Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Delhi takes the lead in GIS

I was surprised and impressed when I first heard of the Delhi State Spatial Data Infrastructure Project (DSSDI). It is a project between Survey of India (Be honest, you didn't know such an agency existed, right?) and the Delhi Government to map Delhi to a hitherto unknown precision and here comes the exciting part, in 3D ! It began in 2007 and is now nearing completion and anything and everything is mapped right from traffic signs to light poles to underground systems. There are aerial photographs, terrain data, buildings, land use information all at high accuracies, enough to create a 3D virtual walkthrough of the city. The aim was to create a comprehensive information system that can be used by all Govt. agencies and from some samples I saw (which I unfortunately cannot share here), I have to say they are almost there.

In addition to this a number of monitoring and control centres as well as wireless cameras are to be installed throughout the city for security purposes for the commonwealth games (Maybe this can pursuade a number of foreign teams who have refused to come citing security reasons). I am expecting the hue and cry about violation of privacy by some organization in Delhi anytime now!

Before I recovered from this surprise, I saw another news piece that calls for installing GPS units in Autos in Delhi to use the distance traveled information to regulate fares. The installation apparently has to be done within the next 6 months and there will be a small hike in the fares so that the money comes from the customers in return for the service they get.

If you have any experience with Autos in Chennai, you can realize how this news brings a new hope to someone like me, hailing from Chennai and having to fight with Auto wallahs for every ride I take every time I go home! Appa used to always tell me not to haggle with street vendors for a few rupees since they depend on those for their livelihood while to us it almost means nothing. I would have gladly applied the same logic to Chennai Auto drivers had they not unabashedly asked me for four times the regular price without batting an eyelid ! I have a sneaking suspicion that in spite of installing GPS units, they would probably turn them off and still ask for a flat rate just like they do now with the auto meters but what’s life without a little hope….

On another note, I used the google maps app in the iPhone while driving from Ranipet to Chennai and I was completely amazed at how accurate it was and how it includes even the smallest kurukku sandhu (street)! Driving from Delhi to Noida though was a different challenge – the sector naming always drives me crazy especially when sector 86 follows sector 43 ! In spite of this, the google maps app had just 2 errors and still got me to the destination.

How does an autowallah usually give you directions ? He says, ‘nera poi koil anda thirumbu, aprum straighta pona oru postofffice varum, anga second right’ (go until you reach the temple, then turn and go straight until you reach the postoffice and then take a second right). Notice how directions are always related to landmarks ? Google uses exactly this logic to give directions in google maps in India (the screenshot shows how directions are given in other countries).

aga motham, vandhutangayya map poda....the vetti officers who pass time by giving right or wrong directions to people are going to be so disappointed !

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Parenting Parents !

When I planned my trip to India this year, I had some definite goals which were very different from the usual to-meet and to-do list ! The goals were all related to parenting parents !

I have heard from friends that parenting children is tricky because they are stubborn, cannot be reasoned with and have to be dealt with a lot of patience. They also need a lot of tough love, which isn't always easy because their tear-welled eyes can melt anyone's heart. I have realised in the last few days that this is exactly the same with parents !

For the last few years I have tried 2 things with them - one, asking them to move to a bigger and comfortable house and two, making them health conscious. Since I had miserably failed in accomplishing this through email and phone, I decided to try my hand in person.

The first road block is getting past all their pre-conceived notions. They are convinced that the area they live in is the only place in Madras without drinking water problems, excessive power cuts and burglaries! I can understand their reluctance in having to move out of a place they have lived in for the last 30 years...I am very attached to the house too because it is a place I grew up in. But the only way I can afford a bigger house in this area (where a 1000 sq.ft apt costs more than 1 crore!!) is if I take to smuggling! In spite of me explaining to them that they don't have to sell this house and they can come back here anytime they want, they still wouldn’t budge.

The second road block is making them listen to someone they brought up - "engalukku onnum theriyamala unna ivalo dhooram valarthu vitturkom ??" is a question I have had to answer almost every alternate day. My constant response was "apdi valarthu vitta neenga sowgaryama irukkanumnu naan nenaika koodadha??”. If they choose to live in small house, they should also choose to have only fewer items…but no….everytime amma gets a kitchenware (be it a ladle or tupperware), she insists on saving it for me …ada kadavule!

The third and the most annoying road block is their ''you are a NRI'' attitude. What drove me crazy was them saying – “You live in a pollution-free city and in a luxurious apartment, so everything here looks small and dirty to you”….and a part of it is not even true, I live in a small and simple apartment and I am not even that picky about keeping it spic and span and they know it (they have seen 1000s of fotos!!)….it is true that my thoughts about lifestyle and health have changed considerably after coming to Europe but not to an extent that I would consider everything back home small and dirty!!!

After hours and hours of argument, I finally resorted to emotional blackmail and told them that unless they took actions w.r.t the house and their health, there will be no discussion about grandchildren! For good measure, I also painted a very clear picture – where would we stay if Raghav got married and both he and I came home with our spouses to visit you? How would you come all the way to Germany to be with me if I was in the family way and the doctor forbade me from traveling, shouldn’t you be fit enough to help me?

This worked like a charm and showed once again how (desi) parents think of nothing else but their children and how every little and big thing in their lives revolve only around their kids !! They immediately started following most of my health related tips and appa is now house-hunting. I am keeping tabs on them and getting regular updates (so far, so good, Dear God, please do not jinx it). At this rate, I have to start worrying about my side of the promise…uh…oh…

Friday, June 25, 2010

Football Fever Germany during the World Cup is no news ! I do not have a TV at home but I can still easily figure out who is playing whom and who is winning by the reaction of my neighbours - cheering or swearing in German or in their own language !

Visiting the October fest grounds when there is a match going on has become one of my favorite things to do. There are no people and (hence) none of their dogs ! Finally a girl can run in peace !

Yesterday was obviously not a good day for Italian football fans. We didn't know that when we went outside for a long walk, at the end of which we went to one of our favorite Italian restaurants. The first indication was a red-faced waiter who looked like he was in tears. The next indication was the sour-faced restaurant owner who welcomed us with a forced smile. We knew even before we saw the action replay on TV. What we saw was not only Italy's exit but also the anger following De Natale's goal and the tears from both the players and fans ! ...whoever coined or thought of 'sportsmanship' is going to be very disappointed... !

What this meant for me was a tasteless hot chocolate and for Ashok, an almost inedible pizza ! Oh..well...we couldn't be too hard on them, they were already in despair. We just made a 'no dessert' decision and left the place.

I can't be surprised at this importance given to football since I have seen equal fuss about cricket back home. I will never forget any of the India Vs Pakistan world cup matches....right from bunking school/college/office to mamis praying in temples for India's victory, right from angry fans throwing bottles at the players to batsmen swearing at fielders, I have seen them all in the 'gentleman's game'....

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Game for a survey ?

Can you answer 18 questions about your experience in Germany to help prospective students ? Can you spare 11 minutes of your time (I timed it :D) ?

I am helping to write a book on studying in Europe and one part of it deals with leveraging on the expertise of former students. Your email addresses and names will not be shared with anyone or published anywhere. Only the results of the survey will be published. If you have any questions/comments/concerns, just write to me.

You can find the survey questionnaire here. Let me know if you have any trouble accessing it or if any of the questions are not clear.

Also forward this survey to others since I need at least 100 responses for the results to be statistically significant :)

Thanks for your help !

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What's in a class ??

I always check-in online, even in India where I have to explain to the perplexed older generation that I have my boarding pass even before going to the airport and some of the suspicious ones still say ‘indha boarding passa othuka maatenu sollida pora” ! I check-in online to avoid queues, to choose my seat and above all to avoid going to the airport many hours before the flight!

The cool thing in India is that online check-in and business class check-in counters are the same, so the queue is almost always empty when one gets there. This time was no different...oh...well..atleast thats what I thought. I dropped off my bags, helped the guy at the counter find my visa (with the number of color stamps in there, it is always difficult to locate the right one) and explained what it means (since everything is in german) and when I finally got the boarding pass it said ‘Business class’ on it. As I looked up confused, the fellow gives me a big smile and says ‘you have been upgraded to business class’. I don’t know whether it was the too-many-empty seats in the business class or my politeness (:D) or the fact that I was traveling alone but I simply grinned and thought to myself ‘not bad’ !

Everyone from that point on – at immigration or security check – respectfully nodded anytime I had to show my boarding pass. When the boarding started, it was actually a little embarrassing to walk past all those people who were waiting and I don’t know if it was my imagination but I had a feeling they were staring too! But I forgot everything when I got to my seat and saw the comfy cushions and pillow, the leg room and the wide TV screen. The seat could recline to a proper bed and I settled down comfortably not to sleep but to watch movies :D….it was just like at home ! To add to it, the air hostess came at regular intervals with hot towels, fresh juice, fresh fruit, meal (hot and tasty masala dosa and sambar vada), cappuccino (my first one on a flight!), nuts and what not! She even came to me with separate wine and champagne menus and when I turned them down I thought of all those wine-lovers who would’ve said ‘adipaavi’ !

When I landed I thought that getting back to traveling in economy class would now be more difficult, then I was reminded of this Seinfeld episode where Jerry gets bumped up to business class while Elaine has a horrible time in economy and finally ends up shouting in frustration – “our goal should be a society without classes”….yes, indeed ! We should live in a world where everything is business class :D !

Friday, June 18, 2010


Two words best describe Raavanan - Vikram and Cinematography ! While the camera takes us to exotic locations and makes even normal locations look exotic, Vikram shines throughout with his powerful performance. As a die-hard Kamal fan, I can confidently say that Vikram can now take Kamal's place !

The name of the movie pretty much gives the plot away and of course there are classic manirathnam touches everywhere (spoiler warning!) - fearless Aishwarya jumping off the mountain or Vikram telling Ash that he is jealous of her husband or Ash mimicking Vikram's bak-bak-bak (which incidentally is my favorite scene!)

Prithviraj reminded me of one of those good looking guys that the heroines usually ditch for the hero. Although his role will not earn the sympathy of girls, his looks most certainly will.

Ash looks good but old. In some scenes, I missed the ''Iruvar'' Ash and then realised that she is not twenty two anymore with a sigh ! Her attempt at delivering tamil dialogues is pretty good.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee has done a good job in designing Ash's salwars but making her wear a pink sari with a black spaghetti top is like one of those Cannes fashion disasters (that Ash is famous for!)

None of the songs are given any importance and serve pretty much as re-recording pieces, which was fine with me since they did not hinder the flow of the movie.

Editing is hapazhard. Many discontinuities are noticeable....and is sometimes quite annoying !

What is missing is a powerful script and an even more powerful message, which are usually trademarks in a Mani movie. Mani has attempted another movie in his ''Iruvar'' genre but in spite of everything, I was left with a tinge of disappointment. is the is watchable and since it runs for less than 2 hours (and is thankfully not as long as Ramayana) and has its moments, you won't regret watching it.

PS: I will probably check out Raavan to see if Abhishek can live up to Vikram's performance.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wah Taj !

Ginger Bar, Taj PalaceI recently stayed at the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi (photo shows one of their restaurants) and I have to say its the best I have stayed in so far (and this includes hotels everywhere considering that I have done a fair bit of traveling!)...yes, it is expensive, infact much more than what I would give for a hotel in Europe but its not just the luxury but its the luxury combined with the attention to detail and innate desi hospitality that makes the experience simply unforgettable !

The check-in is a breeze, there is someone to take care of the luggage, someone else to escort you to the room and all along the way, any employee you encounter wishes you like you are their best guest !

When I checked-in, I had a bad cough. The duty manager immediately had some strong ginger tea brought in for me. It seriously did my throat a world of good. When I went in for breakfast the next day, my voice was still somewhere in between my original and Rani Mukherjee's. One of the chefs noticed it and volunteered to get me some medicine and did so in less than 5 minutes !

The cutlery, the attention from the waiters, the chef personally asking if the meal was all right and of course the good food all made every meal a delight (and at the same time, boosts one's ego way out of proportion)! Sometimes I felt so pampered that it was embarassing !

Room service served fresh fruit almost every night and had a mineral water supply (apparently from the Himalayas) that tasted like nothing I had drank before, in a good way though ! The first time I ordered room service, they asked me for my preferences and I said ''vegetarian and spicy'' and they remembered that throughout !

I also had the hotel guest services manager check in twice to see if I was satisfied with everything. While I was there, I also checked out the restaurants, spa, the fitness centre and the pool, they all lived up to the expectations. The concierge was very well informed and the business centre, really impressive.

There is a lounge where one can meet guests or receive business visitors. I didn't really like the tea there but the silver cutlery is fit for a king !

The check-out was equally simple, the only shocking part was the bill. It is understandable that one has to pay for the luxury but the prices are probably also hiked so that the hotel guests are strictly from the rich, richer and the richest crowds.

But no place is perfect (read, I am picky), so here are a few things where they can improve
Temperature regulation: I got it done in the room but it was freezing everywhere else ! I saw people in pullovers, shawls...who carries all these to Delhi in June ??? When I was dining there, I told the host I was cold hoping for an increase in the temperature, instead I got a beautiful shawl ! While I appreciate the sentiment, I do not appreciate the energy wastage !

Playing the host too often: While the attention to detail should be appreciated, sometimes it is overdone. At dinner, we were served every time our plates were empty. But the waiters were always hovering close to the table and this makes it extremely difficult to have a confidential conversation or rather a business dinner. Sometimes this also makes foreigners, who need space, uncomfortable. One such person commented - "A good waiter appears out of the blue when you need him". This is probably a cultural thing since desis ask guests to eat at least 4 times to be hospitable (we are never happy with one vango. It is always vango, vango, vango !)

Prices: I already mentioned this but I still think Rs.300 for a 2 minute call from the room to Chennai is atrocious ! So is Rs.660 per day for the internet - yes, the connection was good but I have never paid this much for wifi !

In a nutshell, at the Taj, you get much more than what you pay for.... most of the time.....

PS: I do not work for anyone related to the Taj and neither am I an investor or a shareholder. The post is simply from my experience as a guest.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Shake, Baby, Shake !

I had just driven to Chennai from B'lore and it was 11:45 pm when we arrived. Since we had skipped dinner we had something light to eat and decided that going to bed immediately was a bad idea. So I did what I love doing before going to bed - was reading Tintin - while my cousins were watching TV.

All of a sudden the floor moved....for a moment I thought I was getting sleepy, then I look up and I see the pullayar padam swaying to and cousin saw it too, she immediately reached for her sleeping baby and we rushed to wake the others and when we finally left the building I saw that we were pretty much the last ones out (in spite of some of them standing there with suitcases and they had time to pack valuables is a mystery to me !)....a couple of families were leaving in their cars to go to safer places (what is a safe place in case of an earthquake ??) and people were all narrating how they noticed the tremors...the stories ranged from being scared in the loo to seeing water bottles and glasses move (always reminds me of Jurassic park)

After 10 minutes of heated discussion, pakkathu veetu uncle finally realised that he was wearing no shirt and so he decided to go and get one. When he went in, others started slowly going back and after a while we were all back home still talking about the hows and whys. We switched on the TV to see sun news saying ''Chennai kulingiyadhu'' !! We were thinking "chennai mattuma, nangalum dhan'' !!

PS: If you don't have house insurance, get one NOW !

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hayya !

I am writing this post using the free wifi at the Delhi airport. The connection is so good that I can listen to songs on youtube while writing. You wonder why I am writing about such a mundane thing ??

Well, Munich has no free wifi (nor does any other airport in Germany, that I have used till date) and I remember waiting at the Munich airport with nothing to do when flights get delayed....this gives me alpa sandhosham and makes me think, sort of with pride - ''engoorla free wifi irukku, ungoorla illaye'' (I can't say it out loud for two reasons - one, there is noone from Munich here and two, I will probably be branded as crazy...rolling eyes...)

oh..well...something else that made my day :D....

Friday, June 4, 2010

One kind of a Conference

I recently attended a conference in Delhi, my first ever conference in India. There were 2 things that I didn't have to worry about - clothes and food. While on the one side, I can get away with salwars which are considered formal without having to worry about shirts and slacks and suits and shoes, on the other side, I could rely on really good vegetarian food (which is a rarity w.r.t conferences in Europe and is only slightly better in the US)

If you are wondering why food is a priority...well...I am an Indian for one and you really need energy to keep listening to people for a whole day irrespective of how interesting (or how boring) the topic is and you cannot even relax during the breaks because that is when you make contacts, look for the right people to talk to and to exchange visiting cards with.

There was one thing that stood out - people had either killer slides or were slide killers. The former had pictures, animations and very few words while the latter were from excited (you remember when you first started using word and realised that you had so many fonts and colors to play with ??) first time microsoft powerpoint users and had multiple colors/fonts/every possible word art that every slide made you squint to protect your eyes. It was no Gaussian distribution ! The same argument holds for the technical competence, it was again an either-or situation.

Noone cared about time. All sessions started late and during the whole time, only 2 speakers actually stayed within the allotted time limit. It was funny to watch the chairperson requesting the speaker to summarise since he was running out of time and speaker nodding but still speaking :D and this happened EVERY time !

And of course like any other function in India, there was an inauguration, chief guest, memento presentation and vote of thanks - It brought back fond memories of functions in college, where I used to go around making notes to make sure I thank all the people and in the RIGHT order !

The dinner reception was a surprise, there was a music band (that sang both English and desi songs) and at the end of the dinner, people started singing and dancing ! I was invited to dance too but it simply was impossible for me because all along I had this thought hammered in my brain ''I am here in official capacity'' probably because of all the resistance I had built up from less entertaining conferences elsewhere in the world !

What amused me totally was how confused people became when they started talking to me. They would start by assuming that I work in Delhi and then that I work elsewhere in India and then when I actually tell them I work in Munich they will have an exasperated look because of my completely desi attire. The next frustrating part for them would be to figure out where I come from - I had people talking to me in Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, Telugu and what I understood to be Bengali ! Many found my name difficult to spell or much for thinking that Sowmya is a common name !

Oh..well...I accomplished more than what I had on my to-do list for this conference - learnt a lot, met a number of technical Czars and in spite of being the last speaker on the last day of the conference, I had a full house and what's more everyone stayed until the end of the presentation I have nothing to complain about.

And did I mention that the food was absolutely delicious :D ?! They actually had desserts I had never tasted before. Did you know there was a dessert which has basundhi spread over a slice of gulab jamun, was unbelievably good !

And that's something no conference outside India can offer.....
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