THE US 2012 PRESIDENTIAL RACE AND SWEEPSTAKES

I couldn’t help but notice that the upcoming US Presidential elections take place on Tuesday November 6th, 2012 and that this date coincides with the running of the Melbourne Cup in Australia, one of the great thoroughbred horse races of the world, and coincidently won by a horse called “Americain” when last run on Tuesday November 2nd, 2010.

Americain (front), 2010 Melbourne Cup winner; Author: Flamelai (own work); via Wikimedia Commons



The fact that these 2 great sporting events will happen on the same day is too much of a coincidence to leave untouched, hence my need to compare “the race that stops a nation” in Melbourne with “the race that bores half a nation” in the US, as only 56.8% of those eligible turned out to vote in the US Presidential race in 2008.Both are wonderful events on the racing calendar, although the standard of dress is significantly better at the Melbourne Cup in Australia than it is for Election Day in the US.

Woman's hat at Melbourne Cup; Synyan (own work); via Wikimedia Commons


The other obvious major difference is that despite the extremely competitive nature of both events, the lead up to the Melbourne Cup focuses heavily on the strengths of the contenders and the only mud-slinging comes from that kicked up by galloping hooves on the day, whilst the US Election Daybuild up seems to focus totally on the negative elements of the candidates and the mud-slinging comes from every quarter without respite, and without the need to stay within the bounds of truth or reality.The form guides for the Melbourne Cup cover known characteristics of each contender such as the weight they will carry, blood-lines, results of their previous starts, the name of the rider, the colours they will wear and how they have performed in varying track conditions. This gives the punters some understanding of where they should place their trust, confidence and money.

The equivalent information on the candidates in the race for the US Presidency seems to focus on their foibles, weaknesses, supposed indiscretions, scholastic misdemeanours, possible or implied sexual peccadillos, questionable births, inability to spell and embarrassing knowledge of any geography outside the US.

This means that the focus of punters at the Melbourne Cup is to look for the competitor that they believe has the greatest strengths to be able to perform well on their behalf, and which has the best chance of delivering benefit to those that believe in and back him.

Voters in the American Presidential Election on the other hand seem to be expected to weigh up all the weaknesses that have been put on show by the competitive and warring parties, and then decide which of the alternatives will be capable of causing the least damage to the lives of the US citizens and the economy.

We have recently seen President Obama being forced to defocus on his day job of running the US to appear with his birth certificate on the Oprah Winfrey Show, to put paid to speculation about his place of birth. Now we see questions being raised about his Occidental College records, Columbia College records, Columbia Thesis papers, Harvard College records, Selective Service Registration, Medical records, Law practice client list and even his record of baptism. Voters are now meant to believe that these are all significantly more important issues than the quality of the job that he is currently doing and whether he is the right person for the punters to put their money on … whoops … of course I meant to say for the voters to put their trust in, to be able to take the US over the hurdles that face it.

This is also meant to take our minds off the fact that the Republicans haven’t yet been able to come up with a solid thoroughbred of their own to enter this race. Even if you could combine the bloodlines of Palin, Romney, and Bachmann you would still end up with a hack rather than a short-odds favourite with the bookies and most of the punters.

Sarah Palin at a campaign rally in Raleigh; Author: Therealbs2002 (own work); via Wikimedia Commons


Sarah Palinis a reasonable looking filly, and is a skilled hunter and show pony, but is easily distracted and needs a team of handlers to regularly muck out her stall.Mitt Romney is well schooled (Harvard Law and Business Schools), but ran outside his weight class in 1994 losing to top weight Ted Kennedy in the Massachusetts Senate race in 1994, and again in the Presidential race in 2008, losing the nomination to John McCain in the Republican sweepstakes. His poor showings outside state trials will not endear him to punters looking for a solid starter at the Nationals, and he is therefore an unlikely starter.

US Congress image (public domain); via Wikimedia Commons


Michelle Bachmannis another filly that has the ability to attract big money but has shown that she does not have the horse-sense needed, and that she is more of a thoroughdumb than a thoroughbred, for example once highlighting the fact that swine flu broke out under a Democratic President (Jimmy Carter) and had never happened under a Republican President.There is also a large stallion neighing loudly in the Republican stables that after much stomping has decided that he will not run in 2012, in the same way that he skittered a bit in 2008. Donald Trump is a Palomino, though there is some question as to his true colours because of the heavy plaiting to his mane. He has put himself out to stud three times, but is considered more of a circus horse than a serious galloper, even though his purses have been massive throughout his development.

Author: Boss Tweed; via Wikimedia Commons


Obama may have been a dark horse in 2008, but at least in 2012 will be a known starter, and whether we like him or not he has shown that he can come from behind to take a major race, attracting a large number of small backers rather than a small number of high rollers.It will be a toss-up for me as to which one I watch with more interest on the day. The Melbourne Cup takes between 3-4 minutes to run and generally has little lasting impact on the punters beyond the immediate cash collections for a few. The US Presidential Election takes a bit longer to decide but has a lasting impact on the entire world for at least 4 years.

I do however feel that this particular US Presidential race could learn a lot about honesty, morality, honour and grace from the Melbourne horse race with which it will share a date.

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VIVE LE FRENCH CUISINE

I am starting to believe strongly that the days when France could lay claim to the greatest cuisine in the world may have passed away. I am sure that it was mostly true 30 years ago when we first started coming to France but sadly things seem to have changed. I accept that the French Michelin star restaurants are still amongst the best in the world, but even there France is slipping, as in 2010 Paris with 64 Michelin stars in total actually had fewer than Tokyo (266), Kyoto (243) and Hong Kong (69).

By: Trou; via Wikimedia Commons



Our first trip together to Europe from Australia in 1981 started in London, and I have to say that the food generally was absolutely appalling, whether it was in an expensive restaurant, a pub or an ethnic eatery. We were there for a week and did not have a single memorable meal.
We flew over to Paris, picked up a rental car at Charles De Gaulle airport and headed for Brittany where we had rented a Gite for 2 weeks in the small village of Landudec, not far from the delightful Breton town of Quimper. We stopped for fuel at a service station on a main road heading west, and hunger drove us into the café attached. The food was wonderful. Fresh baguette with homemade preserves, yoghurts, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, spectacular cheeses served with good wine, the sort of fresh, uncomplicated food that it was obvious the British had never heard of.

The food that we found in our two weeks in Brittany was so good that we still talk about it today 30 years later. Fresh caught langoustines served with aioli, fresh bread and a crisp white wine were considered a standard lunch and the abundant lobster and seafood of all descriptions were fresh, never overcooked, plentiful and inexpensive. The odds worked in our favour wherever we went, even when back in Paris on the way home. If you found a restaurant that was full of locals, particularly workers or families, the chances were that the food would be excellent, and the menu of the day cheap and interesting.

Unfortunately things have changed.

We now live permanently in France and while you can still get good food at reasonable prices, (see Vive le French Cheap and Cheerful posted on September 9, 2010) you really have to know where to go, as the odds are stacked against you. Many eateries (I hesitate to use the word restaurants) don’t employ a chef and don’t even bother any more with actually doing any cooking, preferring instead to buy pre-prepared food from supermarkets like Carrefour and just warming it up with indiscriminate micro-waving.
The sad thing is that it appears that the French really don’t seem to care, young people being happy to grab a McDonalds on the run, and the French generally turning away from the culinary habits that made them the envy of foodies around the world.
Even the culture of home-cooking has suffered, as has how the French treat their time “a table” which has dropped from about 90 minutes per meal 25 years ago to about 40 minutes today. Unfortunate too is the fact that the French have actually embraced McDonalds with a fervour rarely seen anywhere else in the world, and once reserved only for French delicacies such as foiegras, boudin noir and escargot.

The news gets worse.

From about 200,000 cafes nationally in the early 1960s, today that number is closer to 40,000, and dropping annually, many blaming this on the cost of over-unionised, expensive staff and mind numbing, micromanaging bureaucracy as much as on the diminishing patronage from locals. The number of Brasseries and Bistros are declining in the same way. The French wine industry is struggling as locals drink less, and the French Village markets are dwindling as the French, like the Americans, now buy most of their food in Supermarkets (75% in 2010).

Bistro 1900, Paris, France; By Croquant (own work); via Wikimedia Commons



The amazing thing is that England is now a better bet for good food, and I believe that you have a significantly better chance of spontaneously stumbling across a memorable meal in London today than you do in Paris.The English seem to have been discovering the joys of the culinary world with passion and imagination, as quickly as the French are losing them. Cooking shows on TV in England have the highest of viewing audiences and cooking schools like Leiths in London have no problems filling their classes mainly with locals, whereas most of the attendees at French cooking schools are foreigners. Ethnic restaurants in London serve authentic dishes rather than bastardising them for local tastes, as for example do Indian restaurants in Paris, which add so much cream to, and remove so much spice from their dishes, as to make them unrecognisable. English Pubs serve interesting and well-cooked food with a decent selection of wine, and there is a strong re-emergence of “Cuisine Anglaise”, driven by restaurants such as St. Johns in Smithfield and Hereford Road in Notting Hill in London.

Roast bone marrow as served at Fergus Henderson's St John restaurant, London; Author: Simon Doggett; via Wikimedia Commons



The Borough Market in Southwark Street has the sort of produce, meats, food, restaurants and cafes that the declining numbers of French market goers can only dream about, and the growing number of farm shops and farmers’ markets around the English countryside (such as Daylesford) are a delight to visit.

Borough Market taken by C Ford (GFDL); via Wikimedia Commons



The world is being turned on its head when it comes to the love of good food, and the old joke of Hell having English chefs is starting to sound decidedly heavenly.

INNOVATION AND BRAINSTORMING SESSIONS

I doubt that in my 45 years of work I have ever been involved in a structured company brainstorming session that came up with some truly creative and innovative ideas that were actually successfully implemented or produced any discernible positive results for the company.

I accept the maxims that “None of us is as smart as all of us” and “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, but I believe that team brainstorming sessions are in the main a waste of time, energy and effort and do little for building teamwork nor driving innovation or creativity.

By Agripolare (own work); via Wikimedia Commons



We have become so obsessed with the whole concept of teamwork that while it rightly sits in every organisation’s value statement, it seems to have reached a point that there is a belief that if it is such a critical element of business success then it must be used in everything that we do.

There is no question in my mind that teamwork is a critical element for say sporting teams, and that it plays a major role in some elements of business need, such as putting together a team to fight and win a major competitive bid, or design and build a new product line, where bringing in different and complementary skills are critical for a successful outcome. It is also critical to build a co-operative company culture rather than one based on conflict.

I do not however believe that putting a group together in a formal brainstorming session achieves anything important beyond using up some time (usually at a management meeting) that the organiser is not sure how to fill effectively.

By Agripolare (own work); via Wikimedia Commons



One company I worked for had two meetings a year of the Senior Executive Team (SET) which consisted of the 12 member executive board plus about 30 of the next most senior executives in the company who would meet for two days to talk about the meaning of business life and other noble topics. They always included an afternoon of brainstorming/workshop sessions on topics selected by the CEO, and the goal was to have specific recommendations come back to him and the board in the form of presentations from each of the workshop groups. These Powerpoint presentations were duly collected with all due respect, but in my entire time on the board, never once did we ever discuss, review or implement any of them, so one has to ask the obvious question of “Why were they done at all ?”.

I believe that one of the main reasons is that in a hierarchical, structured company this is one way, albeit false, to make people believe that they have the ability to input into company direction.
These brainstorming (or workshop) sessions are meant to show that those at the top have an interest in the opinion of those below them. This is in the main false when it comes to such workshop output, as it is rarely new, different or innovative. It would have beeen unusual for example for the CEO to come up with any topics for discussion where direction hadn’t already been decided beforehand, which was something that the whole SET actually understood anyway, so most treated these sessions just as a welcome break from the powerpoint “tell” sessions that made up most of the meeting.

Author: Anthony Dubois; Source: Site du SCI; via Wikimedia Commons



I feel that the main reason that these brainstorming sessions are a waste of time is that innovation and creativity have to be part of a company’s DNA, so that it is an on-going, continuous process and not something that is driven by the occasional formal session. (See Innovation posted October 4, 2010). There is a belief amongst many in management roles that groups of people working together will come up with better ideas than one person working on his own, or a work team going about its normal tasks. Studies have shown that this is not necessarily true. A 2010 article in The Journal of Creative Behavior reports that “Groups of individuals generating ideas in isolation (nominal groups) generated more ideas and more original ideas and were more likely to select original ideas during the group decision phase than interactive group brainstormers.”

If you create an environment that encourages people to think and experiment I believe that they will do so. If you don’t, then no matter how many brainstorming sessions you have, if the culture is not supportive of creativity, it will not work.

The other belief is that in brainstorming sessions, the best ideas will float to the top as the work-group recognises these gems and then supports and builds on these in the brainstorming process. I have found that this also is not true. The ideas that come out of most brainstorming sessions are generally those that are advocated by the most vociferous and assertive of the group, rather than necessarily the smartest nor the most creative. The talkative, loud and dominating will always tend to override the quieter and less pushy ones in workgroups.

You can have as many brainstorming sessions as you wish, but I believe that they will never have as much impact on innovation and creative thought as building a culture that encourages people to feel safe in having new ideas and trying new approaches.

A lot has been written on “The rules for successful brainstorming” but I believe that even if these rules are followed the resulting output will still tend to be fairly ordinary. The simple fact that there are rules involved at all opposes and negates the environment needed for true creative thought.

Ultimately putting a group of people in a room and telling them to be original, imaginative and to “think outside the box” is ensuring that none of this will be possible.

MUSINGS ON A 30-YEAR WEDDING ANNIVERSARY

We are celebrating our 30 year wedding anniversary (“Pearl” I am regularly reminded) in May 2011.

Author: Arquera (Emi Yañez); via Wikimedia Commons


Whilst we both make the same joke about “getting less time for manslaughter”, it does prove that mixed marriages can work, her being from Auckland in the North island of New Zealand and my being from Christchurch in the South Island.

Living in a time when 40-50% of first marriages end in divorce (60% of second and 70% of third), I felt that I should document what I feel constitutes the critical elements of a long lasting marriage:

1. Never compromise.

Fight to the death on every issue and only give in when one of you is cornered in the kitchen by the other wielding a large knife. Compromise is the stuff of unhappiness in any relationship as no-one wins, and the secret of a long lasting marriage is to keep score on wins and losses and act accordingly to keep balance and equilibrium. No partner should be allowed to get ahead by more than 10% or the relationship will become too one-sided.

2. Move as far away as possible from immediate family particularly both sets of parents.

I have long held the belief that it is a happy person that has a large, loving, close family, all living in another town, even better if they are in another country. This enables you both to point out each other’s weaknesses without having your in-laws beat you to it.

Author: SeanMack, via Wikimedia Commons


3. You must keep the passion alive across the decades.

Ripping each other’s g-strings off and having a quickie in the hotel elevator on the honeymoon will in time need to be replaced with strategies such as “going commando” so that you can take immediate advantage of the rarer opportunities as they present themselves. Be warned that for most men just taking the blue pill every night before going to bed is not a good “just in case” strategy, although it will stop you from accidently rolling out of bed when sleeping.

4. Successful marriages are built by couples that grow together over the years, so synchronise eating habits and grow together.

Jack Sprat and his wife may have stayed together despite their diverse eating habits but few real couples achieve the same success. Remember however that no matter how much weight a partner gains, even if they double their wedding day BMI, no-one’s bum ever looks large in any pair of trousers.

5. Get a GPS installed in all the cars that you own and name them.

Author: Darrenm540 (Own work); via Wikimedia Commons


Couples fight more over driving directions than do opposing parties in a parliament and having a “third person” to blame as you drive off a bridge into a creek saves considerable angst, and standing wet on the banks of the stream as “that bitch Marsha drowns” can bring couples closer together. Resist the temptation to record your spouse’s voice on the GPS as that will just feel like the normal situation of being yet again told what to do by your partner.

6. Never pass wind before your spouse. If it’s their turn to go first just let them.

The sooner that you share bathrooms and toilets with each other, the sooner you will realise the importance of smell as the most powerful of the 6 senses. Just be aware that what is a strong but familiar floral bouquet to you is a lung crushing terrorist attack to your partner.

7. It is critical that you build a relationship based on trust.

Taking out undisclosed life insurance policies for large sums on your spouse, secretly collecting books on how to recognise poisonous mushrooms or digging a human dimension trench 2 metres deep in the garden will not help to build a trusting relationship.

8. Get dogs, as they will love you even when you are in the wrong, enabling you to keep fighting when in a position of weakness knowing that you are still loved by something in your life.

Dogs can also be trained to attack on command, particularly by the main care giver, so it is worthwhile to establish the position of provider of sustenance to the attack Jack Russells.

Author: Inekevk (own work); via Wikimedia Commons


9. Define roles early.

For example, men should establish the fact that it is just as easy (and involves the same amount of energy) for a woman to put the loo seat down when she needs to, as it is for a man to do so after he finishes, and that a man’s hand is not built to effectively manoeuvre neither an iron nor a vacuum cleaner. Women should establish the fact that scratching one’s own testicles does not constitute foreplay and that being able to burp Carl Orff’s CarminaBurana in its entirety will not make her parents like you more, no matter how often you try and even if you improve each time.

10. The major secret of a great marriage is how well you keep that major secret from each other.

Keeping secrets sustains an air of mystery in a relationship, so you should not divulge to your partner key elements of your life such as middle names, pin numbers, passwords and where the money is hidden.

The main thing to remember is to not rely on blog posts written on how to have a successful marriage, particularlyby someone demented, even if he is someone who does not regret one day of his 30 year marriage, and that one day was January 7th 1987.

PS: Please don’t pass this blog post on to my wife, as in reality she contributed, gave advice and edited the whole piece anyway, so she will not find it interesting nor illuminating. There is actually very little that we do not share, and maybe that is one of the true key secrets to a successful marriage, and the only one you should treat seriously in this whole post (apart from point 5 on getting a GPS).

LET’S RIDICULE OUR NEIGHBOURS MORE

“Every nation ridicules other nations, and we are all right.”
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Painting of Arthur Schopenhauer; via Wikimedia Commons


It’s interesting that one of the largest branches of humour is making fun of those that are physically close to us. The oldest and most obvious may well be the European definitions of Heaven and Hell:
“Heaven has English police, French cooks, Italian lovers, German engineers and Swiss organisers. Hell has English cooks, French engineers, Italian organisers, German police and Swiss lovers.”

An Armenian fresco depicting Heaven, Earth, and Hell; Author: 六龍幻天; via Wikimedia Commons


Or even the story of the Europeans stranded on a desert island where there are 2 men and one woman of Italian, French, German, Greek, English and Irish extraction.

After one month one Italian man has killed the other for the Italian woman, The 3 French are in a ménage-a-trois, the 2 German men have a strict schedule with the German woman, the Greek men are sleeping with each other and the Greek woman is cooking and cleaning for them, the English men are still waiting for an introduction to the English woman and the Irish have divided the island in two, have built a working distillery and don’t recall ever seeing an Irish woman on the island.

This humour is not just limited to other nationalities, but also extends to those within our own national borders.

In New Zealand the butt is Southland “100,000 people and only 7 surnames”.

In Australia it is Tasmania “The toothbrush was invented in Tasmania as if it had been invented anywhere else it would have been called the teethbrush.”

The Canadians have Newfie jokes, the English have Irish Jokes, Germans laugh at the Bavarians, and it all seems to be considered fairly acceptable that we laugh at each other. Doing so does not necessarily brand us as being prejudiced or as racists, as long as it pokes fun at national quirks rather than just being offensive.

We also have literally millions of religious jokes. We can laugh at Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Buddhists, Taoists and all other religious group. The only exception is Islam, which cannot be a subject of humour without resulting in death threats. In accordance with Islam, Muslims must abide by some basic rules on making jokes, such as humour being within the limits of Islamic tolerance, and not going beyond the bounds of truth. These restrictions immediately create a situation where any humour that does comply will actually be unlikely to be very funny.

Religious symbols; via Wikimedia Commons


Ruling out jokes that are specifically meant to be racist or offensive, and these are unacceptable at any time and under any circumstances, most ethnicor cross border jokes are not done out of hatred.
Germans don’t hate Bavarians and mainland Australians don’t hate Tasmanians, and the actual differences between these groups are indiscernible, even though there are some obvious quirks and differences, whether it is lederhosen in Bavaria or a static, isolated population in Tasmania, that make it easy to single out a source of humour.

Guy in traditional Lederhosen; Autor: Sanchristobal76 (own work); via Wikimedia Commons


Australians love new Zealand sheep jokes and Kiwis love Australian criminal jokes, but the two countries share close ties at all levels and any aggression towards each other tends to be reserved for sporting events.

The reason that we love to make jokes about those around us is that it enables us to establish that we belong to our own “in-group” that is sharing this humour as compared to those we are making jokes about. It helps to establish our right to belong to our specific group and strengthens our right to claim membership.

I believe that it is not necessarily a sign of prejudice nor unhealthy as, for example, I have heard more Kiwi sheep jokes from New Zealanders, more Bavarian jokes from Munchners and more Jewish jokes from Jewish friends. This ability to laugh at ourselves is important, and finding humour in our own national, religious and ethnic foibles is healthy and a sign that we are comfortable with our own identity. This ability to laugh at our own cultural quirks is actually at the heart of great European literature, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Bunels’s Vindiana, Fernando de Roja’s La Celestina to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.

I have noticed that in Western countries at least, there has been a fairly recent arrival of Muslim comedians in stand-up comedy clubs. Their humour at this stage tends towards the western view and fear of Islam, with humour around situations like airport security checks and dietary habits. American comedians like Ahmed Ahmed, Tissa Hami, Dean Obeidallah, Azhar Usman, Maysoon Zayid, and Shazia Mirza the only female Muslim comic in the UK, are challenging the stereotypes, though they are incurring some anger from their own communities.In self-preservation they tend to keep away from actual religious humour, but I am thrilled to at least see that this birth of Muslim humour has started.

As Alan Alda, American actor, director, screenwriter and author, says “When people are laughing they are generally not killing each other”.