Do you speak English?

Q: “Do you speak English?”

Probable Answer : “Yes i do, but I rather not”

How often have you heard or asked this now ubiquitous question? So many times that you do not raise an eyebrow when you are asked this question, you just come out with a pre-programmed, polite ‘Yes, of course’ and shoot away. I have been living in Switzerland for more than 5 years, and during the first couple of years (thanks to my non-existent German knowledge) unabashedly used this question thousands of times. But after two years, the Swiss took out a referendum with the topic ‘Brijesh should learn German’. All the supermarket & railway employees working in my hometown (whom i had tormented with this question) approved it in a blink of an eyelid. Thus I was went down the path of taking a crash course in German, after which my propensity to ask this question has reduced by the same factor that the Indian cricket teams ability to play well in overseas matches has increased (which, given our respective past ineptness in both these situations is quite an achievement)

But today, I was asked this question (almost like a celestial plotted revenge) and it literally stopped me in my tracks. It came from such an unexpected source that irony of the situation was staggering. I had the pleasure of calling up the Indian embassy in Switzerland to clarify some details about a passport renewal question. Now, they have copious amounts of information on their sometimes quite helpful, sometimes infuriating website. So whether i really needed to call them to clarify is opens up a debate about the web designer’s ability to present all the information logically or my inability to comprehend that information. Anyway … so I call them, after navigating through a million options, i manage to convince the recorded voice on the telephone that she cannot answer my queries and I really need to talk to a human being. The phone rings (for what seems like an eternity to me), and a lady picks up the phone with a polite, slightly Indian accented “Good afternoon Indian Embassy”.

On hearing these words, a sudden wave of nationalism floods over me, and i break out in Hindi trying to explain what i want to know. As I finish my sentence, there is silence on the phone. Puzzled, I say “Hello” … the same voice answers back “Hello sir, Do you speak English?” I instinctively start to repeat my question in English, but something tells me to stop. Hang on a minute … I am calling the Indian Embassy here. They represent India in this country. The least that I can expect is to be able to talk in my national language … is that asking for too much? The critics among you will immediately retort back that there are close to 16 officially recognized languages in India. But for crying out loud, you expect to be able to converse in the official language of your country when dealing with your country’s embassy. A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to deal with the Turkish embassy to apply for a visa. You will be damned to find any other language spoken or written there except Turkish.

But of course, as I noted in a post a few days back, we Indians are different and (i think) almost take pride in not communicating in Hindi. Ok, maybe I am being too hard here, that lady could have been from anywhere in Eastern or Southern India, where Hindi is not that prevalent. But for god’s sake, as the first contact point for anyone calling the embassy … is this acceptable?

Thanks to experiences like this, i can completely empathize with people in India, who bemoan the passing away of out national image & culture. Do we show our nationalism only by observing the national holidays as a day off, dressing up in an Indian dress for a phot opp on a festival or by getting worked up over the India-Pakistan issue? Isn’t the ability to communicate in a common official language the lowest common denominator of nationalism?

Maybe I am just plain wrong or brewing up a storm in a chai-cup. Though I hope I can make my case again on Saturday after India has won the Cricket world cup. At that time, when a wave of euphoria and nationalism is sweeping over the nation, the time might be right to take up this issue again. But chances are no-one will be listening then, as everyone will be busy celebrating . (…… by drinking Aussie beer???)

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The chronicle of bytensteins and outsourced guardian angels

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I am sure you have heard or have said this in an all-knowing way a few times. But as they say the proof of the pudding is in eating it. I learnt the meaning of this and almost ate humble pie last night, but was saved miraculously by the wonderful new age business invention – outsourcing.

I am making it sound so dire, but it wasn’t anything dangerous like driving off the cliff or electrocuting myself (though my wife can certainly attest to the fact that i have come close to latter a few times thanks to my ineptness in dealing with electrical wiring – another case of little knowledge). It was certainly not a danger of a physical kind, but more related to the modern-day phenomena of preserving our memories in the digital world (if you are to believe some futurologist like Mr Kurzweil, very soon we will be living our lives only in the digital realm- but don’t we already?)

Ok enough tomfoolery, time to get to the point -here’s what transpired. Most of us have fancy mega-pixel cameras, we click away constantly, swoon over the results and share or preserve them online on numerous photo sharing sites available today. But i live life on the edge, firmly believe in my computer skills &  refuse to use the free options. So i went ahead and registered my own private domain name, set up a fancy software with password protected access to leave out unwanted snoopers, funky slide shows and a gazillion options. All good so far then, my friends and family (only the ones with access – remember) happily get a friendly automated email every time new photos of our kids, holidays etc are uploaded. Everyone is happy and the digital phototrain rumbles on.

But looks like Elektra (the ancient Greek goddess of computer software) had some other ideas. She ordered some bytensteins (the rogue grown up computer bits and long-lost cousins of Frankenstein) to wreak havoc. Try what i may, but i cannot upload any new photos. The bytensteins running amok as digital werewolves, block all my efforts. Convinced to outdo them, i roll up sleeves, put on an expression somewhere between the arrogant smirk of Steve Jobs and the dumb geeky smile of Bill Gates and reach deep under the hood of the admin options of my website. As the bytensteins lure me deeper, i realize that i may be losing my way. Prudence tells me not to delve deeper, but i battle on gamely. A few ignorant clicks, and suddenly the screen is inundated with thousands of lines of text – informing me that thanks to the last option i chose, every single one of them photos and directories has been deleted! All that existed now was a big ‘Nothing, Nada, Nil’.

I sit there flabbergasted with my jaw touching the floor, with a hopeless expression on my face (the one similar to the bowlers’ face when Sehwag is on song). Thousands of photos, hours of work of choosing them, years of memories – is now relegated to the virtual trashcans. I could almost hear the high fives of the bytensteins. While i am not the kinds to give up easily, even I knew this in now beyond my limited computer skills (as i have just painfully learnt in the last few minutes). I mull all possible options. The only option that looks feasible is now is to send a SOS to the invisible lifesavers in the form of the tech-support helpdesk. Now is the chance to test their claims. But i suddenly remember, that there is a small catch here. I had very politely declined to sign up for their priority support option and chose not to pay $40 a year for instant assistance for a problem that i may never have. But now i have one on my hand – and a big one at that.

I gingerly type my email request, trying to walk the thin line between expressing confidence in their ability and not showing my desperation. I click ‘Send’, and watch it disappear into the netherworld of the great internet. As i shut the lid of my laptop, i am praying to all the 65 million Indian gods and a few global ones as well (after all i am a global citizen). I pray that some kindred soul will take mercy and bother to help out a non-priority support request. As i opened my mailbox the next morning, i find out to my delight that someone did, and my website is restored to all its digital glory. The world is not ruled only by greedy capitalists and there is still hope for us half informed, self-professed computer experts. So thank you Viktor Tait (the helpful support agent) for bringing order and sanity back in my digital life.

But hang on Viktor, chances are your real name could very well be Venkataraman, Vikramaditya or Venugopal. And there is a very high chance that while you are very good at helping out folks like me, your real computer skills are probably being underutilized in that 10,000 people helpdesk. I fully realize that this offshoring wave has created millions of jobs globally, but it also must have surely lured many wannabe Zuckerbergs into a false sense of comfort of taking home a steady income stream, forget about their dreams of creating the next big thing and answer a continuous barrage of calls or emails day in and day out, while sitting in a cheerily decorated warehouse in a small town in India, Philippines or Taiwan.

So this goes out to all the Viktors of the world who might have a great idea lurking in their minds. I hope that you find your real calling and go on to create something big. And while that is happening, I need to figure out a way of uploading new photos on my website and helping India win the cricket world cup … Amen!

Memories or a few dollars ?

So what would you rather have – Memories or a few dollars more ? … Here’s what i mean

Pick up a book to read. The touch of the book’s cover sends electrical impulses rushing through your nerves, which excites neurons in the brains and an image springs to your mind. A crisp day in October, you are standing in one of the most beautiful places on this earth. A quaint shop located at the edge of a mystical village, set on sun-kissed plateau high in the mountains, where time stands still. Houses are made of massive stone blocks and mortar, beautifully hand decorated with local motifs, carved wooden doors more than 300 yrs old. Streets are paved with cobblestones. To get to the next town, you either trek down a winding mountain path for 45 minutes or wait for a bus that runs every hour. Just round the corner is a cafe, you can smell a freshly baked chocolate cake – which on this cold day, will be heavenly with a frothy cappuccino while you excitedly leaf through your new book.

Or does the book conjures up memories of you sitting huddled in front of your GRS, late at night. Searching frantically through multiple websites or comparing prices from a hundred sellers on amazon, and then waiting for days or weeks for the book to arrive? Or worse … none at all.

I don’t know about you, i unabashedly prefer the first memory.

That was exactly what i experienced a couple of evenings back when i picked up a book for a bed time story for my son. The book in question is a simple but beautiful children’s book called ‘The Snowstorm’ by Selina Chönz & Alois Carigiet. Coincidently the book is set and was bought in the same village described above – Guarda, in the Engadine region of Switzerland, where the hero of the book, a boy called Ursli, supposedly lived.

'Snowstorm' by Selina Chönz & Alois Carigiet

So the original question again – the memories of having acquired an object or an experience in a special place  are exactly that – special. Rather than saving 7 dollars (or Swiss francs) by ordering this book over the internet. Then in a giant warehouse someone unceremoniously lumps the book into a cardboard packet, ticks a box on a checklist, pastes a barcode with your customer code printed across it and moves on to the next ‘special delivery’. Surely a cheaper way, but so much more dull. And saving 7 dollars, won’t exactly make you a millionaire, will it?

Just thinking of the fantastic time that we had over there, makes me want to go back there. Maybe we go back there in Spring. Till then, a taste of that beautiful place.

A typical house in Guarda, Engadine Switzerland. Behind it is the shop where the book was bought

local motifs painted on house, Guarda, Engadine Switzerland

local motifs painted on house

Guarda, in the distance set on the edge of a mountain

Many thanks to our wonderful swiss-greek couple friend who introduced our kids to the other Ursli book. If you have kids, buy this book for them. And while you are at it, encourage them to gather some experiences that they will remember for times to come.

Global warming, here i come

I am about to rake in millions now…. for I have discovered the answer to the issue that the world is struggling with today. Imagine the odds? Yours truly sitting here, tapping into a GRS, listening to muddy waters tormenting his Fender Telecaster through the Cadence Amayas – has done what hundreds of world leaders could not achieve at the Copenhagen climate council in 2009. I must patent it quickly before anyone discovers the secret, but not before i share it with you.

The brilliant discovery that i have just made is how to solve global warming. Probably your hearts are racing, for this is a momentous discovery, and i certainly don’t want to keep you waiting with bated breath. Because by doing that, you are adding to global warming, the very problem i and all my fellow scientists, leaders & thinkers are trying to solve.

Mean surface temperature change for the period...

global warming temperature change, Image via Wikipedia

The answer lies in the second law of thermodynamics …………………….. Confused? ‘Elementary, my dear Watson‘, as the great Sherlock Holmes would say (well not the scruffy version depicted by Robert Downey Jr recently).

Now most of you learnt this during the incredibly boring physics lessons at school (and promptly forgot when the question did not appear in the final exams paper). The second law of thermodynamics simply states that any physical system cannot convert all energy from one form to another efficiently. It must produce heat as a byproduct. What is the most abundant form of physical system on this planet? – us humans. There are six billion of us. Another thousand were probably added by the time you finished reading this sentence.  That is the root of all problem, not the cars, factories, machines, aerosol cans that they want you to believe. Stay with me now, don’t click the little red cross on the corner of the browser window, not yet.

So, what do all of us do all day long – produce heat, and humongous amounts it. All the paranthas, sausages, pasta, pizzas, beer etc sitting in our stomachs are being converted to energy that we need to be able to run about or read this blog, but as the second law states most of it is being converted into heat that is dissipated out. An average human body generates heat equal to a 60 watt incandescent bulb. Don’t believe me, ask Einstein. Now imagine, 6 billion 60 watt light bulbs – that’s a helluva lot of heat.

So my solution to global warming – DO NOTHING….yes, nothing! Quite simple and brilliant, isn’t it? You eat and make merry as usual, but after that –  don’t do anything. Go find the most comfortable coach, bed, seat etc and then stay there till the next meal time. No need for movement = no energy conversion = no heat production = no global warming.

I certainly ‘Walk the talk’ and try to do exactly this on most weekends (to the utmost annoyance of my lovely wife though). So the next time your boss, spouse or anyone for that matter gives you a shakedown for just sitting there and doing nothing, relax take another deep breath, send them the link to this article. Remind them that you are serving a higher purpose.  Then go back to helping mother nature fight global warming. Isn’t a cooler and quieter world, a better place?

… then why are they telling us?

why

“But dad … then why are they telling us?” said the 4 yr. old boy. An innocent remark, but a profoundly important one.

So let’s put this into context and start again. This remark was in a small story narrated by our very good Swiss/Greek couple friend over a cup of cappuccino, home-made plum schnapps and Greek candied fruit mixed with yoghurt.

Here is the setting: Last night, my friend and his 4 yr. old son are watching TV in their fantastic little house overlooking the best part of the Swiss Alps, and a news report about some extremely heavy snow in China comes on the TV.

Son – “Dad, Where is China?”

Dad – “Son, It is very, very far away from Switzerland – halfway around the world”

Son – “If it so far away, then why are they telling us about snowfall there?”

Dad – “mmmm…….” (No answer that will make sense to a 4 yr. old)

Now… think about this for a moment, for a 4 yr. old, it makes no difference whatsoever what happens in a place called China (at least not yet), why does he have to be told about snowfall there – there is more than enough of it in Switzerland!

And I cannot agree with him more, this is information overload of the highest order. Information is all around us today – beaming over fiber-optic cables, over satellites, TV, radio, internet, smartphones, signboards, newspapers, blogs (like this one J). Can we make sense of all this information? Does it make us any wiser? Are we just addicted to information, like an addiction to drugs? Do we have to check the online status of our friends every minute? The exact standing of our portfolio (which we convinced over selves is invested for the long run) over our iPhone while waiting at a traffic light? Do I have to watch a continuous coverage over Sky news of a ‘breaking story’ about a cat stuck in a tree in small town outside Ipswich? Nassim Nicholas Taleb said in his fantastic book Fooled by Randomness “I don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or parties. If a piece of information is important, it will find you – you don’t have to go looking for it!”

So next time you are told a galactically important piece of information that you could have lived without – put on the thinking hat of a 4 yr. old and ask the question – “Why are you telling me that?” … Say it clearly, but remember to say it nicely.