Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Selfie generation unable to sit back and smell the roses?‏

While stepping out of the supermarket the other day, I was pleasantly surprised to see a double rainbow. Not very common; but also not something we see every day.
After standing still, watching the rainbow for a few minutes, I looked around: a mother and her teenage son quickly got their cellphone to “capture” the moment. So did another man who was walking up to his parked car. And so did a dad with an amused toddler. The only two people in the parking lot not “capturing the moment” in their cellphones were the toddler, who didn’t have one, and me standing amused by others’ selfie moment. 
The ease with which modern cellphones enable capturing pictures and videos also means that almost every moment of our lives are now worth capturing digitally, leaving little or no incentive to really enjoy the moment.
By capturing the moments digitally we hope to share them with others connected by social media. Since all of our friends and peers share “unique” moments of their lives, we don’t have an urge to resist digitally capturing a few moments.
Thankfully, our five year old doesn’t have a cellphone, and is content to enjoy the occasional double rainbow, spotting a deer or rabbit in a park and even just stopping to smell the roses (literally) while taking a walk in the park.
Note to self: resist the urge to capture these moments in my smartphone.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Review. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

My #bookreview of "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants" on #Amazon.com

Every now and then comes a book that holds a mirror to us and the society we live in. David and Goliath, is one such book with perspectives that are sure to stick in mind for a while.

The book starts with an analysis of how the underdog shepherd David really beat the giant Goliath. The story of Vivek Ranadive's team of underdog "little blond girls" from silicon valley who beat the giants in basketball to end up in Nationals is heartwarming. With Caroline Sacks' story, Gladwell highlights "relative deprivation" and the blessing of being a big fish in a small pond versus the other way around. The next chapter focuses on Dyslexia's blessing in disguise. At least for the lucky few who are able to nurture other talents like a photographic memory.

In the last section, the author builds a contrast between the stories of Mike Reynolds and Derksens which makes one reflect on the "limits of power." The contrast in the attitudes, especially at times of crisis really hit home for me. Although Gladwell paints shades of black and white while describing attitudes of Mike Reynolds and Derksens, in reality most of us end up philosophizing like Derksens with shades of gray in our minds. The author builds on this contrast with the story of Andre Trocme, just to emphasize the point!

Gladwell skillfully holds together myriad stories with his beautiful narrative and storytelling abilities.

Friday, September 19, 2014

WSJ: A Mole Inside Assad's Embassy. Double Agent or Traitor?

The article by Adam Entous in Wall Street journal made for an interesting read, but to me raised more questions on the Author’s intent. (WSJ Article “A Mole Inside Assad's Embassy Aided Syrian Rebels”)

The Article’s tone was that of projecting Mr. Bassam Barabandi a diplomat of the Syrian government in the US as a “hero” for betraying his government and also misusing his authority. The article begins by describing.
In his embassy post over the course of a year, Mr. Barabandi issued travel documents for nearly 100 Syrian activists, according to interviews with him and more than a dozen opposition leaders. Through his efforts, activists were able to flee and campaign against the same regime he officially represented.
Based on the analysis of how the diplomat issued travel documents to hundreds of “Syrian activists,” the author Mr. Entous begins to project Mr. Barabandi as a modern day robin-hood. The angle conveniently omitted by Mr. Entous in his story.
  • What if the passports issued by Barabandi went to members of the ISIS/ISIL or the other bad guys? Without any due diligence, how did Mr. Barabandi ascertain the credentials of Syrian activists?
  • The article hows it is “easy” for a rogue diplomat to issue/re-issue passports of a sovereign nation. If it were this easy to hack the system, could a rogue American diplomat in Russia re-issue travel documents for Mr. Edward Snowden? (my earlier blog post on Snowden saga)
The last paragraph in the article gives away the true intent of the WSJ article’s author:
Mr. Barabandi and his wife have been interviewed by U.S. officials reviewing their application for asylum. They now are waiting to hear a decision. If the U.S. says no, Mr. Barabandi said, maybe he will try Canada.
Those of us who have jumped through visa and immigration hoops in our lifetime will immediately realize the author’s real intent: a positive cover story in WSJ added to Mr. Barabandi US asylum application dossier is sure to grease the wheels at the USCIS!
Giving Mr. Barabandi the benefit of doubt; most of the recipients of his passport scam may be good guys, but if his act happened to also benefit a few bad guys, the effort would be in vain!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Frequent flier Miles and points: how far will they take you?

I haven’t blogged in a while. The reasons are several including procrastination during summer vacation. I hope to continue with the blog, now that I am back and refreshed.
This summer, I planned a family trip (with my wife and son) from Anytown, US to Bangalore where my parents live. While planning the trip back in Spring of 2014, I decided to explore the possibility of burning some of my accumulated airmiles.

I am not a miles junkie at least not as much as I used to be. This said, I will gladly take the small, perhaps the only, perk of business travel that comes in the form of air mile credits and hotel loyalty points.
I shall refrain from naming the carrier where I had accumulated nearly a million miles and now have a measly ‘silver-elite status (but here is a hint this airline traces its roots to the illustrious Pan Am). Not long ago, when I was a ‘road warrior’ IT consultant , it was much easier to earn a lot more air miles, and more importantly acquire and retain privileged Platinum “Elite” status with the airline. The biggest benefit of an elite status, besides the ability to change flights without additional fee was that I frequently got bumped up to first-class while traveling in the US – lots of leg space without the need to worry about knee defenders.
Of course, it is much harder to maintain such coveted status with the airline, now that I don’t travel as much; and the few cross Atlantic business trips a year don’t really cut it with them! I spent a couple of days searching options on the airline’s website with the following constraints:
  • I had to be able to book three returns tickets from Anytown, US to an airport closest to Bangalore where the airline flies
  • Ensure that the major leg of our trip could be on business class
Turns out most US carriers don’t fly directly to Bangalore. A few fly into Mumbai or Delhi. And Airlines are less generous with miles on code-share flights with partner airlines, and especially less generous with those who don’t have higher elite tiers (like I said earlier, that is a perk that makes being a road-warrior worth it).

After a few days search, I zeroed in on two options: fly from Anytown, US to Mumbai or to Dubai and book an additional return flight from DXB/BOM to BLR. The difference was the return trip to DXB would burn about 140,000 miles (per seat) versus 180,000 to Mumbai. I decided on the former and decided to extend the trip with stopover for a day-long tour of Dubai.
The trip was great, with minimal disruptions. A few lessons from this experience
  • Be flexible on airports and itinerary. As I mentioned above, we were flexible in planning a trip with a stopover in DXB instead of BOM.
  • Change fee is expensive, but may be worth paying. I booked the trip in spring and didn’t have much of the vacation planned. Work and other scheduling came in the way after booking the trip which meant I had to cough up a change fee for the itinerary. Bottomline: change fee of $150 on a cross-continent trip using miles? Worth it!
  • Free is not always free. Even free tickets issued using airmiles are taxed. One has to pay the airport tax and other fees that can add up to a tidy sum for cross-continental flights.  There are other costs and incidentals one needs to plan for, especially if you don’t have a higher elite status with the airline in question. Costs like change fee, standby fee etc can add up.
  • Be prepared for “Attitude” from (some) of the ground crew. An example: on the return leg, while getting our boarding cards, I asked the lady at the checkout counter where the business class lounge in DXB was. She gave me a ‘look’ and asked if I were eligible to enter a longue on a ticket issued with points. I had to stand my ground and insist on this simple prevlidge (DXB airport requires US airlines’ staff to endorse tickets for longue access as most don’t have their own longues)
Bottomline: The effort expended in being able to burn accumulated airmiles for a family vacation is totally worth it!