Category Archives: America

Liquidity in Job Markets

For the past month or so, I have been  looking at job postings in my field of specialization – Geotechnical Engineering – across the US and Canada. During my searches, I noticed some general trends that the companies exhibit when it relates to the expectations and/or qualifications of the candidates they want. Most are what is to be anticipated for the corresponding position. But of all the different expectations listed, one particular aspect has many interesting collateral impacts for the overall job market. And that is the requirement of Experience.

2006-378p-skills-shortage

In general, I noticed the following breakup in the job postings (I do not have hard numbers, but a constant exposure to the postings will pretty much confirm this):

  • Senior Geotechnical Engineer (40% of available positions): 10-15+ years of experience.
  • Intermediate Geotechnical Engineer (30-35% of available positions): 5-10 years of experience.
  • Junior/Entry Level Geotechnical Engineer (25-30% of available positions): 0-3 years of experience.

At first glance, the above description appears to be rather innocuous. A direct correlation between seniority of position and expected level of experience from the candidate is fairly obvious and definitely warranted. But this does not provide the complete picture. What needs to be looked at is that about 70% of jobs in the market are only for candidates who have experience in the range of 5-15 years or more. So what does this imply?

First, we have to understand where the labor supply – all experience levels – comes from and where they are currently and where they will be in the future. In the field of Geotechnical Engineering, I can think of a few hundred people graduating with a Master’s degree every year in the US, and a Master’s degree is pretty much a requirement for a career in Geotechnical Engineering. So that means there is a constant supply of maybe 200-400 eligible candidates every year for the Junior/Entry Level positions. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that all these graduates get an entry level job. (From my own experiences in trying to hire entry level candidates for my company, I can say that the demand exceeds supply. So this assumption is valid). And let us also assume that most, if not all, of the demand for the entry level/junior Geotech positions is fulfilled. So far, so good.

But this is where the fun starts. Because you see, unlike the constant supply of eligible graduates for Junior/Entry level positions, there is absolutely no such supply for the Intermediate and Senior level positions. The people graduating from colleges are unemployed and actively looking for entry level jobs. Companies are also actively looking to fill their junior/entry level positions. So there is a constant match between demand and supply for the entry level jobs.

But there is no such connection available between eligible candidates and the Intermediate/Senior positions. The ‘eligible’ candidates for these positions are typically already employed and lack any incentives to change jobs. The lack of incentive only increases with a person’s experience. That is, the longer a person spends time in a city or a company, they are unlikely to move away from either or both. People develop professional connections, drop roots in a community, buy houses, start a family and get settled in one place as they progress in their career.

If anything, the factors listed above only contribute to a ‘cost’ for the person if they were to consider changing companies and/or cities. And any company looking to hire for an Intermediate/Senior position will have to ‘compensate’ for that cost in some visible form – higher salary, higher position, faster career growth, better living/working conditions, etc. And it is not sufficient for the company seeking to hire the candidate to be just ‘better’ than the candidate’s current employer. They will have to be ‘significantly better’ since they will have to provide additional compensation for the ‘cost’ the candidate has to pay to change jobs.

All this points to a job market where the entry level positions are continuously filled and the intermediate/senior level positions are hard to fill. Most of the intermediate/senior level jobs typically stay open for a long time (several months). Anyone can login to any job platform and see this for themselves. In spite of this, one cursory look at the tone and content of the job posting requirements for intermediate and senior level positions reveals such a sense of idealism on part of the company seeking the candidates. There are typically such a large number of specific requirements listed for a candidate in these positions, one has to wonder exactly how successful are these companies in hiring people for this level?

And that is not even a rhetorical question from my side. I am genuinely interested to know what the success rate is for companies seeking to hire intermediate and senior level positions in a specific high skilled profession. What percentage of these positions actually get filled? How long are they typically open for? Do the recruiters ever relax their requirements? Do they promote someone from within the organization and/or give them additional responsibilities? Are the recruiters even aware of the nature of the job market? What do they do when they absolutely need someone?

Or in other words, exactly how liquid is the job market at the intermediate and senior positions for high skilled professions? 

These questions take me to yet more interesting aspects/impacts on the overall job market. In an illiquid job market, what does job creation even mean? Exactly how valuable is experience for a given role? How would/should one define skills shortage? And how should this be addressed? What should be the role of immigrants in such a situation?

These are questions I seek to address in future posts. Stay tuned.

 

 

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The Rewards of Reading/Watching a Full Speech or Interview

In this age where information comes from media stories featuring selective quotes and needless commentary, it is very easy to miss out on the beauty, elegance, significance, and sometimes the necessity, of reading or listening to a full speech or an interview AS IS. It helps us get the proper context for the words, compels us to decide for ourselves what the highlights of the speech/interview are, and most importantly, it allows us to frame our own opinion about the content and the person.

Whenever there is an interview or a speech given by some personality I am interested in, I typically just google the full transcript of it. Yes, it takes a little more time to get through it, but it is always very rewarding. The flow of the content is very important to me, as is the overall tone and content.

kanye-west_portrait2_albert-watson_surfacemag

I am specifically reminded of an interview Kanye West gave to Surface Mag. It is one of the best interviews I have ever read, and after reading it, I have to grudgingly accept that this man is one of the most fascinating human beings on this planet. At the risk of going against the very point I am trying to make here, I am going to pull out a couple of quotes from what Kanye says in the interview (You will see why this is justified!):

This is turning into a 12-minute freestyle. Which is good. When I talk it’s like a painting.

I think you should just run this interview clean. You gotta let the painting be open with this let-me-just-zone-out-with-Ye-for-a-second thing.

Just gotta admire the man! He knows exactly what he is saying and how people should hear what he is saying!

In all honesty, I am sure all powerful people who have ever given an interview or a speech – only to have the media cherry pick the most controversial statements and reduce the whole interview to just that one soundbite – will agree with Kanye on this one!

But there is another side to this story. It is the part where we, as common people, MISS OUT on something beautiful, elegant and sometimes absolutely necessary information or advice simply because we do not have the patience or the desire to read through a whole interview or speech. Let us face it. Today, we get our perspectives from Memes, our opinions from Facebook updates, and our news from a headline. We also watch videos only when the information or situation to be conveyed is done so in a compressed manner and is under 30 seconds.

Amidst all this cacophony of piece-meal consumption of information, it is easy to spot and observe what we do see. But it is hard to realize what it is that we do not see, especially when we do not know what to expect.

In essence, what we are missing out on is a deeper insight into some idea, a better appreciation (good or bad) of the person who is making the speech, or simply some crucial facts about an issue. When we finish reading a full speech without interruption (such as commentary/ads, etc), we even have the opportunity to pause for a second and just meditate on the words of the person. Anyone who has actually done that – say after reading a book or watching a full movie – will be acutely aware of its rewards. And the more people do that, the better the debate will be on any given topic.

John McCain has been dominating the news cycles for his No vote to repeal Obamacare and defeating the Republicans’ attempt to dismantle the law. Media outlets have also been showing clips of his speech prior to the No vote where he urged bipartisan attempts to rework the healthcare law and all bills in general. But what most folks missed out on is the full speech he gave. I read the full speech yesterday, and I was extremely moved by every word that he said. There was such an important message with so many details in what he said. The flow of the speech and the ultimate plea it makes resonated with me long after I had finished reading it. It was a speech that showed there is still some hope left for this Congress to work the way it was intended to. And for all the problems plaguing this administration and the Republican party, this speech showed there may still be some sane men left who know their duties and responsibilities. It is a speech every single American – liberal or conservative – should read/watch in its entirety. There is so much truth in what McCain says that one really needs to spend a few minutes just contemplating after reading it. Ultimately, it is what every American NEEDS to hear in this day of partisanship and great divide.

 

It is easily one of the best political speeches I have ever read. In fact, if this man was running for President, and gave this speech, I would tell all my friends to vote for him. (And that is a big deal coming from a guy like me).

So yes, please go ahead and read his full speech or watch it below in full.

I started writing this post as just a small Facebook update when it began to take a life of its own. But this is something I feel very strongly about in general and so I had to do justice to it, and hence this longer post.

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Reporting of selective quotes or providing needless commentary or background in a media story frustrates me to no end. And so, I offer the following general approach to bypass such unnecessary and/or incomplete articles:

If you read a headline you find interesting, first observe if the headline itself is a quote or a statement. If it is, and you already know the background of that story, then simply skip all the ‘reporting’ in the article and go straight to the quotes. Read the quotes and be done with it.

If you are not familiar with the story, then read the full article.

If the article quotes what Trump said on Twitter, close the news article, open Trump’s Twitter account and read all his tweets from the previous day or two up until his latest tweet. Then be done with it. There is really nothing more to know.

The above approach most commonly applies to all developing stories where there has been some incremental development. True journalism instead can be found in articles that are NOT developing stories and where there has actually been some investigation involved.

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5 Months in New York City: The People

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come.

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Growing up in India, the term ‘big city’ largely implied the size of a city in terms of its geographic scale. And the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ meant that there were people from all over the country who called the said city their home. But here in America, the term ‘big city’ implies the size of the city in terms of its population, and the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ means that one can find people from all over the world who call the city their home. There was always going to be a culture shock going from a small city like Des Moines in the Midwest to living in New York City. I was largely prepared for it and definitely looking forward to embrace it for the duration of my stay.

To the people who live there and for those who have never spent significant time there, it is perhaps nothing more than an axiom – that was acknowledged a long time ago and something that holds no significance now – that New York City is the biggest city in America and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But for those who have never spent any significant time in a city that size and that diverse and who go to live there for the first time, it is no longer just an axiom. No, for those who go to live there for the first time, the size of the city and the diversity of the population is easily the most glaring feature the city has to offer. It is the first thing that will strike you and it will continue to be a constant reminder of what the city is and what it stands for.

diversity

So yes, that was the first thing I noticed myself – the sheer number of people and the diversity of those people. (To be fair, I had been to NYC (and have spent many days in Chicago) previously for a few days as a tourist, but these kind of observations and realizations do not come when in the mindset of a tourist. You just have to live there for a while). People from all over the world – from places I knew well to places I didn’t even know existed. I met people who had lived in the city since a few weeks and I met people whose families had lived the city for several generations, and everything in between.

The term ‘melting pot of different cultures’ cannot and should not be used in an off-handed manner. But NYC clearly makes the case for being one. There are always going to be isolated pockets of people from different cultures who tend to spend time among themselves. But from what I saw, there was a lot of clear racial and cultural inter-mingling that has taken place over several generations and continues to this day. Interracial couples and mixed race folk tell only part of the story. The true inter-mingling happens in the transfer of ideas from people of one culture to another. And this is on full display in the city. It is largely on the subtle level, but if you are looking for it, you will definitely find it.

The diversity is so much on display there that (apart from the one exception of the concert crowd) there was never in a single situation where I found that white people were in the majority! In the subway, in Times Square, in Harlem, in lower Manhattan, in Queens or Brooklyn, in movie theaters, in restaurants and literally anywhere else, I always found that non-white people made up at least half the crowd. I made that observation and state it here as absolutely nothing more than a fact that reflects the true extent of diversity the city has to offer.

For all the talk about New Yorkers being rude and arrogant and living life in a hurry, I found that most of my encounters and observations pointed to the contrary. I spent a good amount of my time (at work) with strangers who had no reason to help me in any form. I am not talking about people in the office working in a cube. I am talking about blue collar workers of different age groups who were born and raised in the 5 boroughs. I spent a lot of time with them – weeks together on a daily basis – and got to know them rather well. Most of them tried to help me out on various tasks when they had absolutely no incentive to do so. And everybody were polite.

In fact, the more time I spent with them blue collar workers, the more I noticed a rather raw side to their general nature – an honesty and straightforwardness that I hadn’t found among anyone working in a cube. There was no beating around the bush, no needless diplomacy – just the honest and polite truth. My conversations and interactions with those blue collar workers – especially while hanging out at their office food truck  for breakfast or lunch – were definitely some of the memorable highlights from my NYC stay.

It was not just that those blue collar workers spoke a certain way. What also made a difference to me was that my own skin color did not seem to make any difference to anyone in NYC when they interacted with me. Here in the Midwest, I have typically found people being more guarded when talking to me as compared to other white people. Even though they mostly do it with the right intention, it still remains an undeniable fact and something that prevents me from developing new and deeper connections. But in NYC, the people I interacted with had no holding back. Sample this: Within two days of meeting and working with this one blue collar worker, we were already talking about what kind of college degree his daughter should pursue! Even strangers I met on the bus or the subway didn’t appear to incorporate my skin color or accent into how they interacted with me. And that was an extremely refreshing experience that I had sorely missed in Iowa.

The explanation for this is actually pretty obvious. The more that white folks get to see and interact with people from other countries/cultures/races, the more familiar they get with them, resulting in not putting up their guards when they meet someone not of their color/race/country in the future. This phenomenon is obviously not just restricted to white people. This very much applies to any dominant group of people interacting with people who have less representation in the same geographical area.

And so, with 5 months of NYC under my belt, I can see why immigrants like to flock to a city like NYC. The reasons and explanations may sound obvious and almost banal to those who already live there or in similar cities. But for someone like me living in a much smaller place where many times I am the only diversity around me, it was a massive paradigm shift in terms of the dynamics of social interaction and what assimilation means and stands for.

And it was only when I came back to Des Moines last week that I appreciated the contrast for what it truly was. America is called a ‘land of immigrants’ and that is true. But I realized that what that means in NYC is vastly different than what it means in a place like Des Moines. In New York City, that phrase stands for immigrants from all over the world whose families have lived in the city from several generations ago to those who probably just landed there that week. In a place like Des Moines, that phrase implies that several generations or centuries ago, a number of East European people came there as immigrants looking for a better life and have since lived there.

I will conclude by saying that one cannot and should not compare and contrast a city like Des Moines to a place like New York City. There is only one New York City but there are many places like Des Moines. But it is equally important to accept and acknowledge the vast difference in the number and diversity of people in those cities – and their far reaching impact on the society.

 

 

Current Status of the 2012 NFL WR Drafts: A Statistical Analysis

The NFL Draft of 2017 just completed today and every team and their fans are excited about all their recruits. All this is completely understandable given the overall hype and significance of the event. After all, this is where it all begins for the future NFL stars – right?

The survivorship bias in the sporting community is extremely pronounced and is present worldwide in all sports. That is, everybody talks about all those who make it big, with very minimal attention given to those who didn’t make it at all. With respect to the NFL Draft, this meant everybody was talking about who would become the next star quarterback or who will become the next Ezekiel-Elliot-inspired star Rookie Running Back. Or perhaps, which late round draft pick or the free agent would be the surprise success story. But I wasn’t interested in any of that.

What I was interested in was not who would make it big, but who would not make it at all? How many players would never see their names listed on Active Roster? How many players would be out of the picture within 2-3 years if not sooner? And what would happen to them?

To answer that, I decided to look into a small sample of a draft class from the past. Specifically, I chose the 2012 Draft class for Wide Receivers and see how they all panned out – each and every one of the 33 who were drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft. Which round did they get drafted? How many years – if at all – did they play? Are they still active?

What I found was partly expected but very revealing at the same time. And it is also clearly something that is generally ignored by the sporting community. I evaluated the following general parameters for this task:

  1. Current Status of players – Active, Retired, Free Agent, Non NFL Football
  2. No. of Years on Active Roster
  3. Correlation with which round the player was drafted

Based on these parameters, I went through the bios and stats of all the 33 players who were drafted in that WR position in 2012. Here are the charts:

Current Status of 2012 WR Drafts

2012 WR Current Status

As you can see above, only 30% of the original draft picks are currently still active and are scheduled to play in the 2017 season. About 20% are currently plying their football trade in the Canadian Football League or the Indoor Football League.

Distribution of Active Roster Years

2012 WR Active Roster Year Distribution

2012 WR Active Roster Year Distribution - Pie

There may be 10 players out of the 33 who have played all 5 years since being drafted, but this also means there are 23 other players who are no longer active and whose NFL football careers lasted less than 4 years, with 6 of them never seeing the football field.

Correlation of Current Active Status with Drafting Round

Active Status vs Drafting Round

Active Status vs Drafting Round - percent

These two are my favorite charts. This tells me that which round the player was drafted appears to have some correlation with the player being currently on an active NFL roster – with those drafted higher having a higher percentage of staying active longer. This is a general positive correlation with the perceived skill level of the corresponding player at the time of the draft. Of course this is not a perfect correlation as we see that the 1st round picks have a lesser fraction of them still active as compared to the 3rd (or even the 5th) round picks.

It has to be noted that the issues of injury and NFL code violations (mostly drug abuse or DUI) are the unknowns in this analyses and cannot be quantified or predicted. It is also not possible to determine how a player would have panned out if he was not injured or did not commit those violations. (Case in point, the #1 WR pick of 2012 Justin Blackmon was suspended from the NFL after 2 incidents of drug abuse violations). But historical data can provide teams with some information that can be used to predict what fraction of players typically become inactive due to injury or NFL code violations.

But returning to my original point about all the players who will NOT make it in the NFL, I have some kind of an answer with this small sample size. About 70% of the recruits do not make it, with about 20% continuing their career in the Canadian Football League or the Indoor Football League.

Going further, I would like to do this same analyses for various draft classes, breaking up the data by drafting round, position, year of draft, etc. This can give some very valuable information for teams and fans to use while actively avoiding the survivorship bias. So what does this mean for the NFL Draft of 2017? Well, if the results from this small sample size were to hold, then expect only 1 to 3 players from each team’s recruits to actually pan out a proper career.

Now that should get some people talking!

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On a related note, the HBO Show BALLERS is highly recommended for those wanting to see what happens to football players after their retirement. What do they do with their lives? How do they cope with the sudden change of lifestyle? What regrets haunt them from the past? Dwayne Johnson has excellently portrayed the character of a retired NFL RB who is trying to make it in the post-football era of his life. This is not a show which has the ‘party’ or the ‘high-end society’ lifestyle as its primary focus. This is a show that instead truly focuses on the off-season troubles faced by the folks who run the show from behind the scenes – including the ones who are now out of work. Highly recommended!

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Raw data can be found here: 2012 WR NFL Status

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New H1B Bill: How the Indian Media Provided False Information

Note: This is the second post on this topic. In the first post, I explained what the current H1B law provides for and what exactly the bill proposes to change. Please read that to get a full understanding of the situation. 

The Protect and Grow American Jobs Act that was reintroduced last week by Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA) has received a large amount of attention from the Indian media due to its specific targeting of H1B visa changes. I have discussed in detail what the current law is and what the bill does previously. In this post, I will cover how the Indian media has incorrectly reported this bill.

To summarize the impacts of the bill, the following points should be sufficient:

  1. This bill applies only to H1B Dependent Employer (HDE) companies (those that have more than 15% of their workforce under H1B visas) and Willful Violator (WV) companies. It DOES NOT apply to ALL H1B visa seekers.
  2. The HDE and WV companies, unlike the rest of them, are required to recruit an American worker before applying a H1B visa for a foreign worker. They also cannot fire an American worker within 90 days before and 90 days after an H1B foreign worker is hired. They also cannot post the H1B worker at a different employer’s office. This is done to reduce visa abuse, to offer basic protection to American workers, and to ensure that only the best workers are hired under H1B.
  3. Under the current law, the additional requirements for HDE and WV companies, as shown in #2, can be easily bypassed in either of two ways. One is by hiring a foreign worker who has a Master’s degree in the area of the job. Second is by offering the foreign worker a minimum pay of $60,000 per annum. These two ‘exemptions’ allow the HDE and WV companies to bypass the additional requirements, thus making it very easy for them to abuse the visa system. (See the Disney H1B lawsuit for example).
  4. The new bill aims to change two things in the criteria that allows the HDE and WV companies to bypass the additional requirements (in #2). One, it aims to increase the minimum pay to $100,000 per annum. Second, it removes the Master’s degree exemption – meaning you cannot bypass the additional requirements just because the H1B worker the company plans to hire has a Master’s degree. This aims to close the loophole that allows visa abuses to take place.

So that was a summary of what is happening here. Now let us look at how the Indian media is reporting this news.

I will start with the most egregious falsification: The Hindu. The Hindu news article lists 6 separate items that it says the Bill aims to do. Only one of these is even partly correct. The rest are just outrageous falsifications. Let us look at them:

  • The Bill prohibits companies from hiring H1-B employees if they employ more than 50 people and more than 50 per cent of their employees are H1-B and L-1 visa holders. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. There is no such language in the bill at all. Even the HDE company definition is incorrect going by this rule.
  • The Bill encourages companies to recruit American workers. This provision would crack down on outsourcing companies that import large numbers of H-1B and L-1 workers for short training periods and then send these workers back to their home country to do the work of Americans, the Senators who introduced the Bill had said. This is a very generic statement offering no specific information on how the bill aims to do this. As a general intent of the bill, it is correct. But there is no language listing this explicitly. 
  • It explicitly prohibits replacement of American workers by H1-B or L-1 visa holders. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. The general intent to not replace American workers is indeed contained in the bill, as it is in the current law. But there is no ‘explicit’ language in the bill that talks about prohibiting replacement of American workers. 
  • The Bill seeks to give the Department of Labour enhanced authority to review, investigate and audit employer compliance as well as to penalise fraudulent or abusive conduct. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. Again, this is a very generic statement offering no information. More importantly, the bill text itself does not include any language in this regard. 
  • The Bill seeks to increase the minimum salary of H1-B visa holders to $1,00,000 per annum. INCORRECT AND MISLEADING. As discussed in the summary above, the minimum salary only applies to the H1B workers under the HDE companies seeking to bypass the additional requirements. This DOES NOT APPLY to all H1B visa holders, as this statement suggests.
  • Currently, firms need not go through extensive paperwork if the potential H1-B employee has an equivalent of a Master’s degree or higher and he or she is paid at least $60,000 annually. The Bill aims to do away with the Master’s degree exemption (as “they are easily obtained by foreign workers”). PARTLY CORRECT. This is the only bullet point that has even a shred of correct information in it. As seen from the summary, what The Hindu lists as ‘extensive paperwork’ are essentially additional requirements that (only) the HDE and WV companies have to adhere to in order to ensure there is no visa abuse. Additionally, this statement mentions the Master’s degree exemption, but does not state what the exemption is for!

There is absolutely no excuse or justification for publishing such large amounts of wrong information on a leading national daily website (and presumably their newspaper as well). I am currently preparing an email to the Editor of The Hindu pointing out this outrageous misinformation. I do not expect a response, however.

The next biggest blunder I saw was from Zee News. Their article listed 3 separate items as part of the bill and its impacts. Here they are:

  • To get H1B visa approved, you will have to fit in the salary bracket of $100,000 a year, up from $60,000 currently. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. This only applies for HDE companies looking to bypass additional requirements.
  • One will need to have a Master’s degree, as recognized by the US. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT!! Removing the Master’s degree exemption language is foolishly misinterpreted as a Master’s degree ‘requirement’! 
  • It is estimated that any change on visa law will largely impact companies who have more than 50 employees based in the US. INCORRECT. The HDE companies are those that have 15% or more of their workforce under H1B visas. Companies even under 50 employees have the HDE categorization. 

It should be noted that the Master’s degree ‘requirement’ mentioned above is actually being listed in many newspapers and websites. This is completely incorrect. There is no such requirement at all! Do not confuse the removal of the Master’s degree exemption to the ‘requirement’ of a Master’s degree!

\[UPDATE March 29th 2017]\

One of the journalistic sources that I have been personally reading for the past 3 years and would strongly recommend is The Caravan Magazine. Its writing primarily includes long form journalism and has generally provided very high quality articles – albeit with a left-leaning perspective. However, I was particularly disappointed with the way the magazine had covered this H1B bill’s developments in this February’s edition. This error becomes even more egregious considering the writer is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and is an author of multiple books. It is difficult to comprehend how something as simple as this escapes folks who are expected to be well informed.  Here is what it states and how it is incorrect:

  • ….the bill proposes to raise the minimum salary of H1-B professionals from $60k to $100k, making it costlier for employers to hire foreign workers. INCORRECT AND MISLEADING. As discussed in the summary above, the minimum salary only applies to the H1B workers under the HDE companies seeking to bypass the additional requirements. This DOES NOT APPLY to all H1B visa holders, as this statement suggests.
  • It also promises to end a provision that allows as many as 20,000 foreign nationals in excess of the annual H1-B quota to avail of the visa if they hold a Master’s degree. This is the part which particularly disappointed me. The Master’s degree exemption that is discussed in the bill is essentially the loophole through which HDE companies can bypass a lot of additional requirements. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with the existing quota of 20,000 H1B visas being issued to people with Master’s degrees from US Universities. These are two separate and independent things. Even just the most cursory reading of the bill will make it clear.

I have written to The Caravan requesting them to issue a retraction on their upcoming issue. (There was none issued in the March edition). I am hopeful that they will.

\[UPDATE March 29th 2017]\

\UPDATE May 30th 2017\

The Caravan responded to my email and have issued a correction in their online and print article to reflect the correct information.

\[UPDATE May 30th 2017]]

Let’s move on to other big publications. Websites of Times of India, The Indian Express, Live Mint, and Economic Times all include more or less the same statement regarding this bill:

The bill among other things increase the minimum salary of H-1B visa to $100,000 per annum and eliminate the Masters Degree exemption.

And as we have seen, this is only partly correct and also does not include any information on what the actual exemption is. Additionally, the Economic Times ran a slightly different spin on this statement. This is what it said:

The new bill would require workers on the H-1B visa pay a minimum of $100,000, up from $60,000 currently. The bill also removes the Master’s degree exemption to the cap on the number of visas available.

The second line is what is total garbage. There is no impact to the ‘cap on number of visas available’ as this report states. The Master’s degree exemption is completely unrelated to the H1B visa cap of 85,000 per year. Completely false information!

I do not have access to all the local newspapers which may be carrying different incorrect versions of this information. But I do suspect most of these versions were covered by the big newspapers (not a compliment!). I do not know exactly what was discussed in all the ‘panel discussions’ on news channels, so I cannot comment on that. However, I do not expect it to be any different than what I have seen on the websites. I was also appalled at people in high positions in various big name companies provide quotes on this matter without knowing anything about it in the first place.

What did concern me though was that this false information was said to have caused a fall in the share price of these big IT companies. This should not happen. The media loves to profit from sensationalizing new developments. But in the process, it should also be made aware of its responsibilities to report correct news. This is not something that should even be pointed out. It should form the basic bedrock of their whole operation. But the fact that a regular guy like me can dig up the correct information within an hour – all on the internet – while paid journalists do not bother to do so, and in fact report falsified information, is a definite cause for concern.

The Oxford Dictionary listed ‘post-truth’ to be the word of the year 2016. Its definition is: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. We always counted on the news media to show us what is actual truth and what is not – to separate the facts from the claims. But not any more. It now appears that as citizens of the world, we now need to verify what the media is reporting (or not reporting) prior to believing them. It is indeed a scary realization of today’s world – that the media is, in fact, part of the ‘post-truth world’.

I am sure that makes a sensational news story.

The New H1B Bill in US Congress: What It Really Means

I woke up yesterday morning to a rather sensational news item on many Indian news websites. The headline had various versions of the following statement: “Bill targeting H1-B visas reintroduced in US Congress”. I was curious. For someone who considers himself quite well informed concerning legal immigration developments in the US, this was rather surprising. Even my dad called me up to tell me about it making front page news in the morning newspaper in Bangalore! So I decided to dig deeper.

I spent about half an hour on the internet going through the text of the actual bill, looking up meanings of certain unfamiliar terms, finding the specific paragraphs of the original law that this bill proposed to modify and fully understand what was happening. And then I looked up what the Indian main stream media was saying.

Wow! It was just unbelievable! What the Indian media was saying was absolutely nothing in line with what was actually proposed in the bill. They were not just twisting words to imply a different meaning. They were actually reporting completely false information! It is absolutely appalling! Additionally, there was not a single source that gave the correct information on the bill and what it actually stands for.

Which is why I have taken it upon myself to lay out the actual implications of the bill properly here. In the next post, I will summarize what the Indian media is saying and the incorrect information being dispensed will become obvious.

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H1B Background and Purpose

The H1B visa is issued for high skilled foreign workers to enter the US and work on jobs for which skilled Americans are unavailable. The intent of the H1B visa is to complement the American workers with skilled foreign workers so that the American economy does not stagnate due to shortage of skilled labor. Typically, when an American company wants to hire a worker, they advertise the posting, receive applications, interview personnel and provide offers. If the worker being sought is a US citizen or a permanent resident, there is no issue and all is good. If the worker being sought is neither a US citizen nor a permanent resident, then the company can still hire the person under the H1B visa program. However, it has to follow some general rules and procedures to do so.

General Requirements/Procedures for H1B Visa

So what are these general rules? These rules are aimed at ensuring that the company is not misusing the visa program to employ low wage workers from outside the country when an equally skilled American worker is available or is being replaced. In summary, the following are what the company has to follow:

  1. Company must file a Labor Condition Application (LCA) which states the general information about the job such as period of employment, wages, location, and type of job. It should put up this notice at the work place so all workers of the company can see it and lodge complaints if there are any misrepresentation of facts on the LCA.
  2. At least the prevailing wage for that position in that industry is paid to the H1B worker.
  3. The H1B worker is not being hired during a union strike or similar situation.

If the company meets the above requirements/procedures, then the H1B will be granted to the foreign worker and he/she can work for the company. (This is of course subject to the lottery system). The key to note in the above 3 items is not what IS mentioned, but what IS NOT. The requirements do not specify that the job MUST be advertised in the US or that Americans must be given first preference during the hiring process.

Additional Requirements/Procedures for Certain Companies

All the above items that are NOT specified have made it fairly easy and simple for American companies to hire foreign workers. They are still required to pay the prevailing wage, so they cannot drastically underpay the foreign workers. However, over time, what has happened is that many companies have employed a large number of foreign workers without making any effort to hire American workers (and are termed ‘H1B Dependent Employer’). Specifically speaking, the H1B Dependent Employer (HDE) companies are those that have more than 15% of their work force under H1B visas. There are also many other companies who have actively abused the visa system’s requirements and have now been officially categorized as a ‘Willful Violator’ (WV).

Now, in order to discourage visa abuses by such companies, and to encourage companies to hire American workers (citizens and permanent residents) first (where available), the H1B visa program has additional requirements that the HDE and WV companies must adhere to prior to hiring a foreign worker under H1B. These are as follows:

  1. Advertise the job posting in the United States and make a ‘good faith’ effort to hire an American worker.
  2. If a qualified and eligible American worker is available, then the company cannot actively seek to hire a foreign worker in place of the American worker.
  3. The company cannot fire an American worker within 90 days before and 90 days after the LCA is made.
  4. The company cannot hire a foreign worker and post that worker in a location that belongs to a different employer.

Essentially, these requirements are targeted to ensure that there is no abuse of the visa program and that American workers are not discriminated against in favor of lower wage foreign workers. The potential visa abuses in the absence of these requirements are fairly obvious and as such, these requirements were considered necessary. Now keep in mind that these additional requirements are not applicable to all employers – only to those that fall under the HDE and WV categories.

The Exemption Loophole

But….there is always a but……there is a way out of these requirements for the HDE and WV companies. The HDE and WV companies can bypass these additional requirements if they hire a foreign worker who falls under the category of ‘Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant‘. So what does this ”Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant’ (EHN) mean? It’s actually very simple. A foreign worker is an EHN if:

  1. The worker has a Master’s degree in the field of the US job application for which the H1B is sought, OR
  2. The company is willing to offer a minimum of $60,000 annual salary to the foreign worker.

That’s it! If a foreign worker has a Master’s degree OR if the company is willing to pay minimum $60,000 per year, then the HDE and WV companies can completely bypass all the extra requirements aimed at containing visa abuse.

The Visa Abuse

To consider an example, a HDE company which has 50% of its workforce as H1B workers can hire another dozen of H1B workers, fire a dozen American workers who were working in the same company previously and replace them with the newly hired H1B workers – all by just paying them $60,000 per year or just because the H1B workers have a Master’s degree. (It is a whole other discussion on how easy it is to get a fake Master’s degree certificate for this purpose!) They could then also ship out the new H1B workers to locations of other employers and do their job for them. These other employers can then fire American workers at their company because now they have these potentially lower wage H1B workers doing the same job.

And if you think this kind of abuse does not happen, you are completely wrong. This is EXACTLY what happened when Cognizant and HCL – both HDE companies – sent their H1B workers to work at a Disney location where Disney had just laid off their American workers. What’s more? The American workers had to train the H1B workers as part of their severance package! Even as an Indian citizen and a holder of H1B visa, I would still say that is extremely unfair to the American workers. And how do you think the HDE companies got away with posting THEIR own H1B employees at some other company’s location? You guessed it right. The ‘Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant’ loophole! All they have to do is pay them $60,000 per year (which would have been significantly lower than what the American workers were making) and voila! You can displace any worker you like!

And the worst was still to come. The subsequent lawsuit that was filed by the fired employees was dismissed on the grounds that the hiring of H1B workers by Cognizant and HCL did not impact the firing of Disney workers because the Disney workers were not working for Cognizant or HCL. That is to say, one company can hire a H1B worker, post them to another company’s location, and the other company can fire an existing American worker – all within full legal means and with absolutely no consequence whatsoever!

Visa Abuse Impacts

What this does is two things. Firstly, it is inherently unfair to existing skilled American workers – citizens and permanent residents. But secondly, and more importantly, this abuse of work visas generates a lot of ill will among Americans and among the lawmakers regarding the utility of the H1B visa program overall. Over time, this ill will and negative perceptions will foster the bigger anti-immigrant rhetoric and discussion (as seen with the statements from incoming President Trump on H1B visas), thus leading to more protectionist measures being adopted that will benefit no one and in fact be detrimental to those who have been following the system the right way.

The New H1B Bill

Now coming to the proposed new bill, it offers the following changes to fix this loophole where HDE companies can bypass their additional requirements by hiring an H1B worker with a Master’s degree or by paying him a minimum salary of $60,000 pa:

  1. Raise the minimum salary for Exempt H1B worker to $100,000 and index it to inflation.
  2. Remove the Master’s degree exemption. This means that just because one has a Master’s degree does not make him qualified to be categorized under Exempt H1B worker.

So what this bill proposes to do is to close the loophole by raising the minimum salary for an EHN and by removing the Master’s exemption. Keep in mind that these HDE companies can still continue to hire H1B workers as long as they meet the other requirements. And it is also important to note that this provision does NOT apply to any company that is not on the HDE or WV list. Those companies can continue to hire H1B workers without any additional requirements. It also does not mean that EVERY H1B worker will have to be paid minimum salary of $100,000. (Every H1B worker will, however, be paid the prevailing wage at a minimum – which varies based on location, profession, level, etc). The HDE company will have to pay minimum $100,000 pa salary if they want to bypass the additional requirements listed above. And the bill definitely does not mean that the Master’s degree is mandatory to get an H1B visa!

So after studying this bill in full detail, I have to say that even though I am an Indian citizen who is on an H1B visa in the US, I support this bill. It does cut down a major loophole in the visa program that lets HDE companies to abuse the system. And it pains me to acknowledge that, yes, most of these HDE companies are Indian companies – HCL, Cognizant, Infosys, TCS, Wipro, etc. and get close to 80% of the H1B visas every year.

With regard to the bill itself, I would remind all that this is just introduced. The same bill was introduced last year and was scrapped. So I don’t think it will actually pass this time either, but I hope it does. Because if it passes, then there is going to be a bigger chance of these H1B visas going to those who play by the rules and truly deserve it. And in the long run, visa abuse will reduce thus fostering a positive opinion of this important program among the American people and lawmakers.

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In the next post, I will discuss all the incorrect information that the Indian media has been reporting.

LINKS:

H1B Language in Immigration and Nationality Act (Section 212 (n))

New H1B Bill Text (2016 version)

H1B Employer Notification Requirements

What are Exempt H1B NonImmigrants?

Recruiting Requirements for H1B Dependent Employers

Who is H1B Dependent Employer?

Disney H1B Lawsuit Judgment

Times of India Headline

Discovering American Football

Among my initial impressions of American culture and lifestyle, what really caught my eye were the isolationist tendencies that this country has consciously and sub-consciously adopted over the course of the past 2 centuries. (The validity of the ‘why’ is not relevant to this discussion). And more specifically, how these isolationist policies had manifested themselves in the day to day workings of the society. And of all the different aspects of American culture that exhibit this isolationist propensity, perhaps the most visible, glaring and sometimes obvious one is sports.

American sports (apart from Olympic events) are mostly just that – sports played in America. American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice hockey are sports where the biggest sporting events include teams from within North America playing each other to be crowned ‘World Champions’. (Sure there are instances of international participation – notably for Basketball, and also for Baseball in Latin America and Japan). But for an outsider looking in – like an immigrant such as myself – the universal, unquestioned acceptance of such a largely self-contained system among its people seems to display a certain sense of ignorance, apathy and maybe even some arrogance over other sports that are a lot more popular in the rest of the world. And THIS can and does work towards discouraging people unfamiliar with the sports to explore it.

Additionally, for an immigrant coming in to this country well beyond his/her formative years, it can seem to be a rather daunting, and sometimes even pointless, task to explore the sports. My own initial thoughts went along these lines: “I have no association with these sports. I never grew up with them. I have no reason to be interested in them now. So I will still continue to just watch cricket, soccer and tennis.” And this was (and in many cases, still is) echoed among most of my fellow Indian friends. It would have been that much easier to simply keep my status quo and not make an effort into exploring the product of a seemingly isolationist thinking.

But it is only when one looks beyond this apparent barrier of sports apathy and isolationism does one discover a whole new universe of sporting culture this country has to offer. And so I decided to take the plunge to see what’s out there – at least as far as American Football is concerned.

High angle of fans in Lane Stadium football

Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech

Doing my Master’s in a university with a big football tradition such as Virginia Tech inevitably exposed me to a lot of buzz around the game and the team. An American classmate of mine volunteered to feed my curiosity by watching the VT vs Nebraska (2009) game with me and explaining all the rules and objectives. VT won that game – a rather low scoring encounter with a memorable finish. And I got hooked on to the sport. I watched most of the VT games and even managed to follow some of the other ACC/BCS games that season. I even recollect going to my friend’s super bowl party that winter.

My initial efforts to watch and understand the game may have been borne out of a desire to socialize and make new friends. But over time, the sport itself grew on me – to the extent that I started to watch even non-VT games whenever they were on. So in my third semester (and second football season), I decided to watch a few games at Lane Stadium – home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. That was also the first time I learnt about the tradition of tailgating.

I just couldn’t believe it! I had never seen anything like it before. People drank alcohol for hours before the game, during the game, and for hours after the game! Lane Stadium ended up being a spot where 67,000 drunk college kids cheered on a bunch of other college kids playing football! Wow! It was just incredible! And I definitely wanted more! So I ended up going to 3-4 more games at the Lane Stadium, the most memorable of which being the 28-21 win over Georgia Tech on a Thursday night.

In the end, maybe it was being around a lot of people who all cheered for the same team, maybe it was that I was looking to socialize and make new friends, or maybe it is because I am a big sports guy by nature and American football was a sport that I came to like, or maybe it was a combination of all of them. But whatever may have been the contributing factor, by the time I graduated in December 2010, I was no longer looking at American football as an outsider. I was a fan of the sport and I had a team to root for.

Over the last 6 years since my graduation, I have become even more knowledgeable about the game – not so much its history, as about the tactics, strategy and the team itself. I have a big group of American friends who are passionate about the game, and I feed off their passion and get increasingly more involved in the game over the season. Though the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences in the Midwest have little to do with VT and the ACC, I nevertheless have watched most of the VT games and a bunch of other ACC and other conference games. I have always watched the BCS bowls/playoffs even though there was no team in there to cheer for personally.

I have come to realize that to grow an interest in any new sport, one need 3 things: a general liking to the sport itself, a team to root for, and friends to watch the games with (preferably rooting for the same team). I have been fortunate to have all of them and so I now find myself cursing, clapping, shouting, jumping around and being my usual animated self whenever I am watching a VT game. I follow fan blogs that discuss each game, the team, recruiting and all associated gossip and rumors –  all clear indications that I have something personally invested in the outcome of the games every weekend!

And speaking of having something personally invested in a team, I have also realized that I have a direct affiliation to the Virginia Tech football team. I went to school there and so there is a very valid reason to root for them. Which made me then question my affiliation to all the soccer teams that I have passionately supported for well over a decade now – Chelsea and Juventus. I suppose we don’t need a reason to choose a sports team to root for, but technically speaking, I have a more valid affiliation to VT football than to Chelsea or Juventus! (I know! This is sacrilege!) But I choose not to break my head about that.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is the absence of anything NFL in my encounters with American football. I do watch the games at the bar or at my friends’ place when they are on. I will even appreciate a close/good game regardless of who is playing. But the absence of having a team to root for has pretty much held me back from following it as closely as I do for college football. Many of my friends are either fans of the Broncos or the Packers, so whenever I am watching a game with them, I end up cheering with them. I do have some affinity towards the Broncos, so if I were to really pick a team, I would probably go with them. But until I truly commit to an NFL team and start rooting for it, I probably wouldn’t feel the same way about it as I do with college football.

At the end of the day, I find that I have spent many weekends watching American football with my friends to great satisfaction – bonding, cheering and even having opinions of my own about how the teams should have played. These experiences have proved to be a very fruitful, having served as an easy avenue to assimilate into the American lifestyle and to have a larger sense of belonging in a  new society and culture that is half way around the world from where I grew up. I have benefited greatly from this experience and I definitely intend to keep exploring this further.

 

 

 

 

On Radical Islamic Terrorism

I have typically refrained from writing on religious matters of the terrorism kind. But I write this a day after the Orlando shootings – and I am doing this because I am truly shaken. The tragedy has made me question my own values and the way I see this world and the specific groups of people in it. I have had conflicting ideas and opinions surface in my mind ever since I woke up to the headline yesterday morning. And this post is my effort to sort through it, try to make some sense out of it, and to arrive at an acceptable understanding of the world around me that will not be in conflict with my core values.

Terrorism inspired by religion has become the most visible and tangible threat to the safety of people all over the world. The validation that is provided by religion to carry out the most heinous of attacks cannot be obtained anywhere else. That being said, there is pretty much just one religion that seems to inspire and validate these terrorist acts – Islam. Islamic terrorism has cut through all geographies and boundaries imaginable. There are no safe havens or out of reach places any more. And yes, please, let us just call it for what it is – Radical Islamic terrorism. There is no shame in saying that, and it is completely politically correct. (Disclaimer: I am not a Trump supporter and I will be completely OK if he suffers a stroke and becomes paralyzed tomorrow).

When most, if not all, of the terrorist acts on this planet are inspired by one religion, not acknowledging it and calling it out by name is like saying America does not have a gun problem. Saying that all Muslims in America are peace loving people who are true patriots of the USA and do not have any inclinations towards radicalism is like saying all gun owners are responsible and law abiding citizens who only use their guns for self-defense and hunting. Yes it is true that most Muslims living in America are peace loving people who embrace American values of tolerance and hard work, just like most of the gun owners in America are law abiding citizens who take pride in their guns for the right reasons and emphasize safety and responsibility while using them. But there is always going to be a small percentage of Muslims who get exposed to/seek out and practice extremist points of view, just like there are plenty of nut jobs with huge arsenals of guns because they believe the government is coming to kill them and take away their guns. Just like these paranoid nut jobs who listen to more popular idiots like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck for their daily dose of paranoia, there are Muslims who seek out extremist preaching – either online or through specific mosques – to feed their radical purpose in life. And just like we have the NRA who ensure that sufficient money and influence is maintained in the Congress to prevent any meaningful gun control – thereby implicitly increasing the number of lunatics with guns, there are terrorist organizations all over the world – and radical mosques within the US – who wield enough power, money, freedom and influence to continue spreading fear all over the world.

You don’t have to be a conservative or a liberal to see the above situation for what it is. It is just common sense and is based on simple facts. It is also very unfortunate and a lose/lose situation for all concerned. The inevitable presence of a small percentage of extremists in either camp can and will have everyone who are not part of the group to become apprehensive – or downright fearful – of everyone in it.

It is a loss for the innocent, peace-loving and responsible people in the group because they are prone to be looked upon as ‘one of them’ and are likely to face all the associated ridicule and social stigma that comes with it. It is a loss for an extremist because that is still a life that could have led to something constructive and beautiful. And finally, it is a loss for the general public not just whenever there is a tragedy, but to also have to live a daily lifestyle with fear and conflicting points of view on their own values of tolerance and security.

So calling it ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ is both politically correct, and still secular. It is also common sense. In fact, calling it as such explicitly points out that it is the people who subscribe to the radical portion of Islam – and not all of them – that are the harbingers of such tragedy.

The Orlando shootings have, to no one’s surprise, drawn strong messages from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And what should still be of no surprise is that while Trump used it as an opportunity to call for tougher immigration measures, Clinton used it to further her message on gun control. Both points of view are necessary, and are actually not at all in conflict with each other. To say that the problem and associated solution relates to just one of them is not only obviously incomplete, but also dangerously wrong.

We live in a world where fear is the most precious asset for someone looking to gain power. One more such a tragedy before the elections, and I will be willing to bet on a Trump presidency. The rhetoric is easy and fear feeds fear. But that is not the solution. On the other hand, advocating caution, inaction and to say that we need to treat every Muslim, including those who are radicalized, with love and respect and tolerance – regardless of their explicit intent to kill innocent people – is not only naïve, but also just plain dumb and idiotic. There is a part of the solution that involves force, and it has to be used, and I definitely hope it is indeed used. There is also a part of the solution that involves peace. But the peaceful part of the solution has to come from within the Muslim community by making their collective voices of peace heard all around the world – not just when tragedy strikes, but as an every day message that reminds all fellow Muslims of the dangers of going on the wayward path. If the Muslim friends I have known throughout my life are any indication, there is no shortage of messages of love and peace to spread throughout the world of Islam by those who practice it sincerely.

But I am still waiting for it to happen. And for all our sakes, I hope it does.

2015 Concerts in Review: Part 3

It has finally happened. I have written a Part 3 to something! This in itself is cause for celebration. But I digress. Here is a quick summary of the bands I saw at 8035 Music Festival and Hinterland Music Festival in 2015. Two good festivals, but I have to admit I liked Hinterland that much more. So here goes:

17. Wilco at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: I remember buying a CD of Wilco’s ‘A Ghost is Born’ from the local record store about 4 years ago. To this day, I believe that is his best album. I love ‘Summerteeth’ and I strongly believe that ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ is overrated. He is as good as a songwriter and singer as he is a bad lyricist. But my ratings of his albums and his ability to write good lyrics had absolutely no bearing when I saw him play a few blocks from my apartment at the 8035 music festival. For some reason, I had believed that 8035 would be a perfect place for him to play, and that pretty much just happened. I unfortunately do not remember much from the show as I was sufficiently inebriated and all I pretty much remember is just swaying to his music, singing along and having great fun. I do remember he played most of his greatest hits, including some 3-4 songs from ‘A Ghost is Born’. That’s it. I truly do not remember much else. I am glad I got to see him play some of my favorite songs live, but I also do wish I could remember much from it.

18. Weezer at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: I have absolutely no idea how long ago it was that I had heard to Weezer last. The ‘blue album’ was good and I had heard a few of their other songs. Good show to sing along to. I remember it was night at 9 or so and my friends and I were just so damn tired that, admittedly, we just stayed at the back of the crowd and had a low key experience of the show. They did play Islands in the Sun and that was good enough for me.

19. Lettuce at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: Hands down the best band that played at the 2015 8035! There is something about jam bands and watching them live. It is like driving through the forests of Colorado in Fall. That is just exactly how you must experience it. And Lettuce put on a great show. It didn’t matter if you were familiar with the band or not, you were dancing! They even got a touring singer come out and sing vocals for a few really groovy funk numbers. Definitely the highlight of the entire music festival.

Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: A new music festival that was scheduled to take place at the Waterworks park, less than a mile from my apartment had some last minute changes in the venue due to flooding concerns. With the venue moved at the last moment from Des Moines to St. Charles, a small town half an hour down I-35, I was a little bit apprehensive about the venue but it turned out to be just great. And the whole music festival went so well, that the organizers are going to stick with St. Charles for this year’s edition. Works for me!

20. Future Islands at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: This is a band that I don’t think I will get tired of seeing them live. This was my second time, having seen them at Wooly’s in 2014, and it was an even better show. That lead singer can dance. Clearly a ladies’ man (he was even wearing golden color boots), he was sweating and “ready to take all the women to the moon” by the end of the show (overheard at the show). This band really does redefine bass grooves and showmanship. Grace Potter, true to her name, puts on a show with enormous amounts of grace. This man, on the other hand, puts on a show with sheer raw energy and intensity. Regardless of whether you are familiar with this band or not, you WILL be dancing at their show. I also do sincerely hope they starts playing Like the Moon at their shows. I could make an argument that it is their best hidden gem, and it is so good that it doesn’t deserve to be hidden anymore. On a personal note, this band brings back strong memories from my solo vacation to Colorado. I was, after all playing ‘Singles’ for a good part of the 1600 mile drive. FYI, I could start dancing right now listening to them on my earphones in the coffee shop.

21. St. Paul and the Broken Bones at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Second time as well, having seen them at Wooly’s in 2014. Mr. Paul, the lead singer, really is the Ottis Redding of this generation. And the band’s basslines will always remind me that I love playing the bass guitar. They played an hour long set at the festival in the sweltering 95 degree heat, AND they did so wearing full fledged suits! I think they did a bit of sweating. But this band is one of my favorite bands and they introduced me to a genre I didn’t know existed and I love. ‘Half a City’ is a great debut album and I am looking forward to an even better sophomore. And then some more shows!

22. Madisen Ward and Mama Bear at Hinterland Music Festival AND Vaudewille Mews: That is right. I saw this band twice last year, and it is right at the top of bands I discovered in 2015. This is a mother and son duo who play folk music. I have not been naturally attracted to folk music like I have been to so many other genres. I had always felt that most bands focus more on the sound of folk music than on the melody of the songs. Which is why I fell in love with MW first time I heard Silent Movies. But Silent Movies was just one of the 12 beautiful and melodious songs on their debut album ‘Skeleton Crew’. In fact, it was also an anomaly, as it seemed to be a rather happy song. Almost every other song on their album is the kind of song you listen to just before you throw yourself off a cliff. I could go one step ahead and say that listening to them when you are feeling gloomy can make you feel that the ‘jumping off a cliff’ part is actually a reasonable idea. Perhaps, at this point, I should point out that the most depressing song I heard in 2015 was from ‘Skeleton Crew’ and it is Dead Daffodils. Yes, I know just the name of the song can make you feel like giving up on life altogether. The song will make sure you do just that.

As far as the shows went, I have to admire the old woman’s passion to travel so much and have all that energy at that age to play so many shows in a year. At the Vaudewille Mews show, she played a haunting, stripped down version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams and Ben E King’s Stand By Me. The VM show was a very intimate one and I was right in front of the band. And this really is a band that one should watch in an intimate venue. Madisen Ward has a beautiful voice that seems to be singing in the most appropriate genre and melody. Down in Mississippi will always be a highlight at their shows just because of the power of MW’s voice and the spell that it casts on the audience, captivating them completely. And that effect is amplified best at an intimate venue.

I am hoping to catch them again in Kansas City this July. It won’t be at an intimate venue, but it will do just the same. And I will definitely be on the lookout for their sophomore album.

23. TV on the Radio at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Take David Bowie, mix it with copious amounts of Nine Inch Nails, then add some Prince for good measure, and you might just begin to envision how TVOTR sounds like. ‘Seeds’ is the best summer album I have heard since ‘Evil Friends’ by Portugal. The Man. And with a back catalog that has songs such as Wolf Like Me, Staring at the Sun, this band’s live shows do not disappoint. There is a lot of DJ stuff in their sounds, and a lot of live instruments as well. I don’t mind either way simply because they have created a very refreshing new sound that you can sing along (Happy Idiot), dance to (Lazerray) and even get charged up ready to smash some windows (Wolf Like Me). I also do hope they start playing Right Now – easily the best dance track of their entire catalog – on their shows. ‘Seeds’ is an album I will always associate with the summer of 2015 and everything it felt like. I still do need to properly explore their back catalog and will be on the lookout for their next album/tour. Strongly recommend this band!

24. Brandi Carlile at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Country music has always been at the wrong end of my taste spectrum. I have always felt that mainstream country has its focus more on song structure, sound and lyrics and not much on creating new melody (kinda like blues too). Brandi Carlile is one of the exceptions and I fully enjoy her music. Her show was high energy with the entire crowd singing along to most of the songs. But I have to admit, the highlight of the show when she got the members of the Old Crow Medicine Show join her on stage to play a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California! She poured her heart and soul into singing the high pitch portions of the song, and it was truly impressive and powerful! That’s when it hit me that here is a bluegrass band and a country singer covering a rock n’ roll classic by Led Zeppelin. I suppose all is well with mankind after all. I am looking to see her in concert this month (June) again in Des Moines, and I know I won’t be disappointed.

Honorable mention to Old Crow Medicine Show and a not so honorable mention to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Edward Sharpe was drunk and high and could barely get himself to sing to the most basic standards. Shame on him for such lack of professionalism).

2015 Concerts in Review: Part 2

It appears that I am now able to actually conjure up Part 2 of a post, as opposed to simply intending to do so. So here is the Part 2 (of 4) for reviewing the concerts i went to in 2015 – the best year on record for me. Part 1 can be found here.

9. Tame Impala at Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO: One of the few bands that I have become a superfan of in the past 2-3 years is Tame Impala. Kevin Parker is well on his way to become a truly versatile musician and producer. ‘Lonerism’ was one of the best albums I heard in 2014, and his latest album ‘Currents’ is even better. However, the concert was scheduled prior to the release of his latest album (a practice I am not particularly a big fan of). So even though he did play Let it Happen, Eventually, Cause I’m a Man (he did NOT play The Less I Know the Better), I was not familiar with them. But he did play most of ‘Lonerism’, so that pretty much got me my money’s worth. In fact, it made up for the last time I saw them Live and missed half their show.

I have to admit this was the most ‘psychedelic’ show I had ever been to. The visuals, of which there were plenty, pretty much consisted of hypnotic wheels, laser beams generating abstract images, and pretty much just dope shit. I suppose that is the kind of stuff one sees when they are on shrooms, but I wouldn’t know (gotta fix that!). Quite fitting the band’s music for sure. I am definitely looking forward to seeing them live again when they play their new album – especially now that I know it inside out!

10. Dave Matthews Band at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, IA: I got on the DMB wagon way way late. In fact I got on it so late, that I found out many people who were on it had gotten off it! I eventually learnt that his group of fans were the kind who get overly obsessed with the man – to the point where they know every single song he has made, and also believe that he can do no wrong. This would typically generate a hype among his super-fans that could appear manufactured for the non-super-fans. And I can totally see why this could be putting off for folks who do not want to be identified with the super-fans. As far as my own discovery goes, I had no clue about the overly obsessive mindset of his fans. I just happened to buy ‘Crash’ at a sale and proceeded to listen to it, and I loved it. Then I listened to ‘Busted Stuff’ and then to ‘Under the Table and Dreaming’ and loved all of it. Then I found out he was playing in Des Moines and went to the show with a friend. I still listen to him and will continue to do so and go to more concerts if I can.

Now about the show: I will go ahead and say it – DMB is in the top 3 shows I have ever seen in terms of pure musicianship. The other two being Steven Wilson and King Crimson. In fact, it is probably safe to say that Dave Matthews was the worst musician on stage. And the fact that that is a compliment should indicate how good his bandmates are. (I could easily say that about Steven Wilson as well). The band first played an acoustic set with Dave looking remarkably sober (to which my friend reacted “I didn’t pay all this money to see Dave play sober!”) and then played an electric set (with the ‘sober problem’ quite evidently fixed during the break). This being my first DMB show, it was truly fantastic to see how the whole crowd seemed to know the words to each and every song that he played. (Super fans indeed!) And with such a huge back catalog, the band plays a different set every night, preserving the element of surprise (or disappointment) for everyone.

With that being the state, I was pretty satisfied with the final setlist. He played most of my favorites #41, What would You Say?, Ants Marching, Space Between and, of course, Grey Street. Sure I would have loved for him to play Satellite and Jimi Thing, but hey there is always another time. Overall it was a very energizing experience being around such passionate fans jumping and singing and screaming all the time – something I will remember more than just fondly. And I truly mean it when I say I had no business being there in the first place – unstoned. Gotta definitely fix that next time! And trust me, there WILL BE a next time!

11. Esperaza Spalding at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: I like to play bass guitar. Esperaza Spalding plays bass guitar, and she is pretty good at it. That was pretty much the reason I went there. And she did not disappoint. Now imagine how well you can recite the English alphabet. Pretty easy right? Perhaps something that you can just play around and still get it right and not even put in any effort at all. It’s like you just own the whole act of reciting the alphabet. Playing bass is Esperaza Spalding’s equivalent of reciting the English alphabet. It was not just her skill I was impressed with. It was the fact that she made it look so god damn easy that blew me away. I just cannot emphasize that enough. She not only made the bass guitar sing, she also made it dance, headbang, clap, jump up and down and just make the crowd completely forget that it was just nothing more than a god damn bass guitar. Lots of funk, some reggae, some rock, and lots of jazz and a whole lot of fun! I may not explore her music separately but will definitely be going to see her live again if I get a chance!

12. Shania Twain at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, IA: My one true guilty pleasure, and honestly I don’t think I would even think twice about calling it guilty. ‘Come on Over’ was one of the first albums I fell in love with back in high school. My friend and I were totally looking forward to this for months together. Unfortunately, the timing of certain events led to me just go there by myself. I have to admit I couldn’t enjoy the show as much as I had anticipated I would due to the circumstances, but I did see her play all the songs I wanted her to – Man! I feel like a woman!, Don’t be Stupid, Rock this Country, From this Moment on, You’re still the one, I’m gonna getcha good!, and of course, That Don’t Impress me Much! This was probably her last tour, so I am glad I got to see her. The venue was packed to capacity and I have to admit I was surprised to find a lot of dudes – much more than what I had expected!

13. The Aristocrats at The Gaslamp, Des Moines, IA: The Aristocrats is a band that consists of Marco Minneman, Guthrie Govan (both of whom play for Steven Wilson’s band) and Bryan Beller. I had missed out on watching Marco and Guthrie play with Steven as they were doing their own thing with The Aristocrats. But no worries. The band decided to play at The Gaslamp! (First reaction when I heard about it: “Wait, what? The fuckin’ Gaslamp? If I tried hard enough, I could get a gig for myself there!”) It is an almost dive bar with a makeshift stage and a room with a capacity of about 100 max, and it is just about 2-3 blocks from my apartment. And The Aristocrats played here. It was surprising to the point of being plain ridiculous. But it did happen, and 3 musicians put up a great show. There was a crowd of about 80 or so and the band played great music – mostly instrumental. It was not a jam band by any means, but a band which use their instruments to play precise songs. Smuggler’s Corridor was my personal favorite (apparently inspired by the Breaking Bad scene where Walt kicks a barrel full of money across the desert). All in all, I was majorly satisfied to see some of my favorite musicians play at the fuckin’ Gaslamp, of all places! Still don’t believe it!

14. Beach House at The Slowdown, Omaha, NE: One of the other bands (after Tame Impala) that I have become a super fan of is Beach House. This band simply makes some of the most depressing, melodious, poetic and ultimately beautiful songs I have heard in my life. I saw them at The Slowdown, which has become my personal favorite venue in all the Midwest – a very intimate place where everyone gets to see and hear the band optimally. Put it the other way round, I would say that Beach House is the kind of band you want to see at The Slowdown.

I cannot praise the band’s Teen Dream album enough. It is one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard and it is an album that I can never simply play in the background. It will always demand my full attention and require an emotional investment every time I choose to listen to it. It is THAT intense. The concert was exactly like that – intense. Nobody in the crowd said a fucking word throughout the show. (It probably helped that the band had the venue paste notes asking the crowd to maintain silence throughout the show). And neither did I. I was more than happy to just shut the fuck up and let the music do the talking. And speak to me it did. Songs from ‘Depression Cherry’, ‘Teen Dream’ and ‘Bloom’ concocted a feeling of great satisfaction and contentment – something that told me that I had everything I ever needed and that it was now time to give something back. And if I am to be very specific and honest, I will say that this was the show where I felt the strongest connection to the band and to the music – something that even led to the minor epiphany during Lazuli. Sure they didn’t play that one song (10 Mile Stereo) that I had believed would push my experience into the plane of higher consciousness. But in the end, they didn’t need to. Wild, Myth, Silver Soul, Walk in the Park, Other People, and Lazuli were sufficient to take me to that other place and gently guide me back to earth.

I will always cherish this particular show. It reminded me of the Sigur Ros show that I saw in 2013 – a spiritual experience that had to be set aside from all the other shows I have been to. I almost decided to make the drive to Lawrence, KS to see them live again the following evening. And next time I just might.

15. Kraftwerk at Arvest Bank Theater, Kansas City, MO: Honest to God, I didn’t even know the band members were still even alive until a couple of years ago. I have had an exceptionally memorable bond with this band. ‘The Man Machine’ was, after all, one of the first albums I fell in love with when I was just a 6 year old kid. I would play the cassette, close my eyes and imagine that I was on a spaceship with the band playing the songs to an ecstatic crowd. And late last summer, there I was, watching the band play their best hits. It may not have been a spaceship, but fuck you, to me it was!

First of all, it was a 3-D show. That is correct. A 3-Dimensional show where the band members stood behind their keyboards in some kind of a glowing space suit (I told you it was a god damn space ship!) and mind-fuck visuals were beamed on the screen behind them in 3D. The crowd were given 3D glasses for the show and the visuals were definitely very creative and detailed. It included a virtual race circuit for Autobahn, a Fritz Lang inspired Metropolis for, well, Metropolis, a bullet train for Trans Europe Express and so on. There was even a sequence during Spacelab where a spaceship landed in a spot that was clearly made to look like downtown Kansas City. And so yes, again, fuck you! I was in a god damn spaceship! (Don’t you dare mess with my childhood dream!)

Seriously, the stage just consisted of the 4 dudes and their keyboards. Nothing else, no one else. And I have to admit it was hard to figure out how much of their music was pre-programmed and how much of it was played live. But I don’t think that really mattered much. The setlist was pretty much their Greatest Hits, with an added bonus of them playing the full The Man Machine album! This included an encore where they played The Robots with 4 actual robots in place of the band members. Pretty cool really. Computer Love, Radioactivity, Autobahn, Trans Europe Express, all their best songs were played that night.

I truly wished it was not a seated show and instead consisted of sufficient amounts of alcohol consumption and general bad dancing and overall merry making in a standing show. But hey, I don’t think I can complain at all. The first thing I did after the show was call up my dad and tell him how exciting it was to see the band that he had introduced me to when I was a kid. I do wish I could have taken him to the show, I know it would have meant a lot to him, but alas, there was this small issue of him being half way around the world from me.

I will always be glad that I got to see the band play live in my, and more importantly, their lifetime.

16. Mark Knopfler at Chicago Theater, Chicago, IL: Mark Knopfler has a very special place in my life. Dire Straits was the first band that I truly fell in love with – well before I discovered Pink Floyd. I knew nothing about the band, but a cassette I rented in my high school became the start of a great bond that I would develop with the music and lyrics of Dire Straits. It was the band that began the ‘mellowing down’ process of my later adolescence, heralding a transition from all things metal to something more nuanced and melodious. I had the opportunity to see him open for Bob Dylan a few years ago in Omaha. But I knew that show did not do justice to his vast catalog and to his own deserved place as the main act. But this one did – for the most part. I am not going to dwell much on the fact that I have never seen any artist be so bored and uninterested in singing some of their own songs as I did with Knopfler singing Sultans of Swing and So Far Away. And the reason I am not going to dwell on it is because of what else he played, and played supremely well.

With every artist, I have a few songs that I truly love. These are not necessarily B-sides but maybe even like C or D sides, so to speak. They are almost never performed live and you will rarely hear them on the radio. I tend to strongly associate these songs with certain emotions, a specific state of mind, a place, a vision from the past, a vision for the then future, a certain someone, a feeling of what could have been perhaps, some regret, an awareness of the desire for a different set of outcomes in the past, and some inevitable, leftover hope for the future. And it has typically been an unfulfilled hope to see these songs played live. So when Mark Knopfler played two of those songs – On Every Street and Your Latest Trick – it actually took me a few seconds to figure out what song he was actually playing. I hadn’t heard them in years in an apparent attempt to isolate and box all the feelings, emotions and memories that came with it. And I had been largely successful at it too. Because when those memories came flooding back to me at the Chicago Theater, they were all firmly in hindsight; and I was looking back with a sense of sympathy and mature acknowledgment, instead of nostalgia and regret. It was a powerful experience being there and watching him play those two songs that captured so much of my later adolescence so deeply.

In the end, it almost became that everything else was a bonus. But that would be not only unfair, but also plain incorrect. Romeo & Juliet, Paraguay, Privateering, and Theme from Local Hero all stood out on their own. And at the end, I felt that I had finally laid to rest a longing from my adolescent days to see Mark Knopfler live and to see him play those songs that could have very well been the soundtrack to those times.