The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

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In the 1940s, the US Government approves a proposal to establish a settlement for European Refugees at Sitka – a seaside town in Alaska. These refugees, largely Jews fleeing the holocaust, establish a culturally and economically thriving settlement. In this fictional narrative, the state of Israel lasts but a few months in 1948 before it is overrun by Arab forces and destroyed completely. Thus Sitka becomes the focal point of Jewry, with members of various denominations packed tightly into that tiny town. Sixty years later, this territory is set to be handed back to the State of Alaska, throwing life in the frigid shtetl back in flux. 

Meyer Landsman, a highly respected homicide detective is at rock bottom due to his failed marriage and consequent alcoholism. With two months to go before the Sitka Police Department is either integrated into the Alaskan administration or disbanded altogether, Landsman’s life gets more complicated when he begins to investigate the shooting death of his neighbour – a heroin-addicted chess prodigy.

What ensues is a thrilling ride through the Alaskan shtetl – two murder mysteries entwined with a sinister global plot featuring eccentric chess players, Chassidic gangsters, and diabolical government agents.

Within the first three pages, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union rises miles above mere pulp fiction as a masterpiece that can be enjoyed at multiple levels. The book does well as a thrilling whodunit with a well-woven plot, sufficiently justifying the time you take with it. The more discerning reader has deeper themes to enjoy. Chabon has made up an intuitive Yiddish slang to correspond with life in the Film Noir shtetl. Common Yiddish terms appear matter-of-factly through the text, and the alternative meaning clicks in place effortlessly – instances are “sholem” for firearm and “latke” for patrolman. Yiddish phrases such as “A shvortz yor” and “Er zol kakn mit blit un mit ayter” appear in their English approximations throughout the book – a sort of a secret handshake to readers with exposure to the mame loshen.

Beyond the linguistic theme, there is the deeper exploration of Jewish identity. Landsman’s colleague and cousin – Berko Shemets – is the son of a Jewish father and a Tlingit mother. The implicit question of Berko’s Jewishness takes the reader on a tumultuous and thought provoking ride through his personal history; his view of his father; the Jewish-Tlingit conflict in the early days of Sitka; and the varied cultural interpretations of “Who is a Jew?”  

Without weighing down the plot or flow, Chabon effortlessly integrates a succinct narration of the exhausting rigours of Chassidic observances and Judaism’s heretofore unfulfilled hopes of a messiah. There is also a riveting account of politics and power play within a Chassidic clan.

In short, Michael Chabon has crafted a pulp masterpiece that is entertaining, tragic, funny, and educational. There’s the ever-present spark of an indefatigable hope in a time of intense bewilderment. At the end of this book, whoever you are, you’ll empathize deeply with its characters and feel a little Jewish.

Book Review: Leila By Prayaag Akbar

[no spoliers]

This is a review of the Book by Prayaag Akbar, and NOT the Netflix series.

Leila is set in the not too distant future, when the social fracturing and economic inequality in Indian society leads to a nation divided into cloisters based on linguistic and caste identity. A grassroots leader who claims to be representing the interests of the socially disadvantaged vaults into power at the head of a sweeping political movement. A brutish army of “repeaters” – a epithet earned by their tendency to chant slogans and parade – enforces the movement’s moral and social standards. The nation is in decline, clean air, potable water, and security are at a premium. Climate change and crumbling urban infrastructure make life a challenge for all but the most privileged.

Shalini, the protagonist, grows up in a prosperous household that sees its fortunes decline as the traditional structures of privilege are eroded by rising economic inequality, social fracturing, and climate change. She marries her high school sweetheart – a Muslim – and together, they move to a neighbourhood where cosmopolitan intercultural couples like them lead a life that seems insulated from the turmoil outside.

On the evening of a party hosted by them, a group of repeaters attack their home, kill her husband, and send Shalini to a re-education camp. Their daughter goes missing. The novel, set sixteen years from the party, follows Shalini’s efforts to locate her child with the back-story revealed in non-linear flashbacks.

As the father of an intercultural child and someone who is concerned about inequality and climate change, this novel fuelled my private anxieties about India’s future. Akbar has concocted a compelling tale that could be considered the average-case outcome of current-day events. This novel is a thought-provoking read for anyone who is unsure about the long-term outcome of our direction as a nation.

As a novel though, Leila is a bit rough at the edges. It feels as if Akbar wrote this book in the last three weeks of a twelve-month deadline and sent his second draft to press. Given the complexity of the themes in this book, Akbar had a choice to make this book about a quest, a tale of personal misfortune, or a social commentary. He tries to do all three, and ends up with a hodgepodge that is part Die Hard, part Animal Farm, and part Nineteen Eighty Four. Two thirds into the book, a weak plot twist breaks the suspense and the ending is totally predictable.

Regardless of its technical deficiencies, Leila remains a compelling read and an important commentary on inequality, class, and climate change in the Indian context.

Rapawalk: Good Shoes At a Good Price

A couple of months ago, I noticed my Facebook and Instagram feeds flooded with adverts for an online footwear company called Rapawalk. Looking to buy a very specific pair for an event, against the the wise counsel of my wife, I sent for a pair of their shoes. The first pair that I received was a disappointment, with poor workmanship and no finishing at all. I covered the experience in another blog post that caught the eye of the founders.

Jacob from Rapawalk reached out shortly after the article went live, and promised to look into the issue for me.

A couple of days later, he called back and told me that the poorly constructed pair I recieved was shipped as a consequence of a QC failure at their factory. Jacob stated that the shoes I had chosen came from a budget range that was manufactured by a third-party supplier and that’s where the problems had occurred. He offered a store credit for the value of the shoes, and requested me to order a pair from his premium range that is manufactured in-house. Having already had a poor experience with the first pair, I was a little hesitant to throw good money after the bad – but with Jacob’s persistent follow-ups, I relented, and sprang for cocoa and caramel brogue-style derbys with a “half leather” sole.

The shoes arrived fifteen days later,  and were a pleasant surprise.

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The complaints that I had about the finishing in my earlier pair were non-existent in this one. Over the past few weeks, I have worn these shoes in rotation with my other pairs, and have not had any issues with fit or finish.

One key advantage with these shoes is the “Wide” option for fit. With store-bought shoes from Hush Puppies and Ruosh, it often takes three or so months for a pair of shoes to stretch into a comfortable fit for my feet. However, Rapawalk’s “Wide” option gives those few extra millimeters that make all the difference. These shoes were snug and comfortable from the get go, and needed just a week or so of “breaking in” to give me a comfortable fit. The “half leather” sole is comfortable and durable, and works for me even on the polished floors of airports, offices, and metro stations.

In the weeks since, I have also bought a pair of suede boat moccasins from Rapawalk that I’m very pleased with.

In summary, Rapawak makes good shoes at a great price. The pair pictured above is comparable in material and finish to shoes by Ruosh and Hush Puppies that are 50 per cent pricier. The boat moccasins too, are comparable in material and finish to options from Bata, Hush Puppies, and Clarks that are 30% to 100 per cent pricier. The online shoe design system that they have is intuitive and user friendly – the only real hurdle being the way colours are rendered on individual monitors and phones. So unless you’re looking for a perfect colour match (impossible in natural leather IMO) this is a great way to go.

The best part for me, of course, is the attentive customer service. For instance, when a lace on my INR 6,000+ Hush Puppies snapped some time ago, three Bata/Hush Puppies stores in Gurgaon, one in Noida, and one in Greater Noida were unable to sell me a replacement, and the staff couldn’t care less. I’ve been to just one Ruosh store here in Gurgaon, so I won’t comment on their service. Rapawalk, however, followed up persistently by phone and Whatsapp to get this issue resolved, adding a human touch to the online experience that tends to be sterile and impersonal.

Disclosures: This review is based on my personal experience. I have not received any inducements in cash or kind for this review. 

Oh Shut Up, Katie Porter

A video of US Representative Katherine “Katie” Porter questioning JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has gone viral on Facebook. In this video, Porter speaks of a hypothetical JP Morgan employee (whom we’ll call Plausible Patricia) working an entry level position at an Irvine, California branch, who ends up with a monthly deficit of USD 567 because she’s apparently not paid enough to meet her expenses. Porter spins the teary yarn of a single mother of a six year old who still co-sleeps in a one-bedroom apartment and drives a 11-year old minivan.

Attempting a defence, Dimon indicates that the job in question is an entry-level position that requires merely a high school diploma to qualify. The point is lost on Porter, who furthers her rhetorical attack on Dimon, who by now has decided to mutter stock responses while the Representative lets off some steam. Hopefully, the committee eventually resumed its business – which is discussing high-level policy issues related to the banking and financial services sector.

While the Social Democratic novitiates on Facebook are cheering Porter’s assault as a brave confrontation of an economic villain, those inclined to take a more reasoned view of this absurd spectacle would rapidly realise that this is merely a stunt to impress dim-witted idealists.

The wage that Porter mentioned was USD 16.50 an hour. For starters, this 37 per cent higher than the USD 12 minimum wage for California that came into effect on 1 January 2019. Furthermore, this tirade suggests that JP Morgan is responsible for Plausible Patricia’s personal outcomes rather than her self and her community.

How can JP Morgan be to blame? It is a for-profit corporation that operates in a free market, and is subject to competition from other players. As a former JP Morgan employee myself, I know for a fact that the bank pays fair wages that are consistent with market standards, and also has a substantial performance-linked component which Porter may have omitted from her wage calculation. Dimon is right that Plausible Patricia may someday have his job. Former colleagues who joined JP Morgan at entry level roles about a decade ago have risen to Vice Presidents and above, and have even moved countries as they advanced in their careers.

Alright, let’s assume that JP Morgan paid all entry level roles a minimum of USD 50,000 a year. Concurrent adjustments in salaries across the hierarchy will result in billions of dollars in additional wage expenses. Where do you think this money will come from? Interest rates and bank fees will have to rise, lowering access to credit, and making homes, cars, and flat-screen TVs dearer for all US residents.

Another common criticism that I’m seeing in these comments is the wage difference between Dimon and Plausible Patricia. Critics are sorely mistaken on two points here:

First the fact that Jamie Dimon received USD 31 million in salary doesn’t mean that he had it made. His earnings for 2018 comprised a base component of USD 1.5 million, which is quite reasonable for a person in his position, and USD 29.5 million in performance pay – a sum derived from a complex formula that takes into account JP Morgan’s financial performance, share price, capital ratios, and industry standing. Furthermore, this pay is liable to “clawback” if the bank misses long-term performance goals, fails an audit, or loses a pretty packet due to something like l’affaire London Whale. Second – comparing pay for an entry level position to that of a CEO responsible for 250,000 employees and the interests of thousands of shareholders is asinine.

Porter conveniently ignores the fact that the wider issues related to living costs – housing, food, and transportation expenses for instance – are usually a product of government policy. She should actually be asking her colleagues in the California delegation why housing is so expensive and why public transportation is deficient. Also, during the course of her apparently well-researched example, why did Porter not deduct taxes due? This would have pushed Plausible Patricia over $650 in the red each month. Patricia’s home state of California has the highest State Income Taxes in the USA.

Ultimately, Plausible Patricia needs to take personal responsibility for her life. Yes, the odds are often stacked against people based on gender, race, disability, etc, but intent and tenacity are the greatest factors in life outcomes. If Plausible Patricia is indeed a real person, she needs to take a long hard look at her life and decide how she must bring more value to the table to deserve a higher wage.

Review: Bombay Shaving Company

I have been using a straight razor with replaceable blades for the past 18 years. It started during my college days as a private protest against the ludicrous price of Gillette Sensor blades. The habit endured – with my horsehair brush and a straight razor, I could go from Weekend Stubble to Monday Debonair in under four minutes. The added bonus was that a year’s supply of Wilkinson Sword blades cost me less than a single Gilette Sensor cartridge. As I grew older and became a little more plastic conscious, I stuck with the open razor because a tiny sliver of steel every two weeks casts a lesser ecological burden than the blister-packed cartridge-du-jour with six (or whatever they’re up to now) blades in a plastic housing.

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My Old Straight Razor

This Christmas, I received Bombay Shaving Company’s six-part shaving kit as a present. Now I’m usually skeptical of these internet-only brands that “reinvent” the classics for 10 times the price. After all, my straight razors cost between INR 40 and INR 120, and the Wilkinson Sword blades cost about INR 15 for a packet of 5. The tubes of shaving cream and after-shave balm included in the box were fancier than my usual Old Spice shaving cream and after shave lotion.

In the box were two 10-packs of Feather razor blades. Feather blades, made in Japan, are widely regarded as the best wet-shaving blades in the world, and BSC now had my full attention. The included razor is a solid metal item, very well constructed, and impeccably balanced. Also included, is a faux badger brush. I’ve always been skeptical of these nylon shaving brushes, but BSC’s brush does the job and does it well. Goodbye horsehair.

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My new Bombay Shaving Company kit minus the gimmicky scrub

For many men, the morning shave is a meditative and mindful rite of self-care. BSC’s kit certainly supports this. Having been my daily shaver for the past ten days, I’ve enjoyed the experience with the brush and the razor, and the insanely sharp Feather blades make for a very comfortable shave. BSC includes a second razor head – marked “aggressive”. This piece, visually indistinguishable from the regular head barring the letter “A” marked on it, makes the blade cut closer to the skin. This seems to work best for my mature and somewhat rough growth.

The included shaving cream and after-shave balm are good, and have a pleasant modern fragrance. My wife seems relieved that I’m transitioning away from alcohol-based after-shave lotions and the consequent “white face” dryness that she finds unappealing.

With shaving products, re-supply of consumables is always a challenge, especially if you use uncommon products. BSC is cognizant of this, and all the in-box items – razor, brush, accessories, Feather blades, and in-house cream and balm, are available at competitive prices from the Company’s website.

BSC is not without gimmicks though. They include a scrub – touted as a pre-shave exfoliant to prepare one’s face before a shave. Well, a razor blade is perhaps the most effective exfoliant on the planet. As long as you use a proper shaving cream, you will be taking all the dirt and dead skin off your face with your razor itself. But again, this is more a matter of personal preference than shaving canon.

The only area for improvement is the fragrances. Bombay Shaving Company offers only one fragrance – a contemporary fragrance that will not appeal to all men. In my opinion, the fragrance in the after-shave balm is pleasant, but lacks depth and complexity. They need to diversify their range with at least two additional fragrance types – a ‘spicy’ type  with a musky/woody base such as Tabac or Old Spice; and a citrusy classic eau-de-cologne variety similar to 4711 or Premium. These two fragrance lines will drive customer “stickiness” among a major proportion of wet shavers – else most “converts” like me will return to them only for the Feather blades.

In my opinion, BSC makes the nicest shaving kit that I’ve encountered in ages, and is a must buy for the man looking to drop the hideously expensive and gimmicky multi-blade systems.

Note: This is a review of a kit that I received as a Christmas present from a family member. Bombay Shaving Company has not offered me any incentives for this review.

Is Social Media Abstinence The Next Diet Trend?

 

In mid-2018, I took a one-month break from Facebook. Though this hiatus was aimed at freeing up time and headspace to deal with the birth of my daughter, I found positive effects on other areas such as increased creative output and better focus on both my work and life. I eventually slid back into regular use, though at much reduced levels than in the past.

Three weeks ago, I dropped off Facebook again. I don’t log on to the platform, though the articles that I post on LinkedIn are posted to Facebook via the LinkedIn for Facebook widget. In a mere six days of abstinence, my writing output has shot up, and I find myself more focused. I now communicate one-on-one by Email or phone, and am drawing away from Whatsapp too. [since writing this, I briefly came back on the platform during the holidays]

I have discovered that I’m not the only person shunning Facebook. A number of people I have reconnected with in the past few days claim that they rarely log on anymore, and all of them report increased focus, better productivity, and improved mental health in separating from Facebook and Instagram.

In late 2011, I went on a low-carb diet to drop some weight. By July 2012, I had dropped to 74 kilos and 10% body fat from a peak weight of 110 kilos circa 2009. At that time, people following Low Carb, Paleo, and Keto diets were rare in India. However, now, with 2019 around the corner, almost everyone I know is on some sort of low-carb diet. In fact  These have become so popular, that here in Gurgaon, there are take-out kitchens that specialize in meals for those on Low-carb, Paleo, or Ketogenic diets. Considering the feedback that I’ve been getting from people who have cut back on Social Media use, could the Social Media Fast be the next diet trend?

With people now shunning Facebook in particular, it seems likely that Social Media has peaked. Multiple regulatory issues – starting with Cambridge Analytica – and now the indications of improper data sharing with Yandex and Netflix have revealed how the malevolent trinity of Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp is exploiting user data and driving social behavior. There is no hope of any imminent regulatory oversight of these social media platforms. Mark Zuckerberg’s five-hour appearance before a US Senate Committee – available in its entirety on Youtube – revealed that the political establishment is arrogant in its ignorance of the real issues in ethics and privacy relevant to social media.

These public spectacles have begun to change the way people regard Social Media. Perhaps its growth days are over and we shall soon she the kind of stagnation that has hit tablet computers and e-book readers. In fact, a contraction may be around the corner.

Another key factor is that Humans in general are trending to internal improvement and introspection. According to Forbes magazine, Headspace, an app that provides guided Mindfulness meditation sessions has been downloaded 11 million times and has 400,000 paid subscribers. Publishers in the UK and USA are reporting a spurt in sales of books on meditation and yoga, and globally, the number of yoga alliance certified instructors is increasing exponentially. Meditation and Fitness are not the only self-improvement businesses that are booming. Life, career, and dating coaches are a rapidly expanding sector of the self-improvement market. Two years ago, one of my mentors joked that “Coach is the new LinkedIn code word for unemployed”. He has since engaged a coach to improve his social communication skills. My own mindfulness and self-awareness based advisory practice has grown substantially solely by word-of-mouth since 2015. An increasing number of people now realize that material fulfillment and social media bragging do not bring happiness. Mindfulness and self awareness are incredibly demanding pursuits. A fair amount of time and emotional labour is needed in the early months, and I’ve noticed that my own clients and other people on mindfulness programs tend to draw this time by cutting back on social media.

The addition of one billion new mobile data consumers in the Orient may bump social media adoption figures, but it is likely that social media utilization has peaked, and as people look inwards in the economic and social volatility ahead, the Social Media Fast could become the new diet trend, and Facebook the new Refined Sugar.

If your 2019 goals include increasing focus, happiness, or energy; completing self-paced educational courses; or resurrecting a long-forgotten hobby, consider Social Media Abstinence. It’s probably the one factor that will decide success or failure.

The Pixel 3 Is The Perfect Phone (for me)

Two weeks ago, I finally got myself the new Pixel phone. While evaluating the multiple phones I was considering, I found that most of the reviews online were written by professional reviewers, so I thought to write up my thoughts on the process to my purchase.

My previous phone was a Samsung Galaxy Note 8. It is a great phone with an outstanding camera, but the lack of software updates has been a constant issue for me, and in recent times, the size was something that I had issues with. However, this was my first flagship phone ever, and the experience let me to decide that all my primary phones hereafter should be flagship-grade.

The phones that I considered were the Galaxy S9, The iPhone XS, and the OnePlus 6T.

My key priorities were:

  • OS upgrades
  • Camera
  • Battery Life
  • Size and Feel

In examining the S9, the feel of the phone was amazing, as was the display. The phone is a little bulkier than I would like, but the real deal-killer was the software. My Note 8 is still running Android 7.1.1 at the fag-end of 2018. The S9 is shipping with 8.0 Oreo. Though Samsung rolled out the Oreo update for Note 8s in Europe and the USA in early 2018, they haven’t done so in India, this is odd, and somewhat reminiscent of Samsung’s earlier practice of dumping lower-spec phones in India – a practice that they still seem to pursue with the Snapdragon/Exynos variants. I think it’s asinine to pay top dollar for a phone that will not receive even a single OS update. Given that I work in compliance, device security is a priority for me – security patches need to be prompt, something that Samsung has failed at.

The iPhone XS is amazing in terms of camera, display, and performance. It seemed like the perfect time for me to switch to Apple, but given that the cheapest XS costs over INR 100,000 (USD 1,430) in India and the other issues around paying for storage, the compatibility of multiple work-related apps, I decided that the moment wasn’t ripe for this transition.

The OnePlus, frankly, was a bit of a disappointment. For all the hype, the Camera is quite passe. The so-called blazing pace is more a factor of the 8GB RAM rather than an efficient OS, and was still sluggish on the display pieces that I looked at. The interface is as cluttered as Samsung’s, and it comes bundled with the usual bloatware. I will buy a One Plus phone at some point, but that would be just so that I can install the Lineage OS ROM for specialized features and apps requiring root access.

The Pixel 3 was impressive.

Despite having just 4 GB RAM, the phone was blazing fast, and the interface a joy. To be fair, I used the Moto G (2015) between June 2015 and May 2017, and prefer the stock Android experience. Coming from there, both One Plus and Samsung interfaces were too cluttered, busy, or crowded. Compared side-by-side at a Croma store in Gurgaon, the Pixel 3’s camera outperformed the Note 9. The irritating thing about the Samsung Camera is its in-built beauty mode that subtly turns human subjects into wax dolls by smoothing over skin textures – an option that cannot be disabled. Even the OnePlus 6T, despite what its fans will proclaim didn’t come close in performance and output.

While I was still mulling my choices, the #PixelPowerUps offer emerged, allowing me to purchase the 128GB Pixel 3 from Flipkart for about INR 15,000 off the sticker price. I bought it.

I decided on the 128 GB model with an eye to the future. My 64 GB Note 8, despite being used for just about a year, has only 2 GB of space left, with most content on it being photos and 4k video that I’m shooting for a social media channel. The Pixel 3 comes with unlimited cloud storage for all Pixel phone content generated until 31 January 2022. Photos and Videos are stored in their original resolution.

What was particularly encouraging is that the first line of Pixel phones, released in 2016, have received the Pie OS update. Pixel 2 phones from 2017 received the camera software updates. I’m hoping that such updates endure, and I can use the phone for at least three years.

It’s software features aside, the phone’s design is fantastic.

Though the Pixel 3 is an all-glass phone, it follows the design language introduced with the first Pixel phone, with the two-tone back and dual front-facing speakers. I’m very happy with the phone’s size. I’ve always been disdainful of this obsession with screen size which compromises both battery life and the general handiness of the device. I still think the iPhone SE has the perfect proportions, and would have probably switched to Apple this year if they had refreshed the model with a faster processor and a nicer camera. The Pixel 3 feels perfect in my hand and nestles firmly between my palm and the top crease of my fingers. Of course, in the interest of preserving this phone for the next three years that I plan to use it for, I’m using the Spigen case from Amazon.com. This case has some heft to it, but will provide some protection for the three times a year that I seem to drop my phones.

Several online reviews have multiple points of criticism for this phone. The first regards memory management where apps are closed by the OS to conserve memory. Perhaps this has already been patched, but I faced no latency issues at all. To be fair, I have not been using any memory intensive apps or games.

Another criticism that was almost a deal breaker for me is the issue with the camera. Apparently, the camera fails to work properly when used through other apps. This is true. I had issues using the camera via the PayTM app and through Instagram. The latter is not really a problem, since I rarely take pictures through Instagram, and typically post pictures that I have already shot, filtered, and cropped. Google has promised to fix this issue in a subsequent update, and I generally consider them to be more honest than Samsung in such matters. However, if you’re planning to use a third party camera app, or use a work-related app that needs to access the camera, please ensure that this issue is resolved before you buy it.

In summary, if you’re in the market for an android Phone, and would like a long-lived device with an outstanding camera, the Pixel 3 is for you.