Monday, May 11, 2009

Back at it

I know it's been awhile. Too long, really. And though there may be only a few people who ever read the ramblings in the first place, I owe it to them to get back to the keyboard and talk about life in Lyon.
One of the nice things about living overseas in this day and age is that it is so much easier to enjoy some of the trappings of home than just a few years ago. For instance, for the low price of $14.95, I've been able to listen to as many baseball games on the radio as I would ever want to. Of course, it's all just streamed via the internet. Furthermore, not only do I get to listen to my beloved Yankees wallow in mediocrity, but I can listen in during the morning in France after I get up, since all the broadcasts are archived. It's even gotten to the point that I'm getting tired of the radio ads, although, even there, if I were more motivated, I could always just press a button and skip through those too. Eventually, I'll manage to get my American TV hooked up via a device called a Slingbox, but I've been too busy with other things for that for the time being.
Busy, that is, in part with networking with people in Britain, Martinique, South Africa, Dubai, and throughout the USA... through my guilty pleasure of online scrabble. This too, brings me back to my former penchant for competing at Scrabble tournaments in the states.
Still, if this all sounds a little indulgent, at least I have got back in the swing of running, learning French vocabulary, and, as of last night, playing online Scrabble with Nolwenn in French (against the person in Martinique). It was Nolwenn's first scrabble game, but especially since we won, I doubt it's her last. Then this morning, I scored 114 points on a single play by playing the word "crapped" on a triple word score and hooking it onto another word. Times are good.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

And now for something completely different...

I've spent much of today debating the merits of the bank bailouts with friends from college. That's the beauty of the internet- doesn't matter if I was in France, another friend was in Singapore, and others were scattered throughout the USA. I also discovered something else these past few weeks: that I can listen to New York radio stations here in the comfort of my Lyon apartment.
Of course this technology has been around for a while, but having never taken advantage of it like this before, I find it pretty cool. Also, today for the first time, after paying $15 for the whole year, I listened to a spring training baseball game at The Cubs spanked the White Sox and I heard it all right here. For those who fear I'm not doing enough French, well, you're kind of right, but I have been watching some TV en Francais and doing a half hour of Rosetta Stone most days.
Meanwhile, while listening to good old news radio 880 out of Manhattan, I heard an advertisement for a new retirement community in Westchester County called The Club at Briarcliff Manor.
Hmmm. Is it just me or does anyone else want to retch when they hear some phony sounding name like that? Know where I'd like to spent my golden years? Dog Shit Acres. Or how about The Glades at Bite Me Meadows. Or even Sewage Treament Plant View Hills. Ugh. All of these places are so conformist you'll get a fine from the homeowners organization if your tulips are 3 centimeters too high. Assuming they even let you grow tulips. Maybe they only permit daffodils.
Know how I want to retire? I want to live on a big Christmas tree farm where I make my own goat cheese. I want to be visited on a semi-regular basis by my 10 kids and 50 grandchildren. I will spend my days serving Nolwenn, my wife of fifty years pitchers of homemade limeade and chocolate chip cookies. I want to have my own putting green, paddle tennis court, bowling alley, and batting cage. And skinny dipping pool with a basketball hoop to play water basketball. Not to mention my private bird observatory which I can observe from one of my seven indoor hot tubs. And I want to have a big library and a butler named Chesterton. And a pet parrot named Olaf. Who can swear in ten languages including Icelandic and Pig Latin. And because I love irony, I'll call the estate where I live out my days "Conformity Castle." That's how I'll end my days. With a big bad exclamation point!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Multitasking / Motivation for Studying Terrorism

In the hopes of saving a little time, and giving Rhone Rambling readers a better idea of what the future hopefully has in store for yours truly, this week's posting is the personal statement I wrote this week for my master's applications. Both programs that I will be applying to, at University College and King's College, are in London- hence the XXXXXXX ambiguity below. This will of course be filled in with the appropriate information for my respective applications. Here goes:
On September 11, 2001, I was supposed to be at the World Trade Center. Ironically, I had planned to go to an information session for the Peace Corps, an American development program, there that evening. Needless to say, the meeting was canceled. Instead, I drove back from Princeton to my hometown in northern New Jersey that afternoon, and spent the evening watching the new Manhattan skyline from a hilltop that overlooks New York City. While standing there I told myself that I wanted to do something, at some point in my life that would help make sure this would never happen again.
That was seven and a half years ago. In the meantime, I’ve pursued a number of dreams, including moving to Europe, writing a book on my family’s history, hiking the length of the USA for charity, trying to set up a business (unsuccessfully) and appearing as a contestant on the USA’s top quiz show (rather more successfully). All this has been lots of fun, and I have no regrets about following this road less traveled.
But now, it is high time for me to settle on a professional path, and counterterrorism is the field in which I wish to concentrate. My previous experience with terrorism and security studies comes primarily from my thesis for my master’s in international relations in Germany which I wrote two years ago. Having previously read comments by scholars such as Graham Allison of Harvard and Robert Gallucci of Georgetown that a nuclear terror attack in the USA was more likely than not in the next ten years, I wanted to gain a better understanding of the threat, and what could be done to stop it.
Nothing that I came across in my research suggested that Allison, Gallucci, and others were exaggerating. Indeed, after having written my thesis, I felt even more aware of a disconnect between the level of the threat posed and what was being done to counter it. My research also impressed upon me that countering terrorism successfully requires action on a broad array of fronts, from military action and police work, to “soft power,” to greater understanding of the threat among voters and policy makers, to contingency planning and beyond. Furthermore, in the course of my research I became more aware of the nature of other types of terrorism and political violence, including secessionist terrorism, biological terrorism, and the threat posed by overreacting or responding to terrorism counterproductively. All of this piqued my interest and showed me that spending my career investigating these issues would be rewarding, both personally and for society at large.
I also realized while writing my thesis and in the subsequent reading I have done on the topic that if I am serious about pursuing a career in the security or counterterrorism fields, I could strongly benefit from a solid academic background in the subject. This would supplement my previous studies in the more general field of international relations. The master’s program in XXXXXXXXXXX at XXXXXXXXX is thus a perfect fit for me, due to the academic strength of the program, the possibility to study in London, and the interaction the program provides with other students and practitioners. Meanwhile, in order to prepare myself for the program, I have contacted a professor at Princeton who recently received a large grant from the US Department of Defense to study the relationship between development aid and terrorism. I suggested to him that I could work as a research assistant on this project for the summer, and he responded that there were “plenty of possibilities” to assist and to come by for an interview when I am in the USA next month.
Thank you for your consideration of my application and I look forward to hopefully beginning studies at XXXXXXXXXXXXX in the fall.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My Unsolicited Advice for the US Economy

There are a number of ideas that have been packed away in my mind’s attic over the years, and from time to time I dust them off and reexamine them. Often after a while, an idea that appeared brilliant to me when I first thought of it will come to seem silly or unworkable.
But sometimes, events transpire that make a certain idea seem even more relevant and on-the-mark than before. Such is the case with the ongoing economic crisis and my idea for a wide array of non-for-profit corporations. This idea, of course, is not exactly something that I was the first person ever to think of. Girl Scout cookies, the New Jersey Audubon Society bookstores, various hospital management companies, and Newman’s Own food products are just a few of the many examples of goods and services being sold for non-profit ends.
Still, I’d hazard a guess and say that with the exception of government spending, the vast majority of the United States (and world) economy runs on a for-profit basis. Meanwhile, many companies that function on a non-profit basis run this way because they have been nationalized- which is all too often an invitation for mismanagement, lack of competition, and unproductive employees.
However, what if we could combine the vigorous competition of the business world with a non-profit end, meaning that after covering for expenses and salaries, any money earned would either be turned over to charity or reinvested with the hope then of bringing in even higher profits in the years to come? Newman’s Own has been run along these lines for years and has been able to give tens of millions to charities in the process. But what about banks, insurance companies, really, just about any company that serves consumers?
Companies like this could still pay their employees every bit as much as other companies in the field, and thus attract top talent. Meanwhile, they would also probably have on average more luck recruiting top people, as their employees would get more job satisfaction (and be more productive) working for a company that was improving the world with each penny earned.
Next, assuming everything else is equal, customers would in most cases prefer to buy from a company that was contributing its profits back to society, rather than making management and shareholders richer. Obviously, shareholders aren’t usually bad people, but they tend to usually be pretty well-off to begin with, or if they are financial institutions, have proven themselves to be rather adept at wrecking the global economy and the livelihoods of millions. Think about it: wouldn’t you rather buy gas (which you still need to do, even if you drive a Prius) from an oil company that reinvested all its profits in research into cleaner energy or some other cause than the likes of ExxonMobil, Shell, BP or any one of the other oil majors who lobby against sorely need global warming legislation and whose stock was largely held by investment banks and hedge fund managers?
Furthermore, while I am anything but an expert on the matter, I would assume that some tax advantages would accrue to a company operating on a non-for-profit model. This would be particularly advantageous if a company that operates this way wouldn’t have to pay taxes on money reinvested in expanding its business. All that the law would have to require would be a proviso saying something like 50% of the profits would have to be given to charity each year, much like foundations currently work.
Eventually, this could allow for non-for-profit companies to gain advantages over their for-profit rivals, which would be for the overall benefit of society. Meanwhile, they would still be vulnerable to competition from other non-for-profit and well run for-profit corporations, and would be subject to the same sort of anti-trust legislation that regulates all companies. This would ensure that prices would not go up for consumers and that the efficiency of a for-profit enterprise would still be there.
How could this come about? Well, perhaps some angel investor like a Bill Gates or a George Soros could come along and invest a couple hundred million this way. Over time, there could be a proviso saying that a portion of the company’s earnings would go to pay off its initial investors, but I think consumers would understand this and realize that it is an inevitable price to pay for the model.
My thoughts on this topic are much more extensive, but this is the basic gist of my idea. All I can say is that I will continue to ponder the idea in the future, and one day, try and get an audience with the sort of people who could make this a reality. But for now, with bankers and the wealthy captains of industry being more unpopular than any time since at least the Great Depression, and concerns over the skewed distribution of wealth in the USA multiplying, this is one idea that could help consumers, the economy, and the charities that would receive the money earned alike. Thoughts anyone?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Looking Ahead to Warmer Days

All this week has seen beautiful weather in Lyon, but today was really the icing on the cake. The temperature probably topped out in the low 60's (that's about 16-17 for you metric system types) and there was nary a cloud in the sky. It seemed all of Lyon was promenading along the Rhone this afternoon when I went out to buy some provisions and study French vocabulary in the sun. But late tonight, the clouds are on the horizon. The coming week looks absolutely dreadful, making me wonder whether today was really worth it. It's going to be another two months before we get weather like this on an extended basis. Yuck.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the colder and wetter weather in the week ahead will probably make for better ski conditions. I find it somewhat hard to believe that I've been living within 3 hours of some of the best skiing on the planet for the last two months and haven't taken advantage of it yet, but March will definitely see that change. Meanwhile, even if it gets considerably colder here this week, at least we're not about to be walloped by a foot of snow like the NYC area. There was a time when a foot of snow would have been my favorite day of the year, but living in a city, towards the end of winter, with beautiful countryside nearby just waiting to be explored in the glory of spring, I'm not exactly green with envy for the latest Nor'easter.
Speaking of warmer days ahead, plans are far from set in stone, but it's possible that I may find myself (with Nolwenn) back in Ridgewood/the shore/the NYC area for a good 3 months or so this summer. Possibilities as to what I would do range from an internship with the UN to working for AFS-USA (if it still exists...) to genealogy work to working on my latest secret plan, but we'll see how things shake out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

So, How Bad Is It?

I have three friends, all of them either geniuses or merely brilliant, who are active in the finance sector. One is at Harvard Business School, one is studying for a PhD in economics at Cambridge, and one is the personal economic advisor to a mind-bogglingly wealthy Middle Eastern royal.
My talents, however, lie elsewhere. So given my mathematical shortcomings, and thus inability to comprehend matters financial and economic beyond a layman's knowledge base, I have preferred to rely on my friends' opinions rather than my own intuitions in this field. And yet, given the cacaphony of voices each offering an opinion on the current and ongoing financial crisis, I thought, what the hey, might as well add my own voice to the chorus.
First of all, I have a hard time comprehending how so many people in the finance sector (though largely not my friends, mind you) could have been so wrong for so long. The credibility of conservative economists, The Wall Street Journal, the entire I-banking sector, and many others has obviously been shot to pieces, though of course, that hasn't stopped anyone who falls under this heading from insisting that we must still listen to them. Obviously, this all smacks of 20 20 hindsight to some extent, but really, the handwriting was on the wall for a long time.
Secondly, though, it seems that a separate industry has grown up saying how horrific this crisis truly is- including some who have even called it potentially worse than the Great Depression. But this too, is ridiculous. The fact of the matter is that this crisis will hardly be as bad as many in the past precisely because income standards have risen so high in the interim. Even if the American economy contracts 2 per cent for the next few years, this would simply stand to bring us back as a nation as a whole to where we were a few years ago.
Yes, some people have lost their shirts (though I have no sympathy for anyone who invested more than 10 percent of their savings with Bernie Madoff- ever hear of don't put all your eggs in one basket?) And certainly I feel sorry somewhat for those who have lost their jobs, homes, and pay for their children's educations. But still- seen any bread lines recently? Is unemployment around 7 per cent or 20 per cent? Do you still have air conditioning, the internet, a cell phone, and a whole lot more stuff than people even a few decades ago did?
It's not all bad. But- here's where I see both a problem and an opportunity. Besides bankers behaving badly, where we are today is a natural result of many millions of people in the USA being scared out of their wits of a more active state role in the economy, including many people who voted against their economic self interest back in the bad old days, when tough talking conservatives promised better oversight of cultural and national security matters (though they failed largely here too). In exchange, Wall Street set national economic policy- and look where that got us.
In Europe by contrast, (outside of Britain and Iceland, both of which like the US overly deregulated) the mood is hardly one of panic. Sure, Europe's GDP is set to fall this year too and unemployment is set to rise. But if people can't afford a car anymore, public transport is there. If people lose their jobs, they still have health care and generous unemployment benefits. Education (though badly in need of an overhaul) is a tiny fraction of what it costs in the USA, even for Oxford, Cambridge, and the Grand Ecoles of France.
Since many economists think that a hefty fiscal stimulus is needed to bust out of this dead end (though I have my doubts about whether the proposals on offer so far are ambitious enough), President Obama now needs to put in place new government programs that will not only help spend our way as a nation out of the current recession, but by providing jobs in the education, environmental, national security, and health care sectors, strengthen the USA as a whole. If he is able to pull that off, and he has the political capital and skills to be able to do so, if he dares, then he will have ensured that, having surmounted the current crisis, we are in a better position to meet the next one, whencever it may come.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rambling through the British Isles

For the past three weeks the Rhone Rambler has been traversing England, Ireland, and Scotland in search of ancestors and a good place to do a second master's degree in terrorism studies come September. As to the first goal of the trip, the trip was very successful, particularly in discovering that I can now trace my direct ancestors all the way back to ca. 1470! That's my 15th great grandfather John Wavell. But don't worry, he's quite possibly your ancestor too. After all, we each have 131,072 15th great grandparents, and he (and the whole Wavell line) was quite prolific. Meanwhile, my mom tracked down the death certificate of a 3th great uncle in New York, which said that his mother (my 4th great grandmother) came from Bohemia, which is now the Czech Republic. So that brings the list of confirmed countries that my ancestors have lived in (i.e. with present borders) to nine: USA, Canada, Ireland, England, Scotland, Croatia, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Or eight if you count England and Scotland as the UK.
But try telling the Scots around me (am currently in Edinburgh) that their country counts as one with England! Tho I may be but 1/32 Scottish and about 1/4 English, my heart's in the highlands as the great Scots bard Robbie Burns would say. Actually, having been to the highlands for the first time this past weekend with Nolwenn, who had braved the freakish weather the UK had last week (the biggest snowstorms in 45 hit the UK the past two weeks), I think a bit of my heart will always be there. Even though the highlands are no higher than the Green Mountains of Vermont, they are steep, craggy, filled with glacial lakes, desolate moors, and hauntingly beautiful.
Regarding master's programs, however, I will probably end up in London, as it offers better networking opportunities in the counterterrorism and security sectors, as well as closer proximity to Nolwenn in France. In fact, if Nolwenn ends up doing an internship for the second part of the year in Paris, Rhone Ramblings will probably morph into Seine Sendings for three months before becoming Thames Tellings in September. Hey, as long as I live in a city with a river that begins with a letter that alliterates with a synonym for communication I'll be in good shape. Back to the continent tomorrow...