Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dick Cheney truly is Dr. Evil

After watching Cheney's recent "rebuttal" of the Obama administration's anti-torture policies I felt compelled to come up with some words for our lovely little Dr. Evil from Wyoming - Please shut the F#$@# up and drop out of the public eye just for a little bit huh and let the new administration do their job. I don't want to see your draft-dodging, cardiac-arrest prone narrow minded bald head on TV just for a few weeks, is that too much to ask? As former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura said on the Larry King show just recently, "You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders." I think if you televised that event, you'd have more fans watching than all the last Superbowls combined.

But wait, Cheney wouldn't last a second during water boarding because he is the ultimate coward and the quintessential hypocrite. Dick Cheney claims to be a true patriot but we all knew that was a facade when he decided to dodge the draft 5 times in a row during the Vietnam years. However he still sees fit to send our young men and women into the battlefield whenever the situation suits the American Enterprise Institute, shareholders of Halliburton, and the neocons that have done more damage to the standing of the United States than any other group in recent memory.

You see, Cheney is a special breed of conservative. Something beyond a conservative really, but more a twisted example of what happens when certain people get into office and represent the views of the few at the expense of the majority.

Under the Bush administration, America slid into one of the worst recessions in modern times, over-extended itself in Iraq and arrogantly defended each and every blunder by a team of shameless, cowardly henchman. According to Condi Rice, the Bush Administration could do no wrong, and according to Dick Cheney, well, he didn't have to say much because we all know that he was the true puppet master behind nearly every move the administration made.

Finally, as Cheney bellows about how the interrogation techniques he approved kept our country safe from attack, he fails to mention just about anything else that he did that did our country any good. Like, oh, I don't know, a better health care policy? More funding for education? Job growth? I hope we never witness an administration that spent eight years doing nothing for domestic policy, only to foolishly claim a victory on its foriegn policy. Well Dick, you screwed up there too. By invading Iraq, you strengthened Iran - who now wields more power through Shiite militias in Iraq than before the war and will soon enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb (but will use it as leverage and nothing more). You diverted our precious military resources to Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now the Taliban has the upper hand not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan as well. Your administration's policies have lead to the deterioration of Pakistan today with Taliban warlords controlling vast regions of the country as a result of your poor strategy. The current administration is now in a tailspin trying to figure out how to send troops to Afghanistan in way that won't hurt the security situation in Iraq, and to figure out how to deal with new threats in the region that have emerged as a result of 8 years of stupidity on your behalf.

Cheney is an all-around failure. At least ex-president Bush has had the decency to step out of the public eye and has avoided overt criticism of the Obama administration. Yet Cheney continues to be the sore loser who blames other for his faults, wastes TV air time whining about what Obama is doing wrong, and claims victory for what may very well be remembered as one of the worst administration's in modern history. Dick Cheney is a sad chapter in American politics - and a lesson to all Americans that we need to stand up for ourselves, stand up for the interests of the majority and elect leaders that will represent the people.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Jobs, Snuggies and Kim Jong-Il

So tell me I'm dead wrong, but when CNN and the media go on and on about unemployment statistics, about the national average vs. state averages for unemployment every single day , does anyone else find that a little nauseating? Yes, the news should give us the most accurate statistics about hiring trends, inflation, and industry specific ups and downs. But I'm not a statistician and the emotional side of me wants to hear something positive as well. When times are uncertain, then give me some motivation and inspiration. If you're going do a segment on interviews with the jobless complaining about how tough it is out there, why not do a segment on someone who actually found a job in this economy and how they went about doing it? Is it CNN's fault, or is it just human nature to be fascinated by people's woes or take strange pleasure in them? Schadenfreude is as ugly a concept as it is to pronounce...and many of us suffer from it.

My advice to CNN and other major news networks are simple - do some positive segments. There are some segments of the economy that are hiring - such as healthcare, government, financial regulation (FDIC, SEC), cleantech and a handful of others. Specifically, how about doing an interview or segment on a laid off auto worker from Detroit who is now in nursing school and will have GUARANTEED employment when they graduate? Or the IT manager who lost his job but is now doing government IT consulting? This stuff is happening every day and it's being reported on, but it never makes headlines because it's not glamorous. On one hand, more people are losing jobs than being hired right now, resulting in a net loss - but why not give people a little hope and practical advice by showing them what to do to bounce back? To change careers? To retrain? (If these segments are being run regularly I'd love to know about them)

MBA students right now, myself included, are taking the approach that the unpaid internship is better than no internship at all. We've altered our strategy so that we can be both productive over the summer and position ourselves for the upswing next year or whenever it may come.

Some would argue that showing too many segments about people finding jobs might be unrealistic, and not characteristic of what's out happening to the majority right now. But if one positive job hiring story can motivate just one person to find a job, then it's realistic and has done some tangible good. There are lots of things on TV that are unrealistic and sort of useless - like the Snuggie Blanket (a blanket with sleeves?! - just wear a sweatshirt please) or having to stare at Kim Jong-Il's pathetic haircut. But I can guarantee you that an uplifiting story about someone finding a job in this climate would pay for itself many times over. After all, a job equals a paycheck, and with that paycheck you could provide for yourself or just buy more snuggies and send Kim Jong-Il some industrial hair spray.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Curious Case of Bernard Madoff

It seems like not a day goes by since the Madoff scandal was uncovered that we don’t hear another story about another organization or individual that had all its net worth eradicated by investing directly or indirectly in Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi scheme. As an alumni of Tufts University, I got an email saying that Tufts had invested $20,000,000, or 2% of its endowment in Ascot Partners, which had in turn invested in Madoff. The money is now gone though the school is working to try to get as much of the money back as possible. So whether its Tufts, other universities, or charities, the worst part about the scandal to me is exactly that; Madoff’s greed crippled the institutions that actually add the greatest net benefit to our society. Cheating a Fortune 500 company is one thing. Cheating Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation which donated $3.3 million to Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is something totally different, and even nauseating.

This brings up the $64,000 question - why? I’d have to rule out greed. Madoff had more money than he knew what to do with. He was a former NASDAQ chairman, a trusted financial advisor, and a man who’s funds always seemed to beat the market average. So he had the wealth, respect and admiration of his clients as well as the charities that he made donations to. (It’s interesting to think of all the charities he did donate to, because after his Ponzi scheme unraveled, many of the charities invested in him went bankrupt). So all I could come up with was the thrill of creating the most elaborate financial scheme of all time, and seeing how long it would last. People do all sorts of things for a thrill. All sorts of stupid, risky and counter-intuitive things. Except in Madoff’s case, his need for a thrill set the charitable and non-profit foundations of this country back several years and destroyed the wealth of thousands of individuals who put their trust in him.

So this begs the question, what if Madoff hadn’t been dealing with the well-healed in society? What if he’d, say, helped the mob invest their laundered money and guaranteed them some sort of return? What if he wasn’t representing people who believe in the legal system, but had crossed paths with organizations that don’t like playing games, and don’t deal well with people that steal from them? I think he wouldn’t have made the walk to the bullet-proof vest store before someone would have taken him out. So he should consider himself lucky that he’s under house-arrest in his ultra-luxurious Manhattan apartment, and that his court dates will be made under tight security. In the meantime, we can all think about what drives people to seek the ultimate thrill, and if bringing Madoff to justice will bring any closure to the lives of those most devastated by his hideous acts.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Prescription for the Big 3 Automakers

From my blog at Pepperdine:

As MBA students, it’s our job to come up with solutions to problems that other people can’t fix. So as an avid fan of the automotive industry, I have a few pointers for what GM and the rest of the Big 3 Automakers can do in the short and long-term to help turn things around.

The first question that should be asked is - what connotation does the term “American car” actually have? Does it conjure up images of V8-powered Mustangs from the 60’s, the gargantuan Cadillac Escalade of today, or do you just think of American cars as unreliable and less desirable than their foreign counterparts in nearly every price category? If you’re like me and you follow the industry, then you know that what we call American; Chrysler, Ford and GM, have all greatly improved their reliability according to most J.D. Powers quality surveys and are nearly as good and efficient as their competitors in each segment in which they compete. But for too long, American car companies turned out such mediocre or downright subpar products that they ended up destroying most of their brand equity to the point where many people don’t even consider buying American today, even if the cars are as good or better than their competitors. This is especially true in the super competitive mid-sized, Toyota Camry/Honda Accord/Ford Taurus segment… It’s gotten to the point where it’s psychological - many people simply will not cross shop a Honda Accord with a Ford Fusion. They won’t look at a Cadillac STS and compare it to a BMW 335i. They may not consider a Ford Focus over a Honda Civic; it’s actually happening in all segments.

So without going delving into the health-care costs and union issues that are plaguing the Big 3, my recommendation is simple - Stay product focused. Find product segments where you can offer something genuinely different, dynamic and with the ability to get consumers excited. If you can’t, then nothing else you do will allow you to overcompensate. You can’t focus on cutting costs any further if people don’t get excited about your product. You can’t throw more incentives and rebates at a particular car or truck if the product is fundamentally dull to begin with. If you don’t want to build exciting cars in every segment in which you operate, then stop building cars. Plain and simple.

In a nutshell this is what each of the Big 3 should do with respect to their sedans:

General Motors - Bring over more of your international sedans. GM has started to bring over Opel’s from Germany and rebadge them as Saturns, but in my opinion, the Saturn brand never had much equity and as good as the Opel-engineered Saturn Astra is, it’s still got the Saturn badge, and that doesn’t help matters. So GM should consider dropping certain brand names from its lineup. Just like no one really misses Oldsmobile, people may not shed a tear if Saturn disappears, or even Chevy - as far as sedans go. GM needs to further consolidate its brands, and consider branding more of their sedans as Opels in America. Cadillac is dynamic and doing well, so it should stay. But Chevy, Saturn and Buick could all be rebranded as Opel. Then Opel could produce 5 - 7 different models and cater to most of the market, and put itself in a position where it could be cross shopped by the Honda Accord, VW Passat and Toyota Camry buyers. The Chevy name should continue in the truck division where it has much stronger brand equity and is easily recognized and has a positive connotation.

Ford - Ever seen the Ford Mondeo? Well, probably not because it’s not sold in America, but it’s a gorgeous car that could reinvigorate Ford’s sagging revenues in the mid-size $20,000 to $30,000 market. This car should be sold in America, and the Fusion and Taurus should be dropped. The European Ford Focus should be sold in America along with the high performance versions of this car, and the current redesigned Focus that’s being sold in America should be dropped. It’s ugly, boring and not likely to be cross-shopped with the Civics, Golf’s and Corolla’s out there.

Chrysler - What Chrysler did with the introduction of cars like the Magnum and 300C was fantastic - reasonably priced products that were beautiful to look at, distinctive, and powerful. While the “powerful” part of the equation might have to the curbed due to the industry movement towards more fuel efficient engines, Chrysler should continue to differentiate themselves and create exciting products like they have in the past.

All in all, the Big 3 should focus on their core competencies, reduce the number of brands they offer, and put an end to the practice of introudcing their best sedans in countries outside the U.S. - if they sold them here, they’d sell very well, and might actually give people a reason to buy American.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Driving in the Caucuses

I never thought I'd find a place where cars matter more than people - but if you've ever crossed the street in Tiblisi or Yerevan, well, you'd think people are expendable and cars are not. After all, human limbs are replaceable, but front bumpers? Gotta keep those intact!

After arriving in Yerevan for my internship a few weeks ago, I noticed a lot of good socio-economic changes - more people starting their own businesses, new stores on every street corner, new high-rises going up and old buildings being renovated. Everything seems a lot more professional and systematic in Yerevan compared to 2001 when I was here last. But the driving culture still scares the shit out of me. Whether I'm riding in a cab, or trying to cross the street - there's never a time I'm more alert in my life, than when trying to avoid old speeding Russian Lada's and pricey Mercedes G-class sport utilities (although to the country's credit, you could also be hit by an increasing number of middle income cars such as Skoda Fabias or Ford Fusions).

It all started one night last week when I was coming home from the Malkhaz jazz club. Let me tell you that some of the best Jazz you'll hear in Yerevan is on Pushkin street at the Malkhaz Jazz club, or seeing Chico and Friends perform at the StopClub. But back to the driving part of things. I left the jazz club at about 1am - looked both ways before crossing the street and did my trademark light jog across about 6 lanes of traffic. By the time I had almost crossed over, this car started accelerating at me like there was no tomorrow. Before I knew it, he was within feet of hitting me. My heart was pounding but I looked away and kept going. It came down to the wire, and finally, mr. psycho swerves, goes around me and keeps driving. Without a doubt the driver was accelerating to hit me, maybe on a dare, or maybe because he was drunk or maybe because this is frigin' Armenia, but I narrowly escaped his wrath.

If I was careful before that incident, then you can imagine how careful I am now when crossing the street. Most people start crossing the street when before the crossing signal turns green - but me? Oh I wait, I wait patiently like a handicapped elderly woman transported here from another planet. Other people cross the first few lanes of traffic and then get caught in the median, and wait for cars in the opposite direction to pass and then wade out casually into traffic, their toddlers in hand, their shopping bags slung over their shoulders. Me? I watch them and pray to the traffic gods that I'm not going to witness a horrific accident that'll be aired sometime after 3am on FoxTV on "Worst Car Accidents" International Edition. Well finally, I watch an entire cluster of pedestrians make it over to the other side of the road. Now the light turns green and it's my turn.

Even with a green crossing signal in Armenia, cars that are making right and left turns can still come in your direction and they will NOT stop for you. Or rather, they'll stop for you when their bumper is a few centimeters from your kneecap. The kind of distance where your life flashes before your eyes just as you feel that homicidal tendency coming on - a desire to take the driver who's about to hit you and smash his head through his own windshield. Then, suddenly, you stop, or you let the driver pass and it's all over. You're across the street in one piece and now you don't feel like killing anyone, and no one feels like killing you. You just regroup and get ready for the next crossing.

So almost 3 weeks into my stay here, I'm just barely getting used to pedestrian/driving culture. I've almost mastered how to make it across the street and I've gotten rid of my "light jog" across lanes of traffic. Now I walk a bit more casually and dare I say, confidently across the roadways here. Well maybe the term confident is still a bit of a stretch. My pulse still jumps about 300 beats a minute as my right foot leaves the sidewalk. I start looking in every direction, sometimes even up into the sky, as if there's there's traffic up there too. I think I've refined my obstacle avoidance techniques to the point where I could probably walk into sniper fire and avoid getting hit for a few seconds. Ah. The skills you pick up in certain parts of the world. And to think I toyed with the idea of renting a car here:)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Day 1 in Croatia

“Areg, you must go sailing on the Croatian coast!” That’s right I said to my roommate Branko - and I should probably go sky diving soon or on a $5,000 safari in Kruger National park. That was back in 2000 when I could barely think about anything other than getting through my junior year in college and keeping enough money in my bank account for alcohol and bacon calzones after 4am.

Fast forward 7 years later to August 2007 and after 4 years of less than glamorous non-stop management consulting work, complaining about being in Boston for too long, and feeling stagnant; it was time to put my frequent flyers to good use and head out to the former Yugoslav Republic of Croatia! It would be my first time in Europe since 2002 and it turned out to be the most eventful and action packed trip I’d ever taken.

The trip for me actually really started of course, when I hung up my cell phone after booking my flights with American Airlines. You see, for those of you who know me well enough you know that my approach to extravagant vacations is a very procedural and intense phenomena; it’s also a little window into my slightly obsessive compulsive personality. It’s not the kind of obsessive compulsive disorder where I stalk old girlfriends or break the law. It’s more of a PG-13 tendency to Google the hell out of every new person I meet and to plan out each and every minute of my vacations like my life depended on it. But the first rule that really gets my vacation planning rolling of course, is to get mentally stimulated about a new location. I don’t like going to the same country twice, and I don’t like going to places that are typical vacation locales. So luckily Croatia didn’t violate either of those rules, nor was it on a US State Department list of places not to visit.

In its favor, it happened to have hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline, gorgeous Slavic women, incredible architecture, and years of history shaped by regional integration and disintegration. While many travelers would be heading out to Cancun for some dollar drafts and the chance to hookup with a promiscuous teeny bopper from Miami-Dade county, I would be heading to the sophisticated cultural paradise of Hrvatska (Croatia) - enriching myself on all levels, and trying to be as euro-chic as possible.

On my day of departure I was as pumped up as Hugo Chavez about to insult the President of the United States. This would not only be a vacation, it would the chance to liberate myself from the monotony of daily life. My route was from Boston to Raleigh-Durham, then to London, and then to Split Croatia – the second largest city in Croatia after the capital. Zagreb. As my British Airways flight approached the airport in Split, I gazed out my window and congratulated myself on a vacation spot well chosen; there were 10’s if not hundreds of islands below me each with some combination of lush vegetation and interesting rock formations. This trip would be like Greece without having to pay Euro prices, like the Bahamas with 10 times more culture but most of all, a chance to get my biweekly direct deposit while potentially being hungover and in bed on a Tuesday afternoon.

My flight finally arrived at Split Airport and we deplaned and went through customs. What an airport I thought to myself, it was extremely modern and tidy by any standard. I got my bags, darted into the gift shop and bought a quick $50 in phone cards before barely making it to a waiting bus that would take us into downtown Split. Why I felt the need to buy phone cards at that moment and risk the chance of missing the last shuttle bus into town was beyond me, yet very typical of the hyper multi-tasker I morph into during vacations.

I made it to the bus and grabbed one of the last seats left settling in for the short ride into town. Looking around, it was apparent that we were on a nearly new Mercedes passenger bus surrounded by elegantly dressed travelers about to depart one of the most charming airports I’d ever been in. This was Croatia? Take that gross domestic product and multiply it by ten – this place was nice! Soon however, I noticed an unfortunate teenage girl who began complaining in English that she didn’t have a seat on the bus and would have to stand in the aisle. Her complaining couldn’t have lasted more than 10 seconds. Almost immediately, the driver erupted into a full-on rage in Croatian, silencing the entire bus as he ripped this poor girl a new one. I wasn’t exactly sure if the punishment really fit the crime here but from what I could make out from the verbal onslaught, it amounted to, “shut the fuck up you stupid tourist brat-whore, you’re lucky enough to be on the bus, you can get off the bus if standing is too much of a problem, but shut the fuck up so I can start driving everyone else into town.”. I didn’t hear another word out of that girl. By the drivers standards, the little tourist brat probably deserved the reaming too. But the whole thing reminded me that were weren’t in Kansas anymore. In fact, experience has taught me that further east you go past a certain longitude, the shorter the tempers and the more fiery the people. From Italy to Crotia to Serbia, Greece, Turkey and Armenia and into Russia, people don’t hide their feelings and will come to a boil faster than Reverand Jeremiah Wright at a white power rally.

Back on the bus everything was status quo again and we continued to meander through the hills and valleys of this country which grew on me with every passing minute. The landscape whizzing by was interesting. It was one part southern California and 2 parts Croatia; whatever that means. Well, I couldn’t exactly label it but it was beautiful nonetheless and I was just happy that Croatian used the Latin alphabet so I could sound out words on the road signs and pretend to guess their meaning. Maybe I could have asked the bus driver what they meant and then try to guess the meaning of each of the swear words he would have used back at me as punishment for pestering him with silly questions.

About 20 minutes elapsed and we pulled into the bus main bus station in Split. It just kept getting better. The town was absolutely breathtaking with white marble bell towers in the distance and a cool promenade along the water with palm trees and tons of cafes bustling with people who seemed like they were really enjoying themselves. They were probably happy because they didn’t live to work, rather they worked to live and probably got more than 2 weeks vacation time a year. Or maybe they were just drunk and high, but hey I thought I would try to see psycho-analyze remotely.

Our short-fused bus driver was back to tourist-friendly mode and diligently helped everyone remove their bags from the bus. Before I could take in anymore scenery we encountered a small group of female entrepreneurs from Split. Well, they weren’t as entrepreneurial as they were direct. Each one of them, about 40 to 60 years in age, held a hand written advertisement on a piece of cardboard about rooms for rent in their homes. It was as if they had written the signs in front of a mirror, reversing and blending English and Croatian words and somehow managing to write out the symbol for “dollar” and “Euro” in so many different ways I thought each of them were offering alternate approaches to proving the Pythagorean Theorem and wanted to know if their answers were right or wrong. Well, let me just say they were wrong. Dead wrong in fact, if they thought that OCD Areg Bagdasarian would ever randomly stay at the home of a stranger offering them a room even if it was a harmless babushka shaped grandmother who probably had hosted hundreds of happy tourists summer after summer. No way – tonight was not the night to get mugged, drugged and or raped as I slept in some apartment in a city I’d never been in so I could save a few bucks. That night would in fact, come in another Croatian city, but I’d be spared most of the bad stuff that I thought would happen. No, I would avoid the babushka Holiday Inns and march straight to the hotel that I had booked weeks ago online. “Kastel Split” as it was called was what I had deemed to be the perfect blend of location and value after an exhaustive internet search of places to stay in the city. This place was so good in fact, that according to their website the hotel is

at the most attractive location in town, southern part of 1700 years old Diocletian's palace with beautiful sea view, islands and the medieval square with the statue of famous writer Marko Marulic. Outstanding location, affordable prices and the thirty years old tradition will make your staying safe and pleasant.”

I was glad that my “staying” would be safe and pleasant, and that statue of famous writer Marko Marulic would be just outside the hotel. Actually, that statue would enhance the cultural quotient I was so desperately seeking. But even if the hotel proprietor’s had replaced Marko Marulic’s statue with one of Sadam Hussein performing a sex act, I’d still consider that culturally enriching as long as the hotel was close to all the bars and restaurants in Split.

I walked off the bus with my massive backpack and followed a map to my hotel Kastel Split. The city was soooo happening – I imagined this vacation to be the beginning of one perpetually long “Friday night” where I would start bar hopping immediately and stay up late each night either trying to drink more or so overcome with joy that I didn’t have to be sitting in front of a computer that I would completely lose it. Yes, this early desire ended up being a very close approximation to what I got during my 10 day stay, but with some nice added bonuses. Like the smell of sulfuric acid/mildly rotten eggs seeping from the ground all throughout the city. Or the fact that “finding your hotel in Split” means getting lost inside a labyrinth of a walled city that would make a lab rat cry and beg for directions. After an eternity I found my hotel and collapsed into bed.

Vacations are a lot of work I thought to myself, but totally worth it. It was time to think of the game plan for tomorrow, and to realize that I was probably much more deranged that a harmless Croatian babushka grandmother.