Change your perspective or get S.T.U.N.N.E.D

All of us are on a journey through life. If you belong to the ‘fatalistic’ school, you believe that it will get you to that place that you deserve or destined to be. If you subscribe to the opposite school, then you believe you are in a constant state of tussle with the nature to shape your journey the way you want it – speed, direction, path, and destination. Who succeeds in the end – the jury is still out on this one.

One of the smaller sub-journeys that many of us take in our lifetime is a ‘Plane journey’. That journey is completely a fatalistic experience. You are bound to land up where the pilot wants to go, or rather as dictated by the airline schedule. You can’t do a thing to change it. Some of us take too many of them – as depicted by the numb, robotic and number obsessed character played by George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’. I am not one of them, neither do I wish for anyone to be in that situation. To have your name on a plane is nice, but there are easier ways of achieving that rather than sit in a plane 300 days a year…… there I go meandering again. Getting back on track…..

I do dabble in aviation once in a while.  Wow – that sounded exotic! Like I pilot my own private plane or helicopter or something like that. Personally I would opt for either the Gravitube or the ‘Beam me up Scotty’ means of transport, if they existed. But since we are only in 2011 and at least a trillion years away from either of them, I choose the more mundane option. I pick an airline, pay the ticket price, sit back, enjoy a book and collect loyalty points (which are never redeemed).

Travelling back from US to Europe a couple of weeks back, zipping through time zones, the S.T.U.N bug hit me. This bug called S.T.U.N (Sleepless Traveller nUmbed by moNotony), is rumoured to live in a secret chamber designed into every airline seat in the world. There are many tell tale signs that the seat you are sitting on is teeming with S.T.U.N.s. These can range from the fact that the a/c vent above your seat can either be set to blast you continuously with frigid air that can drive even a polar bear away or completely off – no mid way setting possible. Another could be that the ‘lamp’ button on your seat controls the lights of a fellow passenger sitting 30 rows away on the seat 42D. Your unending quest to try to switch on your light by continually pressing the button in every conceivable position, pressure, frequency etc has put the passenger on 42D in either a state of frantic rage or a blissful hypnotic stupor. The sure shot sign is the presence of strange pieces of small white calciferous bits in the seat pocket in front of you. You probably mistook them for small crumbs of nuts that the airline attendant failed to clean, but in reality are the remaining pieces of bone of the last passenger that was devoured by the S.T.U.N bug. Rumor has it that the bug has been deliberately planted by the airline companies. Apparently, the passengers bitten by this bug, in their state of paranoia and desperation, contribute vastly to the airline’s coffers by buying vast amounts of useless items from the duty free catalogue. If you have ever bought something from an airline duty free catalogue – blame it on the S.T.U.N bug.

Anyway, the bug bit me. While I skillfully managed to avoid the last described fate, but there I was – wide awake and trying out all the exercises recommended by the airline booklet to keep the blood circulation in my legs going. I got up to take a small stroll and reached the back of the aisle. Standing there, the following image presented itself in front my eyes. A pretty normal sight, people glued to the TV screens, struggling to make out the details of the movie on the washed out, tiny screen while straining to hear the dialogue on the ineffective airline headphones.  While some of them may have been genuinely enjoying the movies, probably many of them were unknowingly sinking deeper into the traps set for them by the S.T.U.N bugs.

Just that brief respite of being away from the S.T.U.Nning seat brought a sense of normalcy, not experienced in the last 4 hrs. Suddenly a realization hit me. Isn’t this small, unimportant incident so similar to situations that affront us often? Many a times, when people are stuck with a problem or an issue – they will often keep trying the limited number of ways that they can immediately ‘see’ from their point of view. And there will often come a point when each of these ways will be exhausted and the problem will be declared ‘too difficult to solve’ or ‘each of the ways of solving the issue as useless’. I remember talking to one of my team members about this, who was in the same situation about a project, and was unable to solve the issue at hand. Talking to the person, it became clear that by repeating the same old tried and trusted methods, the issue was becoming like quicksand and pulling that person deeper into it. So very typical …

What people don’t do enough of is the following –

  • Stop repeating the same old, time tested methods
  • Take a breather and step back for a minute
  • Ask for an opinion of a colleague, a friend or someone else
  • Change the environment in which you have been trying to solve the problem. Small stuff like move away from your office or desk, call for a meeting in an unusual place like the office lawn etc. It’s surprising how often these small things make a world of difference
  • Basically, try to look at the issue from a different perspective

It is human nature to think that one probably has all the answers and the solutions. Einstein famously said – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. I fully agree with him (even though he meant it differently and was trying to prove a different point). There is far too little time on our hands to waste on doing the same thing over and over again.

That little moment of realization was another reaffirmation of the fact that your point of reference, changes how you perceive a given situation and how you act on it. Before I took that small walk till the end of the aisle, my vantage point was my seat; a couple of feet away from the flickering screen. All I could think about was which movie to watch to fill the time till I land. Suddenly being away from the seat and be able to see the ‘bigger picture’ (so to speak), got my mind working on an altogether different plane.

So next time your umpteenth crack at a problem has failed – stop. Stand up, clear your head and try a different vantage point. If all else fails, take the BA flight that I was on, go stand at the end of the aisle and you might see the issue or the world around you differently. And while you are at it, please apologize to the passenger on seat 42D, for he still might be there in a state of stupor.

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The subtle art of getting ready for a vacation

We all go for vacations. Some of less, some more often. This modern age has burnt it into our mindset that that holidays are a mighty important part of our lives. And as with anything else, the human race has this uncanny ability to master skills and arts that were hitherto alien to it. Darwin, if  he were alive today would surely agree with me.

For the sake of conjencture, let’s take a simple example : the widely practised art of vegetating during holidays. The ancient man was hopelessly lacking in this skill, and would not have been caught dead vegetating. On the other hands, if he was caught vegetating in a jungle by a  beast, he would be dead in an instant. Anyway, the important part is that we have perfected this skill over the centuries and now practise it at  the first given opportunity. Some experts say that  the romans were the first to propogate the virtues of vegetating by indulging  in their famous orgies, but i think it is a safe bet to say that that no vegetables ever saw the inside of an orgie hall. Another school considers the politicians the world over as the real masters of vegetating. The jury is still out on this one.

Throw a cursory glance around any beach resort and you will see hundreds of otherwise frantically active men and women, lying face down, waiting for nirvana to arrive in the form of the hapless steward who has been assigned the unenviable task of patrolling the beach and satisfy the most primitive of all human needs – alcoholic beverages. This steward has undoubtedly mastered the art of being able to conduct numerous rounds, but expertly avoiding the areas where the thirtiest or the greediest tourists are to be found. But there is a also a high likelyhood that he will encounter the battle and sunhardened tourist, who has developed the knack of being able to distinguish the sound of the steward’s footsteps from the one of the fellow tourist. And to add to the steward’s misery, this tourist has also mastered the art of raising his hand just at the right angle at the appropriate moment so as to catch the steward’s eye but spend the least amount of energy in doing so.

But we are digressing here a bit. The topic here is how to get ready for a vacation, so let’s get back to that shall we?

First things first – You got to know where you are going. By saying this I don’t mean that there are people who land up at the airport abd wonder ….”hmmm …. so where should we go. Sydney, Paris or New york?” But there are many folks who would block their holidays in their calendars, but not have a clue till a week before the d-day where they will actually land up. Such folks are of paramount importance to the sustenance of travel agents and the airlines. Their desperation to find suitable vacation spot means that the travel agent can usually sell the drabbest location, the crappiest room and he most inconvenient flight to them at a ridiculous price.  All under the fancy name of ‘Last minute specials’. And having done so, he or she can then use that mark-up to ensure that his/her vacation is spent at the ritziest resort, while the ‘last minute special’ customer rots in a room with broken air conditioning.

Now once you know where you are going well in advance, the next step is to get ready for the trip. To be able to do so well, you need to be able to hone your delegation skills. Yes, as strange as this corporate euphemism may sound in the context of a holiday, it’s applicability is unquestioned. If your spouse happens to be supremely organized with a list of items to take on every trip, special bags for the odds and ends neatly ready, clothes predetermined and segregated week in advance (like my wifey), pls delegate the getting ready part to him/her. But the subtlety here lies in the art of keeping yourself (seemingly) busy, while he/she is doing the heavy lifting. There are many activities that you can indulge in, which will safely give off this impression. These can range from trying to find the perfect restaurant for the perfect dinner. You have to be able to convey the message that this restaurant that you are hunting for is the hidden gem and completely different from the other tourist traps that you otherwise might get sucked into. Another sure-fire cover is the research for the most romantic of the spots where you can watch the sunset over the ocean while enjoying a bottle of the local wine. Such activities and pretexts can and will not be refuted by a sensible partner, and will ensure that your energy is conserved for the beach.

The next logical activity that you then need to engage in is the act of announcing to people that you are now actually leaving for the holiday. In today’s world there are many ways  of doing so. These range from a message on your facebook wall announcing your vacation location accompanied by an exotic looking photograph of the best beach or mountain resort that you can find over the internet.  The other more obvious ones are an out of office message on your email or voice mail. But as in all things, you can forge your own way. One the best alternatives is to convince your wife and kids that a 10 min walk to the railway station to catch the train to the airport is an important part of the vacation warm-up. Then you need to ensure that you provide your kids with trolleys to pull that make the maximum amount of noise when pulled on  the road. This will ensure that all your neighbours will be attracted by the ruckus your kids are creating on the otherwise balmy and lazy afternoon. For additional special effects you can have the kids wave back to them as they look out irritably from their windows. If you really want to be mean, you can have them sing a made up song describing the wonders of the holiday location that you are going to. This will ensure that your vacation date and venue is indelibly marked in the neighbour’s memories and will give them a topic to talk about while you enjoy your holidays. Though with this tactic, you need bring some souvenirs back for them, to ensure you are invited back to their garden parties. The 20 francs of the taxi fare you saved by walking to the station can then be spent in buying refrigerator magnets for them which they will cherish forever.

Now with all this effort that you have taken to get ready for the vacation, make sure you enjoy it. Do take your wife to that mythical sunset spot, turn off your blackberry, vegetate on the beach as much as you can, do not go to tourist trap restaurants with menus translated into 15 languages. And whole you are at it, keep a look out for that steward on the beach. Chances are he has has somehow read this post and is even more determined to avoid you now.

Enjoy your summer!

Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) #2 : Real holiday price comparison sites

You want holidays to be easy, relaxing and fun. But sometimes the way to book a holiday can be anything but! I just finished booking one. When i started off on the process, i figured it will be an easy task . Simply give your dates to a price comparison site, who thanks to millions of dollars of investments & funding poured into them, will do the leg work and get you the best possible deal. This expectation is not unwarranted after all. TV, newspapers & the web are teeming with their ads, all screaming & promising you the moon.

The first one I used (the number 1 as per their claim) took my request and promised me the proverbial moon, complete with a picture of pretty airhostess that you could stare at, while the site worked its magic. A second later, 12 different pop-ups opened across my screen, each one of them for the other websites that it was comparing the prices from. It was a virtual explosion of all snazzy flashing pop-ups, deals, free flights, dirt cheap rooms in the best luxury hotels, free car rentals et all. It was almost like that pretty airhostesss had spilled the nice gin & tonic that you were expecting to be served, all over your face and had suddenly revealed her true form, which is actually a three-headed vampire ant queen . Now wait a minute – I asked for you, the great commercial price leach &  provider of solace to us digital deal seekers, to give me a solution; not 12 more questions in response to my query. I am not a travel agent, who is trained to expertly seek out the lowest price from a jumble of different price & travel options shown in 12 different formats and currencies. By the time I located an itinerary that looked good to me and proceeded to do the booking, suddenly the price jumped up 20% …. hmm interesting ploy.

So one STELG that i would love to see is REAL price comparison sites for holidays. I am almost making it sound like that I am perpetually booking holidays. I would like to but as life would have it – I can’t. But when I try to book one, it ought to be easy.  Here is a possible list of features I would like to see :

  • Get a real price, not an ‘starting from’ advertised price, which is more like a trapdoor trying to lure you in. Do what you have to do, even if that means employing quantum physics principles, or getting Harry Potter to wave his magic wand to get the user out of the deathly hallows of continuous back & forth searching
  • Look for options. One simple example could be locations. For instance, I was looking for a holiday in southern Turkey. I have never been there before and i only know of a couple of places. Get me options, you have a huge database of possible holiday locations. Use the variables that i have just fed in, which should give you a treasure trove of information on what kind of place i am expecting, what i might be looking for etc.
  • Realize that I can wait. Yes, in today’s internet world speed is king. Google has perfected the art of displaying results as you type. Most people really cannot fathom the difference between 0.0067 seconds or 0.1 seconds to complete the search. If a few milliseconds can get you more breathing time to cook up a better result, please do it. It’s good to slow down once in a while
  • Don’t up sell for the sake of it. Does it really make sense to try to give me an option of a renting a private beach with its own helipad, when all i asked for a beach cottage with a sea view. Slightly different price ranges, don’t you think?
  • Add some form of intelligence, artificial or otherwise. I can fully appreciate that Europe to US is a long flight. When you can see that i am travelling with two kids, i am certainly not going to choose a flight whose flight time is 23 hours, where in 9 hrs is the flying time and 14 hrs is the waiting time in London, with the added pleasure of changing airports
  • And finally … no annoying pop-ups please. We are in 2011. Pop-ups were a neat technology trick when they were invented. Much like the digital watch with a built-in alarm. Time has moved on
Since we have to wait till an option like the ones described above comes along, I am going to use that time wisely by fixing a nice Gin & tonic. But i better do that myself and keep it away from that airhostess lurking behind the pop-ups, trying to spill my drink.

My Gin & tonic, hidden from the evil airhostess. Image via gintonicworld.com

What to expect when expecting someone at IG airport Delhi Terminal 3

This is essential reading for anyone planning to go the new terminal 3 in Delhi to receive someone. If you go without reading this, you do it at your own peril.

Last evening I played the good son-in-law and went to receive my wife’s mum at the spanking new Indira Gandhi airport terminal 3.  All the men reading this know the situation – such tasks are moments of truth with no room for error, this better go like Swiss clockwork with Six Sigma precision.

Now this is my first time there, I plan for more than enough time and get there at 1915 for a 1935 flight. And I take the brilliant ‘Kafka at the shore’ by murakami with me thinking I can devour some more pages of this quirky and tangential book. The moment I get to the arrival area, I know it’s going to be anything but smooth. Here’s why:

First of all it’s the sheer number of people standing their to receive others. This is Delhi, so the ratio is typically 3:1 (3 receivers, 1 passenger)


Using my Delhi traffic skills, I push, shove and reach the front of the crowd and soon am standing right in front of gate 3. I can’t miss her now, I say to myself. I am proved wrong immediately. From my position I only have a view to gate 3, what’s happening at the other gates is a complete mystery to me – thanks to the huge pillars blocking my view of the other gates which are miles away.

 
   

Trying to find a better vantage point I wriggle my way thru, reach gate 2 only to find the same situation repeated. View only to gate 2, absolutely no sight to gates 1 and 3.

The gravity of the situation dawns upon me, it will be disastrous if I manage to miss her. So I use all my grey cells and my brilliant skills in spatial geometry, and manage to find myself a vantage point from where, thanks to my height advantage compared to the average Indian male, I can more or less monitor gates 2 and 3, but gate 1 is still mystery thanks to the architectural skills of the designer of this airport.Getting to gate 1 doesn’t make it any better

This is turning out to be more difficult than cracking ‘the daVinci code’! I should remember to pack my X-ray glasses next time i come here, i make a mental note. Its 2015 already, I better find my mom-in-law fast! I can see my stock slipping in my lovely wife’s book, who (thanks to female telepathy) can surely sense all this confusion regarding her mom sitting thousands of kms away in Switzerland.

I am not alone though, many people around me are in similar dire straits. Practically everyone is barking into their phones trying to shout over the din,
“… Where are you, I am waiting at gate 1″
” I can’t see you, I am gate 3″
“… turn left and come to gate 1″
” .. Ok right, I coming there”
” …. No, not right – LEFT, LEFT … #*@+&! (choicest punjabi expletives)

I am convinced this receiving area was designed by the Indian consortium of telecom companies rather than an architect, for this must easily be the highest revenue grossing hot spot for them. I fall prey to their plot, try to call her, but mistakenly call my wife’s dad halfway across India, who is probably in bed by now (damn … further downgrade of my stock!).

So eventually after a few more phone calls, I catch her, a few pleasantries and profuse apologies later, we start to make our way to the parking lot. Reaching the elevator bay, both of us stand there perplexed – these must be the most advanced elevators in world – no buttons whatsoever to call them! Till we spot this small little sign next to them …

….. come on guys, give me a break!

Share this with anyone going to to the new terminal 3 at Delhi airport to receive someone, or better still if you know someone who has anything to do with the Delhi airport, pls show this to them … hopefully they might want to do something about it.

airports – grimly efficient and effectively grim

I am sitting here at my gate at the zurich airport, waiting for the wonderfully prim, proper and fresh looking airport staff (even at 2145 in the night) to announce departure of my flight to Delhi. Having finished the intriguing ‘The name of the rose’ by Umberto Eco, and too lazy to make the effort of starting ‘Kafka at the shore’ by Murakami, I start to look around me. Inspite of having frequented this place umpteen times, I cannot help but admire the grim efficiency on display around me – strong bold lines, stark colour schemes, vast empty places, shiny granite, inviting lounges with wafting aromas of freshly brewed coffe, hundreds of comfortable seats set in ramrod straight lines, perfectly arranged alluring mounds of chocolates at the Sprungli shops, and the airport music – which for all the effort that has gone into it selection – is now starting to irritate me.

It all adds up to an image of perfect order, customary of the Swiss. But is it a little too perfect? Being an Indian and having frequented many of the Indian airports, I miss that bit of life, atmosphere and drama that epitomises India – frantic announcements being made for the elusive Mr Gupta who is keeping the whole flight to Jallandar waiting because he decided to cuddle up on a bench and catch forty winks, the rookie counter clerk who has managed to lock himself out of the check-in system and cannot log in because his supervisor has gone for a 5 min break which has now extended to 30 mins, the single coffee machine attendant who is struggling to serve the 100 desparate coffee seekers but can still keep a radiant smile on his face inspite of that damned machine which keeps shutting down on him, kids running amok playing hide and seek, the earnest young airport attendants always eager to help the elderly – the list is endless . And how can one forget the ubiquitous Indian ‘policewallah’, hundreds of them are present everywhere you turn your head, resplendent in their crushed and somewhat soiled uniforms, the glorious pot belly and that constant itch in the unmentionables that he religiously attends to in public view of hundreds of hapless passengers that he is sworn to protect – but from what, even he does not know!

Suddenly I snap back into reality, a crystal clear announcement announces the departure of the flight, all waiting passengers line up in an orderly fashion, a plastic smile and a programmed ‘enjoy your flight’ later, I am on my way to the aircraft. A few hours later I will be in Delhi at the spanking new terminal 3 – which for all it modern design and amenities – will surely greet me with some of the sights mentioned above. I am sure at that point in time I will long for the cold efficiency of it’s Swiss counterpart … Or will I?

Maybe so, may be not – such are the follies of the human heart.