Monday, November 15, 2010

Rethinking Possible with AT&T Wireless

“What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.”
Abraham Lincoln

I was watching TV the other day and came across a new advertising campaign for AT&T Wireless. The campaign seems like a bold push to dispel the myths, and counter the myriad complaints about the poor performance of their network. A fact that has been amplified by their exclusive Apple iPhone agreement. It has been widely reported that their network has been unable to keep up with data demands of iPhone users. This AT&T advertisement uses scenarios best described as a mix of hyperbole and reality to counter these perceptions and tries to persuade us with a tagline that challenges us to “Rethink Possible.”

The funny thing about this new campaign and particularly the tagline that struck a real chord with me is that, as an AT&T wireless subscriber, I had already begun rethinking what is possible with my AT&T device and service. Perhaps, not quite in the way that AT&T and their ad agency intended.

Granted their advertising is about the data network speed but surely one can assume that if the data network transmits at light speeds, enabling us the ability to do things we could not have imagined or dreamed possible - like changing a train reservation while standing on the platform because we made eye contact with a beautiful woman on another train, and then went on to marry her and produce the 54th President of the United States of America...all because of AT&T’s magnificent network. Given that I can Rethink Possible in such an amazing way for data you would think it would also be possible to make a simple, old fashioned voice call - no problem. Well, you would be dead wrong. Forget the fact that it is impossible for me to walk down a street in Manhattan just one short block without the call dropping but I cannot even walk across my living room. For those unfamiliar with Manhattan apartments, think of the most spacious ones as small walk-in closets, and I can assure you that ours is far from spacious. It has become impossible to have a cell phone conversation unless I am standing or sitting in one place. Not only do I have to check the signal strength before I sit down but I also find that I need to restrict my movements while on the call. Any sudden moves or gestures could well lose that elusive signal and result in a dropped call. On average I make 4 calls to finish one 2 minute conversation. I remember having more freedom of movement when my phone line was tethered.

Admittedly, I am not the most technologically advanced being, but my understanding of the purpose of voicemail is that it’s similar to the answering machine. A caller can leave a message if we are unable to answer the phone for any reason. If this is also your understanding then perhaps you will be able to explain to me why AT&T’s voicemail service routinely seems to send incoming calls directly to my voicemail when I am ready and waiting eagerly for the call. Then, as if to add insult to injury, it often only alerts me up to 3 days after I received the call to tell me that I have a voicemail. By which time I have either met with the person or the issue has been resolved over email. I can tell you that AT&T is responsible for my growing reputation of tardiness when it comes to returning calls.

The other day I got an urgent text message and immediately called my friend. She texted saying she needed a babysitter on short notice. When she answered my call she sounded perfectly calm and not frantic like I expected based on the urgency of her text. I probed and she seemed confused and finally said “what are you talking about?’ When I told her I was responding to her super urgent request for a babysitter, she laughed and said that she had sent me the text on Monday morning. It was now Wednesday afternoon. Co-incidentally, she sent me another text last weekend, this time a picture of her baby. Now a week later, my AT&T wireless phone still shows the status as “retrieving” her text but will not let me cancel this rather lengthy retrieval or delete it. I must call and ask her how many million gigabytes she has sent or maybe it would be better if I emailed.

Everywhere I look I see people with smart phones. It used to be that only men in suits carried them but now its women with strollers, nannies with kids, schoolchildren on the subway, delivery men and even clergy. Apart from the fact that I often want to hit all these people when I see them walking down the street staring at their smart screens while stupidly walking into traffic and into me...I plan to get one too. My dilemma is simple – what is the point of a having a smart phone if one has to use it on a dumb network? Frankly, the only reason our family is holding out on the iPhone is because our friends at AT&T wireless are the only people offering it. Besides, since I am currently unable to make a simple phone call I have been forced to rethink what else might not be possible on my smart phone like sending pictures, streaming video, downloading music, rich media texts, IM, online gaming, emailing and video chat.

The AT&T wireless signal is another great mystery. It was somewhat explained when Apple recently announced that the “algorithm” they were using to calculate the AT&T signal bars on the iPhones was inaccurate. Assuming AT&T uses a similar algorithm on their dumber phones it might explain why I often have all 5 bars but am unable to use my AT&T wireless phone as anything more than a brick. But it does not explain why my wife’s phone, on Verizon’s network, always works no matter how few bars her phone indicates and no matter where we find ourselves. In fact she uses her phone when there are zero bars showing, and is routinely able to make and receive calls no matter where she is. Be it in the dark basements of large department stores, on desolate highways, in undersea tunnels or from the deep inner recesses of large office buildings. Meanwhile I can be found standing on the widest part of the street, away from the tallest buildings, carefully avoiding the path of the trees and the direct rays of the sun, all the while looking and praying for a signal that says I can once again communicate with the world. I would wager that if we found ourselves stuck down the shaft of the deepest mine, anywhere in the USA, her Verizon phone would have a signal and save us while my AT&T phone would allow us to take final pictures and video of ourselves while slowly running out of air.

I also noticed a rather curious claim on their new advertising campaign: “AT&T Covers 97% of Americans.” I had to stop and think about this one. It’s an ingenious way to be quite disingenuous (leave it to those brilliant admen) because the brain thinks it just read and registered that AT&T’s network covers 97% of America. Which seems rather impressive but hard to believe given my personal experience. It also slyly says nothing about the quality of their coverage or what those lucky 9 million people left without AT&T coverage do. From first-hand experience in New York, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Erie, Memphis, New Orleans, San Francisco, Buffalo, Boston, most of Rhode Island and Menlo Park, to name just a few places, I can tell you that their coverage quality is unequivocally and equally crap everywhere. My advice to AT&T is to take the hundreds of millions dollars they are currently spending on advertising trying to convince people that their network actually works, and spend it on upgrading their network so it that does actually work.

As for me, a loyal 10 year veteran of AT&T wireless, this new advertising campaign has finally made me rethink the possibilities, and decide to become Verizon’s newest customer. Who says advertising does not work!
  
CHECK OUT: The Daily Show bringing my words to life!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Political Silly Season

“I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you. None of us are perfect...”
Christine O'Donnell

This quote is not from a spoof on Saturday Night Live or Sabrina the Teen Witch trying to make new friends in high school, but the opening lines uttered in an advertisement being run by a candidate who is running on the Republican Party ticket for the Delaware US Senate seat. Don’t get me wrong. Given how broken Washington is these days, I am even willing to give witchcraft a shot – hell, it could not make things worse. As for candidates, forget about being perfect. What troubles me greatly is not isolated cases of people dabbling in witchcraft, but that all of them seem to lack even the most basic qualities of leadership. I am talking about clear, rational thinking, problem solving skills and an ability to articulate their positions. Case in point is the New York Governor’s race where we have one man who wears black gloves, and represents the ‘Rent is 2 Damn High’ party, and even a self-confessed Madam who professed rather astutely that "businesses will leave this state quicker than Carl Paladino at a gay bar." I guess at least she does have some indirect gubernatorial experience, having supplied female escorts to the last Governor of New York, which is more than we can say about any of the other candidates. The recent debate also included a former Black Panther member, Freedom Party, Green Party and Libertarian Party candidates. Then, on the Republican ticket, we have Carl Paladino, who it seems is willing to “take out” reporters when he is angered about being questioned about his love child. He has also stated that he believes homosexuality is a bad life decision and one that children should be taught and encouraged not to make. Finally, we have Andrew Cuomo, the Democrat and consummate politician. His father was the first Italian American Governor of New York and he, too, has spent his entire life in politics. A fact that should have been a great weakness and Achilles heel for him, at a time when the one thing the whole country agrees on is getting rid of career politicians. You know something is very wrong when, in this environment, Cuomo seems like not just the sane choice for NY Governor, but the only one.

Everywhere I look I see voters being asked to choose between mediocre and less mediocre, corrupt and less corrupt, sane and less sane candidates.  In Connecticut there is a Democrat running for Senate who misspoke about his military service; but it seems he misspoke on five separate occasions over as many years. Richard Blumenthal claimed he served in Vietnam when in fact he never left the shores of America. I realise there is a very fine line between politics and lying, but how do you trust a man who has a tendency to misspeak until he is caught doing it? On the other side we have Linda McMahon, who has reportedly spent upwards of $42 million of her personal fortune to make her bid for the Senate seat in the old fashioned manner – by buying her way in. She is the owner and was the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), which she and her husband built from a small regional company into a global multi-billion dollar empire. A self-made woman but one who is also widely criticized for her decision to classify all wrestlers working for her company as independent contractors rather than employees, purely so that her company would not have to shell out for their Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. Perhaps, we do need some cut throat, no bullshit, take no prisoners type people to break the current deadlock in Washington and get this country moving again, but my problem is, again, that on the issues that matter to me, I have not been inspired by her. I also do not get a sense that she has a plan or vision. It feels more like she is seizing on the current voter anger and discontent against establishment politicians and using it as an opportunity to fulfil some personal milestone of a type A personality. I am not convinced that we are in good hands with her, but still encourage people to vote for her as she is certainly a better choice over someone who blatantly lies.

I want to move now to the race that personifies mediocrity, nay, in fact it takes mediocrity to another even more shallow level that I once never imagined possible. If you have not figured it out yet, I am talking about Nevada’s Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle. These candidates have much more in common that the political pundits have given them credit for. For one, each is not only running against the other, but has the added distinction of running against himself and herself. If you think Joe Biden has foot in mouth, then you need to hear some of the gaffes these two have made. While there are too many to list individually, I did pick my favourite gem from each candidate. Angle, during the primary, said that she wanted to “phase out both Social Security and Medicare.” Reid for his contribution stated that Obama was likely to succeed because he is "light skinned" and speaks with "no Negro dialect." Angle has also shown that she has one of the Democratic Party’s strongest traits - snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. When Angle won the Republican primary a few months ago Harry Reid looked like very old toast, but today it’s a really tight race. I feel sorry for Nevadans, but then again it is the home of Las Vegas, and the people of this state have always loved a blind roll of the dice.

Back in New York, we have Mr. Charles B. Rangel, the 80 year old member of the US House of Representatives who serves New York’s 15th District, and has served it since 1971. Since 1971! This means he has held his current office for close to 40 years and nearly served 20 consecutive terms. The House Ethics committee recently charged him with violating 13 ethics and federal regulations. Serious charges that include misusing his office to raise millions for a college building bearing his name, failing to report income tax on properties he owns, and using a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem as an office while stating that it was for living purposes. Rather than do the honourable thing and resign to clear his name, he has not even made an attempt to explain the charges against him. Instead, Mr. Rangel decided his best defense was offense. He stood up on the floor of the House of Representatives and challenged members of both parties to kick him out. He defiantly told them that if they think he is guilty of violating House rules, then "fire your best shot at getting rid of me through expulsion." He then proceeded to hold a very public and lavish 80th birthday party at New York’s exclusive Plaza Hotel. I am not sure what shocked me more; the fact that he genuinely seems to think he did nothing wrong or that members of both parties have so many corrupt, dirty little skeletons in their own closets that they have quietly faded into the night hoping voters will be the judge and jury for Mr. Rangel.

Finally, there is the junior Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand and all the endorsements she has received during her short term. She filled Hillary Clinton’s vacated Senate seat by special appointment and is now up for re-election. While Mayor Bloomberg recently stated that he will not endorse either Schumer or Gillibrand, he was clearly dazzled by her at a dinner the other night, enough to give her attractiveness a solid endorsement. He told the media, “I did not ask her where her dress came from or anything, but she’s a pleasure to sit next to and she certainly looked good.” Earlier this year Harry Reid, the Senate Majority leader, lauded Gillibrand for being the “hottest member” in the Senate. This seems to be the general consensus on Gillibrand’s service so far. When Gov.Paterson, who is legally blind, was asked by a reporter for his assessment of Gillibrand’s appearance, he replied "Well, I never noticed it, but upon information and belief she is a very pretty woman.” And he added “I think her real influence on people has been in the areas of agriculture and in the areas of national security and in the areas of finance, where she is real hot.”

My advice to all you voters is to go ahead and vote for the wrestler, the witch and the wardrobe. Even if they don’t change a damn thing in Washington, they certainly cannot make things any worse. Besides, we would at least be far more entertained while we continue to watch our tax dollars being used for wasteful spending and corporate bailouts, and we would have much better looking people to hate. And that folks is progress in my book!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Internet Privacy and Prying Eyes

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.”
Marlon Brando

You are a 39 year old man who likes to play baseball, drink premium beer and go on long bike rides. You are married with two kids, work in the financial services field, own your own home, make roughly $150,000 a year. You have a college degree, and you struggle with mild depression. Have we met? No, and we probably never will, but I can find out everything about you simply because you like to surf the internet. Based on the keywords we use in search engines, our news sites, shopping habits and even simple things like restaurant reviews we write allow companies to get to know us more intimately than your neighbour and maybe even your spouse. Welcome to the world of today’s personalized internet marketing, a world that has moved well beyond simple cookies and even beacons. I am not talking about the ones mama used to bake or guiding lights, but something far more sinister. These new tracking tools are eyes designed to carefully and surreptitiously watch your every move and even everything you type, depending on the nature of the individual software that gets downloaded every time you open a webpage. And yes, I mean any and every webpage. Originally, these tools were meant to be harmless reminders of our preferences on a specific site: which geography we were in, our saved shopping cart items, and our shipping and billing information. In addition, these were cookies installed by the website, but today they have morphed into digital stalkers whose actions are akin to going through your trash. Worse yet, in many instances the site you are visiting may not even be aware that this type of watching software exists on its web page. It is increasingly being used by third party content providers of which there can be dozens on any given page, who are serving content from ad banners to free software downloads. Alarmed yet?

The people who capture and sell this information say that an individual’s anonymity is protected because we are never identified by name or address. But all this information is being collected from a combination of gleaning publicly available databases and using surreptitious tracking tools on the web as described in the opening paragraph. These companies then add some smart geeks who write programs that can analyze this information and attach assumptions by cross referencing things like home ownership records, family income, medical records and even favourite restaurants and brands you are loyal to and make very detailed and scarily accurate assumptions about each individual. This information is mostly packaged and sold to advertisers, marketers and even financial services companies who are quite likely to be making credit card and loan approvals based on these assumptions, which includes the credit worthiness of an individual. Even though financial companies claim that they are not using this information to profile or reject people for loans, but to better target their products and services. Marketers and retailers say they are able to more effectively do the same. I know from working on websites for various clients that we served up the landing page of a site by recognizing who you are, but this was non-intrusive and based on your visit and purchase history, and limited to your secure activity on that site (and with your consent). It was never based on your general surfing history or activity outside that particular website. The promise of this technology was individual customization; however, what I am now describing goes far deeper and uses information far beyond the reach and remit of one particular web merchant. For example “If we've identified a visitor as a midlife-crisis male," says Demdex CEO Randy Nicolau, a client, such as an auto retailer, can "give him a different experience than a young mother with a new family." The guy sees a red convertible, the mom a minivan.” (Wall Street Journal article: http://bit.ly/96MiWX).

I understand that the world we live in today is very different from the one our parents grew up in, or for that matter even from the one we grew up in. Technology has changed our lives in many ways, and one of the sacrifices of convenience and the instant gratification which we all seem to yearn, is our privacy. For us to not have to go through the pain of initiation and identification each time we land on a webpage, to shop or consume news, or read recipes means each site needs to remember who we are and what our preferences are. In simple terms it means that each time I go to read news I will not have to specify my geography for the edition I want or have to re-enter my credit card or shipping address each time I shop at my favourite online store. All this is reasonable to me and I am sure to most people, and more importantly we are able make this choice. You can, for instance, delete cookies after each internet session, and voila, the same site will treat you like a first time visitor until you sign in to your password protected account. However, in this new world, the majority of time we are not told, or even aware of, who is tracking and monitoring our surfing activity or how much of it is being watched, stored, analyzed and then sold to a third party. Many young people today seem to feel that privacy is an old-fashioned notion for an old-fashioned generation; I completely disagree, but that is a matter for another blog. If someone wants to share his or her life’s every waking moment, from brushing their teeth in the morning to crying themselves to sleep at night and everything in-between, then all the power to them (suffice it to say, I will never accept you as a ‘friend’ or quickly ‘un-friend’ you) but that is your choice and mine. Taking away my privacy or invading it without my knowledge is not acceptable, because I did not volunteer to give it up. This is where I have a fundamental issue with this new practice, and the laws that govern our privacy are hopelessly outdated for this new digital world. So for all those people who believed the internet was the last and greatest bastion of anonymity - simply put, you’re no longer a random IP address.

I encourage you to read the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article and series I cited above, on Internet privacy. Below I am listing sites you can visit in order to Opt-Out from being tracked and a link to download Privacy Choice, a WSJ vetted software, which tells you who is watching you on every site you visit (the company that provides the software does not track or monitor you). While these are things you can do to take greater control of your privacy, you should keep in mind that all of this is based on companies that voluntarily disclose their tracking tools, and are members of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a body formed to create greater transparency and protect our online privacy. Many of the companies tracking us are not members of NAI and do not disclose their tracking tools, only the big and reputable companies do.

List of sites to Opt-Out:


Privacy Choice: the website offering FREE software tool that allows you to see who is tracking you on each site you visit: http://www.privacychoice.org/trackerwatcher/download

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque: America, Land of the Free?

“I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.”
Abraham Lincoln

I am a New Yorker and my city was attacked on September 11, 2001. The day after 9/11 I was 2 blocks from Ground Zero from 9am to 9pm doing water runs for the firemen, policemen and other Emergency service men and women working to find survivors and removing bodies from Ground Zero. I ran up and down those streets all day long collecting and passing out bottles of water donated by companies, stores and ordinary people. I was not alone. There were many others like me who volunteered because they needed and wanted to do something to help their city in its darkest hour. I still remember the streets lined with people, Buddhists, women, Muslims, children, Jews, Christians, men, Hindus, all standing arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder and cheering every serviceman coming in and out of Ground Zero. They were all New Yorkers who were there to help in any way they could, or simply to provide moral support and show their solidarity. I remember thinking to myself that this is exactly why I always have been and always will be a proud New Yorker. This is also why I had never doubted that our city would not only survive this reprehensible attack but grow stronger from it. We would show the world that terrorists are and will remain nothing more than a repugnant, immoral and cowardly group of men who can never break our will, our spirit, our unity and our sense of human decency. Not with 9/11. Not ever.

It amazes me when politicians continually cite public opinion polls that say almost 70% of New Yorkers do not want the ‘mosque’ built near Ground Zero, as a great reason to stop the project from proceeding. If people always knew what they wanted and leaders always followed the will of the people or what people believed was possible, then women would still not have the right to vote in America, Black people would not be served in restaurants and India would probably still be under British Rule. The timing of this sudden hysteria is also very curious. This project has been openly discussed since a New York Times article disclosed the plans in great detail sometime late last year (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/nyregion/09mosque.html) and it was never raised as an issue by anybody for months after that. However, now that mid-term election fever has taken stride it has suddenly become a huge issue. I also wonder how many of that 70% of New Yorker’s are aware that the location in question already has a prayer hall, with Muslims coming there daily to pray. And that the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” is actually called Parc51 and is meant to be a non-descript building that serves as an inter-faith cultural center with a swimming pool, Performing Arts Theater, gymnasium, classes and yes the same prayer hall that exists today. The inspiration and model for the Islamic cultural center is the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There will be no dome shaped mosque, or minarets with loud speakers, period. It is also worth noting that the site is two and a half blocks from the old World Trade Center location. One cannot even see Ground Zero from it.

That many families of victims of 9/11 are upset and angry is not surprising, given how deep and recent the wounds still are. Almost 3,000 innocent people were murdered that day. It was the first and only large scale attack on American soil, other than Pearl Harbor, and in many ways it shook the foundations of the safety people felt, and caused many American’s to lose their innocence. I did not lose a family member that day, but I did go to every Armory, morgue, and hospital and did spend hours calling victim help lines to search for a family friend’s son from India. He worked in Tower 1 and was missing. So while I cannot claim to understand the feeling of loss I do totally understand the intensity of their feelings, and the emotional frenzy this issue has stirred up among New Yorkers, by fringe groups on both sides. What we decide will be fundamental to what New York City stands for going forward and how we view ourselves and are viewed by the country and the world. It is important that we get this right, and there is a right answer. It is for this reason that we must all start by asking ourselves again who was attacked on that day. We will realise that it was all New Yorkers - Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu and every other religion represented by the 2,752 innocent people working in the two towers. It was democracy and freedom being attacked by a twisted ideology and by manipulated men filled with hatred for all human beings alike (I should state an equal number of victim’s families have come forward in support of the Cordoba Initiative and for building the Parc51 Cultural Center). The next question we should ask is what happened to the solidarity that we showed in the days after those cowardly terrorists attacked our city. And then the only question that remains is how we should proceed in order to do justice to the memory of the victims to ensure that their lives were not lost in vain – to see us all fight and become even more divisive and divided.

The Imam Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan have lived in this neighborhood for many years, and they too are New Yorkers. The Imam worked for the Bush administration, and now Obama's, as an American emissary to Muslim countries. His mission is to encourage them to pursue the same religious and personal freedoms that he is allowed in America. Imam Rauf travels the world telling all Muslims how great and wonderful it is to be American and being a Muslim in America. So instead of fighting them, let us pose a challenge to Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan to make their neighborhood Cultural Center a tribute to the progress we have made in a world where we are often divided by hate and misinformation. To do this we need to lift ourselves above the daily diatribes of politicians seeking another term, candidates seeking a cheap platform for the 2012 Presidential election, and self professed Pundits making a quick buck. We need to challenge our beliefs, dig deeper and get beyond the inflamed rhetoric of manic Muslim clerics, misguided liberal louts and conservative con men. We need to channel all this emotion, anger and feeling into demanding that the people behind Parc51 use this opportunity to make their Cultural Center the most open-minded, inviting, cross-cultural and all-religion-encompassing Islamic destination in the world; a testament to equality and religious freedom that exists in America, that the Imam travels the world touting.

I say we tell them, “Go ahead and build the Islamic Cultural Center but make damn sure that it represents our city, its uniqueness and its greatest strength – that we may be from different parts of the world and believe in different Gods, but each day that we live, work and walk in this city we are one. We are New Yorkers.” And by doing this we shall make it the greatest tribute we can pay to our fellow New Yorkers, who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Crying Games

UPDATES:
Wall Street Journal: "Games Open on Winning Note"
Times of India: "Games Village is best ever in history of CWG - Fennel"
BBC: "Games Begin with a Spectacular Opening Ceremony"


"I am delighted in a way because rains are causing difficulties for the Commonwealth Games. Basically, I will be very unhappy, if the Games are successful…"
Mani Shankar Aiyer

At first glance I felt outrage at the words of this Indian politician and Rajya Sabha MP. How could he make such an unpatriotic statement, I thought to myself, it really is shameful, disgusting and an embarrassment to our country who is about to host the Commonwealth Games (CWG) later this year. Even though his justification for the statement and his stance has to do with the fact that he believes that the money could have been put to better use to provide basic public facilities and infrastructure for the country instead of these “circuses” as he put it. A noble thought on some level but to actively want your country to fail when hosting such a large and prestigious International event, still made me feel like it was an inexcusable sentiment. However in the days that followed and with the ever increasing media coverage of the lack of preparedness, missing paperwork, unaccounted for public funds, forged email orders and nonsensical contracts all to support the now whopping Rs, 11,000 crore budget which is a 1,328% increase over the initial estimate of Rs. 770 crore – I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Aiyer and have joined the camp that hopes that these games are a total, utter and miserable failure and the greatest embarrassment to our 64 years of Independence.

Even before all this financial impropriety started to come to light, the continued reports of lack of preparedness and standards of the facilities managed to scare the Queen away, who for the first time in forty-four years will be missing the opening of the CWG, due to a “heavy workload.” In addition a number of Britain’s top athletes have also decided to skip the games in order to focus on the 2012 Olympics in London. Should we take personal affront to this or perhaps they have just been following the same media reports I have been reading on Delhi’s readiness for the games. Perhaps, the report about the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Swimming Complex that was inaugurated on 18th July but a week later was spotted with water seeping along its walls and a leaking roof after some heavy drizzle. And these incidents were followed by an Indian athlete getting injured while training in the Olympic-sized pool. Or maybe it was the one about yet another completed venue that sprung a leak. This time it was the cycling velodrome at Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, where the roof also apparently started leaking after some rain showers. However, a senior official did confirm that the leak was “not serious and repaired promptly.” But can he keep up I wonder as the next report covered the “extensive leakage” at the Yamuna Sports Complex when rainwater accumulated in the false ceiling causing the ceiling to collapse. Incidentally, this games complex had been officially inaugurated on 29th June. Although, I can tell you that games officials confirmed there was no damage to the wooden flooring – hallelujah! Then there are the other venues like the Karni Shooting range which look like construction war zones with ‘kuccha’ tracks, piles of brick and loose stone lying around, blotches of paint in some places, massive holes in the ground and no approach roads but claiming they will be ready and fully functioning even though there are less than 70 days to the start of the games. Then again if they are anything like the stadia already inaugurated then arguably this too will be completed and ready for use ahead of schedule. Oh did I mention that the original budget for this range also crept up from the original estimated Rs. 16 crore to Rs. 149 crore. Keep in mind that according to International guidelines all CWG projects were meant to be completed by May 2009 with the following year meant to be used for trial runs and making needed adjustments.

If all this is not enough to scare the Queen and every athlete, now we have new reports surfacing everyday about the depth and breadth of corruption and financial impropriety on a hitherto unimaginable scale, even for India. The Central Vigilance Commission is now investigating 16 projects and this number is expected to rise much further as reports continue to surface of favoritism in selection, bidders being allowed to tamper with figures post-auction, use of sub-standard material, rigging of bids, gold plating and go-ahead of projects which were not even required. In random concrete samples used to test for strength, the CVC technical teams found that large numbers failed to meet the basic 28 day strength requirement. When tested at an independent laboratory they found that the cement content was much less than the prescribed or claimed amount used by the contractors. Mind you these samples were also tested and passed by the Government Civic agency in charge. In other words they fabricated these reports and findings. One of my favourite findings by the media has to do with treadmills that have been hired for the duration of the games, which not only shows the ridiculous depths our politician greed will sink them to but also their brazenness. Harrods of London sells state-of-the-art machines for £10,000 or Rs. 7 lakh. But our CWG games organizing committee in all its corrupt wisdom has decided to hire treadmills for 45 days, which means they will just rent and return them, for Rs, 9,75,000 or £13,301 a piece! If you are still reeling from the shock then consider that Mr. Suresh Kalmadi (Chairman of CWG Panel) and his committee are also hiring chairs, no doubt to sit and watch the people on these treadmills, for Rs, 8,378 apiece. After which you can cool off with a cold drink of water from one of the refrigerators they have hired for Rs. 42,202 apiece.(Times of India article: http://bit.ly/bKTGl5)

China’s Olympic bid and hosting was treated by the nation as her entry onto the world stage. An announcement that China was ready to be a global superpower. One that has the infrastructure and ability to organize, manage, host and deliver on such a massive scale for such a prestigious world event. Granted China is a totalitarian regime and getting things done there is much simpler and easier than in a democracy. Basically, the Chinese government decided what it needed to do to successfully stage the games, and went ahead and did it. Even if it meant driving people from their homes or shutting down private businesses for the lead up to and duration of the Olympics. One can cut India some slack here as with democracies one has to deal with environmental groups, citizens protests and the slow pace of government bureaucracy. But let’s then consider South Africa hosting the recent Football World Cup. By all accounts the progress and lead up was frenzied, with major delays and budget overruns. FIFA officials wondered for a long time if the nation would ever be ready or if the rampant crime and institutionalized corruption would lead to a disappointing World Cup. For the sake of national pride, South Africans managed to pull together, put aside their many differences and deliver despite corrupt government officials and institutions. I read that the local criminal gangs even agreed to an unwritten amnesty for the duration of the games. Not only did South Africa deliver but they surpassed every expectation, winning over even their harshest critics, who left showering praise on the state-of-the-art facilities, the impeccable organization, the lack of serious crime and the warm reception. They did their nation and their continent proud and they did it against all the odds as a nascent 16 year old democracy.

Today is Independence Day, our 64th year as a free nation. Don’t get me wrong. I love my country, and perhaps it is this patriotic fervor that brings me to agree with Mr. Shankar Aiyer; albeit with a heavy heart and a sense of shame. All the eyes of the world are upon us, to see if too India can deliver an event of this magnitude and prestige. From India’s perspective the stakes are also high, as we try to get serious recognition on the world stage as a regional and global power. Failure will no doubt leave us the spectacle and laughing stock of the world. But failure will perhaps, just perhaps also be the bitter pill we all need to swallow to awaken our national spirit and finally stir our sense of patriotic duty.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Israel & Palestine: After Mavi Marmara

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
Mahatma Gandhi

Indians and Israelis have long felt a strong kinship with each other. Perhaps it has partly to do with both nations celebrating their birth and freedom from British rule barely 6 months apart. Or that both peoples have been invaded, persecuted and ruled by foreigners, and both share a rich history of culture and civilization dating back many centuries. In fact, a 2009 extensive International Study called "Branding Israel" done by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, looked at 13 countries (considered to be important in the world, including US, India, Canada, Great Britain, France, China and Russia), the greatest level of sympathy towards Israel was found in India. People always talk about the United States’ unconditional support and pro Israeli bias, but amazingly 58% of Indians showed sympathy to the Jewish State, with the United States coming in second. This kinship is also evident in our countries military and trade relations, with India being Israel’s second largest military and economic partner, after the US and Russia respectively. Even more fascinating is that the Bnei Menashe (“Children of Manasseh”) is a group of more than 9,000 people from the North East of India who claim descendant from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Their oral history, passed down 2,700 years, charts their escape from slavery in Assyria and journey to Persia. They travelled through Afghanistan toward the Hindu-Kush and proceeded to Tibet, then to Kaifeng, reaching the Chinese city around 240 B.C.E. During their years there, large numbers of the Israelites were killed and once again enslaved and persecuted. From here they pressed on to India where they were welcomed and stayed for the next few centuries (Source: Wikipedia). Today many are starting to learn and practice Judaism again and a few hundred have also relocated to Israel. I am told that Hindi movies are hugely popular in Israel, even played on prime time television. So India too, much like the US, has historically had a pro-Israel default position in every situation regarding Palestine. However, when Israeli Commandos recently raided a Turkish flotilla killing 9 people, India for the first time was openly critical of Israel’s actions. India’s stance made me wonder how things have gone so horribly wrong, for in the last decade things seems to have gotten much worse between Israelis and Palestinians, and now it feels like there is not even an inkling of light at the end of this tunnel. To my mind this is directly a result of a severe dearth of leadership on both sides.


What Mahatma Gandhi realised was that Indians could not defeat the might of the British Empire on the battlefield or through freedom fighter’s tactics, as we called them, used to disrupt the Empire in small ways through bombs blasts and using small arms. He knew that the only way to defeat the British was to take the higher ground, to boycott their products, their rule and their way of life - much like Mandella who followed Gandhian principles decades later to unshackle South Africa from the chains of Apartheid and even Martin Luther King Jr. who followed Gandhi’s principles to fight for civil rights in America. All these men understood that freedom can only be won by stirring the masses and waking within them a sense of patriotism, pride and conviction that is not hindered by the thought of losing one’s life – it has to be more precious and worth more than the fear we feel in the absence of it. This is something no leader has stirred within the Palestinian people until now. There is a small and growing movement stirring within the West Bank, where men who once wore masks and carried guns are joining unarmed protest marches, goods produced in Israeli settlements are being burned in defiance and the Palestinian Prime Minister is visiting areas officially off limits to him and his people to plant trees to declare the land a part of a future state, according to a New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/07/world/middleeast/07westbank.html).  It is an extremely powerful way to empower the ordinary citizen, the majority of whom do not agree with the violent path their leaders have lead them on, a path that has seen no results after decades. In the last few months Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, visited and joined a protest march and Martin Luther King III is scheduled to speak at a conference on nonviolence. It is still far from what can be called a mass movement, but it feels like Palestinians are realizing that violence and hard-nosed diplomacy have gotten them nowhere and that perhaps another approach is necessary to break this endless deadlock.

In recent times it feels like Israel in particular has lost its once strong leadership and the actions of the men and women who now govern her seem increasingly desperate, and more poorly thought out than ever before. From the war with Lebanon, to the current blockade of Gaza and the most recent botched Commando raid, Israel has not only not managed to accomplish the goals she stated at the outset of these operations but also seems to be rapidly losing the much more costly moral high ground and public opinion. In the most recent incident, where 9 civilians carrying humanitarian aid were killed, it is hard not to see Israel as the bad guy. To make a case for self-defense for highly trained Commandoes (arguably among the best in the world) facing a group of men armed with chairs, clubs and sticks – hardly the makings of an armed and trained terrorist unit – is a tough one. At least in the court of global public opinion. Granted the Palestinians have not stopped their attacks on Israelis as the peace roadmap states, but Israel too has not held its end of the agreement, to dismantle illegal outposts and not build any new ones. By building a fence and walling in the Palestinians, Israel is only succeeding in cutting them off from their land, means of economic survival and livelihood which will in all probability have the opposite effect it intended. By creating more hunger, poverty, unemployment, and lack of education and opportunity, it will serve to make the next generation of Palestinians even more desperate. If you cage people like animals long enough, one day they will behave like animals.

Ultimately, somebody will need to take the higher ground for there to be any resolution and lasting peace for both peoples. It feels to me like the Turkish flotilla incident is a real chance for Israel’s leadership to reset course. To change their tactics, their policies and take the higher ground to forge a new peace agreement with the Fatah backed Palestinian government. If they can do this to create a two-state solution which brings peace and economic prosperity to the West Bank, its economy and people, then Hamas will be totally isolated and the people of Gaza less likely to support them and their failed policies – forcing Hamas to come to the negotiating table on Israel’s terms. But if Israel continues to flounder and the peaceful moment within the Palestinians begins to take real and meaningful root and, much like Gandhi’s famous salt march to Dandi, we see start to see widespread civil disobedience with unarmed Palestinian women creating roadside blockades, protests and showing peaceful defiance against armed Israeli soldiers and there is even one drop of bloodshed in this situation – then it will be hard for India and America to continue defending Israel, and for the world not to see Israel as the bad guy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bhopal to BP: A Stark Contrast

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
Thomas Jefferson

People in America are seething with discontent about their President’s handling of the immediate aftermath of the BP rig explosion and oil spill. They feel he has not done all he could and that the Federal government has dragged its feet, not putting the full weight of their resources behind fixing the problem. Many Republicans even believe the government should have taken over the cleanup effort, even though the government does not have the necessary equipment, expertise or means to cap a deep water oil well break. Obama’s popularity has taken a huge beating as a result of this discontent around the country. There has also been growing resentment to his constantly cool and calm demeanor. That he never shows emotion and certainly never seems to fume or display any indignation or rage. Ironically, it was this same trait that catapulted him into a lead in many minds over John McCain during the financial crisis in 2008. However you feel about his personal handling of the response, what cannot be debated is that from the outset he has held British Petroleum fully accountable for the entire disaster and for all the ensuing damage, stretching even the most generous legal definitions of liability for foreign companies operating on US soil. He has made them liable, not only for all costs incurred by the Federal government for the cleanup operation, but also for lost wages of fisherman, riggers and small business owners in affected town. Somehow he even got BP to pony up $25 million for the State of Florida to invest in advertising to re-assure tourists that Florida beaches remain unaffected, open and safe. All this in addition to coaxing BP into putting a down payment of $20 billion into an account administered by a government-appointed third party, which will enable them to process and pay claims in a more expedient manner. And during all of this he managed to help the BP board see the wisdom in not issuing any further dividends to shareholders for the remainder of 2010. Whether you are satisfied with his administration’s sense of urgency and speed of response or not, I think it is fair to say that he has been single-mindedly focused on protecting his citizen’s well-being and livelihoods by ensuring that the blame and liability rests firmly with this foreign company and that taxpayers will not be the ones to bear the burden of this catastrophe.

Now contrast this with the Indian government’s response to the greatest industrial disaster the world has ever seen by an American company called Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) which operated a majority owned chemical plant in the city of Bhopal, India. One fateful night in December 1984 the plant leaked toxic gas engulfing the city of Bhopal and its environs, exposing some 500,000 people to lethal and poisonous gas. Government estimates indicate that 8,000 people died within the first week. Another 8,000 people died since from gas related causes. Some 5,000 women were widowed. The gas exposure is also blamed for birth defects ranging from minor to very severe disabilities for the next two generations and is still causing unusually high clusters of cancer and other diseases in the families of the exposed. Today, 390 tons of toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant, never cleaned up by UCIL or the Indian government is said to continue to leak and pollute the groundwater in the region and affect thousands of Bhopal residents who depend on it. In 1985 the Indian government filed a suit in US court for damages worth $3.3 billion. In February 1989 the Indian government, led by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, agreed to an out of court settlement with Union Carbide for a paltry $470 million - approximately 14% of their original claim. To add insult to injury, the then Chief Executive of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, was arrested in 1985 and released on bail on a visit to India. He fled the country, and while still considered an absconder, has since retired and lives a lavish life in the exclusive Hamptons community on New York’s Long Island. “Greenpeace asserts that as the Union Carbide CEO, Anderson knew about a 1982 safety audit of the Bhopal plant, which identified 30 major hazards and that they were not fixed in Bhopal but were fixed at the company's identical plant in the US” (Wikipedia).

Twenty-six years after the tragedy India’s Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the world’s greatest industrial disaster. The Supreme Court is punishing the 7 of the 8 living Union Carbide board members with a 2 year prison sentence, which can be appealed. The culpable homicide charge was effectively reduced to a charge usually used for reckless driving cases. After a wait of a quarter century this is the justice the tens of thousands of victims of Bhopal received. This is the only justice the President, Prime Minister and government has been able to deliver to their citizens. And it seems the perpetrators will continue to go unpunished even as the people of Bhopal continue to suffer the consequences of their negligence. Dow Chemicals, the company which acquired UCIL, has repeatedly stated it accepts no responsibility for this “tragic accident” and recently also retracted a 2002 statement by DOW’s PR Head saying the US$500 compensation per victim was "plenty good for an Indian.” Curiously though, Times of India found Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings from February 2010, where DOW has disclosed that it has taken on all liability for Carbide lawsuits in the US dating back to 1977 (Bhopal happened in 1984), and expects to pay a further $839 million in the coming years to settle these. Carbide became a subsidiary of Dow through a merger in 2001 (‘Bhopal gas tragedy: Dow's double standards exposed’ – Times of India).

Based on a unanimous public outcry the Indian government is now pushing through new measures that include increased compensation for victims, and a renewed effort to extradite the 90 year old Warren Anderson  (an extradition request by India in 2003 was turned down by the US government) along with a pledge to clean up the abandoned UCIL factory. While Dow’s poorly worded statement above says it all, there is another and bigger issue at stake here that goes beyond corporate responsibility and companies doing the right thing in such extreme and tragic situations. It has to do with the weak response and seeming lack of muscle of the Indian government. As India continues to pride its steady advance onto the global stage as an economic and military powerhouse, the government continues to show its impotence when it comes to protecting its own citizens. Victims groups claim that the Indian government did not want to create a hostile climate for foreign companies and foreign direct investment and thus cushioned much of its actions against Union Carbide and DOW Chemicals. I hope this is not true because a government, who does not use every means possible to first and foremost protect its own people, has no business playing on the global stage or calling itself a Superpower.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

British Airways: Part Deux

NOTE: One month after I sent my letter to British Airways CEO, Willie Walsh, (Open Letter to Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways), I got a response from their Head of Refunds for North America. They offered me two options. Option 1: a refund “in accordance with standard industry procedures and British Airways policy” for reimbursement to the original form of payment used to purchase the tickets (of course both of the credit cards I used are no longer valid). Option 2: a voucher for the same value to be used for future travel on British Airways.

Below is my response dated 10th May. I have received no refund from BA at the time of posting this blog.

Dear Mr. X,

Thank you for your correspondence.

Please note that the credit card you refer to, ending XXX, for Passenger: ONE. & Ticket number: xxx-xxxx is incorrect. The ticket was purchased on card ending XXX.

As there is no legal requirement for a company to only provide credit back to a customer via the original form of payment used to make the purchase, I fail to see why it is a problem to simply issue me a 100% refund by cheque, and especially since it is now more than five years late. And I am sure you will understand when I say that I am not in a hurry to fly BA again, so a BA travel voucher is not really acceptable. However, given my arduous journey to seek closure on this matter, I am sure you will make an adjustment to your policy in this matter and fulfill my request for full reimbursement/refund for both tickets: xxxx-xxx/xxxx-xxx to my above credit card ending XXX, where one of the two tickets was originally purchased. This seems to me a good and fair compromise given my request for a cheque and your airline’s seemingly inflexible policy.

I look forward to your confirmation of the above, and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you require any further details in order to provide this refund ASAP.

I appreciate your help in this matter.

Sincerely,

Mr. Vaish



BA RESPONSE:

Dear Mr. Vaish,

We are in receipt of your refund request in our refunds department regarding the above mentioned tickets.


Option 1:
In accordance with standard industry procedures and British Airways policy, reimbursement can be made only to the original form of payment used to purchase the tickets; hence a refund would be processed to your credit credit card ending in XXX for ticket xxx-xxxx and to Visa card ending in XXX for ticket xxx-xxxx.

Option 2:
The value of this ticket can be applied towards future travel on British Airways. Subject to the rules and conditions of the fare, additional charges may apply. A voucher would be issued which could be used as a partial payment towards future travel on British Airways only.

Please forward a written confirmation of the option you would like to utilize at the address mentioned below. Upon receipt we will reopen our case and take further action.

British Airways assures you of our best attention at all times.

Sincerely yours,
Mr. X


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Enemy in Our Midst

“Fighting terrorism is like being a goalkeeper. You can make a hundred brilliant saves but the only shot that people remember is the one that gets past you.”
Paul Wilkinson

While the Republicans and Democrats continue to expend time and energy fighting and arguing about what to call terrorists. And Conservatives blame misguided left wing political correctness for using soft terminology and for lack of profiling, the world and the profile of the Extremist is being totally re-defined with every new homegrown terrorist being caught in America and abroad. It is becoming increasingly and frighteningly clear that our old rules, profiles and profiling definitions no longer apply. The terrorists are now recruiting and succeeding in creating a totally new breed of monster: people who are virtually impossible to sniff out or detect, most times until they actually commit an act of terror.

In the last year alone, all the men (and a few women) who have been arrested in the act of committing an act of terror, planning one or are already trained and hardened members of Al-Qaeda - not one of them fits the old profile of disenfranchised, poor, uneducated, Muslim and non-American.
Omar Hammami, was born to a white Southern Baptist woman from Alabama and a Syrian immigrant father. He had the most normal middle class childhood and upbringing in Daphne, Alabama until he showed up in a Somalia Al-Qaeda terrorist propaganda video one day with his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, “the American” (The Jihadist Next Door - New York Times). Bryant Neal Vinas was an altar boy who grew up in a middle class suburb on Long Island, New York, with a passion for baseball and the Mets. His father is from Peru and his mother Argentinean. Vinas was arrested last year in Afghanistan and confessed to being trained and assisting Al-Qaeda in a plan to bomb the Long Island Rail Road. Friends describe Vinas as a sweet, charming, young boy with a kind heart, who was perhaps a little gullible. David Coleman Headley has a wealthy former Pakistani diplomat for a father and a white American Pittsburgh socialite mother. By all accounts he had a very privileged childhood. He lived with his father in Pakistan until the age of 17, when he arrived in the United States to live with his mother. In 1998 he was convicted of smuggling heroin into the US. As part of a deal for a lighter sentence, he agreed to work undercover for the Drug Enforcement Agency, which gave him unfettered access to Pakistan, India and the United States. It is now clear he was training with Lashkar, raising the possibility that he had made contact with militants while still working for the DEA. He has admitted to helping plot the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Bombay, in 2008. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, better known as the underwear bomber, is the son of a former minister and chairman of First Bank of Nigeria. He lived in a four million dollar apartment in Central London, and was an Engineering student at a prestigious London University. His teacher and friends remember him as model pupil and “very personable boy". Faisal Shahzad, the terrorist who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square is the son of a former Air Force vice marshal and Deputy Director of Civil Aviation in Pakistan. Shazad graduated from the University of Bridgeport, came back to earn a Master’s in the same school, and was working with a marketing and consulting firm as a junior financial analyst. He became a US citizen in 2009 and married a Colorado-born girl with Pakistani parents. They have two children. He is the epitome of the “average student, employee, and neighbour” that litters the suburban American landscape today.

The list goes on, but what is most alarming to me about all of these men is that they have only one thing in common. Not one of them fits into any of our pre-defined categories or profiles that have been established and used by law enforcement for more than two decades for the hard core
Jihadist. Yet to consider them anything less would be a foolish mistake. After 9/11 we were all painted a picture of the poverty-stricken, opportunity-less, uneducated Muslim male as the person we should fear most to be a likely terrorist. We were told that these men could be found in poorer cities and villages in Muslim countries. And we were led to believe that the focus was on preventing these men from penetrating our borders, not that they already reside within them. Or the fact they are from upper or upper middle class backgrounds, clean cut, born and bred American and some even non-Muslim. So what the hell happened and how did our governments get it so totally wrong? “There's clearly been an acceleration in radicalization in the United States," said Mitch Silber, the director of intelligence analysis at the New York Police Department. He says that Bryant Neal Vinas and many of these men are “poster children for the process, the unremarkable nature of the people who might go through this process and the potential to link up with al Qaeda and the danger that it presents" (‘The radicalization of an all-American kid’ - CNN). Clearly, the internet has made it much easier for people to access and find Al-Qaeda or radicals around the world and more frighteningly the reverse is also true. There was a long held belief that integration and assimilation of the population was not an issue in the United States as it has been in Europe, but that myth, too, has been shattered by among others the Fort Hood shooter and the Times Square bomber. What is clear is that we are witnessing a totally new phenomenon and one that has caught International law enforcement by surprise. But what is far more frightening to me is that it is seemingly impossible to find a common thread between all of these men or a common motivation to profile them in any meaningful way. Without an understanding of their motivations or the turning or tipping point as it may be, we are totally defenseless to identify these men or track them down until after they have shown the demon within them, which most often is too late.

I leave you to ponder the words of author Michael Marshall from his book, Blood of Angels:
“Terrorism isn't James Bond or Tom Clancy. Even Al-Qaeda is looking old school these days---now it's just some guy with a bomb. He walks the same roads as us. He thinks the same thoughts. But he's got a bomb.”

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Open Letter to Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Dear Mr. Walsh,

I felt compelled to write to you one last time as I believe there is a dire need to remind you of your words from British Airways 2009 Annual Report, as your airline’s customer service continues to sink to new and hitherto unimaginable lows. “We will not let this crisis compromise our long-term goal – to create a world-leading global premium airline with a reputation for being the very best at meeting its customers’ needs.” Everybody makes mistakes but your staff’s attitude and lack of care, concern and pure arrogance after the poor experience we had is abhorrent and led me to make the decision never to fly BA again. However, BA again started courting me for my business a few months ago through numerous emails, letters and offers promising a new and vastly improved customer service and experience. It was this promise to woo back the countless customers’ it has no doubt lost over the last few years that prompted me to make one last effort to resolve the matter.

Once again I have had no joy from your Customer Service department. I corresponded via your website’s customer complaint mechanism, and initially Mr. B, from BA Customer Relations (as in 2006) sent me a response and then again there was complete silence when it came to actually resolving my issues. And this upon my supplying both clarification of the facts, and the supporting documents he requested; boarding cards and credit card statement, with e-ticket#, as proof of purchase (Fax dated: 2/2/2010).

In short, I never received what Mr. B himself promised me by way of apology in 2006, mileage credit to my wife’s account, nor did I get the refund/partial credit owed me from travel completed in 2005.

In summary our experience in 2005 is as follows: my wife and I were travelling New York-London-Dubai-London-New York with one full fare Business Class and one Premium Economy ticket. BA messed up our reservations causing us to miss our flight out of NY, then promised to upgrade my wife from London to Dubai, as there was no extra seat available in Business on the next flight, nor was my pre-booked aisle seat that I had on the original flight; so I too downgraded to economy from NY-London (and was promised a refund of the fare difference, which I was told would be automatically credited to my credit card within 60-90 days). Then your staff in London refused to honour the upgrade promise made to us by your staff in New York. Upon my seeking assistance from your London staff and getting the run around, frustrated, I finally asked who I needed to speak with in BA to help me, I was told, and I quote: “there is nobody in this airline that can help you.”

Sadly and truthfully, my expectation for resolution at this stage is virtually zero from both you and your airline, but I feel that in the end it is unhappy customers like me remaining silent that allow companies like British Airways to continue charging high premiums, while delivering subpar quality and service. Most importantly, our silence allows you to continue to treat your customers like cattle and take our business for granted. So consider this my way to stop turning my head and looking the other way, allowing companies like yours to continue the pursuit of profits at the expense of customers and everything else that matters. With this open letter, I am going to make every effort to ensure that the world is made aware of our less than poor experience and encouraged to do the same, through my personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter and all the various public and travel forums and discussions I actively participate in.

In my opinion British Airways, over the last decade has squandered its well earned reputation as “The World’s Favourite Airline” and become the “World’s Worst Airline,” and this from a customer who for years remained steadfastly loyal to your airline in the face of increased and better competitive options becoming available.


Sincerely,

Mr. Vaish

NOTE posted on 4th December 2010: I got a response from BA one month after sending this letter, and responded (http://bit.ly/cUp7HA) and of course have heard nothing back.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Up In Smoke

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Winston Churchill

There are things that are really and truly hard to give up, and then there is quitting smoking. Without a doubt the hardest thing I have done in my life. This post chronicles my journey and offers to serve as a pat on my back. I feel I deserve one, for kicking a habit that experts say is harder to kick than heroin addiction. That, in my book, deserves a self-congratulatory blog post. That said, this post is also dedicated to all those people who are trying, have tried or want to try to quit smoking. And before you get any ideas, I want to be clear at the outset that my intention is not to encourage anyone to quit smoking. I am not one of those irritating born again ex-smoker zealots who goes around preaching the health benefits of being smoke free. Or, worse yet, someone who feels compelled to shove down your throat the ills of smoking, at every opportunity they get. For those people who have absolutely no desire to kick the habit, I say, “smoke on, and let the nicotine flow!” However, to those who have not yet tried it, I will say don’t ever – the early joys are not worth the price you pay later in life, and I have witnessed this first hand.

I started smoking when I was fifteen years old for two simple reasons. First, it made my Bacardi and coke taste better and second, all the girls in school that I wanted to hang out with liked to hang out with boys who smoked. Of course, it helped that in those days you could smoke on the London Underground platform (no joke), buses, movie theaters and pretty much anywhere you could find a light. And more than anything else I actually enjoyed every drag of my cigarette, to the point that after the first month I no longer cared about looking cool anymore. I guess I was hooked to the physical addiction and this went far beyond the social ritual that came along with the cigarettes. For the next twenty-one years I enjoyed every moment of it, so much so, that people routinely told me that I looked like I was born to smoke because I appeared so happy and natural doing it. I realise this should not make me feel proud, but I did. I was never one of those people who ever wanted to or tried to quit smoking. Actually, I read somewhere in my teens that if you quit around the age of thirty-five, you can stop, and sometimes even reverse, the damage to your lungs. Whether it was true or not did not really matter, it was good enough for me. Besides at the age of sixteen, the word thirty not only felt like a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away, but also a few lifetimes away. So my decision was made; I would live life to the fullest, smoking, drinking and doing everything else my heart desired until my mid-thirties.

There was one time in college that I did quit smoking. It was based on a challenge issued by someone who did not believe my little theory, and more importantly found totally incredulous the fact that I believed I would simply be able to drop such a powerful addiction at a time of my choosing. Now, you should also know that I was no longer a causal smoker by this stage (Mom, please don’t read the rest of this paragraph.). I was smoking more than one pack a day at the time. Crazy, I know, but easy to do when you are partying 24 hours a day, and living on 1-2 hours sleep a night. Not being one to back down from a good challenge, especially one that entailed testing my will power; I not only offered to quit smoking for two months but also threw in the added difficulty of doing it during the most stressful time known to a student – end of semester exams. That same day I finished my open pack and started my two-month long tribulation against all the odds. I will not say it was easy but luckily for me I had a few things working in my favour. I am a Leo, love winning, and had been smoking for a short five years. I even carried my trusty Zippo around with me for the entire time, lighting everyone else’s cigarette and anything else I could find. The two months passed and I had won with relative ease, much to the chagrin of my challenger and the delight of my friends. As I celebrated my victory by getting ready to sample the pleasures of my first post challenge cigarette, my girlfriend at the time asked me the most ludicrous question – “Since you quit for two months, and at a time you most needed your addiction, why not just stop smoking altogether?” Women.

Fast forward to August 2006, I had been smoking for a grand total of twenty-one years (with only that two month break), and found myself suddenly staring my thirty-sixth birthday in the face, and showing little sign of being able to quit. My wife was one of the people who was in on my little plan of quitting ‘around the age of thirty-five’ and was also beginning to doubt I ever would be able to kick this habit. Turns out she was not the only one; my Doctor, my mother and my entire trusty friend circle seemed to have serious doubts, I realised, when they all began to suggest taking a new miracle drug called Chantix to fulfill my self professed promise. As much as I hate getting help from anyone, I am even more skeptical of brain altering drugs. I believe that if you want to do something, you have to make up your mind and just do it. For me this is the only real and lasting way and failure is also not an option for a Leo. So I decided to move to plan B. I knew I wanted to and had even made up my mind to do it, so the only thing that remained was finding a way to wean my body off the physical nicotine addiction, without the aid of drugs or patches. So I turned it into a challenge to myself and decided to find out what the most basic amount of nicotine my body needed to survive was. I started by cutting down the number of daily cigarettes, from 20 to 10 over a period of three months. At 10 I was doing perfectly fine with no crazy cravings. So I moved it to the next level and decided to smoke only when I was really, really dying to have one. As it turns out, my cravings that I could not live without were satisfied by 4 cigarettes a day; two in the morning, one after lunch and one after dinner. That was it. Just 4 measly cigarettes a day; I knew I could beat my addiction and have been completely (not even a drag) smoke free since 7th June 2007.