those cracker-sandwiches and mini pizzas seems like it wasn’t the healthiest choice). Remember Starter jackets, No Fear t-shirts, Adidas tear-away pants, and LA Gear light-up sneakers? Remember Umbros? Back in the day, most of the girls learned to read with Judy Blume (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret). Most of the guys learned to read with Goosebumps. The most shocking thing today is that kids still read books back then. Of course, there was a lot to do in our free time as well: play Spit, collect Pogs, and go through the Mario Bros. game on Super Nintendo, if you were lucky.

At times, I have tried to relive my elementary school days. I throw on some old windpants, wear ostentatiously-colored outfits, and add in some extra flair (eg. a scrunchie) for my sideways ponytail. Recently, out of curiosity, I signed up for Neopets, the new-age upgrade for the Tamagotchi. While Neopets (a Nickeoldeon product) is meant to be for young kids, I signed on at 3 AM one morning and found 16,305 active users still online. Either there are a lot of international kids with Neopets, or… children need more attentive parents. Anyways, similar to the Tamagotchi, you need to keep your Neopet alive by playing games to buy food. Although I tried my best, I never quite mastered “Shenkuu the Warrior” and “Wal-Mart Santa”. Perhaps it was old age showing through my carpal-tunneled fingers that kept me from beating Amanda, age 12, from Fort Lauderdale. And many of the other games that revolved around multiplication tables did not really pique my interest. My Neopet died within a week.

So, even though it’s fun to reminisce about what it used to be like, the past must unfortunately stay in the past. After all, bringing Lisa Frank folders into your staff meetings would be somewhat awkward, even if your Trapper Keeper is immaculately organized.

Leave a comment

Filed under Random

Lessons Learned from Buying Lehman at $61

In the past few days, another investment bank has fallen, another huge government bailout has been announced, and WaMu customers are making like it’s 1929 and rushing to take money out of their Whoo Hoo! checking accounts. Year to date, the S&P 500 has fallen by over 20%, unemployment is at a five-year high of 6.1%, and it doesn’t seem like the end is in sight.

So, how did this all happen? What has caused Morgan Stanley to court Wachovia, and WaMu to pimp itself out to the Koreans? We’ve heard the terms “housing bubble” and “subprime crisis” and “credit crunch” ad nauseum over the past few months… but what does it all mean? The following is my attempt to explain the recent travails of the economy, and why I probably never should have bought Lehman at $61:

A couple years ago, you bought a house and took out a $300,000 mortgage on it. The bank that issues this mortgage takes it and pools it along with other customers’ mortgages. Then they sell this product, called a mortgage-backed security, to Lehman Brothers. Lehman likes buying mortgage-backed securities, since it can get a decent return for a perceived low amount of risk, as historically, people rarely default on their mortgages. All the other big investment banks/brokerage houses are doing it too, and so there’s a strong secondary market out there for these securities. This is a seemingly win-win situation for all: a profitable venture for Lehman, and a way for the banks to lend more money and increase home ownership.

Enter subprime.

The banks and mortgage lenders are doing well; they can sell off their pooled mortgages to the traders at Lehman, or to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Much of the risk that the customer will default, then, can be transferred. Thus, the mortgage lenders start getting more lax in their lending terms. More and more subprime mortgages are issued, which involves lending to high-risk borrowers like your deadbeat cousin Charlie. The lending terms are structured so that it looks good at the time of signing (encouraging more Charlies to borrow), but after a certain initial grace period, borrowers are hit with much higher rates.

Meanwhile, the MIT grads at Lehman are concocting new complex derivatives in order to make money. Remember that a mortgage-backed security is already a pool of mortgages. Now, the guys on the Street are trading pools of these pools. And pools of pools of pools. Your $300,000 mortgage is all part of this. Thankfully, you, as a credit-worthy, responsible citizen, have been diligently making payments. But Charlie, who is using his home as a laboratory for crystal meth, is not. Of course, mortgages had already been pooled to mitigate the risk of individual borrowers defaulting. BUT, if a whole bunch of people start using meth instead of paying off their mortgages, then we’re in trouble not just for that one security, but for all of its new derivatives as well.

Then, to make matters worse, the housing bubble bursts.

Prior to 2005, housing prices had been on the rise, with higher sales and consequently, more homes being built. At some point though, supply far exceeded demand, and housing prices began a steady decline. Let’s say the house you bought was worth $300,000 at the time of your purchase. Now, the price of your home is at $200,000, a decline of 33%, right around the rate that housing prices in Southern California have declined. Because the price of his house has fallen too, your cousin Charlie can no longer afford his monthly payments (which have also skyrocketed after his low-rate grace period expired). He, along with thousands of other subprime borrowers, defaults. His meth lab goes into foreclosure. You’re still scraping by, but your monthly payments are going up because the price of your home has dropped so dramatically.

While all this is happening, Lehman and other banks with large portfolios of mortgage-backed securities are taking the losses incurred from all the Charlies defaulting. They also face the suddenly very real risk that you may default too. Already saddled with these losses, the prices of all mortgage-backed securities (and its derivatives) drop across the board. No one wants to buy, and so the value of these assets just continue to plummet. Firms are forced to issue billions of dollars in write-offs. Lehman’s stock price falls and it tries to raise capital–not only because it needs more cash as collateral for its lenders (like your mortgage payments going up when your house price falls), but also to assuage outside perception that it’s going under. But there aren’t too many institutions out there that are in a position to lend money, and not many that want to do it–especially to a firm whose net worth is unknown because of all its mortgage exposure. Banks everywhere enact tougher lending standards to individuals and businesses, making it universally difficult to get cash… thus leading to a “credit crunch”.

So in the end, with a portfolio full of assets that have no market, hedge funds aggressively shorting its stock, and no one willing to lend it money, Lehman files for bankruptcy. Charlie is living on the streets, you’re struggling to pay your mortgage, and more turmoil (involving more derivatives, including AIG’s credit default swaps) is roiling the market… Not a very happy ending.

Obviously this is a simplified version of what happened in the overall economy; in reality, the chronology of what happened is not as linear, and the situation at Lehman was far more complicated than anything I could explain. Many of our venerable publications will do a far better job of sorting through the mess than I have, but hopefully this can serve as a primer. After all, this story is probably not over yet.

2 Comments

Filed under Economy, News