Posted by & filed under Travel.

Heineken is my macrobrew of choice and one of the things I looked forward to during the Netherlands leg of my sabbatical was to visit the Heineken brewing company in Amsterdam. Here is my summary of the visit and other Heineken related thoughts.

Heineken should really be the national beverage and symbol of the Netherlands. Heineken signs are everywhere. It is more ubiquitous across the city and country than any brand I have seen anywhere in the world. Every bar serves Heineken. Every restaurant serves Heineken. There’s Heineken signs on the trams, trains and stores. Happy hour is referred to as Heineken hour in many bars and a 2 hour tour thru the indoctrination at the Heineken brewing headquarters is not called the Heineken tour but the much more all-encompassing ‘Heineken experience’.

I bought tickets online, scanned the bar code at the entrance and picked up 2 beer tokens and a green wrist band at about 5 PM on a weekend day. The experience starts off with a fairly detailed rendering of the history of the beer and the company. The staff at Heineken who spoke during this phase of the experience were witty and knowledgable. They really make it an interesting session by constantly talking trash about other beers. It was fun to listen to their reasons for why Budweiser sucks and why Guinness makes you puke more. Just for this, the visit is worth its entrance fee:).

There’s a detailed sequential tour of the brewery that follows this and took me thru every little detail about the water they use, the hops they use and the equipment and the process. Secrets of their success and their ingredient – X were obviously left out of the lessons provided. I was then taken as part of a group to a ‘Become your own beer’ amusement ride. The less said about this, the better. Don’t get your hopes up:). The Heineken experience then takes you to a really fun arcade where you can play Heineken themed games and also kick back and watch Heineken ads thru the years from different countries. I am a sucker for revisiting things from the past and absolutely loved the cheesy ads from the 80s and 90s.

Next phase of the experience is a karaoke bar equipped with all the fixings. You can try singing along with the famous Heineken ads here. I didn’t try it out but the girl who dabbled in this fine song did a very decent job.

Finally, we get to the stage of the experience where we get two free beers. I indulged in emotion-free small talk with the guy next to me who was giggly, high and was on Cloud Nine. He told me it was day 3 of his business trip representing a technology company in Yemen. Sometimes that’s all you need to know about why or how someone could look that happy!

I had my token two beers, purchased some fun merchandize and said goodbye to the experience about 150 minutes after starting it. It’s a fun time out and Heineken does a really good job keeping the crowds moving from phase to phase while also teaching us a lot about beer and brewing. Lastly but not leastly, they have free fast wi-fi!

If you happen to be in Amsterdam, I highly recommend stopping by there and yelling Proust!

Posted by & filed under Travel.

Editor’s note: New York Times columnist and multi-millionaire Thomas Friedman has graciously accepted to guest post on this blog. He heard Shyam Sundararaman’s thoughts about a day in the Dutch countryside thru this massive new technological invention called Skype on a cool new gadget called the Iphone 5.


New York city used to be called New Amsterdam
. It is time now to call Amsterdam as New New York. Technology, manufacturing, infrastructure and a concern for all make Amsterdam a true 22’nd century Flat world city. My friend set out on a day trip to the Dutch countryside. He wanted to see what the entailed and how different it was from the city of New New York. In America he’d have to figure out where to rent a car and pay a gazillion dollars for gas that was extracted on the backs of the Kurds and Sunnis in a war that was never executed the way it was supposed to be. Here in New New York, my friend just had to pull up the Google Maps app and all the information about the public transportation to get to different countryside towns would pop up automatically. He decided that he would visit the towns of Amsterfort and Naarden-Bussing which were homes to old world agriculture and new world technology and planned his trip accordingly.

On the tram there were immigrants and women from various countries interacting with people from all corners of the world. There were Muslim women in Hijab using Facebook to stay in touch with their oppressed sisters. There were American businessmen in suits enjoying high-speed browsing on their cellular phones unlike in the subway systems and airplanes back home. The tram dropped my friend off at Muiderspoort which is a bustling interconnect with the regional high-speed train network. My friend was able to transfer from tram to train just by buying a 4 Euro ticket from an automated vending machine. Old jobs stood next to technology that steals old jobs such as ticket vendors. What I mean by this is that was a falafel and coffee vendor right next to the ticket machine.

The trains are a testament to a bustling economy that values both the working class and the job creators. There are two classes of seating and two speeds of trains connecting all destinations. While the first class eats have more leg room and a trash can, the second class seats in the slow train get the same high-speed internet browsing experience that the first class seats in the Sprinter trains do. This is a great way to invest in the middle class and allow them to innovate on the move while also making sure the rich and powerful are happy and comfortable.

The same passion for equal infrastructure for all but different comforts was evident when my friend trekked thru Naarden-Bussing. Every street (picture below) had a sidewalk, a lane for walking, a lane for bikes (bicycles in the US) and a lane for cars. Traffic was orderly and the suburban moms and dads who were passing thru the street (for the 5 minutes my friend had his face looking up) were looking extremely happy and satisfied. The kind of happiness and confidence that comes when your health care is taken care of and your infrastructure is good and political parties are not bickering.

Both Naarden-Bussing and Amsterfort are quiet, postcard picturesque towns that are home to new world technology companies as well as old world greengrocer and bakers. My friend had a five-minute conversation with a local Lebanese restauranteurs who shared his wi-fi password for an Euro. Entrepreneurship! Ingenuity! Technology! They all meet as a holy trinity in the New New York’s countryside and suburbs.

My friend spent some time at the local bookstores. It was interesting looking at how crowded the stores were on a weekday afternoon. In America, you can only get that sort of crowd for a Kim Kardashian concert! Here the New New York suburban moms and dads were making sure that their kids were exposed to all cultures and all works of writing as Hello Kitty merchandize and books were being hovered around. New New York knows that old Beijing can take over the mantle of New New New York any day!

Here were the top two best-sellers in the book stores.

Two writers from a different country and language. The Netherlands knows it has to expand outside its horizons if it wants to stay competitive in a flat ever changing world. And the popularity of a cook book is not coincidental. The Dutch walk and bike (bicycle for those in the US) and know that taking care of their health is the best way to keep healthcare costs down and global warming down. This is what a trip to Old New York in the metaphorical 21’st century must have felt like.

Lastly no one knows as much about geopolitical and social local situations like cab drivers. So I requested my friend to chat up an idle cab driver on what the Obama re-election meant to him. He said “Good man! Romney not good for Holland.”

Simple words but so profound and effective in conveying something complex. It was a quote for the Twitter age. Only in New New York……

Posted by & filed under Travel.

I was in two minds about making the three tram trek over to the Anne Frank Huis in the heaviest rain since I got to The Netherlands. This trip was meant to be relaxing, stimulating and fun. Why spoil it by going to a place like that? Aren’t there funner places to be at in Amsterdam? The Netherlands and neighboring countries look like picture-perfect postcards at all times. Why should I put myself thru a visit to a house that evokes a deep sense of sorrow and mourning while not teaching me anything new? I already know the story and I know how it ends. Why go?

Well I am glad I did. Here’s what I learned in my three hours there – –

1. Anne’s father Otto did not really know her that well

A visit to the Anne Frank huis, museum and book store costs 9 Euros. It takes you thru the house that has been preserved/restored to its original 1940s version. There are quotes from Anne Frank on the walls and some background text. The quotes have a certain flow to them and the overall picture of a cramped and severely constrained accommodation is conveyed accurately thru the house. In certain rooms, there’s short videos playing of interviews with people who survived the war and also knew Anne.

One such video is a clip of Anne’s father Otto (who survived and lived until 1980) talking to a journalist in the 1960’s. Otto talks about how long he waited before he felt strong enough to open the diary and actually read it. He then said something that blew my mind. He said that after reading thru the diary he realized he didn’t know Anne at all. He talks about how brave and knowledgable she sounded on paper and how little he knew of her grasp of the social and political situation around her. Nothing in their daily interactions in that cramped and confined shelter for over two years told him anything that resembled the words she’d written down during the exact same time.

I stayed in the room and watched the video again a couple of times. The words are really powerful. Otto does not weep or show much emotion and yet what he is stating is that he didn’t have a conversation with Anne or think too much about her words and deeds for the entire time they were trapped in their make-shift house.

This really resonated with me and later had me staring into the canal outside the house (view in pic below) for a long while. How much do I really know about the people in my life that I interact with a lot? How much of me do they really know? Did my dad really know me once I left home for college? Does my mom know me now when we disagree on stuff? Did my parents know anything about me when I grew up as a kid? My dad travelled a lot. What chance did he have of really knowing me when Otto Frank was clueless about his daughter who spent may hours a day drafting her diary?

It also spoke to me in really powerful terms about the effect of fear on the human psyche. I am scared of a lot of things. And I can see how much such fear holds me back from living. Otto Frank and Anne Frank lived in so much fear and uncertainty that they would be captured by the Germans at any moment that they did not really talk to each other. I hope that I truly know the people I care about and those that care about me. Superficiality of many work and social settings and technology have made having the real conversations harder (for me). I don’t ever want to say that I understood someone I knew, better after he/she left the world.

Otto and Anne Frank taught me that today.

2. Anne really really wanted to be a journalist and a writer

There are quotes from Anne in one of the rooms in the house. It talks about how as she was writing the diary, she realized she wanted to be a journalist and a writer. That was her dream. She valued the profession enough at the age of 15 . So she started proof reading and rewriting all of her earlier entries to make sure they were journalistically and grammatical sound. How cool is that? To have that sort of rigor and vision at such a young age while being in isolation from society is amazing. How I wish she had somehow survived her ordeals or been rescued before! How much more depth could she have added to our understanding of the holocaust? Already and deservedly she is one of the most influential and popular writers of all time. My mind went to the million wannabe journalists and writers doing work today on sites unseen and journals and diaries locked away in cabinets. Not all of them are writing things that change the world terribly but am sure a lot of them have a voice or vision that supersedes anything that is out on popular sites. I worry that there’s an Anne Frank somewhere in the blogosphere now that I am not reading.

Lastly it pains me so much that the two Amsterdam heroes who have museums and streets and houses named after them (Van Gogh and Anne Frank) died so young before they had so much more to offer to all of us. Amsterdam is an amazing city and the Netherlands is a beautiful country. The people have been friendly and warm at all times. Amsterdam has a reputation. But, man has it seen some pain. There’s many ways to deal with loss and the city of Amsterdam may just be dealing with it by being more generous and more joyful to its guests than history has been to it.

Posted by & filed under Travel.

“Obama will win right?”, asked the octogenarian to me as soon as I told him I was visiting from California.

I waited for three seconds to make sure I understood his accent right and then laughed and said YES, HE WILL! Ten seconds earlier, I was drenched, impatient and really really needed the seat he seemed to be getting out of. 3:00 PM on Saturday at the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in rainy and insanely wet Amsterdam was the one time my short-term hunger and frustration got the better of my grateful and happy sabbatical self.

I know very little about art. I can’t tell great art from good art or modern art from traditional art. All art looks and seems amazing to me. I have still not gotten past imperfect stick figures to represent anyone or anything I know and to me all art is simply incredible. With so little knowledge there was no real need for me to check out the Van Gogh museum. And yet I did.

My thought process went something like this: “I knew that the world that knows art considers him a genius and who knows if I’ll ever be back here? Maybe soak in the sights now, check it off the list for every friend and family member who will ask me if I went there and maybe one day in the distant future, the genius will sink in. Also, what better place to buy souvenirs from the Netherlands?

So I pulled myself together and added it to my list of places and strolled in at its temporary Hermitage location. My umbrella and hoodie were no match to the pouring rain as the 20 odd minute wait in the line outside the museum sucked away any little passion I had for Mr Van Gogh’s works. Once inside the building, I stood in another serpentine line for another 20 minutes while feeling fainter and hungrier with each passing minute. My hair was still very wet and sane sense requested that I dry off first but what’s the mind to do when the stomach craves what it does ? So I rushed to the cafeteria, picked up three things and looked for a seat in the packed room only to come face-to-face with President Obama’s pluckiest octogenarian Dutch fan. He’d give me his seat and my stomach would stop growling only after he said to me in three different ways how much he loves Obama !!

Win it for him, Mr. President!

The museum in itself was a lot of fun once I had food and coffee in me. I learnt about the Japanese influence on Mr Van Gogh and about how he was one of the first painters to paint people and nature realistically rather than romantically. I wonder what he’d think of the museum today and a souvenir shop that sells a thousand prints of ‘Sunflowers’ a day…….

“I hate the IPL. Test cricket is the real thing. I hope you guys destroy them”, said the Kiwi on the tram.

Tram rides are very social. Any time of the day you’re standing at a tram stop in Amsterdam the person next to you is a tourist doing the same. Locals know the schedules enough to not show up more than 30 seconds prior to a tram’s arrival and it’s the tourists pacing up and down the station feigning a weird mix of confidence and anxiety. I was one such tourist who was thrilled to see two other people walk up to the Ceintuurbaan stop at half past seven under more pouring Amsterdam rain. Is this the right stop for #25 I asked? Yes, they replied and added that it was running on an unreliable schedule thru the weekend. We got to chatting and continued chatting as we boarded #25, ten minutes later. They were two Kiwis out to the country for a week on work. They work in the Horticulture sector and were telling me how no downtown in New Zealand compares remotely to the density, traffic and noise of Amsterdam. The had enjoyed their trip and were giving me relevant pointers that only someone who’d been a recent clueless tourist would be able to give to a current clueless tourist.

I told them New Zealand was on my bucket list and that I’d be there in 2015 for the cricket world cup. They pointed out that 2015 was a long time away and that India needed to somehow beat England in the test matches this month. I thought a rival of Australia’s would be a friend of England but completely unprovoked he went off on the English cricket team as whiners and losers before saying “I hate the IPL. Test cricket is the real thing. I hope you guys destroy them.”

“You should have another Beerenburg.”, said the bartender Ruben.

Perennially drenched and sleep deprived me did not successfully defy the physical cliffs of every trip – the common cold and the sore throat. I walked into a quiet but colorful and crowded bar at the edge of the Red light district and told the bartender that I know it’s Saturday night and 9 PM in a trendy neighborhood and all but that I’d like a cup of hot water.

He introduced himself as Ruben, told me he’d take only cash and waited on me right away. He was wearing a quintessentially American T-shirt (said something like Florida beach) and I asked him if he’d been there. He’d been to America before and said he’d be back. He said he’d be back not for the women or the wildlife but for the whiskey bars. He gave me a detailed lesson on this bar in San Francisco that sold beer out of whiskey barrels and this other bar that had the best whiskey shots.

I was about to walk out of the bar as soon as the rains abated (for their hourly five-minute break) when ruben said he had a better cure than hot tea for my shivering sick looking self. It was a local drink called Beerenburg. It has herbs and stuff and it would fix me like nothing else, he promised. “Also eat some of our cheese with mustard” he said while offering up a plate of local cheese.

An hour later I walked out of the bar having made a new friend and feeling infinitely better. Thanks Ruben for introducing me to Amsterdam’s finest socialized medicine. I loved it and will be back for another some day. (Please don’t tell Ruben that the medicine only lasted four hours before its effect wore out).

“You should have another Beerenburg.”, said the bartender Ruben…..

“Go Pack, Go…..”

In a city of a million vices, my #1 vice was still the Packers. Knowing that the time difference would not be insurmountable and that the Dutch had to have some interest in showing American football to the half million or so American tourists, I made a deep Google dive to find a sports bar that showed my beloved Packers live. The Satellite Sports cafe with its incredible 1990’s web page and an all-cuisine menu seemed like a poor choice for Sunday night but they happened to be the place nearest to my apartment that showed the Packers live among 20 other sporting events that night.

So off I went in the rain on a 15 minute walk past the Emperor’s canal and the prince’s canal to a quintessentially Dutch cafe serving quintessentially crappy food to stoned sports fans. No one else would be crazy enough to do this for this game, I thought in my head only to be beat to one of the two seats in the house facing the TV. Meet Matt, a completely stoned Milwaukee native who on his first full night in the city decided it was Packers, beer and weed over jet lag. Eating the most basic sandwich and fries from a menu that had both teriyaki and Belgian waffles, we took part in our own Olympic event of synchronized cheering, clapping and head bobbing that only two sports fans can truly grasp. We watched as a badly bruised Packer team fought a frisky Arizona squad to a 31-17 win. James Jones’ catch got us both of our chairs and high fiving while the lack of wi-fi had us both in awkward silence, calculating our respective fantasy scores in our heads at several points in the night.

Several stoners joined us thru the night but no one stayed from start to finish of a game like Matt and I did. A Redskins fan walked in and out thru several exasperated weed runs while a family of four guzzled thru a 12-pack within the first half of a Spanish soccer game. Not everyone is as lucky to be a passionate Packer fan.

Minutes after the game was over, Matt and I yelled out

Go Pack, Go…..”

Posted by & filed under Travel.

I have spent close to two days in Amsterdam now and while there’s several fun Amsterdam-y things to report about, I want to write a bit first about my travel experience getting here.

1. Flight – I have travelled enough out of and into America to know that Airline caterers think vegetarianism means eating raw leaves and a piece of fruit. On one flight from Chicago to SFO, the air hostess said the vegetarian meal of the day was BANANA (not even plural). So I knew not to expect a buffet that thrilled the senses or even one that would fill me up. SFO has a few decent vegetarian options and so after passing thru the security check I picked up some kettle chips, Naked juice, Grape leaves (Dolmas) and a hummus sandwich for my flight.

With holiday season not quite here yet, the gate was sparsely populated for an international flight. And outside of a couple of kids hardly anyone gave me eye contact on the long walk across the ends of the gate. Most people were way too into checking out their online streams prior to losing internet connectivity for 10+ hours. I gave this general social pattern of preferring the online world to the real world a huge shrug of my shoulders and a shake of my head. Two minutes later as soon as I found my seat, I was knee-deep in my Twitter feed on my Iphone.

The first meal served on the flight was dinner and against all expectations, the vegetarian pasta concoction was actually not terrible. Thank you British Airways! A small step for vegetarian mankind and a giant leap for airline food everywhere! My economy class seat was spacious, comfortable and the entertainment options spanned from T-20 world cup highlights to episodes of Veep. It was a comfortable flight and with a host of entertainment options, I got thru fewer pages of Nate Silver’s book than Sarah Palin would have.

My transit at London Heathrow was spectacularly bad. I never for once imagined that navigating the signs in an airport where english is the default language, would be hard. The airport seems to be letting out a huge burp and fart now that the Olympics are done with. The TVs were in fact showing a Welcome to London pre-Olympic footage in a loop! The gate info was hard to find and the lines to get to security were warped and confusing. You could get past everyone if you had a VIP pass but no one checked if you did. They just took your word for it. But if you were honest (more ‘scared of detention’ than honest really) like I was, you were held behind a tape and line the kinds of which you see used to control irate mobs outside rallies and concerts. I could rant on for hours on this topic but it was a clusterfuck the kind of which I have not seen, not even in the US in the aftermath of 9/11. Hope this was an one-off thingie ‘cos I so don’t to want to not like anything about London……

2. Trains and Trams – The flight from London to Amsterdam was ridiculously empty. I could have laid my whole body over two rows of seats and no one would have noticed. I got to Amsterdam and Schipol was dull and damp, just like the city outside. I had instructions from my hostess on how to get to my place of stay and I wanted to follow them to a T without getting any help. This is one of the cheap thrills I get when I am travelling. I will use technology for help for anything and everything (Siri, what is 123-28?) but I treat the act of asking locals some questions like they are finite lifelines I am using in a game show.

I took the long walk to the train station just by following signs but struggled with getting on the train I was supposed to. See, I could figure out platform #2 and the speed train by name but was not sure which direction I should be boarding. This is where I used up a lifeline and managed to get on the right train going the right way. The train ride was uber-comfortable and dropped me off at the Amsterdam Central where I waited 25 minutes before boarding the correct tram towards the De Pijp neighborhood where my hostess would be waiting for me.

I would like to invite famous Indian cricket commentator Ravi Shastri to give y’all a short summary of my tram ride. Take it away Ravi…..

“Well, the roads and tracks are deserted on a chilly windy day. But the people are out and about and hence they are packed in to the tram like a can of sardines. I look out at other trams and people are packed into the rafters like they were all evading a tracer bullet simultaneously.”

Thanks Ravi!

3. AirBnB: This is my first time using AirbNb . I still have a few more things to experience before I can give a whole hearted endorsement of the service. But here’s some initial thoughts –

AirBnB is a great idea. What can be better than staying in real homes of real locals at different places? How many more continental breakfasts do we have to try at hotels before we realize they are all a giant homogenous body! Staying with locals who have been reviewed by peers and whose social profiles are visible (Linkedin, Facebook etc.) also lets you stay near where the cool places are.

So I love the idea and I have enjoyed my experience so far. My hostess has been great. She’s renting out the place she normally lives in while she spends the week with her family near a farm. The home has 3 clean rooms, wi-fi, a washer-dryer and a kitchen with a fridge. It is a few blocks from where all the cool people do cool Amsterdam-y things. She also has Burning man and San Francisco stories to share and everything so far has been better than anything I could have experienced in a soulless Ramada or Sheraton.

However, Airbnb has some kinks they really need to work around. Right now they do not have enough of a penalty or check in place for a host/hostess who chooses to void a reservation at any moment and delete their profile. This happened to me twice while planning my trip. So a person could theoretically confirm your reservation and cancel on you in the last-minute for whatever reason and he/she could then create a different profile and screw some one else over! I spoke to the airbnb people and they are aware of this but they believe that this is a small percentage of the crowd that uses it. Also, they refund your whole money plus a small bonus check for your discomfort if this happens to you. But the hassle of having to re-do the whole booking, ping people and search for places one more time is truly mind numbing and frustrating.

Also, I am not sure they have the best system in place to indicate floating room/apartment rates. My hostess told me she had enormous trouble updating her rates thru the system they have in place.

I love the service and I hope they stay for a long time improving and polishing up some of these gaps in customer service. I also love my apartment in Amsterdam so far. Here’s a pic of the living room.

Hope you’re enjoying reading this and you’ll be back for my adventures in the city of Amsterdam. Do comment below if you have any thoughts and do forward to friends.

Posted by & filed under Travel.

Far away from Hurricane Sandy, here I was at SFO’s international terminal on day one of a sabbatical I had long waited for. My employer rewards its employees with a contiguous seven week sabbatical (on top of regular vacation) for every seven years of service. I was eligible for my sabbatical in early September. This was a moment I had waited for, for a long time. This was a moment I wanted to tell everyone about and share, for a long time.

When you’re not an athlete or a performer you rarely get to milestones that you can crow about publicly. You don’t get doff your hat, take a bow, raise your bat or do a discount-double-check dance ever. For most cubicle warriors (like me) a monthly accomplishment is achieving what someone else categorized as a stretch goal or cleaning out that Inbox or getting thru a presentation or meeting without once looking at one’s Facebook or Twitter feed. These are things that make me feel good and are important to keep that wheel turning but these don’t get society’s rousing applause. Similarly, pay raises and promotions at work are satisfying private moments but society deeply frowns the sharing of one’s paycheck in social settings and sharp arrows are drawn at that party pooper who has nice things to say about his job or pay.

Compliments from co-workers and managers have the lifetime of a funny email forward and the day-to-day struggles of just getting shit done rarely gets the attention of a ‘Behind the Scenes’ crew. And far too often little moments of success or joy at work seem like compensation for that moment or event when something went wrong. Yeah, you got these issues resolved and the code released but remember that one time last month when you didn’t know what the answer to my question WAS??????

At its most fundamental level, my paid sabbatical is a reward for the time I have spent doing something that is thankfully cherished needed by someone else and considered valuable enough to society to be compensated for. But for me though, the sabbatical is an enormous look-how-big-my-you-know-what-is moment! How often am I going to be able to publicly crow about something I did and have it resonate socially?
Ever tried bragging about your $30 gift card to the movie theater at a gathering of friends or family? Ever tried explaining to your significant other, how great your fantasy football team is doing and how happy it makes you feel? Ever tried discussing your little daily success at work, at the dinner table? Ever tried explaining how hard that commitment to your very difficult MBA class was and how it got you an A? Nobody cares! And none of these flauntings are considered normal. These aren’t things society allows us to crow about. Society values these exactly the way it values stories of supermarket shopping efficiencies. But a sabbatical? Oh Yeah! Society considers it perfectly normal to crow about completing a certain unit of time at a certain place of work. No one pooh-poohs it. The work-permitted sabbatical falls crisply at the intersection of two things society values – Longevity and effort. And no one likes to trivialize those.

So here I am on seat 33D of British Airways flight #284 yelling guiltlessly to y’all about my paid sabbatical which is a reward for completing seven fucking years at work. The next 60+ days are loosely planned and involve a lot of travelling, soul searching, family and friends. It will also involve a lot of writing on this blog. Like most times in my life, I know I will achieve less than I aim for, I will check e-mail more than I have to and I will eat and drink more than I plan to. But thru all of this I will yell loudly and proudly at anyone and everyone about my sabbatical, write about my experiences and raise my metaphorical bat at anyone who’ll listen. Please follow my blog and tell everyone you know that Shyam Sundararaman is on sabbatical and writing about it. They won’t mind. At least, that’s what society tells me ……

Posted by & filed under Indian abroad.

Twitter introduced me to this post by Hawkeye view. The post interspersed with Tamil catchphrases is a ridicule of those Indians in America who are on a work or student visa and root for President Obama. It characterizes them as silly and stupid and as rooting against their own interests by rooting for Obama over Romney. The best interests that the writer refers to are the paths to a green card and permanent residency for Indian immigrants and the hypothesis is that these paths are shorter and more realistic under a prospective Romney administration than a second Obama term.

As one of the Indians in America who cannot vote but annoys everyone with pro-Obama links and quotes everyday, I am going to take up the task of trying to rebut hawkeyeview’s hypothesis with a 5 point rebuttal plan. Looking forward to feedback from others who have experiences and takes on this issue.

1. North American energy independence , just kidding.

2. The president is but a small piece of the immigration puzzle – Passing immigration reform to staple green cards to engineering graduates is not something that can be done in the form of an executive order. It is something that requires support from the House and the Senate. The H.R. 3012 bill that is referred to in @hawkeyeview’s post is actually one that was held up in the (senate for over six months) from even being put to vote by a Republican senator Chuck Grassley. Similarly Republican senator Lamar Smith introduced similar reform in the House in a way that the desired outcome can not be achieved. While Governor Romney’s intentions may be to pass a bill that gives out green cards to science and engineering graduates, Congressional process and polarization over the last four years has shown that the difference between intention and action is very large. I think the case for electing Governor Romney solely on this issue will be stronger if his role in spearheading targeted legislation thru a divided or polarized Congress can be described. To portray Governor Romney as omnipotent and as a panacea for the issue is as flawed as portraying President Obama as the same. Congressional action is needed for this and Indians are better served getting the attention of Republican senators and Democratic members of Congress.

3. Rhetoric is different from record – One of the basic rules of election season is that rhetoric doesn’t always match the record. Any one who has followed Governor Romney thru the last four years will agree that he has said different things at different times to different audiences. This is what politicians do. And who’s to blame them? To convince a vast and diverse array of people why you are the best at a job when everyone has different interests and goals is an incredibly difficult task.

It is with this context that I view words from politicians. Is there anything in the recent Republican record that shows a path to permanent residency for H1B and EAD card holders as a priority? The party he belongs to is one of the least diverse and most opposed to any forms of immigration in recent history. In 2007, then president George W. Bush could not get his party to vote on a bill that solved the immigration issue for a generation.

The Republican party has jumped on any immigrant-friendly statements or measures that President Obama has made. Even in the Google+ hangout that the president participated in earlier this year, Republicans joined a chorus in criticizing the president on allegations that the president was not concerned about the growth of H1B engineers. While their rhetoric around elections is friendly towards green card seekers and tech firms, they have consistently shown that they will jump to the nativist side of the room at the first opportunity.

4. Voting for someone solely on one issue is hard – Even assuming Governor Romney and the Republican party would prioritize and expedite Indian Green card applications, it is really hard for intelligent human beings to vote solely on one issue. Even when the issue is as fundamental as their career and life flexibilities, it is hard to reconcile the position of a political party on that issue with their platforms against science, unemployment benefits, help for the poor and needy, healthcare for all and equality for gays and lesbians. If we were voting in the Indian elections would we vote for Narendra Modi over Rahul Gandhi on one issue? Would we be okay with a party that raises the reservation quota for a certain caste at public universities by 25% while also opposing foreign direct investment? Would we not weigh the pros and cons and make an informed choice? Why then should we root for one candidate here on one issue alone?

5. My personal experience – I came to the U.S in 2001. I was here in 2004 when President Bush and the Republican party took specific offense to John Kerry calling outsourcers ‘Benedict Arnolds’. Then president Bush’s message was that he would not demonize technology firms that outsourced or immigrants who got degrees in science and technology. My employer filed for my permanent residency status in the summer of 2007. I was told by plenty of immigration lawyers and immigration message boards that the election of a democratic president would be the worst thing that could happen to me and that I should start saving up money to move back to India whether rI wanted that or not. I noticed my EAD (Employment Authorization) priority date stuck for over three years in the long and non deterministic immigration pipeline. I experienced the same frustrations that several Indians do of not being able to make career or life plans because of the uncertainty surrounding the green card process. Suddenly in the spring of 2011, there was enormous movement and traction on this issue thanks to a huge push from President Obama’s jobs council which included several leaders from the technology world. I have also noticed that since then there has been little to no traction on this front for several of my friends and coworkers as parties have gotten neck-deep in the campaign rigmarole.

My summary is that the green card issue like most things is complex and nuanced. No one leader can change it overnight and the factors that govern it are too disparate and too vast to be narrowed to a singular rooting interest. Hopefully this explains why at this moment more American desis root for Obama and that they’re not stupid to do so.

Posted by & filed under NFL.

I was at Centurylink field for the most memorable Monday night football finish of all time. Years from now I will be able to tell my grandkids that I was in the stadium the day that Cedric Benson scored a Packer touchdown, Golden Tate made a play the NFL’s credibility sank to its lowest low.

I will have a detailed write-up of the experience in a day or two. In the meantime, here’s five thoughts —–

a) Before I lay in to the NFL and the officiating here’s a primer: No single play decides or defines a football game. A football game is a series of discreet events, any one of which can have a disproportional impact to the outcome while still not deciding the outcome all by itself.

So, while the final play cost the Packers the win at that point, the Packers did not lose just because of that play. Eight sacks in the first half, drops by Jones, Driver and Finley, other officiating errors and the improper and inadequate usage of timeouts by Mike Mccarthy were all also responsible for the Packers losing the game. (The timeouts particularly bother me. What is Mike going to do with the two he never used? Roll them over for next week against the Saints?)

The Packers had some opportunities to seal the game and did not. Let’s never forget that.

b) Watching the game in the stadium was surreal to say the least. The quarterback of my team got sacked EIGHT times in one half of football and that was not even the third or fourth biggest story during and after the game. I was telling my friends how we may live another 70 years and never see that happen ever again.

c) The refs didn’t just become part of the game towards the end. For a long time, THEY WERE the game. There was an extraordinary tension in the air thru the game as fans of both sides had no handle on what the referees were calling or not calling. A rowdy and energetic group of Seahawks fans sitting behind me would yell out GENIUS call and BULLSHIT on back-to-back calls which looked the same. We were joking in the stands on how we should have had the refs on our fantasy rosters as they had called for more yardage than the players combined. At certain junctures it even felt like the coaches were asking their players to try deep passes or illegal holding just so the refs would screw up and the yardage gained or stopped would be substantially more than thru a more traditional play. There were tons of flags thrown, valid interceptions negated and an extraordinary uneasiness thru the game that nothing the players did mattered. Any one who thinks the refs just screwed up one call late or only made mistakes in the fourth quarter did not watch the whole game or is a replacement ref.

Above everything else this is a bad place to be. Officiating a football game or any sporting event is hard. Humans have and will make mistakes and there will be games when the team you root for will feel the brunt of the mistakes. I get that. But that is not where the NFL was on Monday night and that is not where the league is right now. It is where politics was when those who counted votes and those who printed out ballots played a larger role than the voters. This is what it feels like to have your day determined by which side of the bed you got out of. This is what it feels like to live in an age when you could either win a lady or a tiger for your deeds. Everything about the night felt arbitrary. No sport can survive that.

d) If you like me are heaping scorn on the refs, do not forget to hate the Packer management rank and file as well. The Packers ownership is also to blame for the incompetent referees. Let us not forget that Roger Goodell reports to the owners and the Packers CEO and COO can (along with Bob Kraft and Zygi Wilf and every other owner whose team got jobbed by inadequate incompetent replacement refs) resolve the dispute with the original referees union. At this point it is not important or relevant even as to who’s right and who’s wrong. Greed is good until the brand loses credibility and on Monday night, the league lost the trust of a loyal fan base for a very small piece of the very large NFL revenue pie. Was it worth it? The Lingerie football league just released this. Do the fans deserve this?

e) I am just enough of an adult to realize that the gods are busy and to pray to them only for things that really matter and not for things related to my real and fantasy sports teams. I am also hypocritical enough to break that when the situation is dire. With the Seahawks facing 4’th and 10 with 11 seconds on the clock, my palms were in prayer pose, my eyes were half-shut and I let out a small prayer “Dear God, may the Packers make a play and not lose this game.”

If only I’d said the right prayer…….

We’ll be fine come Sunday. Go Pack, Go….

Posted by & filed under NFL.

Thursday’s win over the Bears was a pleasant surprise to me. Going in, I expected my beloved Packers to lose. It’s always fun to win one over the Bears and on a night when so much went right for the Packers my favorite moment was the fake field goal .

Here’s why –

4’th and 26 – There aren’t many down and distance measurements that have their own wikipedia page. But 4’th down and 26 yards does. For it was one of the most unbelievable plays in NFL history. Personally it’s like a childhood scar that never went away. Prior to the 2004 game, I was two years in to being a hardcore Packer fan and was fresh off my first (and only visit yet) to Lambeau field. I was young, naive and completely sucked in by the mystique of Lambeau, Favre and cold weather. Seven days earlier, I had watched in person, Al Harris win a game in the most memorable manner possible. I was told by Wisconsinites that the Packers never lost when it was cold. They had also won five straight including an unforgettable Monday nighter a day after their beloved quarterback’s father died. Ahman Green was running the ball like a man possessed by the ghost of Bruce Wayne and a Superbowl berth beckoned the team of destiny.

The Packers started strong and looked unbeatable en route to a 14-0 lead. Favre and the offense looked crisp while Mcnabb and Andy Reid looked just like they always did in their annual playoff pushes poops. Sometime in the second quarter, head coach Mike Sherman went for it on a fourth and goal dagger rather than a ‘measly’ 17-0 lead only to be stopped just short. A play that could have turned the notoriously fickle Eagles crowd on the home team and led to a Packer rout instead triggered a slow and painful-to-watch Packer degradation that took the better part of 5 years to recover from.

The rest of the game was largely forgettable. Both teams looked out of sync and struggled to score points. What I remember most vividly though is how inevitable a Packer loss started to seem as the game wore on even though the Packers never trailed in regulation. With every second half Packer drive that failed to result in a touchdown, an eerie sense of doom gathered strength. Eventually, The Eagles clawed their way to within 3 in the fourth quarter only to face the aforementioned fourth and 26. It is hard to describe what the minute surrounding that play felt like for me. I was convinced the Eagles wouldn’t convert on it. But I also knew of Sherman’s annoying tendency to play prevent defense. Mcnabb got adequate protection on the play and the rest is history.

I don’t think there was a single Packer fan who thought the result was in any doubt after that play. And since that day, 4’th and 26 has been a very dark place for all Packer fans. To a lot of us it is a recurring nightmare every time the opposition throws one deep. PREVENT DEFENSE is about as bad a noun in Wisconsin since that play. It is a play, the reaction to which led to one of the worst drafts in Packer history (Ahmad Carroll plus BJ Sander anyone?).

I for one didn’t think the memory could ever be undone. Playoffs and Superbowls may come and go but the throw and catch lies firmly imprinted in most Packer memories. Until Thursday…..

Mike Mccarthy’s gutsy fourth and 26 fake field goal call and the excellent execution by all involved (including the replacement refs) made up for eight scarred years. While it may have been fitting to have pulled this off against the Eagles, the Bears are a worthy opponent for such revenge. For years, Lovie Smith’s offensively challenged cast of Bears have used special teams prowess to beat the Packers. The highlight was this unforgettable special teams’ call last year. Even though it was nullified it showed the kind of voodoo the Bears constantly attempted and pulled off against the Packers.

To pull off what they did yesterday against the Bears at the moment did was amazing. To me it was 1 part revenge, 1 part vindication, 1 part pleasant-surprise and 1 part pride. And 26 alphabets are not enough to express how happy I am that Fourth and 26 will no longer be an F-phrase in Packer parlance.

Go Pack, Go