The security check at airports is a bottleneck that is what I think of as a “daily dysfunction.” It occurs multiple times daily. Everyone around knows about it, but no one wants to do anything about it, because the buck stops somewhere else.
The metal detector that we walk through – the information emanated by it (a beep or lack of a beep) is entirely ignored by the security person who waves his wand across every part of one’s body. Why have the metal detectors then? Even in the US, if the detector doesn’t beep, you are allowed to walk through.
The result of this is that one is penalised for actually coming in early. Late passengers are prioritised through all the checks. As a result, it can take 20-30 minutes in the queues. In addition, many times not all the scanners are pressed into service again creating inordinately long lines. As passengers, all we have to do is to stand and stare.
I have been taking many flights on work of late. While the on-time arrival of flights has improved, many procedures at our airports hark back to a different era or are simply illogical. Of course, everything goes in the name of security so no one will have the courage to make any changes, but that doesn’t make them any more right.
The silly stupidities we go through at airports are probably replicated at many other places. Take for example all the scanners we have installed at malls, hotels and random other places creating an illusion of security. They serve absolutely no purpose – like the question “Are you carrying a satellite phone?” in the customs form at airports.
What is needed is for us to think of how we can make things better. Just because things have been done in a certain way doesn’t mean they have to be that way for the future also.
From the last part of my Binsar vacation series a year ago:
Bali and Binsar capped off a summer of plenty of travel. Pune, Surat, Anand, Nageshwar, Bali, Binsar, Nainital. It was a packed June-July for us.
As I write this a few days later, I cannot but help think of the beauty in India, and how little we know of it. If only we can improve the information about and accessibility to destinations like Binsar, tourism can be a huge revenue generator for us. Indians now want to travel, and for the most part, it is still much easier to travel to Bangkok, Singapore or Bali than it is to travel within the country.
The other thing I loved was vacationing with my parents. It brought back lots of memories from childhood, especially the trip we had made to Kashmir and the frequent ones to Mount Abu. When I went to IIT, these stopped. Now, with Abhishek growing, we have decided to do these trips annually within India.
I was thinking about our past international vacations with Abhishek: 2011 was Bali, 2010 was China (HK, Shenzhen and Shanghai), 2009 was London, 2008 was Singapore, 2007 was Dubai and US East Coast. By age 7, he has already seen a lot more of the world then Bhavana or I did till our 30s. Seeing the world around gives a wider perspective and also shows what we can make India.
Every vacation is a realisation that Abhishek is growing older. My favourite moment of the trip was the two of us waiting outside a store in which Bhavana was shopping. The considerate store managers had put two chairs outside with a tag on them “Man Chair.” I sat in one of them, and he clicked me. That became our shared moment every time Bhavana went into a store. We went around looking for “Man Chairs.”
Abhishek is now so full of questions and memories. His favourite game after we have come back is “Money Changer.” He uses an old cash register and becomes a money changer man! We’ve been playing this every night. In bookshops, he had lots of questions on politics. Some of his simple questions hid behind them a quest for a deeper understanding.
Vacations create lasting memories and experiences. This one was our most diverse and the longest. Until, hopefully, next year.
Our last day of the vacation was in Kuala Lumpur. We began the day visiting the Petronas Towers. It was a Sunday, and all the tours to the top were booked, so we had to be content seeing the malls at the base. We then visited Little India and nearby China Town for some last-minute shopping scan.
KL airport is 62 kms from the city centre. We covered the distance in about 40 minutes. It was a Sunday so there wasn’t much traffic. But there is an elaborate network of expressways that connect the city to the airport. I shudder to think what will happen when our unimaginative planners get around to building the new Mumbai airport near Panvel. The travel to the airport may take longer than the flight out.
Landing in Mumbai reminded me of the distance we have to travel as a nation. A couple flights had arrived at the same time, and there were no trolleys. No one seemed interested in making them available. Worse, even the just arrived passengers had resigned themselves to moving the bags by hand. When our expectations were so low, how will we transform our nation?
I could not help thinking that we, in India, perhaps have better and more scenic places. But the ease of access is just not there. The drives we did to Binsar and Munnar last year were, quite literally, back-breaking. Tourism done right can be a huge revenue generator and jobs creator for India.
On the last day in Sydney, as Bhavana and Abhishek walked around Paddy’s Market, I took the opportunity to walk through some of the streets of Sydney and spend some quiet time in Hyde Park. As I sat on a bench, I could not help thinking that we could have built Mumbai so differently.
There was no logic to having an FSI of 1.33 which stunted our buildings, limited real estate, and created for astronomically high pricing. The spread of short low-rise buildings eliminated public spaces that should have been used for parks and gardens. We did not use the water around to build bridges and eliminate congestion on the roads. We did not use the underground to create subways to speed up transportation.
We didn’t have to look far – just imitate some of the best cities in the world. We didn’t, and the result is all around for us to see in our Indian cities. We should have picked the best practices and learnings from the world when we built India post Independence, but we did not. The sad part is that, for the most part, we are still not learning our lessons.
Day 3 was a tour out to the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge. It took the full day. We also took a river cruise and saw a couple of crocodiles. At the restaurant in the rainforest where we had lunch, a python showed up on the roof, even as we were getting ready to take a walk at the nearby stream. Overall, a day made for nature.
Our final day in Carins was a walk down on the promenade at the Esplanade, looking into some of the shops, and finally packing up for our 3-hour flight back to Sydney.
Cairns is a tourist town in what they call the “wet tropics.” They have done an amazing job – combining the power of two different ecosystems, the reef out at sea, and the rainforest inland. The journeys are very comfortable, and each is an experience to savour. The airport at Cairns makes travel in and out so easy.
Most of our meals were at Marinades, where we got excellent Jain food. Food normally is a bit of a challenge when we travel, but in general, we do manage to find Indian restaurants where we get Jain meals. Breakfast is typically at the hotel, and then we carry sandwiches for lunch when we are out.
I had planned out our four days in Cairns as 3 days of tours, and the last day for general walking around town. This was to be our real sightseeing part of the vacation.
Day 1 was a trip to Kuranda. A 7.5 km cable skytrain takes you over the rainforest into a small village. Return was a 2-hour train ride back on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. The dense rainforest views from the top via the cable car and then all around on the train ride back were simply amazing. In Kuranda, we went to the Butterfly Sanctuary and the Zoo. For Abhishek, the highlight was holding a butterfly and touching a kangaroo. We saw kaolas sleeping and some crocodiles.
Day 2 was a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We took a catarmaran out to a pontoon 50 kms into the sea. The 90—minute ride was tough – the waters were very choppy and the high winds added to the discomfort. We were all feeling extremely seasick by the time we reached. It took an hour or so for us to start feeling normal again.
Abhishek and I weren’t up for snorkeling and scuba diving, even as Bhavana did both. All three of us went on both a semi-submersible and a glass-bottomed boat through which we got a good look at the coral reef. As Bhavana was out in the water, Abhishek and I ‘suntanned’ on the upper deck of the pontoon . The ride back, thanks to the low tide, was very comfortable.
From the last part of my Bali vacation series of a year ago:
For me, Bali was a good break with family. This year, we split our summer vacation into two – Bali for 5 days, and then Binsar in Uttarakhand for 4 days. It is faster to reach Bali from Mumbai then Binsar!
For me, the vacations are the one time in the year I get extended time with Abhishek. And each year, I can see his growing independence. Being a single child, it does get a bit lonely at times when we travel. But he is good at creating props from trains and other toys to create his own imaginary worlds. This time around, there was plenty of CricketAttax we played. Add to that his beyblades and TV. We watched Cars 2 (freshly acquired DVD).
I too got my own time to think and look ahead. Vacations slow down the pace of life. No meetings to worry about. A completely different context. And long stretches of contiguous time. This vacation, the thinking was less on work and more on what we need to do to change India’s political and policy future. The Mumbai blasts were yet another rude awakening. We have to change people’s minds in India and transform the country. How to accomplish this was what I spent time thinking on the beach in Bali.
Over the rest of Sunday and part of Monday, we did our walkabout through Sydney visiting different streets and places. I took some time off for myself and visited a couple bookshops, Dymocks and Kinokuniya, on George Street. I spent quite some time looking at the huge collections – in Business, Political Sciences, Sociology and Literature. I made notes on the books that I wanted to possibly explore later – with Bhavana having put a strict limit on the books that I bought.
As I was browsing through the bookshops, I realised what we are missing in India and online. While Amazon has more titles, the joy of serendipitous discovery is an experience only a big bookshop can offer. Over the years, this was something I had not indulged in. On trips abroad, Abhishek is always around and his patience is limited. In India, the bookshops have limited variety. So, for me, the only solution has been to order books online.
We spent more time on Monday walking around Sydney after taking the monorail from my cousin’s place to the city centre. We had discovered a nice pizza place at the north end of George Street, where we got our pizza without onion and garlic, and so we had lunch there. Abhishek had I spent time looking for toy shops. He developed a fascination for the Sylvanian miniatures – much like Bhavana had a decade ago.
Monday evening, it was time for our 3-hour flight to Cairns.
Next morning, we went to Manly. It is less than an hour’s drive from Sydney. We took off on one of the trails and walked along the beach and through a bit of forest for about 5 kms, and then turned back after lunch at one of the picnic benches en route. The 10+ kms took us about 2.5 hours. Abhishek did the walk without any grumbling. The cool weather was a big help. A promise of an ice cream at the end of the trek was the incentive.
That afternoon, we switched homes to my cousin’s apartment nearby. Abhishek (7 years) found her son (4 years) great company and the two played a lot together. Kids have an ease of making friendships and connections that is so refreshing.
On Sunday, we visited the Powerhouse Museum. It is about science and technology, and beautifully done. We spent a couple hours in there – including some time at a story reading session for children. Museums like these are what we need in India. They capture the past and give a glimpse into the future. More importantly, they spark imagination.
The flight to Sydney via KL is long – a total of about 13+ hours flying time. Some time was spent sleeping, some reading, a little watching the inflight entertainment. We reached a wintry Sydney in the evening. My cousin surprised us by landing up at the airport to pick us up. A short ride and we arrived at my friend’s place – on the 62nd floor of a tower in Central Sydney. The views of Sydney by night were amazing.
The views grew even better as daylight streamed in the next morning from the windows. We took a long walk around Sydney. Hyde Park, Botanical Gardens, Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay, a look at the Harbour Bridge. It was amazing to see the expanse of the Hyde Park and the Botanical Gardens so close to the city centre. Then, we walked down George Street and popped into some of the stores as is always the case with Bhavana and Abhishek. I found a nice bookshop, Ariel, which had a very interesting collection of books.
Post-lunch, we visited Darling Harbour, and spent an hour at the Aquarium. We got a first glimpse of the reef and some sharks. Late afternoon was more walking around George Street. We all quite liked George Street. Not as long as some of the NY streets, and yet has plenty of variety to keep one engaged for a few hours.
Doing research for a trip is now so much easier thanks to the Internet. TripAdvisor was a useful resource, condensing the wisdom of crowds. I also bought a hard copy of Lonely Planet’s Australia guide. Between these two, and a few other sites, I planned out the itinerary. It would be 4 days in Sydney, then 4 days in Cairns, then a day back in Sydney, and then the transit time in KL en route to Mumbai. I had to also ensure maximum weekend time in Sydney so I could spend time with my friends and cousin.
For me, vacations are about spending time with Abhishek. On regular days, it is difficult to get much time. Weekends too are sort of hustle-bustle, and he was a few cousins to play with also. Of late, I have also been travelling on some weekends. My best memories of Abhishek are from vacation to vacation.
Vacations are also when I get a long period of time to think about the year gone by and what to do next. Flights, walks, general free moments combined with a very different context help in spurring the mind into many different directions. The past year was especially interesting because a diversification of activities happened, and so there was plenty to think about.
Our annual vacation this year was in Australia – Sydney and Cairns. It sort-of just happened. We were wondering where to go. A friend said he was going to be in Sydney for a couple months on work, and suggested we could come over. My cousin also lives there, and she too got excited about the prospect of us coming. I had been once to Sydney for a conference almost ten years ago, but had not seen the place at all. So, we decided on Sydney as one place.
The next decision was whether to go to the Gold Coast or look at an alternative. We are not beach people, so we decided to skip it in favour of Cairns. The reef-and-rainforest combo looked interesting. And so that became the second destination.
We took Malaysia Airlines, and so had a forced transit time of 16 hours in Kuala Lumpur and decided to make good use of the time to see a few sights around on our way back.
It has been a year since I bought the Samsung Galaxy II S. This is what I wrote a year ago:
After a couple years of the Nokia E71, I got myself a new mobile – Samsung’s Android phone which sold 3 million worldwide in its first 55 days. It cost Rs 30,500 ($680).
It is a beautiful phone. Quite light, big sharp screen, and quite an intuitive interface. Of course, the Apps are now being downloaded and tried out. I still think the iPhone feels much better from the experience perspective, but Android is now very good. It is a good fight between the two, so the innovations should keep coming.
I intend to keep this as a second phone for some time. With a battery replacement, the Nokia E71 is still quite a reliable talk-and-sms warhorse, and I like its qwerty keypad.
The II S has been working well, and the Nokia has been consigned to the drawers. Somewhat like the fates of the two companies.
A week or so ago , there was a very good article in the New York Times by David Brooks, “The Campus Tsunami.” It talked about online education. And I’m going to read out a small passage, because it’s very important from the perspective that we are thinking through, what we need to do for Indian education for the next 5-25 years. Seeing what changes are happening around , I think are very critical. So I’ll quote and then give closing thoughts.
The most important and paradoxical fact shaping the future of online learning is this: A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.
Online education mostly helps students with Step 1. As Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech has argued, it turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But it also compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies. In an online world, colleges have to think hard about how they are going to take communication, which comes over the Web, and turn it into learning, which is a complex social and emotional process.
How are they going to blend online information with face-to-face discussion, tutoring, debate, coaching, writing and projects? How are they going to build the social capital that leads to vibrant learning communities?
This is what we got to think about. With the investments that are happening, in the next few years , the amount of lectures, array of content available on the internet is going to multiply tremendously. In the past few weeks ago Harvard and MIT announced multi-million dollar investments into putting a lot of their course content online. And we in India can actually benefit from a lot of this. I think the key point which we have to think really is the following. India has an option to radically re-invent education – to meet the needs of our young population. How is it that we can have the will and vision really to make this thing happen . This is the disruption that is happening in education, and we in India can be at the forefront leading it.
A few points about these government funds for education. For primary and secondary education, these funds have to be given as grants. For tertiary education, for higher education, these funds have to be given as loans which have to be repaid once the person is employed.
So the key point here is that government should not be in the business of running schools or colleges. It should not fund schools either. It should fund students. And that will make a big difference. Among all the challenges that India faces, as it seeks to transform itself, perhaps none is more important than education.
To summarise, the 3 key messages which I want to share: a new set of skills are needed for success in our world which is information and internet access. The world is changing and I think the skills that are needed to succeed are going to be a different set of skills going forward, and a wider dimension of skills. Technology is not the answer to problems that are not technological in nature. The government’s primary business should be funding students – not schools.