Three weeks of unadulterated Russia. An awesome trip that gave me a lot of time to explore the intriguing country.
How am I on another trip already?
That’s a story for another post. For now, let’s stick to the Russia story. My story. Not the story that keeps breaking the news. (If you know what I mean)
My trip kicked off in Moscow, but as always, I was not going to roam around another big city. I am from one and they are all the same. All the major cities in Europe pretty much follow the same template. There is one city square, some churches, museums, and of course, the business centers. Whoever travels to see business centers?!
So, instead of Moscow, I made plans for Murmansk, a city situated far up north, north-west to be exact.
After a 2-hour flight from the bustling capital of Moscow, I was transported to this small city. It had the smallest airport that I have ever seen. It was just a series of small rooms and a parking lot. My driver was already waiting for me in the parking lot. If there’s one thing that I have learned from my many travel experiences, it is this – if you are going to a small city, hire a taxi for the whole trip. Otherwise, a 1:00 AM arrival will end up with you stranded at the airport. You are welcome.
The Azimut Hotel, where I was staying, was considerably far and the driver dropped me there at around 2:30 AM. I was exhausted and excited at the same time. I still had 5 hours before my taxi driver would return to pick me up.
And, why was I in Murmansk? To see the Northern Lights, silly.
Yes! I was on a hunt for the Northern Lights. I was also intrigued to see the city by the Kola Peninsula that does not receive any sunlight during the polar winter for 40 days straight. The indigenous people here are called the Saami. These are some badass people. They might look like quaint reindeer herding farmers, but the geography of this tundra region is branded in their brain, which makes them master hunters and fishermen. They know where to find food in this freezing cold. And I was going to meet them later at the Siberian Husky Farm.
Oh, it was great!
I went reindeer sledding, dog sledding, and even got to feast on a traditional Saami meal. There was hot salmon soup and delicious stewed reindeer which was absolutely perfect for the weather. And the buckwheat with cowberry pastries for dessert was a completely new experience. It was so sumptuous.
I also went to a Saami Settlement. Unfortunately, no one in the settlement spoke English and their Russian was broken too. So, I had to leave without getting a chance to interact with them.
But leaving the disappointment behind me, I was ready for nature’s ultimate magical show – The Northern Lights. My viewing point was in the snowy village of Kirvosk. Now, I was super excited because I had intel from one of my followers that the Northern Lights had made an appearance in Finland the previous night and I was basically looking at the same sky. Kirvosk too was another food fiesta for me. I can’t even remember what all I ate, but I do remember having a lot of mulled wine.
My last day in Murmansk was the highlight of my trip. I embarked on a 4-hour snow mobile tour, which was definitely one of the best things I have ever done in my life. It definitely makes it to the top 3 – alongside hiking the Lions Head in Cape Town and skydiving over the Swiss Alps. Imagine the mountains, in all their snowy glory, and not even one soul in sight. It is weirdly peaceful.
Did I mention the temperature? Well, it was -18 degrees farenheit. So, it was double the fun. Thank the lord that I was not there during the polar winters when the sun is on a 40-day vacation. The sun does rise, but only barely from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. It kind of sits in the middle of the sky in a midrise for the entire four hours creating this beyond picturesque backdrop.
I know at this point you’re wondering wait – "What happened to the Northern Lights? Did you see the lights?"
Well, no. I know! I was disappointed too, but I had contingency plans, which worked out just fine.
Mexico City is a city full of infinite experiences and absolute magic. This ancient city has now developed into a sprawling metroplex lined with history, culture, and romance that would take more than one lifetime to explore. However, if you only had one-day there are a few things you should be sure to experience before you return for more.
On my way to Cancun for a wedding, I had a 17-hour layover in Mexico City. I landed in Mexico at 6 AM . It took me about an hour and a half to get through immigration and another 45 minutes to freshen up and find the lockers where you can store your luggage. I was ready, I got on the subway to meet my first tour guide.
If you thought the trains in NYC were packed you don't ever want to see the ones in Mexico City; I might have been borderline sexually assaulted this morning. The trains are so crowded they designate the first two cars of every train as "women only" cars for safety. So, it took me another 45 minutes to get to my meeting point and I was pretty early so I decided to eat breakfast. I ordered a scrambled egg/chorizo/chipotle concoction, which turned out to be quite amazing.
Finally met my guide, Francisco, and I ended up being the ONLY person on the tour, so I convinced him to take me to all his spots (Lol) after seeing the tourist sites of course. The best place to head for a short day long layover is the main plaza of Mexico City – Zócalo. I visited the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral which dominates the vast expanse of Mexico City’s central square.
The Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana) is not only one of Mexico’s most treasured architectural masterpieces, it is also Latin America’s largest and oldest cathedral. This historic place is a great source of Mexican pride and now houses the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico.
My next stop was The Templo Mayor on the northeast corner of the plaza. Since I'm already in the plaza, we headed over to the Museo del Templo Mayor, one of the best and biggest museums in Mexico City. The museum tells the history of Mexico from the very early tribes to the rise of the great Aztec empire and the eventual conquest by the Spanish. There are thousands of things to see and you can easily spend most of your day in the museum if you are a history fan.
Then, we headed to The Casa de los Azulejos or "House of Tiles" – an 18th-century palace in Mexico City. I suppose it is so iconic and stunning inside. Bit like visiting NYC and going to the Empire State Building or London and seeing the Houses of Parliament. It's a Mexican institution. The building is distinguished by its facade, which is covered on three sides by blue and white tile of Puebla state.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is another prominent cultural center in Mexico City I visited. It has hosted some of the most notable events in music, dance, theatre, opera and literature and has held important exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography. Consequently, the Palacio de Bellas Artes has been called the "Cathedral of Art in Mexico". Interesting architecture, some decent murals, a few noteworthy paintings make the Palacio worth a visit.
The building is located on the western side of the historic center of Mexico City. Now normally, museums are a bit of a bore and you can blow through them in about an hour (maybe you are dying to escape by the end of it), but museums in Mexico City are completely different.
After the touristy stops, the real fun commenced! We went to eat crickets and some other weird animal. We also took shots of Mezcal at the local market and he took me to get tacos. Yup! I'm in love at this point (Lol). The only acceptable thing to eat for lunch in Mexico City is street food. If you don’t eat the street food in Mexico City, you’re basic.
That tour finishes and Francisco walks me to meet my next guide, Rod. Once again, I'm the ONLY person on the tour, so we make our way to the Teotihuacán Pyramids. I climbed half way up on both the big ones (view from the midway point is amazing). The mysterious Teotihuacán Pyramids were built around 100 BC as the centerpiece of an enormous ancient city. They were inexplicably abandoned centuries before the arrival of the Aztecs, who called the ancient architectural marvel the Birthplace of the Gods.
One very interesting thing he told me is that the pyramids are not necessarily pyramids in the typical sense (like in egypt). There is nothing inside the pyramids in Mexico; instead they climb up to the top of them and use the altars for prayers. They basically use it to be closer to God.
From there we go visit three local families and spend some time with them for a few hours. One of the host families cooked us dinner. I ate cactus, chicken, chorizo, rice and beans and then I had tapioca for dessert. Later had a Victoria beer (coronas rival) to wash down all the goodness, I had a few more shots of some homemade alcohol and now I'm back at the airport.
All in all, Mexico City is a place that offers you unique experiences that you won’t be able to get anywhere else. A mix of poor and rich, new and old, paintings and performances, you are sure to have an unforgettable adventure!
Any disruptive technology has to face its fair share of challenges in its nascent stage of growth. It could be electric cars, it could be 3D printing, or it could be the most successful cryptocurrency in the world. They are all still used by a rather small percentage of the world population, although we know that they are the future. Bitcoin is making people take notice of cryptocurrencies and has taken the world of financial services by storm. The symptoms evident in the financial services sector today are similar to what the mass media showed in the nineties. So, is bitcoin on the path to becoming the next internet? Let’s try to understand the comparison.
Both are not owned by anyone
Bitcoin is a revolutionary concept. There is no one authority that controls the bitcoin. Governments or any private players do not control the value of this currency, unlike the national currencies of the world. In effect, it is shielded from any changes in the monetary and fiscal policies of a country. Bitcoin works as a peer-to-peer network. Users and transactions are added to a shared public ledger. This is called a blockchain. If there was a voluntary project, where people publicly updated all their Master Card transactions, then that would look very much similar to a blockchain.
The decentralized nature of the cryptocurrency is very similar to the internet. No one organization or government owns the internet. This is the very reason why the internet has become synonymous with freedom. In the 1990s, media houses coughed at experts who claimed that news will be read online in the future. With all the major media houses moving online today, they are not coughing so much now.
Both offer easy access to everything in their domain
The internet was initially built as a mode of connecting universities and other research institutions for sharing knowledge and working in a collaborative mode. As the internet grew, it offered a lot of information freely to the users. This information was locked away in books, which were locked away in libraries inside the universities. You had to be either a student or a professor at the university to have access to that information. The internet got rid of these restrictions.
The same kind of free access is what is making Bitcoin popular as well.When people pay via regular payment networks, they have to jump through a lot of hoops. Imagine applying for a credit card. You need a good credit score to be eligible and get a high credit limit on the credit card, comply with a lot of regulations, and then you have to pay a fee to keep using the card. On the other hand, Bitcoin is like an open field. Absolutely anyone can use it. There is no regulation or limitation on how bitcoin-based services can use it. Since there are no rules, everybody is eligible to use it, and there is no fee.
Both offered fertile ground for experimentation
The internet in the eighties was not as friendly as you see it today. It took a patient and determined user to work through the minutes it took to open a website. It would take anyone hours to get anything useful out of the network. But, these challenges and the complete freedom to tackle them gave us the most innovative companies like Google, Amazon, and what not.
This is true for bitcoin as well. The freedom to innovate is tremendous in this space. It can make international money transfers faster; it can make transactions dramatically more secure; it can even create services that do not even exist today. The blockchain technology that powers bitcoins has the potential to make the financial service sector stand on its head. Does this sound familiar?
It is not radical anymore to think that an unregulated currency like bitcoin will become a mainstream currency today. But, like the internet, the currency is gaining ground. Financial institutions are also dabbling with blockchain technology using Enterprise Ethereum, Hyperledger, or even by creating their own standalone platforms. It is possible that all players in the financial world will have to upgrade themselves to this new development as media houses were once forced to do so, after the advent of the internet.
I attended my first community board meeting on September 11, 2017. Just before I get into my recap of the meeting, let's indulge in a history lesson.
I am a Brooklyn native. I was born in Flatbush where I lived for ten years; migrated to Canarsie, 13 years later moved back to Flatbush where I have lived for more than four years now. Just to summarize, that makes me 27 and highly qualified to speak on the neighborhood.
Back to the meeting - I've wanted to attend a community board meeting now for about a year. However; life and time constraints have always gotten in the way. Thanks to the powers that be, I finally made it to one. For those that don't know, community boards decide the fate of your neighborhood. Everything you can think of that your community needs starts with the community board. The community board plays an important advisory role in dealing with land use and zoning matters, the City budget, municipal service delivery, and many other issues relating to the community’s welfare. For more information on the role of the community board in NYC check here.
Like any disgruntled resident, I came to the meeting with a list of things that I wanted to be fixed. However; I’m a very calculated person so I wasn't going to just spit out a laundry list of complaints at my first meeting. I simply came to observe how the board functions and what I could expect out of the board. I needed to figure out the best way to get my concerns acknowledged and acted upon.
I listened to council members, and board members report about the accomplishments they've achieved for their distinct neighborhoods. They were particular about items such as placing stop lights at dangerous intersections, hiring a crossing guard for school zones, planting trees, etc. I became extremely frustrated because these great things were being done in other districts while the one I lived in remains stagnant.
I left the meeting feeling a multitude of emotions. I did not quite know how I felt, but there was one thing I did know, and that was that I could not wait for someone else to come along and give my community the makeover it needed. From that thought, was born the idea of “Fresh Start.”
During my time away from Flatbush, I lived in Nashville, TN for four years and have visited many communities both in and out of the United States. After seeing how other neighborhoods take care of their communities, I couldn't understand why we were ok with living in filth in NYC - it's not just Brooklyn, but the entire NYC metropolitan area is characterized as one of the dirtiest cities in the US - #11 to be exact per a 2012 Forbes ranking.
I've witnessed the neighborhood change due to gentrification over the four years I've migrated back - Multiple businesses popping up, new construction homes and condominiums - Yet, despite growing infrastructural developments within the community, our streets and parks are still plagued with dirt. I grew tired of walking over piles of garbage every morning as I traveled to work. We must approach cleanliness in an entirely new and different way if we are to reclaim our communities; we must take a giant stride towards a Fresh Start.
"Fresh Start" is a community giving campaign ran by the community and serving the community. Our goal is to keep the neighborhood clean while providing residents with the opportunity to earn money working where they live. Fresh Start will provide clean-up initiatives to help keep Flatbush at its best for everyone to enjoy.
For more information on Fresh Start and how to contribute click here.
Bitcoin, the world’s most successful cryptocurrency, has already provided ample evidence that the technology underpinning it, Blockchain, is a robust platform for financial transactions. It now appears that banks from all over the world were taking notes all this time. Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Societe Generale, Commerzbank, Barclays, Credit Suisse, UBS, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and many other international banks are in various stages of adopting Blockchain for a wide range of banking applications.
It appears that financial institutions are taking a complete U-turn from calling Blockchain a risky, if not illegal, technology to a powerful alternative to the current technology solutions that are presently supporting the financial industry. What is driving their change of hearts?
Well, the banks have known for some time that the Blockchain technology can transform the way financial transactions are conducted at the moment. For instance, transactions made over Blockchain are instantaneous. They happen in real time. This is in complete contrast to the present international financial system, wherein the transactions often take days, if not weeks, to be executed. First the request for the execution of a transaction is submitted. Then the identity of the initiator and the identity of the account holder are verified. Finally, the transactions are formalized only after the verification. But, the identities of the account holders and initiators are not always available to the bank that is executing the transaction. So, getting in touch with the bank who have their identities can add more time to the transactions.
Blockchain maintains a distributed ledger. Thanks to this, identities can be verified and transactions formalized even without revealing the identities of the account holders. This is a huge milestone in the direction of preventing identity theft and hacking. So, Blockchain increases the transparency of transactions as well as provides a higher degree of security to the entire financial system.
The benefits of implementing Blockchain in the banking industry are plenty and growing. One estimate puts the cost savings accrued by banks in international payments at $15 to $20 billion. Consumers too, who have to rely on relatively expensive means of international money transfer mechanisms, such as Western Union, MoneyGram, and PayPal, will be able to transfer money at a fraction of the costs charged by these institutions.
Ultimately Blockchain is gearing up to challenge the established worldwide payment enablers like Visa and MasterCard. But, for that to happen, Blockchain should first show that it can grow networks that are big enough to substitute Visa and MasterCard, and that is not easy. Governments’ and central banks’ concerns around anonymity can keep major markets out of the Blockchain’s networks. Yet, there is a lot of hope that Blockchain is the future of banking, and that hope is not without basis.
Fujitsu, a Japanese Blockchain technology enabler, has already signed up banks that are part of the Japanese Bankers Association (JBA) to test its cloud-service platform that is built on Blockchain. Japanese banks are using the Fujitsu Blockchain platform to develop applications for making instantaneous, safe and secure transactions and are testing them. In Europe, UBS is leading the effort by employing the services of Clearmatics. Not to be left behind, IBM is pushing through a similar platform in Europe.
There are now clear indications that the first of the Blockchain powered financial systems could well be in place for public use in a matter of a few years.
Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin, a type of encrypted digital currency. But unlike Bitcoin, Blockchain is not a strictly financial tool. Although it is designed as a general ledger, in its simplest sense, it’s a way to move and store blocks of cryptographically validated data that users can’t corrupt. In other words, it creates a transparent paper trail that anyone can access, but no one can alter. That makes Blockchain far more than a financial tool—it makes it the latest way of sharing, validating, or otherwise endorsing almost any kind of value point. Now we will look at some interesting places Blockchain may revolutionize the future and a couple of places it is making a difference today.
Impact on Audit Practices
Like most forms of technology, blockchain in accounting and audit greatly reduces the potential for errors when reconciling complex and disparate information from multiple sources. Further, accounting records are not alterable once committed under blockchain, even by the owners of the accounting system. “In the future, virtually every function in the world of Financial Services will be displaced, disintermediated and decentralized,” said Ron Quaranta, Chairman of the Wall Street Blockchain Alliance. Because every transaction is recorded and verified, the integrity of financial records is guaranteed. While impressive, this technology has the potential to greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for auditing resources—potentially disrupting the accounting profession as a whole. “Our technology has finally caught up with our desire to transact, without the need to trust the other party, and without the need for an intermediary,” said Quaranta.
Smart Contracts in the Legal Profession
There is a digital revolution going on in the legal industry and blockchain is the technology leading this transformation. The law is being digitized. If you have ever had to close a mortgage or been part of any legal dispute you know that lawyers are good at creating tons of paperwork.
If we can digitize the process of keeping track of the paper trail, then it will reduce the cost and potential for human error. It could be a game changer. Firms can focus on recording everything on a shared ledger that becomes irrefutable digital proof that this legal event happened between two parties. This could be anything from a marriage to a divorce proceeding; a house sale to a land reclamation; and anything else that involves digital proof. Cutting costs out of the legal system from administration to time would be a game changer for the legal profession.
Impact on Contract Ordering and Signing
Think of all those components being bought and sold in the supply chains of the world, and then think about all those components being recorded in near real-time on a shared ledger. They have been talking about having real time transactions around bills of lading and letters of credit but the challenge has been recording of the bill and then documenting the movement of the assets.
If we digitize the bills and letters of credit, then you have a more real-time view of the world and supply chain. It is a smarter system because you can record more than just a product’s serial number and value like the current systems allow.
You can record virtually any other information you want like destination, who is shipping it, when it reaches port, tax, and government clearance. That is why it’s a smarter tracking system. The banks that invests and adopts this sort of system will have a competitive advantage in the future.
Transparent Digital Voting Process
Think about it for a minute. A secure voting record that requires authentication of a voter’s identity and has a trusted tally. Blockchains can serve as the medium for casting, tracking, and counting votes so that there is never a question of voter-fraud, lost records, or fowl-play. By casting votes as transactions within the blockchain, voters can agree on the final count because they can count the votes themselves, and because of the blockchain audit trail, they can verify that no votes were changed or removed, and no illegitimate votes were added.
Impact on Sales and Funds Transfer
Blockchain technology enables assets to be transferred directly from user to user, removing any middleman – one of its many advantages. These assets could be anything from cryptocurrencies to data such as invoices, insurance documents, or shipping receipts.
To take the simplest example, a person can directly transfer a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin to family members, without the backing of a financial institution or by owning a banking account. Both parties can trust that the transfer is secure and forever recorded in the cryptocurrency’s blockchain.
Healthcare institutions suffer from an inability to securely share data across platforms. Better data collaboration between providers means higher probability of accurate diagnoses, higher likelihood of effective treatments, and the increased ability of healthcare systems to deliver cost-effective care.
Blockchain can allow hospitals, payers, and other parties in the healthcare value-chain to share access to their networks without compromising data security and integrity. To give you a simple example, a hospital has up to 20 different ways to enter a patient’s date of birth and no ways to standardize it. Blockchain would allow the hospital to tie a patient to their data rather than tie them to their identity.
As mentioned above, most of these applications are still underdeveloped. The future potential of the Blockchain applications is still unraveling. The next couple of years will be all about experimenting and applying to all aspects of society. Regardless of which application comes first on a global scale, the bottom line is, Blockchain is here to stay and is transforming how our society functions.