Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Airtel mChek: Convenient but Confusing

Online security is a completely different ball-game. Indian regulators haven't even begun to understand what it means. I am very confident that it won't take too long for a semi-smart hacker to enter and steal information from banks, telecom operators and public utilities. Every once in a while, I notice how many websites have extremely complex processes to hide very basic holes in their security policies.

I registered for the mChek facility of Airtel. This allows you to link all your credit card details to the cellphone number. Paying for services is as easy as sending an sms. The shocking part is that after I canceled my Airtel phone number, the credit card details continued to exist in their database. My linked mChek account is not deleted automatically when the Airtel account itself is deleted. I know this because on my new Airtel number, I get an error stating the credit card is already in use by another mChek account (2 months after that number is discontinued).

When I contacted Airtel, they asked me to contact my bank and get the credit card number changed. So every time I use a lousy service provider, I must get a new card? Wow!

To quote from their reply:

Please be informed that you need to register in your bank if you want to change the number for your card after registering in mchek. Hence we request you to change the number in bank by calling to bank call center and try to use mchek for your new mobile number.

This is unsafe because it reveals that Airtel as a service provider does not really understand how mChek works and how it is used (or misused). Any financial instrument must have the same checks and balances as a regular bank instrument-- online systems requiring MORE so. Why have so many checks on banks but none on a telecom company? In the absence of regulatory understanding, non-traditional financial offerings put too much onus on the user and too little responsibility on the provider.

This is just one example. I have seen similar security gaffes for banks like HDFC and broking houses like NJ Invest. Some time ago, I found all my personal details on a BSNL website while Googling. An application I sent them was available on their customer support server. A direct URL with NO login required! Luckily they took it off after I complained.

Mobile Commerce is new to India and a great technology evolution. These services must take special efforts to appear secure and belie the worries of tech-phobic users. Hiding behind opaque helpdesks and living in denial of breaches already made, is a dis-service to their own cause. The mChek page on Airtel does not even have a link to report bugs, errors or disputed payments. Your only option is the standard Airtel 121 helpdesk which is rather ill-equipped to handle these specialised (and sometimes, more urgent) cases.

Making the customer pay with either his time or money is preferable to securing systems and places where THEY must take an effort. After all, if all comes crashing down, the government is always standing by for a bail-out.


Next Day Update:
The process is actually as simple as reporting the change of phone number to support@mchek.com and they delink the accounts. Someone at mChek with a knack for thwacking kulhadis on their own feet found this blog and offered to help. Very impressive in an era where they could have easily allowed brick-headed call-centers to play ping-pong with me. Thanks, Nidhi! Next up, try to convince Airtel to add some useful FAQ on their website and educate their L1 engineers about VAS support :-)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Watch Youtube in Gold Class

Noticed this cool feature on Youtube. At the top right corner, they have a bulb labeled: "Turn off the lights". Clicking this icon darkens the screen area next to the Youtube video being played. Clicking it again restores the normal screen.

While this offers a neat theatre-like experience, especially when watching longer videos, it is also a quasi-environmental friendly initiative. Mad scientists have often attacked Google searches as being bad for the planet. Part of the attacks related to Google's love for the white clutter-free screens on most of their apps.

I love the way Google responds to every nutcase, whether it is Bing or Blackle. Tharoor should learn a few tips from them ;-)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ganpati Bappa.... More... Yeah!!

This huge banner near our house made us do a double-take. Looks like even Playboys need all the luck they can get, eh?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Theatre Review: The Great Lalula

Wifey decided to make Cubby part of a historical moment in Rangashankara's history. The first time that they allowed 20 month olds to enter their hallowed halls-- a space normally reserved for 96 month olds and above. The promise was something special, only for infants and toddlers, in a language they'd understand-- Gibberish. We went to see "The Great Lalula".

It was a disappointment.

To be fair, Cubby did enjoy parts of the performance. He stood and clapped and waved his hands in glee. Some kids chanted along with the artists, some completed the rhymes before the artists could and others merely walked up on the stage, mesmerized. Everything you'd expect from a motley crew of 20 to 30 month olds. There was also some talking on the phones, some flashing of digicams and some running up the aisles: stuff you've come to expect from the yuppie, 'adult' Indian audience.

Despite the success of the play in getting li'l children to enjoy some theatre, I came away disappointed. Probably more for how they squandered a wonderful opportunity, rather than the performance itself.

Here are my reasons:

The artists took themselves too seriously. The focus was on technique. Their 'subtle manoeuvres' really didn't engage the "attention" of the young audience. It was a humorless performance.

Then, there was no music. Children respond best to 3 things: music, physical comedy and surprise. Surprisingly, all of these were lacking. The first half of the performance was too silent, broken only by utterances from the "poem". The actions were slow and deliberate, opera-like. It wasn't until they started clanging some utensils (10 minutes into the show of 20-25 minutes) that most children even looked away from their fidgeting to watch.

Secondly, I wish they kept bright lights on and had something cheerful happen on stage (peppy music, funny cartoons, maybe a clown/juggler?) right when the kids entered. The dark theatre intimated the kids and no child let go of their parents. I remember a performance of "Sleuth" at RS where they had "Tom n Jerry" on TV while people walked in and took their seats, just to set the tone for the "cat and mouse games" to follow.

"The Great Lalula" is acknowledged as a precursor to the Dada-ism movement in Germany. It is supposed to reflect the imaginary world of a child, where he can communicate and cook and drive and dress, all in his own way, in his own language (hence, the Gibberish). The thorn in this beautiful concept was playing it subtle. The priority should have been to connect with the children, even if it meant letting down your guard and engage in some goofy humor!

You think I should've gone to a circus, instead? Maybe.

Let the last word belong to the synopsis of this play on the RS webpage:

Imagine bringing your 20-month young into a theatre only to find a party is being organized – a party for children! And then a lady comes on stage and begins to entertain your children with song and dance, all in a language that only children understand! A mesmerizing world where words skip and dance, move, laugh, jabber, murmur, rustle, rhyme and sing.

Yes! That is what I went in expecting. A carnival of music, dancing, juggling. I wanted my kid to come back with stories and memories of that hour inside RangaShankara. I wanted him to enjoy the exhilaration of a live performance (not just TV), to feel at home in the theatre...

Just 10 minutes later, he had no excitement, no stories, nothing to repeat. That's my rant.


Trust me, we really loved this initiative by Arundhati Nag, to have a festival only for children. We have been big fans of Prithvi Theatre while growing up and while RS is yet to grow beyond its very local vision, we want this haven available to Cubby-- even as an iPod toting teenager. We will continue to be part of Aha! next year and every year it happens. With only a prayer that next year, they find some real performances, instead of being happy because a "troupe came all the way from Germany!"...