A Bold Plan to Transform the Nation’s Education System

Houston, TX—Do American education leaders have the drive—the “eye of the tiger” necessary to make difficult transformational changes?

“I think they do, but they don’t have a methodology to make the transformation,” says Dr. Jack Grayson, founder and chairman of American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) based in Houston.

APQC Education, the education arm of the 35-year-old non-profit, has launched a $44 million plan to transform the nation’s education system. The collective plan consists of 10 interrelated projects that must happen in order for the system to truly transform.

Recalling a known tendency, Grayson says, “If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you will get what you always got. We need an entire national transformation plan—or we will fail in our role as a world leader.”

And he wants to do this within the next 5 years.

“Ambitious—yes,” he says, “Impossible—absolutely not!”

Opponents to this plan often rely on educational reforms that are heavily based on inputs or outcomes—a thought entirely opposite of what Grayson and his organization advocates.

“While inputs and outcomes are both important, the missing link is an essential focus on the middle—the processes,” says Grayson.

The fundamental methodology guiding Grayson’s bold plan is not a big secret.

The vision to transform the U.S. education system is driven by Process and Performance Management (PPM). Yes, PPM—a leadership approach that promotes effectiveness and efficiency by linking process measures to performance alias outcomes. The key premise is that processes such as teacher hiring, professional development, or curriculum alignment must improve in order to improve outcomes such as graduation rates, test scores, or dropouts.

As Grayson always says, “In order to improve outcomes, you must first focus on improving the key processes that generate outcomes.”

Formerly the U.S. chairman of Price Commission under President Nixon, Grayson speaks with experience when he says, “Our plan is not dreamy, wishful, untested, or a theoretical policy—APQC has 35 years of research and direct field experience to carry out this plan.”

For more information on APQC Education’s Transformation Plan or to interview Dr. Jack Grayson, founder and chairman of APQC, please contact Farah Lalani at flalani@apqc.org or 713-685-4632.

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The Netflix Story: How Once an Admirable Company Finds Itself in a PR Chaos

By Farah Lalani

Every day, millions of Americans look forward to the little red envelope in the mail. This envelope soon became branded as the famous Netflix DVD pouch. Early on, Netflix understood that consumers wanted convenience and became the pioneer of mail subscription model for DVD rentals.

Then, when media trends shifted and online streaming became popular, Netflix quickly integrated video streaming into its current model, without causing inconvenience or change to the consumers. A move happily welcomed by the consumers.

Netflix continued to bloom and focus its core strategy on growing a large streaming subscription business within the United States and globally. While staying within its operating margin targets, Netflix was able to improve its customer experience, enhance its user interface, and extend its streaming service to various Internet-connected devices. During its peak, the Netflix (NFLX) stock saw its high at a little over $304.

With the growing popularity of Internet-delivered content, Netflix realized that home entertainment trends suggest that DVD will become obsolete in the near future. Although it makes perfect business sense to focus on the profitable and blooming business of online streaming, Netflix focused solely on its core strategy and lost sight of the reason for its success.

Netflix’s success was highly dependable on customer satisfaction. Since 2005, Netflix has been named the number one retail website for customer satisfaction in 11 out of 12 surveys by ForeSee Results. In December 2010, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) named Netflix the number one ecommerce company for customer satisfaction.

Influenced by its strategy to stay ahead of the game and taking its customer satisfaction results for granted, Netflix made a mistake. Well, not just one mistake, but a series of mistakes complemented with weak public relations.

In July, the company tested the loyalty of its subscribers by raising the price of its streaming and DVD bundle up by 60 percent. Big mistake, as Netflix does not hold substantial pricing power. Netflix’s business model leaves the company open to threats from competitors like Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL) and Redbox, the $1 movie rental service owned by Coinstar (CSTR).

Then, Netflix made another costly mistake by assuming that the price hike will not lead to significant subscription losses. And, wrong it was. Netflix soon learned that it will sustain one million fewer customers than the company had originally estimated when planning for the hike.

Still hurt from the previous mistakes, Netflix acted in haste. Estimating the technology shift away from DVD too early, Netflix announced the separation of its DVD and streaming services into two businesses and two brands. While the streaming service will preserve the Netflix name, Qwikster will be the brand for the DVD service.

What’s wrong with the new brand? Apparently the new brand is named Qwikster because it refers to quick DVD delivery. Since when did snail mail become quicker than instant streaming? Moreover, an apparent marijuana and Elmo loving teenager owns the @qwikster twitter handle. Too late to change the company name now.

Aside from the Qwikster woes, the separation of its business has tarnished the identity that Netflix’s success was once built upon- customer satisfaction. Netflix differentiated itself from the competition by offering integrated DVD and online streaming experience. Now, Netflix has lost its competitive edge. The new Netflix model means separate websites, separate queues, separate credit card charges, and separate ratings systems- all presented at a much higher price to the consumers.

Added to its weak business model, Netflix suffers from bad public relations. Netflix’s decisions may not have been as severe, if it was communicated responsibly and timed strategically. Finally, after the fall of the Netflix stock, Netflix’s CEO was left with the most uncalled for mistake of all- a sorry letter.

“I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation. It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming, and the price changes…” – Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix.

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Interview with Jaume Plensa, creator of Tolerance statues in Houston

Read the full interview with Jaume Plensa, creator of Tolerance Statues on Montrose and Allen Parkway in Houston.


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Katy’s Budding Entrepreneur – 20-something sisters passionate about their own businesses

Article by Starlight Communication’s author published in Katy Lifestyles and Home Magazine, April 2011

Being young and lost is a common experience for many in their twenties. However, two young sisters from Katy have not only realized their passion, but have also become entrepreneurs along the way at a very young age.

Sisters Vanessa O’Donnell and Casi Newbill each own their own businesses in the Katy area. Vanessa went to the Art Institute of Houston to pursue her love of baking and came out with a degree in culinary arts. Casi followed Vanessa’s footsteps to the Art Institute and pursued a degree in interior design.

“We always used to joke about having a store together and we were going to call it Two Sisters,” says Casi. Things turned out a bit differently, though. A few years down the line, both sisters run their own stores in their respected fields of passion.

Casi is the owner and interior designer at Cobblestone Cottage, while Vanessa is the owner and pastry chef at Ooh LaLa  — the Dessert Boutique.

Designing spaces was always a passion for Casi, but was running a business also a goal? “Everyone wants to have something of their own, so it was definitely a goal,” says Casi. “The opportunity arose and I decided that it was a good time and offer, so I said, why not?”

Managing a business may seem ideal for those working nine-to-five jobs, but the grass always seems greener from the other side. “It does get tiring and sometimes even frustrating because you are doing it all the time,” says Casi. “But when you own your own business, you are getting to do what you love every day — there is just a little more to it because now you have to manage everything.”

Being a young business owner also comes with a unique set of challenges. “It’s hard to be so young and give directions to people,” says Casi. “Also, I don’t get to do a lot of things that most kids my age are doing, but that’s something you have to sacrifice — your social life and your time.” But not to discourage other budding entrepreneurs, Casi says, “It’s hard, but it’s possible. If you have the opportunity to do it, you should do it.”

Cobblestone Cottage is a small home decor and gift shop that has something for everyone. Casi tries to offer affordable prices while maintaining quality products. Her strategy is to spread out the prices, so everyone can find something in her store.

On the other hand, Vanessa is having equally as much fun baking cupcakes and pastries at her dessert boutique — Ooh LaLa. “I fell in love with baking early on in my childhood,” says Vanessa. “Dolores Balusek, a family friend who took care of my sister and me after school, taught me my love for baking.  The smells and tastes of those long afternoons — I still keep close to my heart.”

Vanessa says that one of her biggest challenges is to step back and look at the big picture. “You can’t always get caught up in the daily grind of business,” she says. A management tip that guides Vanessa is not thinking of herself as the owner all of the time. “You have to put yourself in the shoes of your employees,” she says. “I won’t make my employees do something that I haven’t done or won’t do.”

Vanessa owns two locations of Ooh LaLa and getting involved with the business aspect vs. actually baking seems inevitable. “It’s a balancing act,” she says. “I balance my time between production and business and interact with my kitchen staff on a daily basis.”

Ooh LaLa offers desserts that are classic and comforting. A large family can come in and everyone can find their favorite dessert, from oatmeal raisin cookies to Snickers pie and even cupcake truffles. “Looking back on what have been our best sellers, it is the classic homemade desserts that everyone can relate to from their childhood that are the most successful,” says Vanessa.

Turning passion into a business has its up side and down side, but how can anyone go wrong when doing something they love? As Vanessa says, “My inspiration comes from knowing everyday when I get up that I am going to a job that I absolutely love.”

Cobblestone Cottage is located at 23701 Cinco Ranch Blvd., Suite 150, Katy; 281-693-4080.

Ooh La La — the Dessert Boutique is located at 23920 Westheimer Parkway, Katy; 281-391-2253.

Location 2 is at 20155 Park Row, Katy; 281-492-6166.

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A Dream House Becomes Reality

Article by Starlight Communication’s author is the cover story on Fort Bend Lifestyles and Home and Katy Lifestyles Magazine. Published April, 2011.

Once upon a time, there was an interior designer who envied her neighbor’s house. Not that she was unhappy in her own home, but there was just something special about the house across from her street. Every day she would pass the stunning Sweetwater home and wish that her family could live there.

Then one day, the designer, Teena Caldwell, owner of Twenty-Two Fifty Interiors, was overjoyed to see a “For Sale” sign go up at her dream home. “I knew right then that I wanted to buy the house,” Teena recalls. “Its structure and French flair attracted me.”

And so it was that five years ago, Teena and her husband, pediatric dentist Larry Caldwell, became the proud owners of the 6000-plus-square-foot house. “The home was very dark inside, and many prospective buyers probably could not see beyond the paint,” Teena says. “Buyers should always focus on the bones of the house. The floor plan should be the determining factor, because paint and the interiors can easily be changed.”

Taking her own advice, Teena decided to remodel the house into her dream home, which remains an ongoing project. Her goal was to redesign the house while keeping intact its French panache. “The house has 17 French doors,” Teena notes. “We often call it the house of doors.” The home’s front yard was completely redone to achieve the look of a well-trimmed symmetrical French garden. “The outside of a home should flow with the inside,” she adds.

The entrance foyer features several  unique accessories and a grand piano positioned near an elegant staircase. Impressive faux walls throughout the home were finished by Segreto Finishes and Decorative & Faux Finishes. Visitors also are immediately attracted to the large silk draperies that open to a beautiful view of a sprawling pool — or  as the family likes to call it, the “dogs’ playground,” where pooches Dakota and Zoe enjoy hanging out. (Family pets also include Prada, a formerly homeless — and now very fortunate — feline.)

The home beautifully blends traditional, contemporary, Asian and antiques. Teena is a firm believer in mixing a variety of style elements. “Sugar Land has a lot of people who like traditional designs, but I try to get my clients to think a little outside the box and include a few contemporary pieces,” she says. A good example is her own dining and living room, which has traditional furniture highlighted by contemporary art pieces. The result is a stylish blend of eclectic elements.

The kitchen was remodeled to accommodate the family’s lifestyle. “We completely tore down the old kitchen,” Teena says. “We opened it up, added more space, and installed new appliances.” The result was stunning. Features include distressed knotty alder cabinets and Enkeboll trim, honed granite countertops and a walnut-stained island. Custom-made cabinets neatly stow appliances. A large armoire beautifully conceals a Sub-Zero refrigerator.

On the first floor, the couple’s master bedroom, with its combination of wood and travertine floors, offers a serene and relaxing refuge at the end of a long day. Traditional browns are beautifully balanced with a lightened hint of blues. A two-way-mirror truly does double-duty, serving as a decorative mirror and a television in one.

Upstairs, the house has three more bedrooms. Two serve as a home away from home for the family’s guests, and the other is for Lauren Caldwell, Larry and Teena’s only daughter, who manages her mother’s design studio. Teena recalls that Lauren danced from the time she could walk through her days on the high school dance team, so her room reflects her love for dance, fashion, and design. A custom-designed iron bed adds a graceful charm.

Another gem upstairs is the nautical-themed media room, where automatic blackout draperies provide an ideal environment for watching movies. Anchoring the room is the entertainment wall where a pair of antique sirens, once used on an old ship to scare off demons of the water, frame the television. The walls have the appearance of torn paper, and a built-in aquarium completes the nautical theme. “This room is usually where you find the family and dogs watching the latest movies,” says Lauren, as she proudly talks about her mother’s work.

Finally, who wouldn’t love to work out in a well-equipped gym that makes you feel like you’re on a balcony in Italy, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea? “I don’t really like to exercise,” admits Teena. “So when I designed the gym, I wanted it to be a place that would encourage me to work out.” Scenic views of Italy are painted on all the walls, providing a sense of relaxation and of being surrounded by nature.

So once upon a time, a designer had a dream — and it became a reality. Is it even necessary to say that the Caldwell family lived happily ever after?



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This Season: Shows On Stage You Must See

Article by Starlight Communication’s Author. Published January 14, 2011 on City’s Best- AOL.

Houston is known for its arts, culture, and theatre scene. However, sometimes you’ve just got to plan ahead. You can escape the chill this weekend at an art opening or live music show — but for the best shows of the season, look into tickets now.

Billy Elliot The Musical, The Sleeping Beauty, Curtains, The Music of Led Zeppelin, and The Taming of the Shrew made the list.

Read the full article and show descriptions here.

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Listen to Your Heart – Decision Making in Organizations

Article By Starlight Communication’s Author

“Listen to your heart,” a common phrase when making decisions about life. However, is this advice even logical when making decisions in today’s strategic business world? In life, we are the boss. At work, we have to justify our decisions. It is the preferable norm in organizations to strategically plan before making decisions. Even management schools prefer the strategic model to decision making over the intuitive model. However, intuition can not be disregarded.

The study of intuitive decision making is one of the most important new fields in psychology, philosophy, and management. Generally speaking, intuition refers to the ability to sense or know immediately without reasoning; it is a spontaneous insight which enables us to quickly reach conclusions. The part of brain that leaps to snap conclusions is called adaptive unconscious, as explained by Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson in his book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. He explains that the human brain toggles back and forth between conscious and unconscious modes of thinking, depending on the situation. A decision to ask a co-worker over for dinner is made consciously because the mind thinks it over. The decision to argue with the same co-worker is made unconsciously because the mind did not have a chance to think it over.

Erik Dane and Michael Pratt in their research suggest that intuiting is the process of intuition. Intuiting involves making holistic associations by recognizing features or patterns. Intuiting is not logical or rational. It is a rapid process, during which the mind makes holistic associations by accessing already learned information stored in the unconscious part of the brain.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink, explains this notion of adaptive unconscious as a giant computer that quickly and quietly processes numerous data necessary to keep functioning as human beings. For instance, when you walk out to the street and suddenly see a giant truck approaching you in speed, do you think through all your options? I hope not! Gladwell suggests that the only way that human beings could have survived as species is because of another kind of decision making apparatus that’s capable of making very quick judgments based on very little information. When we are faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use the adaptive unconscious part of the brain.

So does intuition even belong in today’s strategic business world? Don’t we make the best decisions when we take time to carefully plan? Certainly, that’s what we have always been told because today’s society is dedicated to the idea of proper planning. Strategic decision making is an established method in organizations, but it is not always foolproof. Professor of Management Science, Paul C. Nutt, observed in a research that half of the decisions in organizations fail. During the planning process, much time, effort, and money is spent to collect data and analyze solutions, but the outcome is never guaranteed.

Daniel Forbes analyzes works of decision comprehensiveness scholars. In his research, he mentions three reasons which scholars have held accountable for strategy failure: uncertainty, ambiguity, and instability. Uncertainty refers to the probability of an outcome. There are high levels of uncertainty when numerous outcomes are probable. Ambiguity refers to the vagueness during the planning process as a result of incomplete or inaccurate information. Ambiguity is high when there is doubt about the use of accurate, measurable, and reliable information. Finally, continuous change in the internal and external environment hinders the effectiveness of strategy and is referred to as instability. The chances of instability are high when the environment is unstable or rapidly changing. The decision maker is aware of the conditions of the environment in the beginning of the decision making process, but by the time a conclusion is reached, the environment can be in a different situation. Other drawbacks of strategy are its costs- finance and time. Undoubtedly strategy has its benefits, but when the benefits are hindered by the presence of high levels of uncertainty, ambiguity, and instability, intuition is an alternative that can get the work done more cost effectively and quickly.

At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Douglas Dean studied the relationship between intuition and business success. He found that eighty percent of successful executives had above average precognitive powers. Then, Weston Agor of the University of Texas in El Paso found that out of the 2,000 managers involved in his study, higher-level managers had the top scores in intuition. Most of these executives first analyzed all the relevant information and data available, but when that wasn’t sufficient, they relied on intuitive approaches to come to a conclusion. Furthermore, Alden Hayashi in his research, When to Trust Your Gut, suggests that several executive-level decisions, including the development of the Dodge Viper and the prime-time launch of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire were intuitive decisions.

Evidently many success stories also claim that intuition should not be totally disregarded in organizational decision making. Donald Trump in his book, The America We Deserve, claims that he has built his multi-billion dollar empire by using his intuition. In addition, while publicly addressing business women in Chicago, Oprah said, “My business skills have come from being guided by my inner self – my intuition.” Furthermore, Bill Gates also publicly admitted, “Often you have to rely on intuition.”

Success stories of intuition advocates provide evidence that intuition is worth considering in an organizational context. Intuition can not be willed, but instead happens spontaneously. Sadler-Smith and Shefy’s work suggest, “Developing intuitive awareness is not about making intuition happen, but about understanding intuition, recognizing it, and creating the conditions to allow it to happen.” Intuition is not meant to replace strategic decision making, but rather to complement it. Intuition is not the answer, but it is an option and it should be further explored in organizations. Therefore, understand intuition and become aware of your intuitive capabilities. Remember that when strategy is not enough, listen to your heart.

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Houston Remains Strong Despite the Economic Downturn- A Conversation with Jeff Moseley

Article screenshot from Houston Lifestyles October 2010 Issue

Article by Starlight Communication’s Author. Published in the Houston Lifestyles and Home Magazine.

“It was quite hot,” said Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, as he referred to the US economy prior to the recession. “We have seen a dramatic cooling off in our economy, we knew it had to cool off,” he explained further.

In comparison to other US cities, Houston has one of the top performing economies as a region in USA. “While we have seen the job creation drop and unemployment go up, Houston has always been almost a full percentage below the US unemployment rate,” he said. “We have a lot for which to give thanks.”

Moseley leads the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP), a primary advocate of Houston’s business community that is dedicated to building regional economic prosperity. The organization’s efforts include lobbying for legislation that favors the region’s business community; facilitating relocations and expansions in the Houston area; strategic planning; and international outreach and trade initiatives.

According to population estimates, Moseley said that in the next thirty years, Texas will double its population, “For Houston region that means we gain the same population as Los Angeles- three million (approximately).” In order to prepare for the growth in population, GHP is striving to grow high paying jobs in Houston’s ten county regional economies to provide a strong tax base, “So services like police, fire, health and public schools will have the funding necessary to take care of all the new Houstonians.”

Opportunity Houston Expected to Grow Jobs, Capital, and Trade

A direct result of the Partnership’s ten-year strategic plan, Opportunity Houston is an aggressive five-year marketing and lead generation program that will help grow jobs by 600,000, increase capital investment by $60 billion, and expand foreign trade by $120 billion for the greater Houston area by the end of 2015. According to the Opportunity Houston Strategic Plan (houston.org), “The Houston region’s economic future is tied to its ability to attract companies to locate, expand and maintain their operations here, and for Houston area companies to sell their products and services abroad and / or to operate overseas.”

Houston’s Job Growth Predicted in Energy, Health, and Aerospace Sectors

“We now know due to the data that almost fifty percent of our $400 billion regional economy is from the energy sector, so we know the specifics of how we go after jobs within that cluster,” replied Moseley when asked, which sector the strategic plan will provide job opportunities in. “Well there is no doubt about it that energy is the lion of our economy.” Considered by many to be the energy capital of the world, some of the world’s major energy companies maintain large bases of operations in Houston.

 “A close second is the healthcare sector and that is symbolized by the Texas Medical Center, which has more than 90,000 trained professionals that go to work there every day… and we have a lot of health care providers outside of the Texas Medical Center as well,” Moseley explained. “So that is a tremendous opportunity for us to continue to grow healthcare jobs.” Additionally, GHP conducted a research in 2009, which proved that Harris County Hospital District is Texas’ largest hospital district.

“We also interestingly enough are a high tech city,” Moseley said. Houston’s technology factor can be observed when thinking about all the technology that drives Houston’s economy- the technology used upstream and downstream in energy, technology in the medical center, and technology at the Johnson Space Center. “Talking about Johnson Space Center, aerospace is a big opportunity in Houston,” he said. Thus, there is tremendous opportunity in Houston to grow technology jobs and jobs in the aerospace industry. “Energy, health, and aerospace,” rated Moseley as the top three industries for job opportunities in Houston.

Business Development and Public Policy is the Key

The Opportunity Houston Strategic Plan to create jobs, grow capital investment, and expand foreign trade will be achieved by working towards the Partnership’s primary and overarching purpose in four visions that fall within two broad and mutually supportive categories of business development and public policy. The first vision of the strategic plan is to establish Houston region as a business magnet. To do so, GHP will facilitate initiatives that differentiate Houston and capitalize on its core strengths and resources. Secondly, GHP will lead and facilitate initiatives that establish the Houston region as the leading gateway to global markets. The goal is to establish Houston as one of the top four international trade regions in US. Thirdly, GHP will be a proactive visionary to build and maintain an infrastructure and business environment that sets Houston apart, nationally and globally, as the most attractive place to do business. Lastly, GHP will be an aggressive driver of local, regional, state and federal public policy that makes Houston one of the top four regions in the United States for business.

Houston’s Quality of Life Ranks Amongst the Top Cities

“We are one the most affordable large cities in the world and we fight to keep the affordability and business friendly climate here,” replied Moseley when asked about the Partnership’s efforts towards quality of life. In addition to that, “We have a tremendous resource in Houston and that is our climate,” Moseley said. “We have got more rainfall than Seattle and perhaps as much sunshine as Miami.” This resource makes Houston friendly for reestablishing the region’s urban forest and green space. Such commitment will not only enhance the quality of life for Houstonians, but also attract businesses.

Home to 25 Fortune 500 companies and yet still ranked as having one of the lowest cost of living amongst major metro cities, Houston has a lifestyle that many can enjoy from professionals and entrepreneurs to children and families. Even students aren’t left out as Princeton Review (2009) ranked Rice University as having the highest quality of life among students. Recent rankings compiled by Forbes (2010) placed Houston as America’s Best City for Young Professionals. In prior rankings conducted by

Forbes, Houston was not left behind- Houston was ranked as the Best City to Get Ahead (2009), the Best City to Buy a Home (2008), and the Best US City to Earn a Living (2008). Unable to hide his confidence in Houston’s economic future, Moseley acclaimed, “We see Houston as a top 10 global community.”

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Are We Living a Virtual Life?

Article By Starlight Communication’s Author

 “Sorry, I am unable to answer your call. You are welcome to email me, text me, or send me an instant message. Also, you can always find me on Facebook, MySpace or any other social networking sites. If this is for professional purposes, then try me on LinkedIn first (my profile makes me sound much more important on there). If everything else fails and this is an emergency situation, then you can always follow me on Twitter!” 

The greeting above may sound a bit witty, but it makes perfect sense for many people living in today’s tech era where majority of the communication takes place virtually. A few years ago, text messaging was associated with teenagers. Then soon enough, the tech savvy professionals figured it out. Followed by the wanna-be-young-parents who also thought it was cool. Then before you knew it, “texting” became a commonly used verb in the English language.

That was a few years ago. Now, the era has become much more complex with social networking sites. These sites are increasingly attracting the attention of millions of users, many of whom have integrated these sites into their daily practices. Additionally, major corporations are making social networks a focus of their marketing programs. While the advantages of this booming new technology are undeniably attractive, people are becoming increasingly disconnected with the reality. It almost seems as if people are living a virtual life parallel to their real life.

Since when did people start having about five hundred plus friends on average? The world would be a much happier place, if having five hundred or so friends was a norm in this society. Better phrased, it is not the norm of the real society, but everything is possible in cyber space. Want to look like a model from the magazine cover? Easy! Just Photoshop your picture to perfection and post it on your profile. Feeling confident lately? Well don’t leave the “about me” section blank, when you can paint an ideal picture of yourself and let everyone see it. Recently broke up with your girl-friend? No problem, change your status to single and it will be on all your friend’s news feeds, along with an icon of a broken heart next to it. What a great way to let your single hot friends know that you are back in the market without actually announcing it and sounding desperate.

Virtual life has its perks- from general networking and giving voice to the public to communicating news and marketing for businesses. The increasing benefits and conveniences of social networks have caused individuals to become attached to it. Additionally, people are also attached to social networks because it is much closer to the type of life desired than the type of life actually lived. It takes less effort to craft one’s desired image in the virtual world, than actually work for it in the real world. This is not implying that the information communicated on social networks is false. In fact, it is probably true and this adds to the countless benefits that these sites offer- they help individuals express themselves in ways they are limited to in real life. Thus, opening up doors to professional and social opportunities. Nevertheless, one’s self expression on networking sites, even though it is truthful, is self-biased. People selectively communicate on social networks, filtering out the less desirable information. Kind of like a resume, people put their best on the limelight. When living one’s virtual life, individuals tend to feel a lot more satisfied and happier than they actually are because they are living a self-selected perceived life absent of the undesirable traits. This satisfaction with one’s virtual image causes people to become attached to their virtual self. Consequently, this satisfaction along with other conveniences of social networks, translates to an average user logging on a half-dozen times a day and spending hours per week living one’s virtual life- a life where finding a job, house, or a soul-mate are all possible with a click.

Companies who have been web conscious have picked up on this phenomenon and are expanding their marketing programs to focus on social networks. Additionally, as print advertising revenue declines, news organizations must look to new channels to drive sales. Social networks not only provide this opportunity, but are also one of the key driving forces that can aid the integration of traditional media with digital. As the traditional world digitalizes, people are becoming increasingly disconnected with the reality. While spending hours in cyber space, either working, networking, or socializing, people forget to live in the real world. The trick to social network sites is to use its benefits to one’s advantage without crossing the fine line between virtual and real. Consider the line crossed when the importance of living a virtual image is cutting into the time one should actually be living a real life and talking to actual friends in person, you know the old fashioned way of communicating.

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A thousand years of Firdawsi’s Shahnama is celebrated

Article by Starlight Communication’s Author.
Published on theismaili.org.


The homes that are the dwellings of today
Will sink beneath shower and sunshine to decay
But storm and rain shall never mar
What I have built — the palace of my poetry.
— Firdawsi

More than a thousand years ago, a Persian poet by the name of Abu´l-Qasim Firdawsi (d. 1020-21) penned this verse. His prophecy has held true, as the year 2010 marks the 1 000th anniversary of the completion of his historical work, Shahnama, The Book of Kings.

Consisting of some 60 000 verses, it is considered one of the longest and most important epic poems ever written. Firdawsi has been compared to the legendary ancient Greek poet Homer, as he poetically recounts the history of Iranian kings from the beginning of time until the fall of the Sasanian Dynasty in the mid-seventh century.

To commemorate the anniversary of the Shahnama, a richly illustrated lecture by Dr Francesca Leoni, Assistant Curator of the Arts of the Islamic World at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was held on 21 February. The event, which took place at the Museum, was co-sponsored by the Ismaili Council for the Southwestern United States.

“The epic of the Shahnama is a unique mixture of ancient Iranian legends and history, which was passed on orally for many centuries,” explained Dr Leoni. “Through time, a good portion of this material was organised in written collections, though none of these written collections have survived,” she added.

Towards the end of the 10th century, Firdawsi started to capture these stories and diligently worked on them for 35 years. “Firdawsi’s Shahnama is the last and most successful example of established literary transmission of Iran’s past and cultural ideals,” said Dr Leoni.

Persian reawakening

The Shahnama is organised according to the kingdoms of 50 rulers, and divided into three dynasties: Pishdadiyan, Kayanid, and Sasanian. Prior to the Sasanian era, Iran was called Persia.

As Islam spread, the Iranian lands witnessed an enriching interface with Islam’s spirituality, an experience that repeated itself in other lands where Islam spread.

The significance of the Shahnama on reviving Iran’s ancient history, literature, and language is indisputable. It was written entirely in Persian. The book reawakened Iran’s cultural identity and exemplified the continued resilience of the language’s capacity to enrich itself through cultural encounters. The poem helped preserve Iran’s pre-Arab traditions, folklore, and oral literature — becoming the Persian literary standard — and it retains considerable influence in the storytelling tradition of Iran, even today. “For 30 years, I suffered much pain and strife…with Persian I gave the ajam verve and life,” Firdawsi had once said.

The Shahnama was also a vessel for the preservation of Persian values and cultural traditions. “The teachings and moral examples offered by the virtuous characters of Shahnama are among the aspects that explain its great success throughout history,” said Dr Leoni. The poem offers models of conduct and governance that inspired generations of rulers. It can also be considered a successful example of a “mirror for princes,” a popular genre in the medieval and early modern Islamic world intended for the education of rulers. 

Throughout the poem, kings and heroes are engaged in battles with monsters and supernatural creatures that threaten the survival of their kingdom. Romantic accounts of the Shahnama’s heroes add humour and a light-hearted tone. More importantly, the poem illustrates many profound human experiences that allow individuals to connect with the moral struggles of its heroes and reflect upon the tragic deaths of its protagonists.

Artistic inspiration

The Shahnama has also been an important source of influence on many works of art produced in greater Iran, as well as the eastern Islamic world. Specific stories and characters were used as motifs to decorate ceramics, tile panels, inlaid metalwork, lacquer work, and textiles. Many rulers patronised lavishly illustrated copies of the Shahnama, and today their pages can be found in museums and private art collections around the world.

The Aga Khan Museum collection includes pages from a copy made for Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576), an influential ruler of Iran. This particular edition contains some of the most exquisite miniatures ever created, and is considered to be one of the highest achievements in the arts of the book for its superb calligraphy, painting, and illumination. The collection has been touring European museums, and select pieces are currently being exhibited at the Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin until 6 June 2010. Within the exhibition, a special section pays homage to Firdawsi to commemorate the anniversary.

Shahnama was a way to immortalise the memory of the poet in the heart of its readers,” said Dr Leoni, “something that its success through the centuries in fact confirms.”

I’ve reached the end of this great history
And all the land will talk of me
I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save
My name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,
When I have gone, my praises and my fame.

— Extracted from Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis
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Bird’s Eye View- An Artist and His Bronze Creations

Article screenshot from Fort Bend Lifestyles May 2010 issue

Article by Starlight Communication’s Author. Published in the Fort Bend Lifestyles and Home Magazine.

“Can you imagine waking up in the morning and not hearing any birds all day long,” said Bob Pack, Sugar Land’s renowned sculptor, as he casually spoke about the launch of his next series of bronze sculptures focused on the beauty of birds. Art works of this highly acclaimed Texas-based sculptor has been collected worldwide, ranging from small collectibles to life-sized monumental pieces of art. His energy level and artistic abilities appear just as boundless as the life-size bronze monuments that he diligently sculpts. Bob will launch his new collection focused on the theme of birds in Fort Bend County at an exhibit scheduled to open on May 28th at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land. “It’s a perfect marriage for me to be able to do this exhibit in Fort Bend County,” explained Bob referring to Fort Bend’s rich culture of bird watching.

Texas is fortunate to be home to over 620 species of some of God’s most beautiful and interesting creations—birds. Approximately half of these species can be seen in Fort Bend County during some parts of the year. Brazos Bend is a popular State park suggested for bird watchers. More than 300 species of birds have been sighted at Brazos Bend alone. When asked where Bob likes to go for bird watching, he enthusiastically led the way to the lake at his Sugar Land home and said, “My favorite spot for bird watching is right here in my backyard.”

Ever wondered what triggers an artist to select what his or her next theme will be? According to Bob, “When you forget about the time and the hours, and get into the flow of painting or sculpting, and then you stop for a mid morning break and it’s already 5:30 in the evening … then, you know what your next theme is going to be.” In the last thirty-five years, Bob’s themes have generally focused on concepts such as golf, hunting, life size monuments, and now birds. “I work on a theme for so long that after a while I want to try something that has not been done before,” he says. When he sees something that catches his eye, he immediately begins sketching it on whatever he sees nearby, even paper napkins. What ever an artist creates, Bob says, “It has to be close to the heart, it has to be original, and it has to be something that really moves him.”

With birding or bird watching being one of Bob’s passions for the last twenty-five years, it is natural that he turned his artistic eyes towards birds. Working together with the help of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Bob was able to study specimens of various Fort Bend species to insure accuracy in the anatomy of each bird’s creation. Each piece Bob creates requires almost six months for production: three months study (measuring, photographing, and drafting in wax), and approximately three months on the actual sculpting (mold making and casting the piece in bronze). As of date, the exhibit at HMNS will display eight species of bird, with two sculptures of each- one in a brown patina and one in a polychrome (painted) patina. Approximately four additional species will be exhibited in the final clay model stage prior to casting. These models are an attempt to give viewers a glimpse of the meticulous process of sculpting. This exhibit should be educational and a feast for the eyes as viewers will indulge in the beauty of birds. Additionally, the illustrated panels around the exhibit should be an informative representation of the general theme of birds that call Fort Bend County their home.

Bob began sculpting in 1976 and specializes in realistic bronze figures ranging from small collectibles to life-sized monumental pieces of art. He has about twenty-five life sized works on display around the world, as well as pieces in the permanent collections of seven museums. Fort Bend’s residents are probably familiar with his sculpture of the Stephen F. Austin monument at Sugar Land Town Square. The monument depicts Austin emerging from the Brazos River on horseback. His horse rearing, Austin struggles to lead a packhorse stumbling in the river’s current, represented by the surrounding fountain waters. A portrayal of the struggles of settlement and colonization, this monument pays homage to Austin, whose original Texas colony encompassed what is today Fort Bend County. Other local examples of Bob’s work can be seen at the Sugar Land Police Station and Sugar Land First Methodist Church.

For the next seven to ten years, Bob plans to focus his attention on illustrating the beauty of birds through his new bronze collectibles. When asked if he is a full time artist, Bob modestly said, “This is all I do … I have never done anything else!”

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Crafty Affair: Winter Holiday Art Market

Article by Starlight Communication’s Author. Published on City’s Best – AOL.

Houston’s talented artists are getting entrepreneurial this weekend — and you’re invited to the party. The Winter Holiday Art Market (WHAM) at Winter Street Studio — now in its fifth year — is a mix of festival, holiday party and celebration of the arts.

Read the full article here.

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Article on Top Finance News

While this was a personal contribution to Seeking Alpha, it is still worth archiving as this piece is written by Starlight Communication’s Author and gained massive publicity within hours that it was published. It was in early 2009 when talks about nationalizing big banks seemed to be the only news topic. Within hours, this article on BAC stock was on the popular feeds of top news sites including Google News, Yahoo Finance, Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch and many more.

Click here to read the full article on Seeking Alpha

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