United Consumer F*ckers: Himalaya Herbals Aryuvedic Dental Cream

When a reviewer on Amazon stated that “It Contain Fluoride, so its not 100% Natural”, I doubted for a moment. I would never consider a Tooth Paste to be “rat poison” for it to contain Fluoride, as another reviewer mentioned, but was finally convinced to buy a Himalaya product when a friend of mine had me try a sample of Himalaya’s Organique “Neem and Pomegranate Toothpaste”.

After some thought, and having brushed myself through the remaining stock of Parodontax toothpaste, I ordered the entire Toothpaste line of Himalaya. “Sparkly White” seemed nice enough, as did “Complete Care”. Not to forget the Organic Tooth Paste, the most expensive of the offering.

To set the record straight, I am no dental hygiene freak nor do I aspire having the white teeth as one of the many Youtube starlets showing the latest Yoga poses. I was however very excited to start brushing my teeth using Himalaya’s “Aryuvedic Dental Cream” as soon as my package arrived in the mail. Only after my first gentle soaping of my fragile teeth with this magical aryuvedic solution, I took the packaging and reviewed the ingredients.

Himalaya’s “Aryuvedic Dental Cream” contains, even if I am uncertain what this exactly might mean, “100% herbal actives”. Among these, I find Pomegranate advertised for its antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Neem is mentioned for its medicinal properties and Mewak is to prevent tooth decay. Nothing better than nature to help you in maintaining clean and white teeth, I reckoned. Or so it seemed, as one ingredient in the list showed the Pomegranate and Neem in the toothpaste are apparently not strong enough to keep the Herbal Tooth Paste 100% natural.

2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, also known as bronopol, is an antimicrobial substance used as a preservative in cosmetics and shampoos. Its usage is not without controversy, as it is a recognized allergen and, in certain conditions, can liberate nitrite and formaldehyde. Not an aryuvedic substance if you ask me and certainly not a “100% herbal active” ingredient.

In the end, not Fluoride but bronopol made me throw away my lot of ordered Aryuvedic Herbal Paste from Himalaya Herbals. Strange as it seems, the “Sparkly White” and “Complete Care” do not contain bronopol. Buyer Beware; Indian Made in this case does not mean Aryuvedic nor does it warrant a 100% natural product.

On Greece…

Never have I seen so much disinformation during, before and after the news. If a country is unable to repay its debt, it defaults. There is no emotion to this, it is pure finance. Greece cooked its books, falsified government financial information and went on a spending spree instead of investing in its economy. What we witness today is not “a victory for democracy”, but the rise of a new Hugo Chavez, be it this time in Europe. Don’t compare Greece to post WWI and WWII Germany and the treaty of Versaille, as there is no repayment for “destruction during the war”, nor is there any reconstruction to be done as no european bombs destroyed Greece past 50 years. The subsidies and money transfers were, unlike those received by Spain, a country that invested heavily in infrastructure and growth, used to enrich and enable a system based in corruption and clientelismo. Greece has no private banks -all of them are linked in some way or another to the government, and private investment or enterpreneurship is heavily guided. Flirting with Russia, I’m sure Tsipras has found a new friend in Vladimir. For the moment Greece exits the EU, the Council of Europe and the Euro, it no longer has to comply with the basic rules of democracy, best practices in government accounting and is no longer has its banking system monitored by the ECB, giving Tsipras and his financial supporters the freedom to govern the way they want to. For this it is strange so few media even discuss the proposal from the Eurozone in the slightest detail, as it is probably deemed “too difficult to explain”. Instead almost every media outlet finds itself lost in emotions without a real analysis, be it financial, political or geopolitical. Friends, the challenge is not keeping Greece in the Eurozone, it is keeping Greece a democracy. For it to be Europe’s fault, why were Ireland and Spain able to restructure, reform and debate without endangering the entire European Project? Probably because they never intended to leave the EU.

Chiang Mai: Happy New Year!

January 2nd, 2014, writing from Chiang Mai.

When last year in my hometown a true Thai festival -under the patronage of the Thai ambassador- was organized, I was impressed and amazed by the entrepreneurial spirit and managerial skills exhibited by the Thai women present. If not surprised at the number of Thai currently living in my city, I found myself staring at the men-happily-married-to-thai-women club, all -passively if I may say so- centrally seated together at the center of the market square. In line with the mood at the festival, a Thai Airlines representative exuberantly told me I could get “special prices if married to Thai woman”. As a subject matter expert once confided to me, Thai women are “clean, nice company, good mothers and very nice cooks.” He also told me they are “low in maintenance cost” and considered all other women “out of their mind”. The conversation ended when I asked on how and when he fell in love with his current wife.

My travels through Thailand confirm more than ever that Thai women are indeed great cooks and efficient entrepreneurs alike. If in need of a good meal at a reasonable price, never doubt to venture out on the street and sit down before a food stall, where you’re certain to observe one or more female cooks making each dish in less than two minutes. Menus here are overrated, English is practically not spoken and the best food is obtained by pointing.

Chiang Mai New Year's Eve - Fresh FoodDelicious red curries with a good portion of Fried Rice and the complimentary glass of water, it is unheard of in many Chiang Mai “authentic” restaurants. It is however genuine Thai. In Chiang Mai however I found myself for the first time in Thailand staring at a Burger King full of tourists, flyers for Pizza Hut look-a-like restaurants and stumbled on billboards advertising the next premier league match.
“Spicy…?” might be a innocent question but is in reality for every Thai an unpronounced challenge. Having a foreigner over and have him ask for something spicy, is not unheard of to a cook, but should be compared with entering an oral exam and claiming to the professor you not only know this course, but are about to engage in a scientific critique of his entire repertoire. The chef took on my challenge and as my bowl with noodles was being served, staff and the casual Thai lookup up smiling and waiting for me to take the first bite.

Tears are running from my cheeks and my nose is completely cleared as I pay and stand up in awe to admire the sky. It’s New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai and the sky is gradually filled with moving orange dots high in the air. At first I think the stars were falling down, on the earth. White rectangular lanterns are being lightened and the air in the lanterns slowly heats up. The lantern starts its journey to eternity taking with it all your worries.

It’s past 10pm when I set out to find the Phae Gate buzzing with activity. A central stage is to host a popular Thai band, while in between songs prizes are being given away. The boulevard that sets the limits of the old city is full of people eating food from the local stands. I join them in ordering some bbq’d squid, Northern Thai Noodles and finish this peculiar dinner with a freshly made Ice Cream.

Chaing Mai New Year's Eve 2014Just as I finish my meal and get up I see a dark appearance lighting up her own lantern. Contrary to the lanterns sold by the street vendors, this lantern is red and bigger than the ones available. Considering she is more experienced that I am, I ask her if she can help me with setting up and lighting my own lantern. Fizzy hair, curious eyes and an enthusiastic smile appear. A smile that makes me clear I should let go of all my worries. Strategically positioned to prevent my lantern to get stuck in a tree and burn half the city down, I observe how my worries flow away.

As 2014 sets in I wish you a year full of love, authentic experiences and positive challenges. Let it be a year where we can take on the future and grow together. Let it also be a year where we share our stories together, either good or bad ones, and create an atmosphere were friendship and love can blossom. Leaving all 2013’s worries behind -and I’ve had a few, I confess- I want to thank you for sharing a part of your life’s story with me. It is an honor.

The midnight festive mood gives way for the more brute night life experience and I decide to walk back to the hostel. As I turn onto Chiang Mai’s main boulevard, a young Frenchman, clearly having lost the last bit of inhibition and supported by a drink in his right hand, clings on to me in a firm way. Talking every pedestrian as a distinguished member of the public, he tells me bluntly and in French “you have to smile more”. “2014 will be a difficult year with challenges, but you will move on, grow positively and…”. He stops talking, grasps for a breath and gives me a long hug. His message delivered, he disappears in the crowd and is not seen again.

A prophet has been born.

Happy New Year!

La proa visionaria: La Cumbre que no fue

Hace unos seis años tuve la oportunidad de hablar personalmente con Enrique Iglesias en la sede del SEGIB en Madrid. Un hombre abierto, acojedor y sensato con una visión clara para un continente que ama de todo corazón. Y tiene razón cuando dice que la Cumbre Iberoamericana no fracasó por la ausencia de un número importante de jefes de estado. Tampoco leí en ningún periódico que dijo que fue un éxito.

Opino. Esta cumbre es un fiasco. Un fracaso por la ausencia de una visión digna para un continente con abundantes recursos naturales y una población joven y creciente. Miren el Plan de Acción y las declaraciones: cuenta a la vez con minuciosas declaraciones, tocando temas como el agua, la administración pública, la posibilidad de paz en Colombia, los pueblos indígenas, etc como puntos de acciones generalizados al extremo para crear y consolidar órganos de coordinación sin objetivos claros.

Por suerte ya no más utilizada como cafetería para espetar propaganda contra un imperialismo fantasma, la cumbre tuvo como resultado el producto ejemplar de una reunión de directivos intermedios y no el de líderes visionarios: pactaron la coordinación sin estipular una visión transparente, sin una estrategia clara ni unas metas realizables para su continente.

Quizás yo no lo tengo correcto y es justamente esto el resultado deseado, la realidad económica y social exige una respuesta diferente. Los jefes de Estados lo saben, sabiendo igual que romper la dinámica política interior para construir algo más grande cuesta en su moneda local y la moneda política. Los avances son lentos y las reformas, si hay, insuficientes.

La Unión Europea está muy consciente de que sólo no puede afrontar los retos del signo XXI. Paulatinamente la UE y los EEUU trabajan para crear un espacio único con un mercado común y un mercado financiero completamente integrado. La cumbre iberoamericana habla de integración y consolidación a nivel cultural.

¿En dónde se quedará América Latina? Cada año los 15 hombres más ricos de América Latino se reúnen para juntos dar una respuesta a la crisis (y las oportunidades) que atraviesan el mundo. Ellos sí parecen ser consciente que la unión hace la fuerza (lo que, paradójicamente, es el lema de Bélgica).

La realidad es, y lo lamento, que la mayoría de los países de América Latina queda fuera de una integración financiera, tecnológica y económica regional o una integración real con sus mercados de exportación. México reconoció esta necesidad hace 20 años y es miembro de la OCDE desde 1994. Chile lo es desde 2010. Colombia es en el proceso de mientras Brasil lo hace más bien “à la carte”.

Cuando los debates sobre la educación y la cultura son evidentemente necesarios y quizás de altísima importancia, exponen a la vez el gran desafío del continente latinoamericano: definir dentro de su diversidad una estrategia para desarrollarse durante los 2-5 siguientes décadas. Dentro del marco de esta cumbre, me pregunto: ¿Dónde se sitúa en esta historia el Mercosur?

A late tribute to George Carlin

George, you once said “I believe people go where they say they will go once they die”. George, where did you say you were going to? Three years after your death, I’m more than ever convinced you got right to the problems facing our society today.

It was the Internet that introduced me to George Carlin. Surfing the web, I was fascinated by the United States, its culture, economics and diversity. Freedom, as the word seems to imply, allows you to forbid speaking out certain words on the airwaves, but not on the Internet. These contradictions got me reading, investigating and writing.

My airline trip would never be the same again. Maybe God was a man after all, especially looking at the work he delivered here on earth. Talking about straight talk! Yes, some of his work was and still is controversial.

I savored Carlin’s work in reverse: starting with his latest HBO specials I gradually discovered his past work. At High School, comedy was our thing and George Carlin just fed our critical minds. The dirty words never could get us shocked, but his confrontation with the established values got us thinking. Yes, we got to think and to laugh alike.

I enjoy reading his stuff, just because it goes back to the surrealistic reality we have become accustomed to. After a hard day at work, putting on an HBO special from George Carlin puts me back on my feet. Reading one of his bestsellers can make me laugh even when I’m in a stranded train.

Words are my thing as well. It is amazing how people stare at you for playing with words during a meeting at work, for giving an opinion or for just telling the truth.

After his death, his life story was published. “Last Words” takes you through George Carlin’s life, from the beginning nearly till the end. The book –I got it as a birthday present- just goes to show that nothing is free or easy in life. Even more, it shows Carlin was not just shouting and yelling dirty words, but brought on stage a view on life he assembled by living and doing his thing: playing with words.

Right from the source: Beginnings

Did Joseph of Jacob have just a feminine look like his mother, or does the bible imply he could have been a eunuch or even gay? King David had sex with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his best warriors, assuring afterwards Uriah the Hittite got killed in battle. Abraham served his guests meat with milk and honey, a meal that would certainly not be considered kosher today. Source of these reflections: the Bible.

The bible tells us many valuable stories, yet the majority of them have been buried under a pile of (religious) interpretations given much later. In reading the bible, we fail to go back to the roots of them all: the original text in Hebrew.

Meir Shalev goes back to the biblical basics and tells us of all the first events. He carefully takes you on a rollercoaster ride through the Ancient Scriptures and goes back to the original meaning of every story, paragraph and word. An interpretation free of religious readings, Beginnings offers a refreshing look at all mystified biblical figures.

God promises fertility, but nowhere is there any guarantee for finding love in life. Even paradise was not without danger. Eve was seduced by a snake in eating an apple, maybe because the snake wanted to take the place of man (in this case the place of woman) in paradise. Not to mention the story of Lot and his two daughters, let alone the suffering of Sara and Rachel to get their first son.

Meir Shalev - BeginningsAnd what about God? Is he the only god in the universe, or the only god we are allowed to obey or pray to? His relation with mankind is even more controversial. God’s conversations with his subjects were at times neither straightforward nor consistent. Other gods might have accompanied God when he visited Abraham for a casual chat around the fire. And what did we make of our own, sole god? First things first, right?

Meir Shalev is able to bring the bible as it should be brought and thought: objectively, from the source and in a no-nonsense style. He’s accurate and never searches for an excuse in explaining the story as he sees it. You might not agree with every statement or interpretation, yet Beginnings can be the start of a vivid discussion on what we take for granted as being written in the Bible.

The book is available in English (Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts), Dutch (In den Beginne: eerste keren in de Bijbel) and Ivrit.

A journey into Sephardi Jewry

The story of Sephardi History is one of long lost hope and acute despair. Or at least, it was. Only about 300.000 still speak Ladino, or Spanish (in Hebrew or latin script) as it was spoken around the 1492 expulsion of the Jews in Spain. Their culture is celebrated, but not really lived anymore. It is an interesting but sad story, beautifully written and documented by Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue in their book “Sephardi Jewry”. Academic and objectively written, it tells you history from a different perspective: the Sephardi experience from the 15th century till World War II.

Sephardi Jewry by Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue

Once concentrated on the Iberian Peninsula, they left southern Europe bringing with them a unique culture fomented by a longing for a long lost homeland. Known as a force of progressive innovation and clever (ideological) thinking, the history of most Sephardic centers in the world – located in the Ottoman empire – shows a remarkable dynamic and a search for progress. Being traders, they knew the world but being considered by the Ottomans as a community as a whole, integration of the community with their neighbors was limited. Innovating at first, their vision was mostly inwards oriented and the changing ideological winds from which they were protected by a declining Ottoman empire, did not allow the community to prepare for integration with (and into) the new nation state.

Trade with the West shifted and the economic importance of the Levant diminished, making the Sephardi community rely on old structures and diminishing returns. Poverty was omnipresent, education limited and most communities were holding on to a by then antiquated rabbinic culture. The Ottoman Empire eventually fell on its knees and a new wave of nationalism pushed Sephardic Jews in Turkey and the Balkan into disarray.

The authors of the book go to great lengths to draw an inclusive overview of the importance, rise and the eventual demise of the Sephardi. Although particular in its kind, the book is at times a tad confusing, offering the reader a myriad of data, while loosing timeline, location and interaction.

Remarkable has been their study into the influence of the French Jewish Community through the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Gallicizing great part of the Sephardic elite during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, it opened Sephardi Jewry to a new school of thought, ideology and community organization. Schools were mainly in French, and while this certainly contributed to a broader world vision, it resembled more the politics of a French imperialistic movement than the construction of a local community integrated with its surrounding. It goes without saying that this surprised me, as I was convinced Hebrew would have been considered to be the integrating language of the Jewish community.

With the exception of a limited number of communities, the book ends with the demise of the Sephardi culture and its people. It left me with a feeling of having read history in a different way, both refreshing and realistic. I would never have discovered this part of history, hadn’t I bought this book on quiet Saturday afternoon.

Management by Excel

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” Spinoza (16th century).

In front of me a woman sits down and, as the train is leaving the station, she starts correcting an infinite pile of slides filled with an endless series of numbers, graphs and what seems to be the advances of a project. Meticulously she adds her comments. The annotations to the slides concern the smallest movements in the curve. Not one page passes her hands without having mentioned the word “Indicators” and “Analysis” over 5 times. Is this style of Management a guarantee for solid results? Let’s discuss numbers.

Micromanagement and Performance Indicators go hand in hand. It is the hunt for the “right data” that sets the perfect trap for a failed decision, let alone a flunked project. Instead of walking the premises of their department, managers prefer the comfortable chair of their office. Being convinced the right reporting is the key towards the right decision, many MBAs believe they have reality at their fingertips in the neat Excel-sheet in front of them. “Management by Excel” is leading companies to take decisions which, while following a logic decision path, escape every sense of common sense. It gives the sense that one can be everywhere and control every aspect of daily business.

The “new” or “modern” manager is no exception to this. Having been trained to understand the company they work in by mere numbers, graphs and occasionally a chart, they fail to understand what the numbers are all about, let alone the influence a decision has on daily operations. This is certainly a step towards “administration”, but is certainly not management. To manage, you must understand how your department works, how your coworkers think and how every aspects of your business relates to the “other” departments, suppliers and/or clients. It is an attitude to take from day one.

  • Wander around: get a feeling of how things are going. Just by walking into “the other department” to say hello sets you in for breaking the oh-so-feared silo thinking.
  • Know who is in, grasp their perspective and understand what they know: having a coffee break with your colleagues is essential in grasping the daily issues that never seem to get solved. Be careful taking advice from someone who is hardly there where the action is.
  • Ask about the developments your colleagues expect to take place and understand how they feel the future will be. This will help you in setting your strategic targets. (Targets bound in a not so distant future to be linked to one or more indicators).
  • Feel how your planning is being implemented. Lots of potential issues exist under the surface and are never measured. They only appear when it is too late.

No matter how intricately built, no matter how well set, KPIs always indicate a state of the past. Most of them are even set using past experiences and therefor cannot measure the future. For the millions of pages written on how to define your company’s indicators, only a part of reality can be captured even by the most complete of reports. It is of utmost importance not only to rely on the mathematical prediction of a “certain future”, but as any captain on a ship would do, interpret any report within the context of your experience, of your crew’s and that of your rivals (competitors). A ship seldom gets to harbor using the logic and interpretation of an intricate Excel formula.

The end of the 648AM era

Today I woke up to the grey and sober noise of an empty 648 KHz AM radio frequency. No BBC News from London, no News Hour, not even the remote timbre of the Lilliburlero. Apart from its faint DRM Broadcasts in cooperation with the Deutsche Welle, this is a sounding end for the BBC World Service in Europe. The BBC has been some time my source for independent news, offering a different and often fresh approach on different aspects of world affairs. Yes, I remember listening to the o so popular “Letter from America” by Alistair Cooke, tuning into the BBC on Sundays for the University Challenge.

Allow me to be honest, blunt if you would like. Today we are not mourning the end of a frequency or the mere phase out of a technology, as for the transmission of sound more than one technology exists. The decision taken in February culminates the end of offering knowledge, opinion and news from a more or less objective perspective as to replace it with a mediocratic offering of Top40-Contemporary music and inspiration-less cheap radio-jabber. And if it is not the end, it is certainly the beginning of the end, as for the BBC the UK Government’s Budget exercise warrants only the closing of many local news-gathering offices.

A sad end, if you ask me, as the offered alternative of continuing “to be available in Europe by satellite, cable and online” is only a faint alternative to listen to when driving to work.

First Class: Bert as Professor (III)

Latin America is doing great during and resists forcefully a Financial Crisis born in the Western World. But is this really the case?

For the second time I introduced students to the magical world of Latin America. A confrontation with all aspects of Latin America. I gladly share with you the Course Material used during the 2010 classes.

Don’t hesitate in contacting me should you have any questions or remarks.