Who asked the USA to be the morals police

Daimler agrees to pay $185m after admitting to bribery charges. These charges were made by the US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission on the strength of an investigation into the company’s global sales practices.

The question that needs answering is why the US would charge a German company for bribery they committed in foreign countries i.e. not in the USA. Is this the American way of bringing in money to fund it’s various financial bail-out activities or job creation programmes one wonders.

The crimes were committed by Daimler’s German-based exports subsidiary Export and Trade Finance and the Russian business Mercedes-Benz in Russia. So how does the USA fit into this picture?

Is this now the moral police or is it a money making racket by the US government agencies.

Now there is no doubt that Daimler paid out bribes. Daimler has no problem with admitting to this. They also state that they are cleaning up their house and a fair number of people have been fired.

So the issue is not whether Daimler paid a bribe or not. It’s accepted that they did and on many occasions. The issue centres around why the USA should think they are the world wide morals police and how they come to be charging this company operating in another country.  Surely the German government should have brought this action?

But talking about bribery and corruption, the USA is not exactly the country of virtue and lily white hands. Alone the lobbying industry so popular in Washington smacks of bribery and corruption. But if one gives it a name and places it in broad daylight for all to see then suddenly it isn’t bribery anymore. Is bribery only bad if it’s done underhand?

However, going back to the issue of jurisdiction because this is what it’s about after all, does this process recently completed in the USA mean that anybody bribing somebody in the rest of the world can be charged in the USA?

Your company is registered and headquartered in Vietnam for instance where bribery and corruption is part of doing business. It’s an overhead. Don’t open a business if you are not going to pay bribes.

Suddenly you get fined by the US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission. You’ve been caught paying bribes. Well yes, it’s the only way to do business in Vietnam. Can’t exist without it. Even non-profits have to play the bribery game.

But the US Justice Department calls it a crime and you get fined. Is anybody safe from the long arm of this particular law enforcement agency?

Daimler’s case is not an isolated incident.  German industrial group Siemens paid $800m in 2008 to settle a US investigation into bribes paid by the company to government officials in Argentina, Bangladesh, Iraq and Venezuela.

That’s almost $1bn.. Will come in handy when trying to balance the budget in the US one supposes.

A few years of this kind of moral policing and collection of revenue could end up being quite lucrative to the US government. Might allow them to pay for all the bail-outs that have to be made to thieving, lying and law-bending US based banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions.

How long does it take for us to get corrupt

Quite a question to push out a few weeks before Xmas where it’s all about rewarding good behaviour! However, it’s a question that came up yesterday at an International Volunteers Day celebration in Hanoi.

A new volunteer, that is new to Vietnam, had just experienced her first two weeks at work in a fairly remote Northern Province city. It’s a new VSO partner so virgin territory so to speak.

She had had a busy two weeks being taken around and shown off as The Volunteer. Happens all the time in Vietnam. Volunteers are considered a sign of respectability. You got one of those? Good, you’re in.

During her recounting of her work she mentioned that she had brought more books than clothes and the University she is attached to grabbed them to copy them. She sort of wondered whether that might be legal or not. She’s from a European country.

The Canadian volunteer and myself, her audience, fell about laughing. What a question to have from a European person. Copyright infringement should surely be something everybody in the developed world knows about. Or so one would imagine.

What it did do though, this outrageous statement, make us reflect on how quickly we as volunteers could get corrupt ourselves – not that we necessarily consider the new volunteer corrupt I hasten to add. There was an exercise we did during our pre-placement training which made us reflect on when our moral barometer would kick in.

At what stage did we think the particular example of corruption was now wrong and what corrupt and illegal activity did we feel we wanted to allow because it would lead to doing some good.

At what stage would we consider the end would justify the means was the question we reflected upon. At the time we all had very strong ideas of right and wrong and where we would draw the line. Yet here was a volunteer two weeks into her placement and she was already breaking an international law.

But then you (and I) would be inclined to defend her action by saying that everybody copies books, music, designs and other easy to copy intellectual property.

Well exactly.

But what’s next? Do we shrug our shoulders when we see bribery openly discussed? Or do we buy into that too?

Let me give you an example. The Centre I work at trains up young disabled people in handicraft skills and at the same time sources business to give them employment should they not find employment with their new skills.

The Director has a great vision of building a model village at a more outlying area of Hanoi and has the land in mind, and in fact is renting it already, that would serve this purpose beautifully. Negotiations are quite far along to give her the land for the Centre, an NGO,. for an extensive lease period at little or no cost.

What is stalling the process? A bribe so large that she just doesn’t have the money for it. And what’s more, we have an interested donor to pay for the buildings.  What do you do? Do you find a donor to pay for the bribe?

Do you invent a project so that you can get the money to pay the bribe? Do you even know if this is the last bribe or are there more to come?

And what makes this situation any different to many others worldwide? It’s just the bribe that looks different surely. In the USA you might need that amount of money to pay for a lobbyist.  Actually probably a lot more!

In South Africa a decent sized motor vehicle usually does the trick. In fact talking moral issues here. here’s another one for you. Should BMW allow it’s cars to be bought for bribery purposes? Good question isn’t it?

So where do you think you would draw the line? And at what stage, and with what humanitarian outcome at stake, would you bow to the dirty tricks the world constantly dishes up to us? Got you scratching your head, I would imagine.

When does genius become acceptable

We come across the concept of tipping point mostly in popular culture, business or in trends. At which point does a smart phone move from being a gadget for the elite to an everyman’s have to have tool. Or an iPod becomes common.

Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava

When does that happen?

The thought crossed my mind when I came across an amazing architect called Santiago Calatrava. Or at least I found pictures of some of his building designs. They are breathtakingly different and beautiful and unbelievably courageous.

At what stage did another human decide that this so obviously different architectural style was safe enough to invest in. Because that is the question isn’t. When was the tipping point.

Because at some stage, once a few of us ordinary mortals have realised what magnificent work this is, then the reputation is made. He can design anything really and it will be approved.

How many beautiful buildings did he need to have designed and built before people thought of him as first choice. For instance the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Did somebody on the committee say, yes we have to have this architect?

As human beings we have the propensity to play it safe.We tend not to take risks and most of us have most ordinary tastes and opinions. We do safe and bland very well.

Just look at the houses we live in. The one is the same as the next. There are whole roads of same. We have the same kind of furniture, the same colours dictated by some fashion guru and we buy the same accessories.

In fact at one stage you could see which decade people got married by the furniture and colour schemes in their homes. Only reason that is no longer true is that marriages don’t last anymore.

This is us. No denying it. So how does an extraordinary designer get away designing and building these wonderful bridges, stadiums, buildings when we the public are so uninspiringly ordinary?

But there’s more! We ordinary folk can’t actually imagine the finished product if we see a sketch or architectural plans. It’s one of the biggest headaches architects have. Their clients cannot imagine what the completed building is going to look like.

And remember that buildings are not cheap. Bridges, especially the type this genius has designed, require extra special expertise and workmanship to make them happen. No ordinary concrete blocks, these designs.

Can you imagine what it must have taken to sell his first designs. According to Wikipedia it took ten years of his practice until he was allowed to build his first special project in Barcelona. He added the qualification of civil engineering to his portfolio of skills and his bridges are magnificent.

All I can say is thank goodness there was at least one if not a few brave people who had the capital resources available to them to be able to be the first to use this wonderful designer’s work and deliver a stamp of approval. It would have been a great loss if that had never happened.

Why is the war in Iraq still going on

There are some unbelievably heart wrenching photographs on the internet showing the grief of people at the loss of a loved one during the Iraq war. It makes me cry even though I do not have anybody even remotely related to me who has been killed in this war.

memorial-day-2007This picture of a girl lying on her loved ones grave is particularly sad. I can really feel for the young girl and her loss.

What gets to me is the senselessness of the whole operation. I can kind of understand if young men and women in the armed forces are killed while protecting their fatherland. I get it that that’s what the army of a country is for. And I’m sure the men and women who have signed up to serve understand the deal.

What makes me ache is the fact that the war in Iraq is not waged to save the USA and the UK from immediate attack. The citizens of the USA and the UK are not at risk and their lives are not at stake. There is absolutely no threat from this country in the Middle East. There never was. There certainly isn’t now.

Yet a total of 4 300 US men and women have had to die for this senseless mission. Officially the number of wounded is at 31 285, but estimates place this figure closer to 100 000. Many of these wounded people are now severely disabled and will not be able to live their lives as they did before being sent away on a totally senseless mission.

What is even more incomprehensible is that the American people and to a lesser extent the British people are not rioting about this. Where are the protests, where is the pressure on Obama to stop this senseless war. And It’s not as if he didn’t make an election promise to do something about did.

I didn’t see his election promise say that he would withdraw troops from Iraq to send to Afghanistan? I though he said he would be out of Iraq and bring his men and women back home. There is another senseless war playing out in Afghanistan. What are they doing there?

Let’s not forget the civilian deaths that these senseless wars are causing. That lovely ‘coleteral damage’ story.  Iraqi deaths due to US Invasion is estimated to be 1.3 million in May 2009.

Does this super religious christian country called the USA have no conscience about this? Killing over a million people for what? If this carries on it’s going to be another holocaust. Yet there isn’t sufficient noise being made to stop this bloodbath. Has the holocaust not taught us anything. What about the genocide in Rwanda.

Just because Iraq is not about Jews or it’s not about people killing their neighbour it isn’t important? Iraq is about super power nations getting together and unauthorised and against the United Nations vote, invading a foreign country for no reason.

There was NO REASON to invade Iraq. And of course some people are going to point out that at the time President Bush and PM Blair believed that there weapons of mass destructions in Iraq. But within a few months it was understood that there were none to be found.

So what are the armed forces still doing in Iraq? Six years after they discovered there were no weapons of mass destruction. Why is there no major uprising by the people of the world to stop this senseless war? Why is the USA allowed to continue with the terrible killings?

Sure we are now told that  they are being kept in Iraq as peace keeping forces.  Some peace. Suicide bombers killed 60 people near a holy Shiite shrine in Baghdad and a further seven dead in Diyala in one day in April 2009.  In fact that month 355 Iraqis were killed.  Can you imagine the outcry if 355 American civilians were killed in the USA or in the UK.

But Iraq? Who cares? And we wonder why the Middle East is the breading ground for terrorists against the West. Is nobody in politics making the connection here? Obviously not, otherwise the troops would have been pulled out by now.

Greed drives the financial markets

Greed makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round! It can also kill the world. An interesting article in the Independent, which should be compulsory reading,  written by a person who worked on Wall Street makes for an eye-opener of a read.

This quote from the article is what made me nod my head. It rings true.We have seen it happening right now in the financial markets.

“It’s not that people in the City or on Wall Street are necessarily bad people, it’s just that they, like almost anyone, will do anything to keep their million or ten million dollar paycheck. They’ll creatively interpret data, they’ll understate risks, they’ll put the best spin on things. Some will lie, cheat, and steal. But most of them, like most of us, will simply resist looking at the world from any perspective other than their own. And if we are intelligent, we will keep a careful watch on them – both now and into the distant future.”

If one reads the article closely one becomes aware of the fact that the financial markets were driven by greed rather than by good business practices. Derivatives were started to give farming, manufacturing etc access to capital during seasonal off times, amongst other reasons.

Now derivatives are there for financial market players to make huge monies from. The financial market place now drives the process rather than the players who need the money.

But then what do I know about this aspect of the market. All that is apparent is that extraordinary, beyond belief and reason, salaries and bonuses are paid to a few people.

They might have received slightly less at the end of 2008 but the rate is picking up again. Check any of the major US financial institutions first quarter 2009 balance sheets and you will find huge allocations of money under provision for staff payments.

Huge. Again. Right now. While the rest of the ordinary people lose their jobs and their homes these greedy individuals are again enriching themselves at the expense of you and I. And yes, it’s me as well living in the UK. It’s global.

No words.

Interesting site has just popped up. One that Goldman Sachs is furiously trying to shut down. One wonders why. If one has nothing to hide…. www.goldmansachs666.com. Trying to expose the greed?

How to forget a loss of $1 billion – easy if you are Goldman Sachs

Creative accounting. That’s how it’s done. An excellent article in Huffington Post, which should be compulsory reading by all citizens of the Western World, spells out how the likes of Goldman Sachs do it.

Out of the several exposés provided I’m just going to shine a bit of light on the first one that Arianna Huffington talks about. This one is Goldman Sachs. This company, which switched to a bank in September of 2008, posted a fabulous profit for the first quarter of 2009.

I use the word fabulous in its true sense of the word. Made from fables. The profit was $1.8 billion for the period of January to March 2009. Goldman Sachs ‘forgot’ to mention in the first 12 pages of their report that it had lost $1 billion in December 2008. In one month.

But now in this creative accounting patch, it was posting a nice little profit. So why, one would imagine would they need to pursue this bit of accounting fable?

To pay executive bonuses of course. What stupid questions we ask. They have shown this fake profit in order to raise money so that they can pay back the US government bail-out money, called TARP. That money comes with strings attached the main string being reduced pay packages for the ruling folk.

If Goldman Sachs were serious about raising money to pay off debt they would cover the money borrowed from Warren Buffett first. The reason being that Buffett managed to squeeze them for much higher interest than the government did. With other words Buffett’s money is much more expensive.

So if one were serious about ones business the first debt to pay off would be the one costing the most. But then that would mean one would still need to curtail executive bonuses as TARP dictates.

What to do. Easy. Pay off TARP first to get out from under that pay restriction. In any case, if things go awry the taxpayer will bail out again, won’t he. Phew. Nasty system this capitalism. Always thought that was money and opportunity for everybody, not just money and opportunity for a very few.

Wrong again.

Social media may put back political power into the hands of the people

The Twitter Revolution which played out in Moldova recently is an indication of things to come. It’s an example of how the power of social media may be used to influence the thinking of people.

There have been fun get-togethers before where social media was used to create awareness of an event and invite participation. These are called Flash Mobs and their success depends on a whole bunch of people meeting at a pre-set spot to do some mostly harmless activity together.

Activities could be just standing in a group, or dancing while listening on earphones or riding bicycles in a pattern. And after a pre-set time of activity the group disperses again or gets together for a more relaxed party usually involving liquid refreshment!

In some instances Flash Mob activities have frightened the authorities and participants often participating in totally harmless and fun activities have been detained and charged with some kind of public nuisance crime.

This time a crowd of people using communications tools such as mobile phones and the internet’s social media facility got together to demonstrate for greater accountability by its government as well as freer elections.

That is what the majority of the young people thought they were doing. However, it seems that there was a very sophisticated small group of people who had other thoughts. What was supposed to have been a peaceful gathering ended up in riots and the ransacking of buildings.

Now one can speculate that this small group of instigators might have arranged the entire Twitter Revolution.  This is something only the secret service, and it seems it could be Russian in origin, will know for sure.

One thing is sure though young people would not have felt compelled to participate if there was not discontent with the political system in the first place.

Having said that, as with all things internet, users must be aware of the constant hovering in the wings of trolls and nasties who relish in the thought of causing real chaos.

Taking some positives out of this scenario one can take hope that the speed and spread that one can now communicate with using social media tools will allow people to take some political power back into their own hands. Politicians beware!

Anger at world leaders

A great selection of photographs reflecting the clashes between protesters and policemen recently in London during the G20 summit are worth viewing here.

In a way most of the images show a slant towards a sympathy vote for the demonstrators. There are more shots of police angrily beating into the crowds, than of the hurling of objects and other antisocial behaviour by participants. Or that’s how I saw them.

Irrespective of the slant, it still makes me wonder at the demonstrations and the anger shown on a lot of the faces of the protesters.

In recent years these kinds of summits whether at Davos, in Italy, London or this week-end in Strassbourg where the powerful leaders of big countries meet to discuss the futures of the citizens of the world have brought with them strong waves of demonstrations.

There seems to be a feeling of helplessness in the world.  That is amongst the ordinary folk. These are the people who work hard, bring up children, send them to college to ensure a bright future for them and save for a retirement.

Yet somehow these very hard working people are at the mercy of the powerful financial institutions. Not only that, they are expected to bail these financial institutions out of the mess they have slid in due to some shady practices brought on by greed.

Sure the financial institutions are at the beck and call of their more powerful shareholders who are also standing with their hands out for large pay-outs.  It’s a vicious circle. One thing is for sure though, the ordinary people, the ones demonstrating are not the recipients of large dividend cheques.

But what can one do as an ordinary citizen? It’s pointless even participating in the political sphere as it is seldom that an honest politician will be able to make a difference against the other lying and cheating folk.  If in fact he or she survives any length of time.

Voting for politicians doesn’t provide much recourse either. Most politicians are in it for themselves and the power kick they can get rather than actually delivering for their constituents. And sure, there are some honest ones. But the majority at the top are the ones that dictate policy and they do not seem to worry too much about the common people.

Yet demonstrating doesn’t seem to make much difference either. Even the huge demonstrations against the war in Iraq held by UK citizens made no difference. The idiots at the top still decided to go for it. And one can see the results. Fail would be a good word to describe that little exercise in futility.

What else could one do to change the world to be more equitable to all its citizens? Difficult question to answer. I certainly can’t.

Maybe the internet will provide a greater platform for people to get together and voice their anger and disenchantment at the way the world leaders are running the show. It is after all the one town hall area everybody with access can meet.

Fun toys or maybe the next big technology thing

Watching what my younger daughter gets up to in geekland is always interesting. She is one of the early adopters of digital technology. Thanks to her I have been a Twitter member since January 2007, months after she had joined of course, and had a page on Facebook before most other Old Timers. An iPhone made its way into our UK house within three months of the US launch.

But even with this track record I was somewhat taken aback when she announced that she had signed up for a week-end course in electronics. Huh? Circuit boards and soldering irons? Yes, she was going to use her Flash AS skills to talk to circuit boards and make them do stuff together.

This particular course was run by two bright people. One, Dr Brock Craft, working at the London Knowledge Lab where the course was also being held, has a fascinating background. His focus is on Information Visualisation and physical computing. Read more about his latest fun stuff he ‘plays’ around with on his blog.

The other co-presenting bright spark was Alias Cummins, a Flash Developer par excellence. The course covered the beginnings of working with Arduino using Flash. The ultimate goal was to get to a spot where the students could get Flash to talk to an integrated circuit using Arduino. The primary development language would be ActionScript 3.

Daughter came back quite inspired and demonstrated how she could light up little bulbs on her circuit board using her Mac and Flash and how to manipulate images on the computer screen with a light sensitive bulb and lever attached to the board. Now I am waiting with bated breath what new stuff will come out of that.

The other somewhat ‘unusual’ project she has been amusing herself with is as collaborator in a friend’s MA Communication Design degree project. It involves an interesting foray into a different perspective on user interface design. It further makes use of Flash programming with a view to making the software work on a multi-touch table.

The three whiz-kids converted our lounge/diningroom into a studio recently, with umpteen computers, a data projector, Wii remote perched on funky legs and other gadgets scattered randomly around. It’s a truly international collaboration with Johannes the multi-touch table developer coming from Germany, Mel the MA student from Austria and Niqui from South Africa. If this is what makes young adults happy, then the world is in a good space.

It was fascinating to watch the first experiments. With a gadget like pen, a Mac, the Wii controller and data projector they were able to manipulate the circle images which were projected onto the wall. With other words they were twirling the circles on the wall with the pen gadget. As an aside, it was quite surprising that all three of them were on Mac. Wouldn’t have seen that a few years ago.

As with the week-end course on electronics, this particular project was fun to watch taking shape but didn’t really register on my mental screen as being anything else except a typical academic theory project. After all touchscreen technology has been lurking in the wings for years never truly coming into its own. Even Microsoft is playing around with tables.

That was until I spotted this video. For once a Digg friend actually sent me to something worthwhile. Light bulbs went off. I could have been Britney Spears stepping out of a taxi with the Paparazzi attention she normally gets, that’s how many lights went off.

The video is of a TED talk by researcher Johnny Lee who put together an interactive whiteboard with about $50 worth of gadgets, a computer and projector saving about $3000 in equipment costs. It was exactly what had happened in my lounge a few weeks ago.

Even as techno-illiterate as I am, I could see the possibilities a bit more clearly. After all I should have more faith in my daughter. What she finds fascinating could be the next big thing. So if anybody feels inspired and wants to send her some Shekles so she can have fun doing more research stuff rather than slogging away at Flash Development, feel free!

We reward bad behaviour

Listening to the UK’s Classic FM today, a dramatic and thundering rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto by the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan and pianist Yevgeny Kissin gave me goose bumps. It also reminded me of a recent article on von Karajan in the newspaper. Celebrations of von Karajan’s 100th birth year anniversary are about to get underway.

As a kid I grew up in a classical household. This meant that only classical music was allowed. My mother dictated to the rest of the family what could be considered good music and what was rubbish. And at the pinnacle, the absolute Mt Everest of good music taste, was any recording with von Karajan as conductor.

Due to this fairly obsessive support of a conductor, never mind the extensive vinyl collection of his work at my home, I ended up taking some note of this musician. It wasn’t difficult as Von Karajan was probably one of the earliest exponents of celebrity culture in modern times and an expert player in the art.

I have to add the disclaimer of the modern times. There were many people who really knew how to milk the celebrity way of life well before the Beckham’s, Paris Hilton’s, Lady Di’s et al graced the covers of the popular print media and now of course the pages of the internet as well.

The newspaper article mentions a YouTube video taken of a final rehearsal before a studio recording. It’s totally staged and for the benefit of future purchasers of the music who ‘need to know in order to buy’ what unbelievable care was taken during the rehearsals.

Besides the posturing during this made for film rehearsal, I seem to remember a fair number of minor scandals about women, women musicians at the Berlin Philharmonic, autocratic treatment of musicians and such like that regularly popped up in the media.

In fact one particularly nasty bit of personal history is his membership of the Nazi club which he acquired in 1933 already, and just in case the powers to be didn’t have a record of that, he joined again in 1935. This was certainly during a period in Germany where this was entirely voluntary and well before the strong arm tactics by the SS was a huge incentive to take up immediate allegiance.

He also, it seems, managed to sideline other competing conductors to leave the playing field open to himself alone. And he wrangled huge performance fees which meant that he managed to leave a huge tax sheltered estate of £200 million at the time of his death in 1989, which is an enormous sum for a conductor.

Reading through the more honest and frank articles on Herbert von Karajan in the media, online or otherwise, and adding to what I remember of him, one gets the feeling that this was a fairly obnoxious and selfish character.

The spin-doctors of the music industry are promoting his centernary and with that his recordings in the hope of making money on sales of CD’s and Box Compilations. One would imagine that not that much of von Karajan is available for illegal download, so this could be a lucrative venture on behalf of the music industry.

But then what is the point you might think of all of the above hot air. After all, whether the man was a nasty bit of works or not, he was a great artist. But that is exactly the question I ask. Should one reward nastiness or at the least pretend it doesn’t matter.

Can one divorce the man from the work. Or with other words, can one still buy that fabulous pair of shoes even if they have been made in a sweat shop in China. Is that example too extreme? The question is surely whether unethical behaviour should be rewarded and not to what degree the behaviour is unethical.

Are you a good murderer if you have only killed one person, or do you need to have killed five to be considered a nasty. You still ride to hunt a fox even though you don’t kill it anymore. But you certainly scare it half to death, with other words a kind of animal torture.

We have become so immune to moral issues that we might not even blink anymore at the news that von Karajan was a card carrying Nazi – twice over. Amy Whitehouse receives five Grammy awards in 2008 even though, according to media reports, she is a drug addict who drinks alcohol and snorts coke during her public performances, never mind what else she gets up to in private or not so private.

Looking at the kind of bad behaviour that regularly gets rewarded, and often with huge sums of money and acclaim, should we be surprised that some of our young people are swearing in public, wielding knives and guns and killing people who have the courage to object to their awful actions.