Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

Wow! 2008 is finally going to be over!!

An year like no other.
A historical year in our lifetime:

Whims of Money,

Winds of Change,
Flaming Icons,
Departing Morons,
Sporting Glories, and
despite all, the
Jingling Bells of Santa!


The year gone by has made us
Braver, Wiser and more Hope full than
Ever.

An year that tested our patience,
Our humor and our determination,

Now makes way for a bright new
Tomorrow.

Here is wishing everyone a
Beautiful, Radiant, Twinkling 2009
With loads of luck, prosperity and
Happiness!




Celebrate a Great New Year

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The Latin phrase above (saw it in an Alan Moore comic) means "Who will guard the guardians?". While this debate is timeless, over the years we have started to question less and less the powers of those that serve us. Politicians are one such breed; banks are another.

Before the recent collapse, it was blasphemous to even talk of an ICICI or a Citibank engaging in ethically and economically dubious practices. The bankers' greed is now well-documented in the rubble of Wall Street collapse. All of them have proven to be no better than an exploitative money-lender in the village.

Regulators and watchdogs (like the financial press) have failed us as much as the banks, by creating an exploitative and misleading banking environment for the uneducated, unorganized credit-seeker. Much has been written about their complex products causing global turmoil in 2008. I bring attention to their simpler products; they cause small but significant turmoil in the monthly budget of a common man.

My views on two such products that require immediate fixing:


1. Credit Cards
The onus of proving that one did not use a card lies with the user. Whether the card is stolen or someone uses the card details for online payments, the bank has no liability till the time user asks for the card to be blocked. The very fact that such a potent instrument comes with few, if any, safeguards is a slap in the face of consumer-rights.

The credit card business survives on default. The 36% interest per annum is such an enticing deal for banks that customers paying on-time are treated as liability. The system implicitly promotes insecure use of cards in collusion with merchant establishments. Merchants pretend to be doddering fools, as long as they are paid by the bank and end-user is held liable for payments on a stolen/lost card. What else can explain their immunity from prosecution as accessory to theft, even if they completely ignore security protocol while honoring explicitly "fake" cards (viz, the signature is obviously mismatch, the photo is different, sometimes the name does not match the gender of user, etc).

If the regulators place onus of proof on merchants and banks, it will automatically spur banks to spend on more robust, logical and convenient security mechanisms. Merchants will also become more careful before casually honoring cards they suspect may be stolen. It may even bring down instances of credit-card theft itself!

At the bank end, they can deploy further level of security, like in other instruments:

  • Make photo mandatory on credit-cards, like in all other important documents
  • For online payments, replace the 3 digit CVV joke with a PIN, not printed on card
  • Additionally, explore use of cards with at least one more proof of identity, and so on
Read more about this on Baba Jain's intelligent blog


2. Home Loans
It is no surprise that the recent collapse was triggered by faulty home loans. The fine print in home loans have become the latest "free money" mantra for banks.

Typical home loans are for 20 years or so. All the bank needs to do is offer a low enough rate, so that monthly EMI looks affordable to an undecided new user. Once the loan is given, the debtor has few options. On some pretext or another, rates will rise after 12-18 months. Loss on interest for 12-18 months is petty cash compared to the inflated sum he will be repaying for next 20 years!

Many recent examples expose the regulators snoring while the bankers brazenly feast.

Take the drop in home loan rates. Every time a drop is announced, it applies to new users only. On the other hand, an increase in rates applies immediately to existing users. This is equivalent to "offers" made by FMCG companies to increase sales in slow season. The difference being the commitment is for life in case of a home loan.

Similarly, banks promote the misnomer "fixed" and "floating" interest rates. Despite the fact that fixed rates are subject to upward revision as much as floating rates, this incorrect term is deliberately applied to entice undecided new users. In absence of highly-educated customers, such fine print allows bankers to laugh all the way to and from their banks.

The so-called interest free loans in US by Countrywide were just a more serious manifestation of the same scam. Looking at the poor savings profile of potential customers, Countrywide and others offered loans at next to nothing EMI during initial years. After a few years, once the user is hooked, the monthly repayment obligation zoomed to stratospheric levels (to pay for the "free" period). The stunned customers had no choice but to forgo the loans, lose their houses and destroy their credit rankings. At a macroeconomic level, it caused the housing collapse and opened a rotting Pandora's box.

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The recent downturn resulted in a unique paradox where Governments of all nations are racing to offer billions and trillions of dollars to Banks, hoping this will save us from a bigger mess. The paradox, of course, is that it is these Banks that are responsible for the very mess we find ourselves in. This parallels the paradox in the title of this post, especially after reading about the aptly named Madoff. As ex-chief of NASDAQ and an adviser to SEC, Bernie Madoff commanded the trust and influence to run a swindle over many years. It was not until global institutions and trusting investors lost over $50 Billion and counting, that he even showed up on the radar.

It is no surprise when regulators, cops and politicians are "suspected" of using the system for personal gains in India; in fact, many of them are elected or nominated for this very quality (latest example being Mr.Raja's reliance on circular logic). However, when it happens in mighty USA, it is a wake-up call for those who believe that everything that has worked in America must unquestioningly be implemented here.

This recession and financial crisis is an opportunity for India to develop an indigenous regulatory mechanism. India's prescription for beating the downturn must include calling upon our own experience with village moneylenders to anticipate the greed and cunning of Big Money. Under the fading influence of large banks and multinational interests, India must build regulatory firewalls and people-friendly financial instruments to spur growth and protect the common man's interest (without vote-bank gimmicks like loan waiver). New mechanisms must be developed to regulate new instruments like credit cards, online banking and microfinance before they blow up in our face.

India's experience with Microfinance is a start, a great beginning. A billion other such innovations lie latent within the billion dreams. It is not long before the Indian consumer will realize his own strength. On guard!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Crazy little thing called "Love"

My take on Dil Kabaddi (2008); check out the Studio 18 logo before the movie. Delicious!

Dil Kabaddi is another "event" that fills the heart with joy. Just to see story-tellers (and not just star kids, diamond merchants, estate agents) get a chance to create real cinema in Bollywood is so heartening. We loved this movie and so did everyone in the half-empty PVR auditorium, median age 35, if the constant eruptions of gleeful laughter are any indication.

Maybe he has Woody Allen to thank for it, but this did not end up as the now-too-familiar montage of slick shots against Mumbai's backdrop. I was afraid it would be the typical stilted-Hindi, handy-cam movie (with a great premise but dud execution like Mithya or Woodstock Villa) by a new-age "main bhi Hollywood" director. Dil Kabaddi does not falter in the second half simply because the director had a STORY to tell. All the humor and all the "slice of life" shots culminated in a satisfying narrative. This is where the movie truly scores.

The other reason for its success, of course, is the excellent performances. Cast against type, watching Rahul Bose as a bumbling professor or the suave Rahul Khanna as a mushy pup was a delight. Each character was well-etched, including the secondary characters of ex-boyfriend, office hunk (Rahul Khanna's cameo) and Chirag the lech neighbor. The consistency in their body language and motivations reveal a strong screenplay, with well-written characters. Something so rare even in mainstream Bollywood cinema. That said, the "Kaaya" character could have been better etched.

The cream of the crop is, of course, Samit (Irrfan Khan) as the nouveau yuppie. The subtlety of his flawed yet acceptable English grammar and "over-the-top" dress sense was an excellent contrast to his earthy logic and basic decency. His pairing with an intellectual, stylish, smart Mita (Soha Ali, looking lovely) is not that surprising today-- a lot of very happy couples around have the woman more successful, educated and well-traveled than the man.

Perhaps the movie targets a very specific audience, the mid-30s Indian. Those that grew up on Karan Johar's bubble-gum romance in the 90s and have been "happily" married for 4-7 years now, like the characters in the movie. It documents their quest for love versus their 'fantasy' of love. It is possible that this crowd will laugh the loudest, while those older and younger may find less to identify with in this story. They may yet discover it on DVD a few years later and laugh hearty. At its core, it is nothing more than a story about looking for true love. Just that true love has different meanings for different people.

While some have panned the movie for its shameless copy of Husbands and Wives by Woody Allen, others have cringed at the barrage of sexual jokes and innuendo. In my opinion, it works where Mixed Doubles (the previous multiplex outing about infidelity) failed simply because it does not hold back or have any intellectual pretense. The movie keeps you laughing almost the entire time and yet makes an honest observation about modern Indian marriages. As for the sex-jokes-- they were much more tasteful than what is dished out in family-comedy "U" rated movies every week.

It has been 16 years since Woody Allen's 1992 original. The fact that we finally identify with the type of marriages shown here is a telling comment on Indian society playing catch-up with the West. For better or for worse...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Change is Sweet

As any Bangalorean who has traveled by auto-rickshaw will tell you, we have been bothered about CHANGE long before Obama came on the scene. Like Obama said, we need to be (carrying) the change we seek. The Bangalore auto drivers have a rounding-off algorithm where Rs.62 = Rs.70 and Rs.68 = Rs.70 as well. During peak hours and after 8PM and before 7AM, this gets rounded off to the nearest 100. The only way to get change is to KNOW exactly how much a route costs and CARRY lots of Rs.2, Rs.5 and Rs.10 currency.

Now the change is creeping into other Bangalore businesses. Last evening, I rushed to the Cafe Coffee Day in the arrival hall of BIAL (the dud new aiport) for a bottle of water to support me through the two hour ride into the city (it took me less than 90 minutes to fly in). They have a "specially packed" bottle of 500ml for Rs.15. I gave the guy two ten buck notes and expected Rs.5 change.

He handed me the receipt and a candy. No change. Just the CANDY, ostensibly worth Rs.5. To say I was shocked is an understatement.

Indians learn to expect the neighborhood grocer to hand us a candy in lieu of 50 paise change. The amount here was also small, compared to the thousands I had just spent flying and eating. But it just didn’t FEEL right. Unless, CCD reciprocates by accepting raddi newspaper and old bottles adding up to Rs.15 as payment.

We talk of India Rising and “Enough is enough”. To see CCD, India’s earliest successes in F&B franchising, behave worse than a corner chaiwala evoked the same emotions. The airport is used by low-income fliers as well, who need facilities and F&B even if they cannot pay for them in dollar equivalent prices. We have often noticed the “we will over-charge you because we can” attitude permeate throughout the airport. For example, what justifies BIAL shops selling only "premium" water at Rs.30 for a litre, when the standard Kinley bottles sell for Rs.12 everywhere else? Just because there's all the chrome and glass and dollars?

It is more important that people who “have” protest on principle, because the “have nots” will not be heard. Singapore’s lovely Changi airport is much cheaper than BIAL, even after conversion. And their facilities are within reach of even the common laborer, who is coming back to meet his family in a Tamil Nadu village. It’s just an airport, after all. Why pretend to be a Las Vegas casino?

Update 08/12/08: CCD Area manager Mr.Sainath found this blog and called to reassure me that lots of change will be available at the counter next time I pass through the airport. I am glad to see the customer-service aura of CCD shine through with his prompt action. Good luck, Sai, in giving us back the CCD we love!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Circle of Life OR Vicious Circle of Revenge

Interesting to see that almost everyone on my blogroll has been moved to post on this incident. No other incident in the past has brought such a spontaneous reaction from almost everyone. Like one report said, this is India's 9/11. I agree that the tragedy is similar in its scale and loss of innocence. What bothers me is we should not bungle up the aftermath like the macho Americans did.

I am an extremely cynical and angry person myself. Yet, I notice that the anger seething through the pages of these blogs and comments far exceeds what I feel. I am sure the emotions in the offline world are even more fiery. It worries me a lot that our instinct is to look at this from a religious fundamentalist angle. Despite all our education and civility, we are unable to decouple these attackers from their rhetoric. Just by doing that we are playing into the hands of people who WANT us to treat this as a religious divide.

This is no more than a law and order breakdown. Period. I wish we would tackle it as such.

The facts are that a group of 26 odd men decided to bully unarmed civilians with automatic weapons, making no demands and issuing no threats. They merely killed who they could, held a small number of hostages and did not go after those who fled. As a modus operandi, it is no different than the everyday psychopath school shooting in the US. Only difference is, there are 26 psychopaths involved instead of just one. We don't go attacking Korea just because one of the psycho students was a Korean, do we?

The way to tackle psychopath killers is to surround them, disarm them and arrest or shoot them. The Bombay police is doing exactly that. I salute them for their efficient and detached handling of this crisis. For them, this isn't about hindu or muslim cops, Indian or foreign victims, jehadi or looney shooters. For them, it is merely a mission to save everyone and "sanitize" the captured areas, as the NSG chief keeps saying.

Unfortunately, the rest of the country is more interested in a different kind of "sanitizing". We are ready to blame an entire community for the savage acts of 25 people from that community. Those who are not ready will be accused of "being soft on terror". In a worse case, it could promote gun culture in India. There will be talks of another partition, a more complete one this time. There could be another such siege, operated by the 'victim' community this time-- and it may well be supported silently by most of us.

The US has been on a revenge hunt for the past 8 years. They have shown the vaporous terrorists how strong they are. The result?


Anarchy in Iraq. More deaths than we even care to count. More deaths than any terror outfit could inflict.
Breakdown in Afghanistan.
More attacks in UK, India and other "allies".
Increased fear while traveling in planes, while calling friends in Karachi, while falling in love with Sakina Bano


Their hard response to terror had the exact opposite impact. The world today is worse off than when we started "sanitizing". This is not a critique of Bush or America or their politics. It is merely an observation of human fragility and our self-destructive thirst for revenge. I know it is hard to forgive. I probably would not if one of mine was trapped at the hotels.

Yet I believe we can only fight terror if we rise above religion and politics. We must not let rhetoric dictate our sensibilities and our humanity. We must not let the masterminds sit back and relish the fracas. We must allow our children to blossom in a magic circle of LIFE.

How we deal with the aftermath would really define the tragedy of 26/11.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Die Hard with a Sizzler

Another night, another nightmare.

Mumbai seems to be a favorite hunting ground for all sorts of 2-bit criminals. Starting from the Madh-Island smugglers back in the 70s, through the D-company in the 90s and now the Hindu-Islamic Fanatics. We were jolted by an sms at 4AM this morning asking us if our families were well after the terror attacks in Bombay. I sleepily thought the sender must be hallucinating; there was no news till 9PM and who do terrorists attack at midnight anyway? The answer, of course, was once again straight out of JK Rowling's imagination.

Just like the Death Eaters who attack anyone anywhere, this time we were subjected to random shootings at crowded public places. Foreign and Indian guests having dinner at two of India's best hotels were interrupted with grenade and machine-gun fire. Images show blood and abandoned luggage at railway stations, gunmen firing inside hospitals and hostage situations in India's top hotels that would make McClane cringe. TV grabs show kids no more than 16-19 year old, wielding automatic weapons and a glazed expression. Clueless about ideology their only mission is to kill. Like any good supari killer in Bombay, they did not fail. This attack seems to have less to do with religion and more to do with law-and-order. The body count is 100 and counting, while the siege in hotels continues as I write this...

I completely admire the Bombay police and believe that only they have the strategy and gumption to control a situation as grave as this. I salute the brave Hemant Karkare and Vijay Salaskar, who were the Dark Knights of Bombay's streets. For them to be killed at point-blank range by cowardly assassins is truly tragic. I pray the commandos fighting to save the 40-50 guests still trapped in the Taj and Oberoi hotels succeed without grave casualties.

At the same time, it makes me wonder about our so-called security. A story that got overshadowed by the Bombay firing was the siege at Bangkok airport. Although this was non-violent (so far), protesters managed to go all the way up to control tower at Suvarnabhumi airport and bring the operations to a complete halt.

I have been subjected to increasingly moronic security measures like removing my belt for scanning, getting my keys beeped separately and having the coin section of my wallet examined. Whether airports, hotels or malls, we bear long and hot queues while squeezing through uncomfortably narrow metal detectors and open all bags for inspection. In most cases, the people being subjected to these checks have no evil intentions in mind. The times that someone really wants to screw the system, they seem to have no trouble barging in. These measures then seem as effective as holding up a blade of grass to thwart a rape attempt. Begs the question, are these security measures no more than eyewash? A comforting illusion, like the 75 year old watchman guarding my building gate?

The detectors at Taj and Oberoi could not stop armed gunmen from entering. The security at Bangkok airport couldn't prevent the airport itself from being attacked. How did they plan to ever secure the skies? I am not an advocate of guns for the masses (like in US) or giving up on security measures. However, considering the amount of money and time we spend "cooperating" with security agencies, don't you agree the recent attacks call their bluff? Their mantra of "more inconvenience = more security" proves to be no good when it comes to REAL defense. Why then should we waste public money on fancy impotent gizmos and offer ourselves for scrutiny?

In the aftermath of this attack, they will "step up" security in Bangalore and Delhi. In other words, they will frisk you more on the way to a movie. Will that help if I am planning to riddle you with my AK-47? Will I really be standing in a queue waiting to get beeped?

It is time the security industry wakes up to become more accountable, to come up with genuine strategies instead of paranoia to make their buck. It is also, perhaps, time that we began to think of terror and suspicion in a larger context. Unlike what Bush says, terror is not war and you cannot fight it the same way. The only way to manage terror is by addressing the real, social issues that breed malcontent youth. The way to end terror is by not launching another attack in retaliation, by not using torture on captured youth (whether hindu or muslim) and by allowing justice rather than mob-rule to prevail.

It is time, indeed, that we started to trust and love our neighbor-- even at the risk of betrayal-- rather than create a world of suspicion and paranoia for our children.

Meanwhile, I hope and pray the affected people at Bombay and Bangkok emerge safe and sound from this madness, quickly.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Some one to walk over me

The elections have become a game of manipulating the media in the US. The better candidate better manipulates. The even better candidate accuses the other of manipulation, in a graceful manipulative swipe. The public buys it all. In this election, McCain and his moll may actually benefit from a sympathy vote after all the media-bashing. Loved this comment someone left on the NYT article.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Not just kids, all of us had a nap

Movie review for the film "Kidnap"

First a couple of words about the new Inox Jayanagar where we saw this film. Bad cramped parking, very small elevators and insipid popcorn. Avoid.

Now for the most awaited movie of the season. After Jaane Tu.. and Bachna... the expectations from an Imran-Minnisha film were sky high. Sanju baba, of course, is all-time dependable. Gadhvi has done some good work in the past-- stylish if not sensible. So we decided to fork over the weekend premium (250 bucks a ticket, including popcorn!) without waiting for reviews.

Bad idea. Gadhvi decided to follow, again, the all-style no-soul route.

**** May contain spoilers ****

The film starts with the dialogue "Maine tumhe kidnap kiya hai" which made the audience erupt in laughter. Not an auspicious beginning for an alleged edge-of-seat-thriller. We decided to give Imran time to find his bearings. Unfortunately, the dialogues kept getting more mundane from then on. It competes with Sarkar 2 for the year’s dullest dialogues. (We so hope Sanjoy watches this movie, he can do another killer review!!)

Vidya Malavade, the hot babe from Chak De, plays Minissha Lamba’s mom in this one!! The casting director must be on drugs. Sadly, this may end Vidya’s career, though Lamba looks way older than her. Lamba, on the other hand, is on a mission to establish a sexy image. She appears extremely uncomfortable in near-nothings-- not just in songs but even when she is supposedly in captivity. The costume designer was definitely high. She fails to realise that sexuality is not just in boob-shows but comes as a package-- the facial expression, the body language and the come-hither eyes. There was none. She looks as arousing as the mannequin being changed in a shop window. She tries too hard and wastes the goodwill created by the Bachna... role. Plus the fact that even though her role is pivotal, she hardly has anything to do except mouth dialogues fit for a 7 year old and remain undressed.

The acting by Imran Khan is first rate again and I do hope to see him bag the Oscars one day, in footsteps of his uncle. He is a sincere and fiery actor lost in an oddball script. Sadly, the screenplay is so awkward that his intense dialogues appear comical. Whoever in the audience was not sleeping was busy hooting in amusement...

He did have a fun chase scene. Outrageous but well executed stunts. The only highlight of the movie, IMHO. Reminded one of Jackie Chan, wish they kept that tone for the entire film. Sigh!

Now for my main problems with "Kidnap". Firstly, the revenge motive is thrust down your throat. The plot is as dark as "Zinda", yet the movie maintains a candy-floss feel throughout. You can easily foresee that every character is inherently good and every one had their "majboori". Ergo, everyone forgives everyone and lives happily ever after. For the hate that Imran’s character carries for Sanjay Dutt’s character, the latter should have been shown more as the "Dilip Tahil" variety. A typical rich, arrogant and ruthless person. The audience must also feel some of the hate. Yet, we always see him in a sympathetic light, we root for him. That makes the revenge hard to digest. Similarly, Imran’s character should have been a twisted freak but he appears sad, almost as if he’d stop the revenge if someone said Sorry to him just once. He’s a frustratingly good boy, performing evil actions. While that syncs with his character, it jars with the plot.

Secondly, it has some gruesome songs. Picturised badly, appear illogically and sound terrible. They completely halt the narrative and everyone looks so uncomfortable even doing them. Lyrics like "Mausam kya Awesome hai". Yikes! Sound engineering is quite good, on the other hand. The scene where Imran brings back Minissha after her escape attempt has fabulous background sounds.

Lastly, the climax, like most Bollywood films of late whimpers down after a cool build-up. Somehow our directors start to copy their latest DVD purchase, perhaps Richard Shepard’s 1995 flop Mercy in this case, but don’t have the patience to watch till the end. Or in some cases, like in Zinda, they are unable to stay faithful to the climax for cultural reasons.

Kidnap belongs to the "Anjaam" genre. It is so bad, it finds a cult following. It is a great movie to watch with a large group of friend, hooting and whistling. Just make sure you don’t pay attention to the screen, else you will end up with a power-nap.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Economedy of Errors: Cartoonists View









Source: About.Com

"Mr.Bush, we finally found the WMDs. In New York City!!"

An article from 2003, to which we should probably have paid attention, here

Thanks to Shashank for sharing this with me. I decided to put it on my blog since it is so relevant even half a decade later, maybe more so. What amazes me is that something so obviously catastrophic was beyond the comprehension of so many highly educated and highly paid "experts" for 5 years. Begs the question, what is it that they actually do besides smoking pot at B-schools?

An excerpt for those too lazy to click through to the BBC site :-)

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Buffett warns on investment 'time bomb'
Tuesday, 4 March, 2003


The derivatives market has exploded in recent years, with investment banks selling billions of dollars worth of these investments to clients as a way to off-load or manage market risk. But Mr Buffett argues that such highly complex financial instruments are time bombs and "financial weapons of mass destruction" that could harm not only their buyers and sellers, but the whole economic system.


Derivatives are financial instruments that allow investors to speculate on the future price of, for example, commodities or shares - without buying the underlying investment. Some derivatives contracts, Mr Buffett says, appear to have been devised by "madmen". He warns that derivatives can push companies onto a "spiral that can lead to a corporate meltdown", like the demise of the notorious hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998.


Derivatives also pose a dangerous incentive for false accounting, Mr Buffett says. The profits and losses from derivates deals are booked straight away, even though no actual money changes hand. In many cases the real costs hit companies only many years later.


This can result in nasty accounting errors. Some of them spring from "honest" optimism. But others are the result of "huge-scale fraud", and Mr Buffett points to the US energy market, which relied for most of its deals on derivatives trading and resulted in the collapse of Enron.

read more
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I am sure Buffet was not alone to anticipate the "many years later" cost impact, way back in 2003. If they continued to lure and loot the trusting public despite such warnings, they must be judged similar to war criminals now. While many of us may lose money, jobs, homes and even Internet access (ouch!), the mad-men (in Buffet's words) responsible for the man-made destruction continue to sip their Pina Coladas hiding in their yachts near Cayman Islands...

On a related note, please avoid spreading and acting on rumours regarding insolvency at ICICI Bank. I am not a fan of the bank and, in fact, stay far away from dealing with it. But I do know that such rumours are malicious and could trigger an unnecessary spiral of doom for a teetering economy. Stay sane and prudent. Work hard and spend more.

We'll be out of this mess, soon.

Friday, September 26, 2008

(On)Line Maaro

One of the better things that have happened to our lives recently is the online ticket booking systems. I remember the days when booking a ticket meant waking up at 5 to stand in a line at the railway station, only to return empty-handed at 11 because the quota was filled. Of course, you could still buy as many "black" tickets as you wanted at the pan shop near the counters. From those dark days to the efficiency of anywhere, anytime booking, including specifying seat preference. We have come a long way indeed, at least in this department. The great thing is it applies not just to air and rail bookings but even buses now.

I recently booked with KSRTC and was surprised at how well the website was designed and functioning. The icing on the cake was a airline style seat map! This was such a contrast to the last time we booked, going to a KSRTC travel agent who spent 30 minutes on a dial-up connection just waiting for the page to render. And another 30 while he made mistakes and repeated the search.

Even the bus itself was quite comfortable, even if it did stop at vague food joints and showed the most boring films. Once you have the ticket print out, you just head to Majestic where the platforms are well-numbered and a well-mannered conductor assists you in boarding. The same applies to Airport shuttle, where one can book tickets on RedBus or ViaWorld (although for now the buses are so empty, don't bother with reservation!) and rest assured in the hands of timely service and well-mannered, good-humored, hindi-english-kannada speaking conductors.

The newly designed IRCTC offers a load of features for rail booking. It has minimized problem of searching for oddly named stations, though no software can help you detect that Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj Junction is what you want, when looking for Kolhapur. I just wish they had a simpler interface for searching different classes and dates on the same page, instead of trying different combination as new search each time. What impressed me most was how effortlessly and quickly (2-3 days) they refunded the money for canceled tickets and failed transactions. They even allow you to ensure, say, a lower berth or not book a ticket at all. Adding a seat map would be the next big idea.

For airlines, I have already professed my love for IXIGO by adding their widget below my blog. This clutter-free site shows the final price, all inclusive, whereas many other travel sites confuse us by comparing basic fare only. Then they have a fast, easy interface to refine or modify the search. The best part is, clicking on the fare takes you to the airline website for payment. Ixigo is not an agent and does not collect any fee. You deal direct with the Airline for everything, which makes it hassle-free and cheaper in case of cancelations. I only wish they had a similar service for international flights soon, since comparing best itinerary (stating both total travel time AND total cost clearly) is still quite difficult. If anyone knows of an international flight price-finder from India, do comment and let me know.

On a different note, we recently used the Pune Corporation website for paying property tax. The transaction deducted money from my card but showed up as failed on the website. Sending a mail to the help-desk elicited a prompt response. Within 2 days, they confirmed that tax due was clear. Again, I was happy with not just the facility but even the prompt service.

These small steps go a long way in improving quality of life of the average Indian. More such initiatives will help so much in reducing faltu stress and eliminating corrupt middle-men.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

KISSmet Kommention

Maybe it's envy. After all, the highest number of comments on any post of mine is 7.

But I can never understand exactly how important people think their blogs are, when they enable three layer security mechanisms to control comments. Why would all the spammers in the world divert their resources from lucrative phishing schemes, to unleash commenting bots on you? The letter verification is to elude bots, not a free eye-sight test. I really don't see why Blogger even bothers to retain this feature. In fact, the more I see Wordpress blogs, the more disillusioned I am with the Blogger design. You just comment-- no authentication, no gyaan. And what pretty comment boxes, what useful comment alerts.
Google is going lazy the Microsoft way, of late. Don't you think?

Of course, some of the best writers out there still use Blogger. So I brave the security cordon and continue squeezing in my puny comments on my favorite blogs. But please, people, just keep it simple!!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dunce of the Millennium

A friend's blog states in the header: Dunce of the Millennium, awarded to the fool who destroys the planet he lives on.

That's a cool statement. Saving the world. Forests, weather and energy for our children. Keeping Wall-E at bay. We know it, yet we don't do anything about it. After all, we are but one person. What can we do? How can it matter what we do? What's the government doing?

One of my all time favorite movies is "Brazil". It's Terry Gilliam's vision of an Orwellian world, where free speech is punished and bug-ridden machines rule (he knew about Microsoft Vista?). The unique factor of the movie is how this society is enforced not by an all-powerful dictator or a ruthless "big brother". It is every day people like you and me, doing just their daily jobs, their "duty". In itself, each man's work is harmless; each man believes in freedom and love. But together, as cogs in the "system", they work to destroy the very ideals they hold dear. They unknowingly (really?) create a totalitarian state themselves, instead of a power-hungry "villain" commonly seen in this genre.

This post is not about a totalitarian state, although recent events with churches and taxi-drivers would not place that too far in the future either. This is about my favorite topic: Bangalore infrastructure.

The topic has been done to death by everyone already. IT honchos, industrialists, expatriates, journalists, students and even politicians have commented and accepted that the infrastructure is crumbling and something needs to be done soon. One day, they even decided to raze some randomly selected illegal buildings (randomly sparing all civil-servant bungalows) in Koramangala, that left some innocent people homeless (the officials who authorised the illegal construction sold and vanished years ago). The locality remains as congested. Then they came up with magic boxes to create signal-free routes and ease the traffic flow. With no drainage and narrow service roads, most magic boxes flood within 1 hour of rain. The signal-free routes, meanwhile, have no pedestrian bridges. Unnecessary lives are lost each time people attempt crossing in front of cars doing 100kmph. You might think these were common-sense factors that any city plan would provide for. But this post is not about all that either.

No, this post is about something much more "you and me". Something so visible and yet so invisible.

My landlord is making a commercial complex near Lalbagh. That's a crowded stretch of road, yet one of the "freshest" areas in Bangalore thanks to the botanical garden and dense trees of Basavangudi nearby. This 4 storey complex will house a supermarket, restaurant and offices. In other words, it will host an estimated 45-60 people at a time, daily. For all the additional business that it will generate, there's basement parking provided for about 12 cars. When I asked him how will that work, he reassured me: "Oh there's lots of lanes around the place, customers can park easily!".

Well, that is true. After all, he is not in the business of making MLCP (multi level car parking). How can he justify cost of an extra basement to park more cars? Anyway, parking another 6 cars will not solve Banaglore's traffic woes. The government must do something about that!

After this incident, I began to notice other new construction. There's a new Big Bazaar opposite Ragigudda temple in Jayanagar. This is a busy intersection, often gridlocked. On Wednesdays, people throng BB for the weekly discount. About 15-20 cars can be parked inside, twice that number line the narrow roads leading in and around the complex on busy days. Another hypermall by Mantri is coming up soon, banking on the same lanes for parking.

The fancy Innovative Film City on the outskirts of the city has over 15 attractions and costs Rs.700 for a full-day tour. They plan to open a 21 screen multiplex, a shopping arcade and a hotel. The cars and tour buses must park outside the main entrance, going all the way up the sylvan hillside. While this works fine today, I shudder to imagine what happens when another theme park opens next door. The optimist in me believes the car park may be under construction. The cynic looks at their earlier disaster, the multiplex at Marathahalli, and is afraid the parking may again be sufficient for a tenth of the capacity. If it exists, at all.

The same story is repeated in numerous new malls (viz Garuda Mall, where parking is a joke!) and apartments coming up around the city. I can understand planners did not anticipate 4-wheeler growth 10 years ago and older buildings must struggle with insufficient parking space. What gets my goat is when the administration approves new projects with obviously insufficient parking. More so when these new ventures are otherwise aping the American model of mega stores like the Walmart that have parking lots larger than the store size itself! Two years later, the BBMP is conveniently going to blame builders for not providing enough parking, and absolve themselves of any blame for increased floods, jams and fires in the newly "developed" areas.

I am sure fire safety laws are being flouted in a similar vein, with cramped escape routes and
no access for fire engines. They will jail another Ansal Builder for 2 years, while another 80 innocents perish in a fire. Would you believe these malls and multiplexes came up after we allegedly became conscious of the need to "do something about it".

The point of all this ranting is how we "save money" in our little projects, comfortable in the thought that one more car parked on the road won't hurt anyone. And, smart IT executives and investment bankers like you and I, we continue to agitate for better infrastructure and world-class facilities from the government.

I wish we'd just save the neighborhood before we save the planet.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Comedy of IPRs

The so-called entertainment news today is that Warner Bros have sued some B-grade Indian producer over the title of a film called "Hari Puttar", because they are worried it will impact the business of their "Harry Potter" franchise. The lawsuit is based on the premise that Indian fans of Harry Potter and (sigh! where was she when I was in school?) Hermione would readily abandon the magical firangi movies in favor of a desi version, if one was available. So now there is a hoo-haa about whether the Indian producer is within rights to use a perfectly legit Hindi word "Puttar" that has no similarity in meaning to the English word "Potter". Bombay High court, already laboring under a 200 year backlog of genuine cases, will have to decide whether the lawsuit is a publicity gimmick or whether Warner's IPR has been "snitch"ed.

The plot, as I understood it, is that a 10 year old kid wishes for his family to disappear. His wish is promptly granted and he is left "home alone" to battle two bungling goons who are trying to get their secret microchip back from a toy in the kid's possession. How he foils their plans is the rest of the film. It stars my favorite actors as the goons, so I'm praying it's not all bad.

Most news articles don't even mention the possibility of this film being a rip off of anything but the Harry Potter stories. Either Mr.Purriiie is very very smart or most Indian journalists were born after 1990. Wonder if sundry blog posts will result in Mr. John Hughes exchanging places with brother Warner to sue the lucky Mr.Purrieee?

Oh hell, even the BBC News got it wrong. Pardon me for sneering only at lazy Indian newsies.

After all, the ever-alert media has, thankfully, given wider column-space to this historic lawsuit instead of boring us with the tale of a family left alone without even a home, under the benevolent shade of the Lotus.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Throwing the Baby with the Bathwater

The Indian School of Business has been ranked 20th in a list of top 100 B-schools around the world. While this is a proud celebration moment for alumni of the school located at Hyderabad, it merely reinforces the conviction of its founders who, ten years ago, set out to create an Indian B-school to rival the likes of Wharton and LSE. This news brought back memories of my student days in 1998, when it was announced that ISB would be established in Bombay. After weeks of front-page tamasha, the school decided to skip India's commercial capital in favor of relatively unknown Hyderabad. As a proud Bombayite, (despite what Raj chooses to believe) this bhaiyya was quite upset that some upstart school rebuffed his favorite city.

A decade later, having abandoned the mayanagri myself, I realise that this incident, perhaps, marked the turning point of a deeper malaise affecting India's crown jewel. The Indian growth story has bypassed Bombay, leaving it a mere shadow of its glory days--- much like those dilapidated beautiful bungalows that dot Bandra, silently recounting an era of opulence and prestige, now lost among the skyscrapers of Powai.

Found this article from the Indian Express, dated September 10 1998.

You may be forgiven for mistaking it as production notes from Sarkar Raj. I was more shocked at how latter half of the article could be from a 2008 newspaper, despite the change in government! Maharashtra's Nero continues to dog the hardworking "manoos" with distracting, unproductive dogma, while the means of production continue to dodge the state. Ten years later, more and more industries, entrepreneurs, schools and talent are being driven out of Bombay. New enterprises prefer to avoid a sleepy CM and the rebel without a cause, choosing to open shop in Gurgaon and Trivandrum instead.

The electorate may have judged Chandrababu Naidu harshly, but history is sure to be kinder to that man of vision. On the other hand, the curse of rhetoric replacing honest labour did not die with the sequel to Sarkar. Ironically, fiddling by modern day Neros may be responsible for India's most prosperous state turning into one they dread the most-- Bihar.


Now for the article itself, that provoked this post:

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Indian Express, dated Sep 10, 1998

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is getting all the prizes and it is not going down well in Maharashtra. Few things have brought home so acutely the fierce competition between states than the bidding for the Indian School of Business, India's answer to Wharton. It's not investment rupees or jobs created that counts here but the prestige of playing host to what is intended to be a world class institution.

Mumbai has been passed over and the school, promoted by a glittering array of big corporates, has gone to Hyderabad. Apparently incentives were not the paramount determinants of the choice of location. When Anil Ambani speaks of the ``vision and organisation'' of the Andhra Pradesh government and Anand Mahindra of the ``triumph of political wisdom over political expediency'', they are emphasising other important factors which influence business decisions. Politicians could pay closer attention to what young business leaders are saying.

For Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi the unkindest cut of all came from Bal Thackeray who said Chandrababu Naidu ``moves like a typhoon''. Unkind because Thackeray's attempt to commandeer places in the school for Maharashtri-ans is what probably queered the pitch for Mumbai, the promoters' first choice when they put their ideas to Joshi and Thackeray on May 5. In that case the message in the rejection of Mumbai is that India's Wharton will take the best and the brightest and not politicians' candidates. It is a good advertisement for the school. The loss of the business school is symptomatic of a larger problem in Maharashtra today.

Shiv Sena and BJP politicians lacked experience to start with and have not grown into their jobs in government. They remain in many ways the parish pump politicians they always were. Apart from the Chief Minister himself there is little evidence of administrative abilities and even Joshi is hamstrung by his party boss. When the coalition came to power, Maharashtra was already being challenged by other states for new investment and projects and beginning to lose its position as destination number one.

The Enron affair exposed the amateurishness of the SS-BJP coalition and ought to have taught the new government some valuable lessons. Unfortunately, there has been little sign that the government is wiser for that experience. Politics and self-aggrandisement continue to come before pragmatism and common sense. Consequently, although Maharashtra's physical and human resources still make it a major business destination, many of the statistics show investment is not growing as rapidly as it is in other go-getting states. Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are pushing ahead faster on a wide front, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and perhaps even Uttar Pradesh in some areas. To Thackeray and Joshi these trends are mere grist for the political mill as they engage in a new quarrel about whether Maharashtra is first or fourth in the league. The fact that the government is thrashing about for ways of arresting the downslide in the state's finances is proof of Maharashtra's worsening condition.


Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Trip down the Bat Cave

As we have seen recently, when the director has something to say, rather than just milk a franchise, the sequels (Terminator2, Spiderman2, Clerks2, Munnabhai2, et al) turn out to be spectacular. This is Nolan's drama about choice, valour and loss. That it wears a superhero costume is incidental.

I so do wanna talk about Batman right now. But I am still too stunned to review The Dark Knight (2008)

For nostalgia sake, decided to revive another review, written when Batman Begins overwhelmed me on June 18 2005. You will find that most of the emotions still apply, even though The Dark Knight has raised the bar many times over:


*** Rewind to 2005 ***

Having not grown up with the Superman movies, being too young to appreciate Tim Burton’s dark yet campy introduction to Batman in 1989, yet being an avid comic-book reader since I’ve been 10 (thanks, grampa, for your infinite collection!), this is something I’ve waited for. After the dazzling Spiderman 2 which outshone its predecessor, here’s IMHO the best super hero adaption ever on screen!!

Batman Begins (2005) is a blend of the dark, gothic atmosphere of the first movie and the tormented, realistic portrayal of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances we saw in Spiderman 1. In fact, all these stories have a common formula:

Phase 1: Traumatic or lost childhood
Phase 2: Loss of one or more loved ones
Phase 3: Unrequited love during teens and after
Phase 4: A motive to fight crime, usually personal tragedy
Phase 5: Tons of money to fund fancy gadgets and costumes
Phase 6: Years of adventures and duplicity ahead!

Then on, it’s 50 years of comic-book glory, while they go through daily lives as pathetic wimps--- morphing into masked crusaders to save the world!

But then, these are comic books. Not Pulitzer tomes. They reflect the dreams and fantasies of a tired society. They start by putting a smile on the lips, go on to scare the hell out of you and before “The End” make sure you sigh with relief. In that, they really save the world! Enjoy them as such and you will not be disappointed.

Anyone who has read the original Batman comics would notice the dull grey suit and blue cape that was replaced by a black body suit in the recent books and movies. To me, Batman had always been a poor cousin to Superman. Supey could really fly (not glide), he had true X-ray vision, he was Super-man because he had super powers . Batman was just an ordinary kid who developed some muscles, made friends with Superman and, with some effort, managed to glide from the third floor into an alleyway. He couldn’t dodge bullets, he couldn’t melt steel-doors. Hell, he couldn’t even be a rail-track while the train ran over him. So he goes to a tailor and gets himself a fancy “superhero” costume and some bright chaddi to wear over the pants. It still meant that he needed to piggyback on a true superhero, someone with asli talent. That was one reason why I loved the comics where Superman and Batman fought together. Like Sholay ? :=)

As I grew up and learnt the origins of Batman, that view changed completely. Ironically, in the decades later, Batman’s brooding proved to have a more lasting appeal than the glamour of Superman.

Both the heroes were created at the end of 1930s when America was reeling under the Great Depression. Crime and despair are just two manifestations of economic hardship. When two school-kids came up with the idea of an extraterrestrial superhero saving all our problems in one magic stroke, the audiences lapped it up. Comic book publishers commissioned a host of other such superheroes to ride the demand. Green Lantern, Daredevil, Green Arrow, Tarzan, Tomahawk, Turok, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Thor… the list is endless. “Birdman” was created by Detective Comics (DC) to rival the hot-selling Superman from Action Comics (AC). Bill Finger, the often-unacknowledged co-creator, suggested alterations to the original red costume and bat-wings to remove similarities with Superman. He added the “bat” touches, much like Fox and Alfred help Bruce in the movie, and gave the name-- Batman .

Batman works because he is a mere human. He is triumph of mind over body, of will over evil. He symbolizes the power of human effort over destiny. That is the foundation on which the later comics were built. Over time, the stories faded till Batman became just another swish-bang-boom superhero. Batman Begins takes us back to the 1930's roots. In a contemporary way, it chisels the personality of Bruce Wayne till we understand him as a human—not as a legend. Wayne had the suave charm of Cary Grant, the methodology of Sherlock Holmes and the seething anger of the post-Depression readers. In contrast, Superman was more action-oriented, more fantastic and larger than life.

Nolan's Batman, set in the present era, is as much a period film as a fantasy-thriller.

--------

The performance by Christian Bale is rock solid. He showed his mettle as a teen actor in the Disney movies Newsies and Swing Kids that were popular on Doordarshan Friday nights, long ago. The direction by Chris Nolan, who made ingenious films like Memento and Insomnia, is guaranteed to breathe fresh life into the franchisee. Perfectly cast supporting actors helmed by legendary Morgan Freeman and Michal Caine got whistling applause from the audience.

For those who may not have seen a Batman movie yet, Batman Begins (2005) is just the place to start....

My wish-list for the sequel? An Asian Superman and an African Batman pair up to battle pureblood American villain. Hyuk!

;-)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Big Bang Theory

Today, there are reports of serial blasts rocking Bangalore. Key areas like Richmond Circle and Forum Mall seem to have been affected. Some people may have died, not too many. They have smartly blocked phones and refused to give meaningful information on websites. The inertia of authorities and lack of communication-facilities have probably done more damage than the blasts themselves.

If they shut off communication, at least they must engage popular websites to inform people on traffic status, route redirection, police presence and other instructions for a secure and orderly return to normalcy. Instead, perverted crisis-management mantras followed by our a-duh-ministers believe in preventing parents from reaching their children, scaring elderly persons by cutting phone and power, making it difficult to organise contingency plans and encouraging misinformation.

Every time there is a change in government, either riots or bomb blasts happen. As the recent trust vote showed, there is no Order of the Phoenix left in Indian polity. With a bunch of Death Eaters bribing and grabbing other Death Eaters, it is merely a match between Voldemort and Grindelwald. The Good vs Evil fight in India today is more like, How-do-I-Profit-from-It vs How-can-I-Save-My-Evil-Ass.

Bangalore managed to throw off the yoke of liars that took India's IT growth 50% back in the last 20 months. As a replacement, we have a party that prides fake encounters, ethnic cleansing and invoking "asmita" as their justification for creating a KGB-like state. Rights and Justice be damned. One can never really trust they will opt for sanity over the more lucrative option of turning this into a "The Muslims did it!" slugfest.

The fear is this should not escalate into a communal clash, since that seems to be the easiest distraction nowadays. With power cuts being a daily affair, water and fuel shortage and no real plans for growth in the near term, the government must be very excited that these blasts will keep "real" issues off the front-page newspapers for the next few days...

Praying that all Bangaloreans are safe and reunite with their family soon.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Baweja Fry

"I am glad that Harman has been accepted" -- Harry Baweja

This chap is in such denial! 5/10/15 years later, people will remember Love Story 2050 as a landmark, he says. True. The way we still remember and cherish Mithun da's Jallad, Raavan Raj and Gunda made in mid-90s. Must be Puppa Ka Pyaar for his Pappu....

On the other hand, don't miss Jaane Tu... a fantastic feel-good formula film!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Are You Being Served?

This post is a simple one: to make unsuspecting customers aware of faulty "Manhattan Murder Mystery" DVD being sold at 50% discount in Tata Croma stores (Bangalore, India). Unless I am mistaken, all disks in the batch being off-loaded stop 20 minutes before the end (at chapter 25), right when Woody Allen enters the phone booth to make a call. Friends who bought the 50% off disk at other stores also faced similar issue. We bought this Sony DVD some 6 months back and after 3 trips to replace the replacements, informed both Sony and Croma; yet the disk continues to sell. I took this picture last week at Croma in Eva Mall, Bangalore.

Despite their calls to end piracy, it is surprising how media companies in India cheat worse than those pirates. In any other country, Sony would not only recall all such disks but also pay compensation to whole bunch of buyers. In India, they shamelessly take the customer for a ride by offering blatant 50% off on disks they know to be bad. I had a similar experience with Disney and they sent me the correct disk after 1 month of follow-up. They were selling "The Incredibles", again at 50% off at the same store (Croma), without the special features disk but same catalogue code and DVD cover as the 2-disc edition!!

Perhaps the reason they get away is Indians are so used to bad service, they feel at least the vendor was good enough to offer 50% off on the bad disk. Or maybe we are just too lazy to demand our rights as a customer.

I think I have blogged many times before on the changing face of retail in India. How the shops are getting swankier, how more choices are available and how the latest and the best is available in India. So much so that going abroad is such a bore-- nothing left for us to bring from "phoren". Everything is cheaper and better back home. On the other hand, the experience of shopping itself is becoming more painful. Gone are the days of the ever-eager salesman who'd use both his glib talk and excellent product knowledge to alternately coax you and con you into buying. It was a charming game where you started off testing his knowledge, then he tested your gullibility, so you test how cheap he can go and he tests how much more he can sell you. By the end, the salesman would have made you feel that not only did you get a wonderful bargain but you are an astute shopper as well-- leaving you completely happy.

On the other hand, we have the daft floor staff today who couldn't care less about your needs. They are clueless about the items being stocked and return "No sir, we don't have" without batting an eyelid. They are completely immune to the lost opportunity, lost sales and probably lost customer. At stores like Croma, that boast the Tata name, shopping experience can be frustrating. More for the shameless disinterest shown by the staff than the price or quality of products.

The house of Tata has been know for their "human touch" even in days of Weston TV and Bajaj scooters. I look forward to seeing them get their Mojo back, baby...

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Haan, mujhe Marmite se Pyaar hai!

This is an article from the Times of India, 18 Jan 2002. The page no longer exists, so I extracted it from Google's cache, since it deserves to be preserved for posterity. I only found it while looking for shops in India that might sell a breakfast spread known as "Marmite".

My grandfather discovered Marmite during his studies at London School of Economics, way back in 1920's or whenever. Somehow we had a stash of the yummy gooey stuff when I was growing up, way back in 1980's. Then suddenly they both disappeared from our lives-- grampa and Marmite.

Last month I accompanied a cousin for some mundane grocery shopping in a Singapore mini-mart and what do I see, a gleaming bottle of Marmite, looking exactly as it did years ago, sitting there alone on the shelf. After a moment hesitation, I grabbed the $4 bottle and got her home. Alas, I fell in love with it all over again and so did my dad! I say alas because I haven't found any store in Bangalore selling this yet, including the often-dependable "Spar".

Until someone's coming over from Singapore, then, we can but scroogily apply the manna on our daily bread.... and pray.

-------------

Now for the article I found on TOI:

"Marmite is more than a simple food product: it is a cultural icon, a national symbol. Marmite toast soldiers (dipped into soft-boiled eggs, of course) are as nostalgic as any Madeleine, and as comforting as a pair of old pyjamas. Toddlers thrive on it, armies march on it, and it travels abroad in the suitcases of an estimated 11 per cent of British holidaymakers. This year (2002) Marmite celebrates its centenary and Marmite mania is upon the Brits as they salute the enduring, reassuring qualities of the gooey, brown savoury spread in its design-classic jar.

The use of spent brewer's yeast as a food source was discovered in 1680, but it was not until the 19th century that Louis Pasteur and the german chemist Justus von Liebig found that it could be made into a concentrated, savoury vegetarian food that resembled meat in appearance, smell and colour. It was first manufactured for commercial purposes by the Marmite Food Company Ltd in 1902, at a disused malthouse in Burton-on-Trent; today it is a top 100 food brand valued at #30 million, and the largest brand in the deliciously titled ambient spreads market.

In 1912, the discovery of vitamins helped to boost the popularity of the product when it was realised that Marmite provided a good source of five B vitamins (hence its long-running advertising slogan: the growing up spread you never grow out of). During the first world war, Marmite was given to soldiers to combat beri-beri; in the second world war, it became a valued dietary supplement in prisoner-of-war camps. In 1999, it was sent to peacekeeping forces in Kosovo after the company received a letter begging for jars to boost morale.

Realising how severely split the public was, Marmite launched the you-either-love-it-or-hate-it advertising campaign, with such brilliant micro-dramas as the couple who arrive home desperate to have sex. She has a bite of toast with Marmite, kisses him, and he gags disgustedly. As the ads point out, there will always be those who regard the spread as devil's spawn; when it comes to Marmite, there is no middle ground."

------------

Wonder if any fans of Marmite in my readership?

A prayer and not much else that we can offer...

Heart-rending post by The Mad Momma

An excerpt:

"I listened to him in horror. It’s the kind of thing that can happen to any of us. Do you know where you child is right now? As you read this post? In the nursery? In school? In daycare? With the maid? In bed? Playing by your side? This could happen to any of us. The child falling off a table he has clambered on to and injuring himself, being rushed in for surgery and losing all his senses thanks to two idiot doctors who should be shot and chopped into teeny tiny pieces. How do they do it? How can you read a paper that says left eye and operate on the right eye? A person educated enough to be a doctor should be able to tell the difference between left and right. A person educated to be a doctor should know that precious lives rest in his hands."

Makes all the whining on this blog so insignificant by comparison. Wonder what keeps them going? God? That must be it, because for the life of me I can't think of anything else....

Go ahead and read it here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Springtime for Mallya


I recently saw a movie where the producer generates finance for his Broadway shows by conning little old ladies. He wins their trust and shows them da love, only to pocket their "checkees". Air Deccan, that charming seducer who forever changed the way Indians view flying, seems to have gone down the same path.

Most people I know, especially the older lot who is not so familiar with the Internet and its resident evils, equate flying with Air Deccan and Air Deccan with the concept of e-tickets. They still believe that Air Deccan spells low-cost, decent quality travel, easy ticket booking and Captain Gopinath's idealism.

Enter Mallya.

Simplifly Deccan today, renamed and recolored, is only too happy to use the trust of those very same people to con them with fine-print and complicated web user-interface. The best part is most people, like Max Bialystock's little old ladies, would go on living happy lives in their blissfull ignorance. Which is good, in a way, I guess.

What they do is add a default insurance charge to every ticket. This lets them pick-pocket a cool Rs.99 in the blink of an eye when you book online. While this itself is not wrong, the way they do it is. Yes, the break up and total charges show up on top of the page.The option to refuse insurance is further down the page, lost among the terms and conditions. The idea being that once a certain price is OK, people tend to skip the fine-print and go straight to the "BOOK NOW" button.

Even a net-savvy person like me caught this only because the website I use to book my travel (god bless them!!) have put a warning below their Deccan listing to this effect. I wonder how many little old ladies have contributed Rs.99 to Mallya's PYT fund.

-------------

The story in pictures:


Deccan flight to Pune shows up as costing Rs.3175 on www.ixigo.com


www.ixigo.com thoughtfully places a warning to alert users against Deccan's trick. This warning is not available to users of other travel websites or those booking direct at Deccan website.


The Deccan website now shows the same fare as Rs.3274 (instead of Rs.3175). An nominal increase of Rs.99 a layman might assume is merely another one of those "surcharges".


Option to refuse insurance does not come before the total fare is shown. It does not come even in the next section. It is cached among lots of T&C looking text, after the passenger details are entered (means, one has mentally moved on from thinking about fare related details)

The correct fare Rs.3175 is shown, same as Ixigo, once we remember to deselect the insurance charge.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Down to Earth

Recently, I decided to travel Bangalore to Pune by bus and came away pleasantly surprised. Couple of reasons prompted this "daring" step, now that we are so used to flying. One reason is definitely the rising fuel costs that have made air travel so expensive. A no-frills plane journey that cost Rs.2000 all incl about 18 months ago, now costs upwards of Rs.4000. Secondly, there was fear of the new Bangalore airport that has effectively quarantined the city. The time and taxi cost to reach the airport is not for the faint-hearted.

The first surprise was the ability to painlessly book tickets on the Volvo service (called 'Airavatha') at the Karnataka State Road Transport website. I could get availability and schedules, pay by credit card and even view seat-map. The bus leaves from platform#1 at Majestic bus stand, where the destination boards make it easy to find the bus. The staff was also quite civil and the bus-stand was less chaotic than most airports today. The next surprise was that, unlike private buses, the KSRTC Volvo left sharp on time.

Facilities offered were a blanket, 500ml water bottle and a fairly well-made in-bus magazine! They did tantalize you with 5 minutes of two new hindi movies before abruptly replacing the DVD with a grating Rajkumar movie from the 1970s. This part, though disappointing, was kind of expected in these times of regional chauvinism. Dinner was at an acceptable Kamat's rest-stop at 7:30pm after which we travelled uninterrupted till 6:30AM the next day. Temperature in the cabin was OK and except for the honk-happy driver, it was a comfortable night journey. 18 hours after I left home, I sat with my parents sipping tea in Pune. All this for a princely sum of Rs.820 ticket, plus Rs.50 dinner and Rs.200 auto-rickshaw charges. That is approx what I would spend on just the taxi to reach new BIAL airport!!

On the way back, I had already booked a flight. Traveling light and in the mood to experiment, I took the shuttle from BIAL to JP Nagar instead of a taxi. This is available after you pass all the taxi guys soliciting you at the exit, so it is easy to miss unless you lookfor it. The bus bay is on the far right, towards the parking lot. The bus is an excellent cheap option (Rs.80 non-AC and Rs.150 AC) that leaves every 30 minutes. There are some 8 or 9 routes and newbies can consult large route-maps on the platform itself, to see which bus drops them off nearest to hotel/home. See schedule online or book buses at www.viaworld.in. These special buses have luggage racks, helpful, polite conductors and good frequency, making this experience worth repeating.

On the flip side, it still takes a good 2 hours, same as a taxi ride, and is more exhausting and dizzying than the 15 hour bus-ride to Pune. Plus you spend three times the money, one hour in air and total of 9 hours door-to-door. BIAL has given us Bangaloreans a royal buggering-- just to see the baggage-claim belt start rolling was a 30 minutes wait! Not to mention the fact that the toilets are stinky, wet and cramped while for some reason you can only buy 500ml water at 20 bucks. Why cannot they sell the standard 1 litre bottle for Rs.12, like everywhere else? Does "international quality" translate as "squeezing the helpless passenger at every stage" in your dictionary, Mr. Brunner?

Nevertheless, it was heartening to see the small steps we have taken in ensuring passenger comfort and connectivity, even as we suffer some large mis-steps in the lopsided infrastructure game. In the era of rising inflation, it was good to see that low-cost options such as buses and trains are much better now than they were in the late 90s.