Ajay Kaul

Panama: the Canal, rainforest and lots of humidity!

In Travel/Leisure on October 17, 2013 at 10:38 PM

When you land in Panama, a vast coastline greets you with an eager looking flotilla of sailboats vying for your attention. It feels like Southern California with lots of humidity.

The Pacific Ocean - Panama

The Pacific Ocean – Panama

A quick passage through immigration is a sign of less bureaucracy and when you find out that the current President of Panama is from the private sector, it begins to make sense.

It indeed is very humid in Panama – so much so that for the first time in my travels I have had to continuously wipe moisture off my camera lens. Panama City looks beautiful at night – well lit with lots of skyscrapers dotting the Pacific Ocean.

Panamanians are very proud of the Panama Canal – it is one of the primary sources of income and an engineering marvel. And when you go on a transit cruise through the Canal, you experience the engineering marvel first hand.

The Canal was built in 1914 to link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and as a result, better integrate the West Coast of North and South America with the world economy. The Canal shortcut made it possible for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half the time previously required. Ships passing through the canal pay a fee of approx. US $ 200,000, depending upon the size of the ship and the cargo – the highest so far being paid by a Disney cruise ship – US $ 330,000.

3 sets of locks – the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and the Gatun, lift and drop ships 85ft (26m) – to the level of Gatun Lake, to transport them between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is primarily this system of locks that makes the Panama Canal an engineering marvel. The size of the locks determines the maximum size of ships that can pass through the canal. A ship which equals the maximum size is called PANAMAX.

The lift and drop of the ships within the locks is an extremely fascinating experience and so is the passage through the Canal. The route of the cruise through the Canal is quite scenic and you pass through the Bridge to the America, the Centennial Bridge, the Gatun Lake and the Continental Divide. It takes ships about 8 to 12 hours to cross the canal, but there’s a partial cruise available for tourists that ends soon after the Pedro Miguel locks, close to the Soberania National Park Rainforest.

The Panama Canal Visitor Center next to the Miraflores Locks offers the visitor a closer look at the operation of the canal, along with a brief passage through the history of the Canal. However, the balcony is the top draw of the visitor center as it offers a bird eye view of ships passing through the adjacent Miraflores Locks.

The Gamboa Rainforest resort is in the vicinity of the Soberania National Park Rainforest – which is home to several colorful species of birds and butterflies. An early morning walk through the rainforest can take you into a colorful world of butterflies, the musical world of birds like the Flycatcher and the woodpecker, including the very shy Toucan and some primates as well. Don’t be surprised if you sight a crocodile relaxing in a swamp as you saunter through the rainforest.

Besides the Canal and the Rainforest, Panama has a lot of culture and scenery to offer. Old Panama City or Casco Viejo is a blend of old architecture, monuments like the Salon Bolivar and Plaza de Francia.

For a leisurely stroll in the evening, the Causeway Amador is just the right stretch to be in. You have a clear view of the Bridge to the Americas and a full view of the Pacific Ocean on both sides of the causeway.

Big Brother or Guardian Angel: government’s responsibility vs accountability

In Politics on June 10, 2013 at 7:57 AM

The NSA had an intense surveillance program for the last 4 years. There seems to have been just one glitch – they forgot to include their own. Edward Snowden, a tech specialist contracting for the NSA leaked the details of a highly classified surveillance program called PRISM to the Guardian and Washington Post last week.

The leak raises 2 key issues and should force a re-think and retrospection:

–        Safety and security around classified programs

–        Legislative control and oversight around individual privacy


Safety and security around classified programs:

Thankfully, the information leak by Edward Snowden was less related to national security and more towards individual privacy. But what if one of the operatives on Operation Neptune Spear – the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, felt it was wrong and leaked it to the media before it was executed? How does the CIA or NSA ensure this does not happen?

In the case of Edward Snowden, an interesting issue that stands out is that a contractor had access to classified information. Contractors are temporary employees and are usually assigned to maintenance type work or short term projects. They complete their short assignment and move onto another assignment or another organization. So how did Edward Snowden get hired as a systems administrator? That alone gave him an extremely broad access to classified and non-classified data. That would be a huge security loophole. And he could’ve leaked the Bin Laden raid as well if he didn’t agree with it.

So, it maybe time to have an independent agency audit the processes followed by our intelligence agencies towards hiring and assignment to classified projects?

Legislative control and oversight around individual privacy:

Now 4 administrations have been accused of wiretapping individuals. So it is high time we go past the idealistic baloney and accept ground reality. Protection of its citizens is the highest priority of the government. In the past, especially during the cold war, this was reflected in high defense expenditures. After 9/11, terrorism has become the #1 threat to the United States and the recent Boston Marathon bombings prove that the originators can be right amongst us. In fact, weren’t we able to narrow down upon the suspects through public surveillance systems including cellphone images from bystanders? Then why are we upset when the government has taken it to the next level?

The key here is prevention of misuse of the data. As Snowden points out, there is so much data that at some point in time (watch: Edward Snowden speaks) it could be misused to implicate innocent individuals.

So how do we prevent this? The Legislators have to get together and come up with laws around governance of this data. Some of the areas they have to think about should include:

–        Purging of data: The data related to wiretaps and internet access should have a finite life and once the intelligence agencies have analyzed it, it has to be purged. The data cannot be built up with time – that would be a complete violation of individual privacy

–        Legal recourse in case of misuse: What if a rogue intelligence analyst stalks a private citizen? What if a rogue analyst sells data to commercial organizations to help understand consumer buying patterns – the list can go on. There needs to be a legal recourse against the intelligence organizations for this kind of an infringement upon individual privacy.

–        Vetting of the data mining process: The intelligence agencies have to clearly define the process of data analysis of such kind of data. Who needs to have access to the data and for how long? Snowden was a contractor but he has systems administration responsibilities – that itself is a huge loophole in the process. As indicated under safety of classified programs above, the hiring and assignment process needs to be vetted by an independent group.

Once we have a legal framework around this kind of surveillance, the concerns of the average citizen should reduce drastically. But the administration, especially the President has to take accountability for continuing with this program after using this as a key election plank. Interestingly, this incident seems to draw a parallel with two of George Orwell’s bestselling novels – “1984” and “Animal Farm”. While “1984” is the story about government surveillance headed by Big Brother, “Animal Farm” is the story of an idealistic leadership getting corrupted by power. Both novels were written before 1950 and seeing the parallel in the 21st century – my respect for George Orwell suddenly quadrupled!

EARTH Day 2013: San Diego Earth Fair – it’s all about sustainability

In Economy, Politics on April 22, 2013 at 12:54 AM

When I stepped into Balboa Park this Sunday (April 21st) to attend the Earth Fair in observance of Earth Day 2013, I was expecting to witness a commercial interpretation of the event. There was a commercial element – Toyota would not miss the opportunity for the world. But there was a bigger philosophical element. The sustainability of our planet in the long run was the underlying theme and it seemed to resonate well with the visitors – the density of crowds at Balboa Park proved the point.

The crowd at the fair

The crowd at the fair

The stalls were lined up on either side of the path. There was a lot to cover – I decided to sniff for anything that interested me. My first stop was at a “Label GMOs” stall – the theme was philosophical – educating the public about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our food – as part of their display they had a few popular brands which have genetically modified ingredients, to drive home their point. And there was a non-GMO shopping guide available for pick up.

the Label GMOs stall

the Label GMOs stall

The “Coalition to Decommission San Onofre” stall had images from Fukushima and Chernobyl on display and warned against restarting the San Onofre nuclear plant. And they were encouraging the visitors to call Senator Boxer and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman to request against restarting the reactor. Their display also included a depiction of the range of impact of a nuclear disaster around San Onofre – evacuation of about 8.5 million people around a 50 mile radius.

San Onofre - evacuation impact

San Onofre – evacuation impact


The center of the square was laced with commercial elements – from Toyota to Car2Go. And talking of commutes, I found the Move San Diego stall very interesting. Move San Diego apparently advocates and promotes the funding of healthy transportation options like biking and a well linked public transit system.

Car2Go MoveSD

It was impressive to see 2 stalls focused on the issue of world population. The “Population Connection” stall had a slogan – “protect earth, don’t give birth” whereas another stall sought to spread its message through quotes and cartoons.

Population Population_Cartoon

Towards the outer perimeter a few stalls were focused on more general topics like protecting marine life and simple ways to sustain the planet – conserve energy, buy organic, buy local, etc.


Towards the center of the plaza was a completely futuristic concept – a resource based economy – The Venus Project. It believes that in future machines will take over from man and be able to plan resource distribution more mathematically, leading to a balance between production, need and consumption – very fascinating and way into the future. However, their concept of vertical farms is a precursor – a first step towards planning for the future.

ResourceEconomy Venus_Project Vertical Farms

As I left the park I wondered if all the ideas I had witnessed were inter-related. A growing world population certainly was the basis of the Venus Project as well as the Move San Diego project. The theme was sustainability – staying as close to nature as possible, either by being GMO-free or nuclear-free or emissions-free. The awareness was there and the steps though very small, seemed to be moving in the right direction.


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