Thursday, December 27, 2012

Salesmen hurry you to take a decision!

I recently had to visit a bank and being a long time customer they took me to the manager's room for a quick chat; a chat to get me to buy some new insurance/savings product. Later during the chat I came to know that they wanted to reach their year end targets and so were forcing me to buy this before year end - I guess it's performance appraisal for them and some bonus perhaps!

When salesmen start pitching their product it all sounds rosy; they throw in terms like guaranteed benefits, maturity benefits, assured bonus, regular addition and what not. Even if you say that you will get back to them, they'll say that it will be good to take it right now!

Analysis

Back home, I looked closer into the product - out of the 3 amounts that they promised, 2 are dependent on what they announce at the start of every year! So it's not really a guarantee! Anyway, assuming that it is, I compared of what we would get if we were to take the traditional route: regular fixed deposit (FD) in the same bank along with a term insurance (insurance where you don't get back your premium).

And lo behold - it turns out that even after considering tax deductions on the FD interest, you would still do better to take a FD and term insurance rather than their new product. It confirms to the age old advice I've heard from people who analyze investment products - "Don't combine insurance and wealth generation; keep them separate - take 2 separate products.

But it is disheartening that many people still buy these products; and those in a lower tax slab will feel a bigger pinch - because the lower you're tax slab, the more money can make by going with the traditional route of FD + term insurance.

I wonder what the salesman would say if I showed him my calculation; I didn't have the time to sit with him, put a spreadsheet and do a comparison in the manager's room. 

Well, I'm still tempted to do it - perhaps he would say that, "This reduces hassles because it is a single product" or perhaps he hasn't given this a thought.

Poem: Primal nature


Long long ago in an age primal,
violence was used for survival,
but even now there is a suppressed animal,
acting on desires that are carnal.

Emotional and impulsive in day and night,
not caring about the other person's plight.
Every action is done without a fright,
even though we are under Someone's sight.

Why do the eyes rave in lust
Why do we find it hard to trust
Why do we treat others unjust
Why do we worry when we're dust?

Why within us does jealousy arise
Why do we deceive with many lies
Why don't we see another heart's cries
Why don't we cherish life like a prize?


Meanings:

  • carnal - relating to the body/materialistic
  • primal - near the beginning of time

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A day in the city - 12 lakhs bedroom!

An interesting day that started out with a movie in the morning. After lunch, the guys said they wanted to go on a long drive. And so we went - we stopped at Loyola to catch up with a friend before going on a loooong drive where traffic cops were surprised seeing us stop for red signals that were not meant for us! 

We covered around 40 kms within the city. A couple of things that made the day eventful. Our last stop was in a relatively unknown mall in the city.

12 lakhs for my dream bedroom!

We saw a Tempur shop - a company specialized in memory foam mattresses and pillows (the ones which regain their shape). My friend wasn't interested in stepping in because he felt it would be expensive. A memory foam foot mat welcomed us. We enquired about the rates and he said about 4 lakh rupees for a double bed mattress. It did feel awesome - firm but soft. You would most certainly have a very good sleep on it and probably less neck or back pain as the posters illustrated. In case you didn't want to buy a full Tempur mattress, they had a top-up version which could be placed on top of regular mattresses - the top-up is thinner version and a single costs just Rs.78,000 or so. After sitting on it and testing it, we left the shop with a determination to buy it someday! It does come with a 15 year warranty and they say it should last for 30 years!

Next stop in the same mall was a Philips LED shop with a tag line that said something like "See what light can do". The ambience inside was nice - one area bright, one area dim like the setting in a bedroom or a home theatre room. On enquiring we learnt that all the lights were LED, they could be controlled and they changed colors. It wasn't just the lights but along with the lights they had glass items like tubes which were used as reflectors to add to create different effects. They provide customized solutions and the setup they had in the showroom cost Rs.8 lakhs. So that's Rs.12 lakhs for my bedroom!

The small things matter

We jumped into a coffee shop that was advertised as being specialists in coffee/tea. But what we found interesting was something else - after finishing our drink, the owner asked us if we wanted anything else. We said no and assumed that they would bring the bill. For 15 minutes we kept talking and there was no sign of the bill. We asked the owner for the bill and he immediately brought the bill - he was waiting for us to ask because he didn't want to interrupt our conversation; giving the customer the bill is as good as asking the customer to leave soon - instead over here they waited till we were ready to leave; we found it touching; maybe we'll visit them again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What would you do?

Scenario: You did something which is unfair - it gets you 'credit' and leads to someone else missing out on the 'credit'. The other person doesn't know about it. When you are officially given the 'credit', what would you do? Would you own up saying that the credit really belongs to the other person or would you just leave it?

I wondered about it a few minutes after the incident occurred. It reminded me of a parallel - in cricket whenever we see a batsman walk off on his own even though the umpire didn't give him out, we usually feel good about it - you feel happy that the batsman did the right thing because he knew that he edged the ball, he knew the bowler was better than him and he knew it wasn't fair for him to stay.

It's easy looking into someone else's life and commenting on what they should have done; but what would you really do? I think most of us wouldn't own up; and it frightens me that since we don't own up for something that is minor, what if the stakes were higher?

The other aspect is how can you tell what is right and what is wrong? Something that my conscience feels is right, yours might feel is wrong and vice versa. So the person who got the credit might not even have felt that it was wrong; the batsman who nicked the ball, but didn't walk off, might feel that in the grand scheme of things everything will even out. The umpire didn't catch him today but on another day the umpire might give him out even though he wasn't out - the plusses and minuses even out in the end! Do they? Maybe they do, maybe they don't... what if they don't?

What if the stakes were higher? What if your decision to leave the situation as it is, ends up doing harm to the other person who deserved the credit? Do you still consider yourself right?

It is strange how we act and react in different circumstances; anyway, keep pondering... time to hit bed; time to step into the other world...

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The 'buy and hold' policy!

It'll take me a while to get into the grove of writing travelogues - so till then, I'll ramble about a few other things.

Recommendations

I was talking to an elderly middle class man who takes care of carpentry work (he employs a few guys) was asking me what stock to buy; it's a little worrying when you recommend a financial investment to someone - especially if they don't have surplus money. What if your recommendation goes wrong? In that case, just because of you someone else loses their money! A frightening thought due to which I hardly give a stock reco; another reason is that without giving such tips, people can't judge whether you are a good stock picker - and when there is no data to look at, they assume that you are very good at it :-)

Buy and forget

So rather than flatly say 'no, I don't give recommendations', I moved our conversation away from that area. He told me about how he he buys stocks and then forgets about it. And then after a few years, he will take a look at his portfolio. And to his surprise he saw that a few companies have completely disappeared from the market! 

It made me wonder about the policy of 'buy and hold'. Does it really pay off? Well, maybe and maybe not - if you had bought an Infosys 15 years ago and forgotten about it, you will be sitting on a nice little fortune today. 
But for every such multi-bagger stock (stocks which increase your wealth) there are plenty of multi-beggar stocks (stocks that wipe out your wealth). I just went back through our stock market index (the Nifty which tracks some of the 50 biggest companies in India) - in 2007 December, the Nifty was at 5900. And now in 2012 December, the Nifty is again at around 5900! 

So that means that if you bought a mutual fund that tracked the Nifty or a combination of stocks that closely resemble the Nifty, then in a period of 5 years your wealth has increased by Rs.0! 

Yikes - alright, I know that a few of you will say "Hey, you can't just look at a 5-year period. Give it some more time." Well, maybe in another 5 years the Nifty goes to 12000 and in that case your returns aren't that bad. But if you take a look at some of the company stocks, you will find that the price of many have gone down by 80% or so - and it doesn't seem like they will ever regain their old highs.

And at this point, those of you who have never invested in the stock market will say, "Gee... this is exactly the reason that I stayed out of the market"!

Anyway, in the end I avoided giving any recommendations and told him to look at his holdings at least once a month to see how his portfolio is doing and take decisions based on that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ramblings and Looping!

We had an interesting couple of days with a discounted lunch and a movie... The movie  Looper is in the sci-fi genre... It's about time travel and the ending, hints at a person knowing the future sequence of events and correcting the sequence in the present! A more simplified version would be a question everyone would have thought of at some point or the other.... can destiny be altered based on what you do or is what you do just taking you on an already established course? Keep pondering...

I just Googled for the movie and you have articles on explanations, paradoxes and even a visual timeline explaining the flow of events in each timeframe!

My one  friend didn't like the movie while another did; but all of us are grateful to the friend who saved us from the extra service charge!

I am amazed at our Chennai drivers; a person on a bike with a wife and kid takes a  u-turn in a forbidden junction putting his  family at risk; it shudders sometimes to think how they are willing to risk their loved ones to save a few minutes and a little fuel. I guess we never treasure what we have.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

My ramblings from my mobile

I won't write much since this is my first mobile post and some reviews of Google's mobile app are a little worrying... they say your blog will disappear!

It's been an interesting 2 weeks with a lot of experimenting on my mobile... the GPS came in handy with downloaded maps... we spent about 30 minutes to find a Saravana bhavan for lunch near sangam  cinemas; unfortunately the offline map didn't have this branch; but roaming admins in areas of Chennai that we'd never seen was fun.

I also tried my hand at android programming; the developer's life is made a lot easy with the development software available... it's satisfying to write a program and see it execute on the mobile phone.

Will be back with the travelogue soon... was caught up in completing a story...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

My ramblings - Domestic airport observations...

I thought I'd write a travelogue today but have ended up listing some observations that I saw in the last few days.


Like father like son?


What a pity it is the way we set examples for others - we crib and cry about the wrong that others do, but how good an example do we ourselves set? I noticed a father and an inquisitive son step outside an ATM after they withdrew some cash. Once outside, the father proudly tore the ATM receipt in eight pieces and threw it on the footpath as if they were flowers that he were showering in a marriage. What an example indeed?
Ask and you could get it


I didn’t know it was this bad - last time it took me 1.5 hours to get to the Bangalore airport. Today it took me 2.5 hours. As we approached the airport, I checked the time on the cab’s dashboard and was pretty certain that I would miss the flight - just 30 minutes for departure and I hadn't done an online check-in as well. But the cab time was 10 minutes ahead - I rushed to the departures entrance and was confronted by two queues with more than 6 people in each. It would slow me down if I waited there. 


I saw a couple of North Indian security guards sitting idle in front of a 3rd entrance; there was a board that said “Staff only.” Looking at the guy I had a feeling he wouldn't budge but I still thrust my ticket and id at the man and told him my flight was at 9:10pm. And he causally, in Hindi, replied that there was plenty of time for me! Fortunately the lady beside him noticed my hurry and told him, “Just check.” Not happy at being rushed into this, the security guy examined my id card very closely. Seeing me at this empty queue, a couple more passengers joined behind me. The security guy said that my name on the ticket didn’t match with the id card - I pointed out that the id only had the first two names and not the third. He examined the id and ticket for a few more seconds before waving me through. The lady then said, "Check theirs also," referring to the two people who were behind me.
Listen to your mom!


I then rushed to the Check-in counter to get my boarding pass and drop my check-in baggage. There was less than 40 minutes left and today morning a colleague missed his flight because he arrived at the airport 30 minutes before departure - you are supposed to arrive 45 minutes before departure. He had to cancel and rebook on the next flight which was 3 hours later. For me there was no other flight after this one tonight. 
Fortunately in Bangalore, there isn’t a separate security scanner for check-in luggage; you just go directly to the airline counter and drop your bags - but the queue here had more than 12 people. After talking to one of the airline boys, he created a new queue where I was the first in line. I don’t think anyone else would have liked it! I thought the lady at the counter might say, “Sorry,” but she didn’t. She said, “I’m giving you the last aisle seat I have.”


In airports, you can feel relatively relaxed once you get your boarding pass - because then even if you were held up in security check, the airline would start searching for you and expedite the process. The security check queues were moving very slowly and only a few were operational. After ten minutes, a energetic security personnel opened one more line for screening. He was so fast with the metal detector instrument that he completed 4 people while the others had finished just one. And it wasn’t that he took any shortcut - it was just that he was so energetic and brisk when he waved the metal detector on your body. The people in the queue were delighted to see the speed at which he worked. 
The moral of the story is, as most of our moms would say, “There is no harm in going to the airport or station early. What big deal are you going to do at home in that one hour? Why not spend it in the airport?”
Why the hurry?


It reminded me of something else. Every time in flights, I always dream of a day when everyone in the flight will be patient while exiting the plane. Today was typical - as soon as the flight slowed after touchdown, most people stood up and start pulling out their bags from the overhead compartments as if they could leave the plane immediately; why so much hurry for such a petty thing?
Oh well, that’s enough for today... No space for a travelogue - next edition will be about the first baseball game I attended in US.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Part 30 - Luray Caverns


Altruism, smiles and laughter

Alright, I can’t resist the temptation to continue the banter from last edition about altruistic deeds. It amazes to think how some people can love unconditionally - and they are not even related by blood. 

We generally tend to lose our cool when someone doesn’t respond favorably to us; and at the other extreme of human nature you have someone like Mother Teresa who has probably faced umpteen situations where people never even treated her with respect (one very often quoted incident is the one about the baker who spit at her); really amazing how she kept going.
Talking of altruism and smiles, reminds me of another thing. If there is someone who has a different type of laughter - maybe it’s loud, or maybe shrill, or maybe with some odd accent, then people around them will ask them to control it. Even though the laughter would just last for a few seconds, society tries to curtail it. I wonder why we have to do so - what’s wrong with the person laughing their heart out for a few seconds? Maybe for a few seconds it sounds odd but there's no harm done. And I think the uninhibited laughter is a lot more beautiful than the muffed one. Would you ask a baby to control its laughter?
Visiting a cavern

Seems like travelogues are becoming like the “WakeUp” series... back to travelogue... So off we were to Luray Caverns that was discovered some 130 years ago. A large underground cave is called a cavern. Walking down the steps I didn’t feel there was anything special. I had brought a sweater since I thought the temperature might be low - but it isn’t that bad. Here also they use the self guided audio tour system - they provide a little audio player where you can press numbers to jump to different sections of the tour. There were a lot of stalagmites and stalactites around us (I was reminded of geography). The audio explained about the color differences - depending on the mineral composition the colors varied. As we walked in the cave, there were more beautiful sights to be seen. A few formations had been given special names because of what they resembled. (pic on left is the reflection in Dream Lake)
Marriage underground!

One special spot was the dream lake - there is actually were little water but the reflection of the stalactite is beautiful (stalactites hang from the ceiling in case you've forgotten your geography!). There was one area where you had flowstone that covers walls - this gives the appearance of a veil and it is called “Titania’s veil”. In another area there were huge columns running from the ceiling to the floor - about 40 feet in height or so. In some places you can even see water dripping from the ceiling and it gives the appearance of a fountain when it drips on calcite (which is white). 

There is even a cathedral where it seems there used to be weddings - a wedding in a cave! And in the cathedral they have built a musical instrument - the stalacpipe organ. This device is setup such that sounds are produced by tapping into the formations in the cave. It took them years of research and design to build! So when you are in the cathedral you can actually hear music - and listening to music in that vast hall sounds great. It is even possible to do a live performance on the instrument but most of the time the sequence of keys are automated. You would think that all there is to see in a cavern is two types of formations - one growing upwards and the other growing downwards. But the combination of minerals and water has produced a variety of things. (Pic above is the musical instrument)
Pure air



As we neared the exit, I realized the nose block I had while entering the cave had cleared. And one of the last parts of the audio tours spoke about the cleanliness of air inside the cave. In fact in the 1900s they had a sanitarium above the cave which used the air from the cave to circulate inside the house. This is said to be one of the first air conditioned homes - and the clean air was said to help in the recovery from respiratory illnesses.
(Pic on right is Saracen's Tent - they will appear like curtains)

To top off the trip, there was a car museum beside the caverns where we spent a few minutes before leaving. There were some old Peugeot, Bugati and Mercedes cars.

And with that another weekend ended in the USA; I headed back to Union Station in Washington DC. The bus was at night and I had to do a ten minute walk to an open ground where there were a fleet of MegaBus buses; though the bus was late they reached Boston on time.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Part 29 - In Virginia

I’m back after a break - coming out of what you could call blues or whatever; 2 months since the last edition - yikes... Some heck of a slump. 


Can you really be altruist?



You know it’s funny - my friend and I were discussing the other day whether it was everyone else who was crazy or whether it was we both who were crazy. The question is whether you can do something for someone without expecting anything in return. And if you’ve noticed, no matter how altruist you try to be, the world will look to find some alternate interpretation of it. On second thoughts, you probably weren’t strictly altruist in your intention because you might have done it with the thought of bringing joy or smile to someone - you still expect something in return - expect to make them happy; but that ain’t bad, right? Or maybe it is... And people around will spin stories by adding spice to it to say that you are doing it expecting to get some favor. But isn't it possible that we did it because we feel happy when we see someone happy?
Looking around, both of us concluded that it is just the two of us who are crazy!

It was nice when a editor called asking to publish one edition of the travelogue. And lately a few people have been asking me about the Travelogue and about the “Wake Up” series. You might have often heard in interviews people respond to a question by saying, “Even if one person were to benefit with this initiative then I will feel satisfied.” So, “Even if one person were to feel good reading the travelogue or Wake Up series, then I will feel happy.” Well, I’m not sure - maybe a million readers would make me happy; that’s not too much to ask, is it? We have a world population of 7 billion... So 1 million of that means just 0.014%!


Reunion with college mate


Alright alright... Enough with all that; let’s get back to our travelogue... I took a long metro ride from the heart of Washington DC to the outskirts to meet a college friend - as the train went past stations, the areas became more and more deserted. If this were the night I would have been a little worried - remember the New Jersey incident; not having a mobile phone is a big problem!

Strangely both of us still looked the same as we did in college; hardly any change - the last we saw each other was in Coimbatore and after so many years we meet in Virginia. It was late in the afternoon and since both of us hadn't had lunch, he drove to an Indian restaurant. Most Indian restaurants, especially on weekends, have a buffet. And since it had been a while since I ate a full Indian meal, I thoroughly enjoyed the lunch. We then went to a Smithsonian National Air and Space museum. There were plenty of real planes inside the museum. The pick of the lot was the sleek black Lockheed SR-71 (also called Blackbird - see pic on left) - it holds the speed record of some 3000 kms/hour! An interesting logo on the tail is that of a skunk (see pic below) - apparently, “Skunk Works” is part of the Lockheed company involved in aircraft design. Interesting history about the term “skunkwork projects” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skunkworks_project


There is plenty to see in this museum, just like all the other Smithsonian museums in Washington DC. This was the same museum used in Transformers - remember the one where they go in search of a Decepticon and find one hidden in an aircraft hangar? This was the museum. Unfortunately, the museum was nearing closing time - you can easily spend a few hours here.

I had the option of taking rest but declined the offer. Tempted on seeing the tennis rackets in my friend’s home, we headed to the tennis court. It had been a long time since I struck a tennis ball but it is a sport I liked. In the places I’ve been to in the US, I always find the tennis courts available for use - they are free for the public and well maintained. We warmed up and played a couple of sets which I lost by a game in both. Though we wanted to continue playing, we stopped - the danger when you suddenly play is that you over-exert yourself and damage your body. And I had already done enough damage by playing two sets! Since it is a best of five sets match, the next time i meet him we have to finish our incomplete business.


After a shower and dinner outside, we planned for our Sunday. I had to leave by evening so that I could be in time to catch the night bus to Boston from Washington. That meant we had roughly 6am till 3pm to use and that meant we could visit any one place. We picked the cave for our Sunday trip before heading to bed.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Part 28 - Standing atop the Washington Monument

Ain't it odd the ways of life... Just near my home there was a house of mourning and a little further away was a house of celebration; celebration of life in a wedding ceremony...

The man was in his late 70s; he was healthy and used to take a walk early in the morning when he would buy the newspaper from a roadside stall and come home. Just like any other day he went out a couple of days back. But didn't return. A biker hit him on the crossing, he fell on the divider in the road and an iron rod struck his head. After spending a day or two in coma, he passed away - just like that... hale and healthy and suddenly gone...

Rewinding back to the US travelogue (just 2 editions to go)... 

It was yet another weekend and I had planned to visit a college friend on the weekend in Virginia. Nearing the end of the trip I was a little worried that I might run out of money. So instead of taking the train or flight I opted for the cheapest form of travel - a bus to Washington DC from Boston. I had booked it online. I reached Boston early just to be on the safe side and also because there were only limited buses to Boston. I spent the time reading a medical thriller. The Megabus bus was at around 11pm but it was more than 30 minutes late. Finally when it came I found there were a lot of people using the service. I took a seat in the front beside a middle aged lady. The bus ride was super smooth. I did miss the pleasure of watching a movie - it was something I always looked forward to in bus rides. The seats were just about comfortable - the legroom wasn't great but then for the price being paid it was manageable; no complaints.


During the long journey the bus stopped once where the drivers changed. Even though we started more than 30 minutes late we reached DC on time. We stepped out on a huge parking lot that was taken up by Megabus. I walked towards the Union station to take the metro. The first thing I did was to get a ticket to go up the Washington monument. They had a ticket for 11 and I took it. In the meanwhile I strolled around the museum area. Most of my time was spent in the Arthur M Sackler Art Gallery. Boston had sparked an interest in art and I was specific in searching for art museums.

An interesting exhibit was about the "Mountain of Echoing Halls". Many Buddhist sculptures from the cave temples of Xiangtangshan were present. There were also large screen Mac systems which explained about them. At the time I visited, the art gallery had more staff than visitors! The exhibit setting itself was like that of a cave - calm and serene. They explained about the Maitreya - the Maitreya is the future Buddha who will arrive when mankind has fallen to low depths. 

Four goals of life
There was one section where they had Hindu Gods - the various avatars of Vishnu, Ganesha etc. There was an interesting note about why in temples one might find figures of dancers and musicians. I quote from what was written, "Hindus believe that everyone should aspire to four goals for life on earth: dharma, righteous living; artha, wealth acquired through pursuit of a profession; kama, human love; and moksha, spiritual salvation. Sculptors adorning Hindu temples address not only spiritual salvation but the three other goals as well."

The museum had a MS Surface table (pic on top left) that provided a great user experience to learning - it had a Persian poem and a Chinese painting with Calligraphy explained. I really didn't have too long to spend here because it was time to rush back to the Washington monument; I didn't want to miss that - I had been to Washington 3 times in the past and never got a ticket.


They took us to the top of the obelisk on an elevator. And along the way the tour guide explained a few things about the monument. The monument is a memorial for the first US president - George Washington. It is the world's tallest stone structure, standing 555 feet tall (169 metres). The top of the monument is made of Aluminum, which in those days was a rare metal - they had to use something as a lightning rod but which wouldn't tarnish. There are viewpoints on top which you can see through a window. The pic to the right shows the White House as seen from the top of the monument.

A couple of months after my trip there was a minor earthquake due to which the monument has been closed to the public till the damage is repaired!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Part 27 - Contemporary art (USA)

It’s been a while; a long while. While a friend reviews another piece of my work, I get some time to spend on blogging again. I was just wondering that it's funny how we have a lot of conflicts just because of ego; and in the end we are all dust!
For our next spot we head back to Boston; my friend had left for India and I never like sitting alone on the weekend. Even though we had been to Boston many times I figured that I’ll find something of interest there - surely there is some other museum to see.
Walking on the bridge across Seaport Boulevard towards the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) was great - if you visit Boston, do take a walk here. The ICA building is designed differently - check it out here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Institute_of_Contemporary_Art,_Boston.jpg
I bought the ticket and picked the free audio guided headset. In many museums this is provided free of cost and it is worth using. There were a few parents with kids sitting on the ground floor doing some children activity. The iPod they gave me had one earphone dangling.

Weird exhibits using CDs!

The first room I walked into had a stack of CDs in the center - that’s art! There was one piece of a gramophone cd (the large ones you see in old movies) with a lock on it. I happened to be there at the right time for a guided tour - one of the staff were explaining about the exhibits in the room; CDs are used to listen to sound and there are a lot of other ways to make sound with them - scratching, flipping etc. There was a collage made using broken CDs. Someone had made buttons using them. In the next room there were exhibits made using CD covers - these were covers made by people after they bought the CD; kind of like personalized covers. In Brazil it seems people put their own autographs on them.
In the next room there were some gross videos of how a CD was used - a chicken leg spinning on the CD; cutting an apple using the CD player head on which a knife was fixed etc. Then there were plenty of sketches of other uses of CDs and sketches of alternate playing heads that could be used to read CDs - birds, centipedes and what not. There was a picture of a 100 year old man sticking broken records.

Photography
The next room had some nice photographs - sunrise and sunset, Boston tea party pics, snaps from Obama’s campaign, crowds etc. The sunrise and sunset series was an interesting one - it was a sequence of photos shot during a journey on a ship; looked very pretty and the arrangement was also beautiful. The iPod device was not just useful for visitors - I saw a tour guide also listening to the iPod before she began her tour. Each exhibit was numbered and you would find an audio clip for that corresponding number.

Who are you?
One piece of art (a tilted 4 feet tower leaning on the wall) was based on Emily Dickinson’s poem:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!
There was one room that focussed on consumerism - a stack of bills arranged from floor to the ceiling. One exhibit to show inflation where the first bill and second bill have the same set of items bought in a supermarket except that they were bought in different years. There was one with 4 slabs and parking tickets on top - the audio explained that it was to point out that we pay for space.

The next room had the Pom Pom city on the floor - made fully of strands of fibre with a thick matting at the centre to denote how cities are more populated at the centre. 


Never ending reflection
The most fascinating piece I found was the infinite reflection - 8 beautiful shining metallic objects (they look metallic but they are actually glass) placed inside a glass case. When you looked at the glass case it seemed like there was an endless row of those 8 objects, one behind the other. 
How? In front of the objects is a 1-way mirror; from one side it seems transparent and from the other it seems like a mirror. Behind the objects is another mirror. So you have an image reflected from one mirror and onto the other mirror and it gives the illusion of infinity. 
Similar concept was used in a little building made of something like children’s blocks - look inside and you’ll see an infinite row of glowing bulbs. It looks playful from the outside but when you look down into the structure it can raise a sense of fear - fear of heights because the bottom never seems to be there.
Then there was a lengthy box in which a camera was dissected - every single part arranged in such a way that if you push from both ends of the box, the camera would be formed. There was a dark room in which there were shadows of objects with the question, “What if God only saved the objects?”
If you spend time looking at each piece and listening to the audio (which is pretty informative), you’ll spend hours here. Even though I stayed till the closing time, I had to skim through many of the exhibits.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Part 26 - Gun in hand (USA)


We switch back to the US travelogue...
When I was in Baltimore with my friend, for the first time, he showed me around Baltimore. There was the aquarium and all but there was one thing that was very special in that trip.
It was late in the evening and my friend casually asked, “Do you want to go shooting?”
“Shooting? Just like that?”
“Yeah; want to?”
“Sure. No need of a shooting license and all?”
“Nope. It’s been a long time since I went; not sure if it’s still there.”

Am allowed in the shooting range

I was excited and anxious. I’d never even held a real gun in my hand. He drove around trying to figure out the spot based on memory. As we went on the main road, he remembered the block and turned around to the other side of the street. In a side lane there was this building with a board “Select Fire”.

We walked into the shop slowly; the walls were filled with guns. This was it.
“We wanted to use the shooting range,” my friend asked.
My heart, for some reason, was lubbing and dubbing heavily.

The man behind the counter casually pushed across a couple of forms to fill out. It was a simple form. My friend clarified if I was allowed to use it and he just asked for my passport. They kept my passport and my friend’s driving license while we were in the shooting range. After filling the form, he told us that we could only use the pistol to start with. After we put 5 shots (or maybe he said 10) in the center, we could use another weapon - an automatic and so on.

He took two guns but my friend said one would be sufficient. He also handed over a box of ammunition. He gave us a big headset - the one you see used by pilots and people working on airport runways. He also gave goggles.
“Put it on before you cross the door.”

He also handed us a couple of huge sheets of paper. On them were the target practice diagram - the sheet you see in movies when the hero is practicing shooting. Basically the outline in the shape of a man with a few concentric circles. It was thicker than a bond paper but thinner than chart paper.

Ready, aim, fire

We opened the door and could hear gun shots inside. This was an indoor shooting range; about 4 lanes available and there was a group of 4, including a lady, who were using the last lane. Each lane had a switch box that would move the target clip hanger down the lane - so you don’t need to walk to the end of the lane and fix the target sheet. You just flick the switch and it would come to you; you clip on the target sheet and flick the switch again to move it away. So there I was with a real gun and real ammunition. It was a .22 pistol.

My friend, who had some experience before, opened the ammunition box and showed me how to use the pistol. The ammunition box had 100 cartridges. He showed me the safety catch and he showed me how to load the bullets in the revolver. And then he fired a round. After that you have to empty the revolver of the used cartridges. And then I tried my hand at it.

I used my left hand to keep my right hand steady to handle the recoil. The recoil isn’t a huge one; you can fire with a single hand but the left hand helps keep aim. After firing a few shots I realized that the recoil was taking my shot to the upper left from my aim. After emptying a round of cartridges, we’d retrieve the target sheet to see how we did. I struck a few in the center! I had to aim for the lower right to get the shot right.

The gun was very similar to the toy guns we played with except for the recoil and the fact that a bullet was being fired. The sound was pretty similar. A few rounds later, someone occupied the first lane and fired a machine gun. The headset doesn’t completely eliminate all sound; you could still hear gun shots.

Armed, dangerous and worrying

You certainly need a lot of practice with shooting to get a perfect aim; even shooting a stationary target is not easy; imagine shooting a running target. And imagine how in movies the hero picks the gun for the first time and shoots a person who is more than 50 feet away - need a big dose of luck to do that! 

The thought that I had in hand something that can kill very easily was worrying. It was a strange feeling - and the cost of shooting wasn’t high; for $25 or so you could use the gun for an hour in the shooting range. Buying a gun also wasn’t that costly - you could buy guns from Walmart - they had one section for guns.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Part IV - Metro, fines & Wafi


There were some nice things I noticed during my short stay.

It's like New York
The metros were still spic and span – no dirt or garbage and tiles shining. The government was certainly spending enough to keep up the maintenance for so long. I saw a couple of South East Asians scrubbing the staircase in the metro. It’s ultimately the ground level workers who decide the outcome!
Last year I thought that perhaps people in Dubai might not use the metro much; but I was wrong. A lot of office goers used it for commuting. In the mornings and late in the evenings, the metros are packed with crowds; reminded me of New York crowds. There were only two lines - the red line and the newly opened green line. You had a train every 5 minutes. There were also a few of the metro staff who walked around like inspectors in the train. Once one man was told, “Chewing gum is not allowed Sir.” He was lucky to get away with just an advice. Eating and drinking was prohibited even in the stations - it helped them maintain cleanliness.


(pic to the left is an interesting structure in Wafi mall)
The RTA (Road & Transport Authority was responsible for the buses and metros) had a good call center. You could call them any time regarding reaching a destination and they would give you the bus numbers and approximate time it would take. The same information was also available online. Another useful system was that each bus stop had a board which displayed bus timings for the buses that came to that stop. Of course it isn’t exact but it gives a fair idea of how long you would need to wait.
Speaking of crowds, the crowd psychology applies even out here. Once when the train came, people were pushing others to get into the train. It was orderly; it seemed like everyone was just thinking, “I have to get in; who cares about others.” They kept one compartment reserved for children and women but even those got crowded during peak hours. And the crowd psychology applies at all levels across ages.

Fines
My sister told me a story about a man who was caught by traffic police for crossing the road instead of using the walkway bridge. He was taken directly to the police station. He had the guts to cross the road exactly at the place where they had put a huge warning sign for pedestrians saying “Use the footbridge”.
In Abu Dhabi, the police started levying spot fines on people littering the streets. It had helped the city become cleaner.

Kids help business

There were just a few malls that I had missed in my previous visit. Wafi city, with Wafi Mall, was one of them. The ‘city’ is a complex with a hotel, mall, spas and even some residence. The mall is themed on Egypt. There were these pharos and sphinxes. Inside there was a huge Christmas tree - it was beautiful. And as usual there was a Santa sitting in a little house; to have a snap with him you had to pay. All kids were naturally pulling their parents to the queue - around 15 families were in queue. Kids can certainly help businesses by making their parents spend.

I noticed it in McDonalds as well - Alvin and the Chipmunks part 3 movie was running and kids love the chipmunks. We went to watch it because of my niece - she has seen the second part on dvd probably hundred times at home. Part 3 was okay; not as good as the first one but kids were happy. McDonalds offered a kids meal in which you’d get a chipmunk toy - there were 8 toys to collect and invariably all kids asked for the kids meal mainly because of the toy.

There is a souk (market place - pic to the left) that is kind of hidden within Wafi mall. But it is a beautiful place worth checking out. There are different divisions like Turkish, Egyptian etc. with plenty of shops. Being hidden, there was hardly anyone except for us and the shopkeepers. In another section of Wafi, there was Asha Bhosle's restaurant called “Asha's". We stepped in to just take a look at the menu - there was one menu just for drinks. Ambience was good but food prices were very costly.