Guns' Blog

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Airport rage

This article first appeared in Water, No Ice (

When I last counted, I estimated that you have to stand in line 7 different times before you board a plane in India. At the entrance to the airport, baggage scanning line, check-in line, security line, check-your-boarding-pass line, to get on the bus, and finally, to get on the plane.

Over the last few trips, I've noticed a certain hyperaggressiveness among passengers in India.

One of the most egregious experiences I had was on the last trip to India. Very often, when a flight is called, a long line forms in front of the counters to check your boarding pass. And you'll often notice someone sidle up to some meek-looking soul in the line, hoping to be able to slide in, and avoid having to go to the back of the line. Very little makes me see red, but this is unfortunately one of them. And so, I make it a point to call them, and ask them to go to the back of the line, even if they're not trying to slide in in front of me.

So on this particular instance, I was boarding a flight to Mangalore, and a tall twenty-something man stands beside and slightly ahead of me. The line is already 5 or 6 people deep behind me. So look him in the eye and say "Excuse me, I think the end of the line's back there", pointing behind me with my thumb.

Whoa, did that set off a nerve somewhere. He started shouting at me for "acting smart" and being a "villager who seemed to be traveling for the first time", etc., ad nauseaum. So I told him I was surprised that he was being so aggressive about such a small issue. That really set him off - he took a few menacing steps towards me, and I almost reached up and took my glasses off so that they wouldn't shatter when he hit me. Thankfully, it didn't come to that. He then proceeded to bully a small-made guy right behind me to let him stand in line, and shadowed me all the way through the bus ride to the aircraft, glaring at me at every concievable opportunity.

What's driving this? Some of you may say that this is because airline travel in India has become progressively less expensive, and that's brought a whole new stratum of travelers into airports. People who may be traveling for the first time, in some cases, or less familiar with airport procedure. That could be true, but I don't think it adds up.

I’m not at all surprised that people cut lines; I’m surprised they threaten to beat you up when you call them on it. I’ve had Americans break lines, even in India, funnily — when you tell them that the back of the line’s behind you, they apologize and move back, or if they have a "valid reason" (age, child), they tell you about it and politely request your permission to get ahead of you. It’s the aggressive response that I’m dismayed by…

Have you had such experiences when you travel in India? Why do you think it's on the rise? Can something be done about it? If so, what? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Greening your daily commute

This post first appeared on Water, No Ice (

On my ride to work recently, I heard an NPR interview on the subject of fuel conservation. The experts on the panel offered some tips for improving fuel efficiency while driving, and so I decided to try them out. Like most people out there, when fuel climbs to $4.87 a gallon I can't change my car to a Prius; I'm just going to have to do more with less.

Here are some of the suggestions they offered, and my experience trying them out.
  1. Measure your mileage. If don't know where you are, you can't know where you're going - the first step to any improvement process is to create a baseline - and then improve from there. So start off by noting your odometer reading (or zeroing the trip meter) the next time you fill up, and then noting how many miles you've driven when you fill up again. The difference, divided by the gas you put in (full tank-to-full tank) gives you your mileage. If you're fortunate to have a fancy car that shows you instantaneous and trip mileage, use it!
  2. Reduce speed. This is supposed to be the simplest and most effective way of improving fuel consumption - and boy, did it work for me. By driving at not more than 55 mph, I saw my average consumption rise from 23-24 mpg (unfortunately, I drive a rather gas-guzzling 4-wheel drive VW) to 27 mpg, even getting as much 29.8 mpg on one day. For my 22-mile commute, it added perhaps 5 minutes to my commute time.
  3. Turn off the airconditioner. Mythbusters tried to examine the myth that driving with your windows down and A/C off is less efficient than driving with your windows up and A/C on. I didn't watch the episode, but it appears that driving with the A/C off is better. I tried driving with the A/C off and windows up, and it might have given me 2 mpg more than with the A/C on. I must admit that it has been quite difficult these last few weeks, and I sometimes put the A/C on while coasting downhill (when consumption is excellent).
  4. Drive smoothly. I've never been one of those drivers who like to verify that their cars are accelerating from 0-60 in 6 seconds at every red light, but I've been particularly careful about slow acceleration during this experiment. Stops and starts, and the acceleration during the start, have the greatest impact on fuel efficiency, so reducing them to the minimum (if you see a red light, slow down early enough and it might change by the time you get to it) and then accelerating slowly help get better mileage. If you see congestion ahead, slow down well in advance (like the trucks do) to try to avoid having to decelerate and then accelerate again.
  5. Use public transit. I tried using public transit a few times. There's a direct AC transit bus line from my office in the Peninsula to my home in the East Bay, so I thought it would be pretty efficient. Unfortunately, the time it takes just made it an un-viable option. has a good transit trip planner, and trips from home to work or vice versa took 1:20 vs. 25 mins in the car. Even with the savings, I couldn't justify this time differential. If I get into the habit of working on the bus (it has WiFi), then the equation can shift in favor of public transit.
  6. Car Pool. This one's really working well for me. I'm fortunate that a colleague who's equally conscious of the environment impact and cost of driving alone lives close-by, and both of us have enough flexibility in our work schedules to permit car-pooling. This has cut my gas bills by around 30% (I can't car-pool every day of the week - if I could, I'd probably see a 40-50% saving). has an excellent "ridematch" finder - just plug in your home and work address, the days of the week that you can car-pool, and the time that you leave for work and return home. Ridematch will suggest people who live where you live, work where you work, and work the same hours, you can then contact them and arrange a car-pool. No more excuses!!
  7. Keep your car well maintained. Keep the air filter clean, inflate the tires, and do all the sensible things that make for maximum efficiency.
All told, most of these changes have been relatively painless (except keeping the A/C off), and I've been happy with the results. I'd appreciate any feedback from trying them, additional suggestions! Buckle up, and drive slow!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Talking to your kids about being Vegetarian

This post first appeared on Water, No Ice (

Like lots of Indians, I was brought up vegetarian by my vegetarian parents. When I reached adulthood, I stayed vegetarian, and even experimented for a few years with its more extreme version - becoming vegan. My wife is vegetarian too, so our 5-year-old son doesn't have much of a choice in the matter. At this time. Or so we think.

The first big dilemma we faced is whether we should bring him up vegetarian or not - at least till the age of 18, at which point he's free to make his own choices. Several friends (most of them non-vegetarian) feel we're being unfair; denying him choices and biasing him so that he's more likely to stay vegetarian at 18 than turn non-veg. If fact, for this same reason, some of our vegetarian friends allow their kids to eat the occasional Chicken Nugget.

The second, more frequently faced dilemma, is how to answer his innocent question about why he can't also get a plate of Chicken Nuggets when we're eating with friends at a restaurant. We grope for an answer that his 5-year old mind can grasp, and yet one that does not cause him to judge his meat-eating friends harshly.

There were several approaches available to us, ranging from diktat ("This is the way it is") to empathy ("We like animals and don't like to kill and eat them"). Explanations based on distant religious diktats ("We don't eat meat because we're Hindus") were unlikely to cut much ice, given that we're not at all religious in the first place. The health benefits are perhaps too complex for a 5-year-old to grasp.

We chose the empathy argument, and thus far, it has worked well. He showed a natural affinity for animals in general, and farm animals in particular. The occasional trip to Ardenwood Farm, Happy Hollow Park or Lemos Farm in Half Moon Bay to gaze at the benign goats or chicken reinforced that affection. It also increased his recognition that these animals were sentient beings with feelings and emotions and therefore, killing them was wrong.

If fact, Vegan society websites recommend this sort of approach, but their tone strikes me as being too strident, too righteous. I fear that when he views his and his friends' actions through this lens, he'll end up judging himself "good" and his friends "bad". That's not the sort of judgmental attitude I'd like him to develop. I try to keep emphasizing that his friends are free to make their own decisions, but I dread the day when he asks a friend "How can you kill and eat an animal?"

Suggestions, anyone?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stay in School, Live Longer

This article first appeared at Water, No Ice (

I was in India on a business trip recently and some friends took me to a night club in Bandra. It was Friday evening, and while the place was relatively empty when we got there at 9 pm, it quickly filled up with young office workers in their twenties and thirties. Since smoking in bars is not prohibited in India (or at least not enforced), the entire place quickly acquired a thick haze of cigarette smoke. What was particularly striking was the number of women who were lighting up. Over the years, smoking seems to have become especially fashionable among young professionals in general, and women in particular. Anecdotally, smoking rates in general seem much higher there; I have few friends who smoke here in the US, but in India, I frequently ran into colleagues on their way out of the building for a smoke, or on their way back from one.

A recent New York Times article talks about the strong correlation between years spent in school and life expectancy. Interestingly, researchers have found much lower levels of correlation between race, or wealth, and longevity; education stands out as the single largest factor.

So what marks the difference between the more vs. the less educated? There is established research that shows that people with more education are better able to plan and to delay gratification. But the one statistic that jumped out at me was the % of people who smoke - 45% of people who never went to school, while just 10% of those with 16-18 or more years of education light up. This one factor showed the greatest difference between the two groups.

Frankly, the link between smoking and life expectancy is nothing new: just try getting life insurance and see what happens to your premium if you are a smoker. What was fascinating is that smoking is significantly lower among educated people, with a correspondingly higher life expectancy.

So back to my co-workers in India. These are folks who have at least a graduate degree, if not a Masters. Why don't they fit in with the pattern that the New York Times study found? To find out, I asked a few smoker friends what made them light up. It was fascinating to find that attitudes to smoking mirrored a 1947 study I found on the web.

They ranged from Fun or Reward on one end of the spectrum - people treat smoking as an adult substitute for the carefree enjoyment they knew as children, and as a reward that they could give themselves as often as they wished.

Some people spoke about cigarettes being a companion when they were alone, and brought back pleasant memories in the past (that were often also associated with smoking).

While few smokers will admit it, smoking is often a part of one's imagined or desired personality - the 'Coolness' factor. TV and Movies reinforce these images in the pop-culture.

At the other end of the spectrum, the most commonly quoted reason was that smoking was a stress-buster - "it helps me think" or helps me blow my troubles away.

Finally, almost everyone we know has tried to quit or reduce his / her smoking at some point. Everyone worries that they're smoking too much. Some can, others can't.

What made is easier for smokers (especially educated ones) in the US to quit? I think that here in the US, several difficult factors have made it more difficult to smoke and by corollary, easier to quit. Widespread awareness of the health effects of smoking, high prices of cigarettes due to high taxes, bans (that are enforced) on smoking in offices and public places, the easy availability of alternatives such as nicotine patches or gum, and a significant reduction in portrayal of smoking in the popular media, have helped reduce the incidence of smoking (among the more educated, at least).

India's begun to move in that direction, how quickly is still a matter of debate.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Free Trade Hypocrisy

This post originally appeared on Water, No Ice (

I've been reading the recent spat about the US Air Force's award of a Tanker Contract to a consortium of Northrop Grumman and EADS, the European Conglomerate and parent of Airbus, with great interest.

I have a strong sense of deja vu when I hear many of the arguments cited by opponents of the deal. Deja vu, because I remember the very same arguments being made by members of the Bombay Club, a collection of protectionist Indian businessmen, in the early 1990s, when India was contemplating opening up its economy to overseas competition.

I don't know if you remember that time, but India was forced to open up its economy under pressure from the Multinational lending institutions - the IMF and World Bank - during the balance of payments crisis of 1991-92. These institutions, and the Western Governments that controlled them, insisted on a lowering of import tariffs, freeing of capital and foreign exchange market controls and other liberalizing measures. Coke and Pepsi, GM and Ford entered India in the years that followed, and many businesses in the sub-continent either sold out to the multinationals (remember Thumbs Up?), or went under.

We shrugged our shoulders then, and treated this as a natural consequence of the changes that were taking place, because other industries showed their ability to be globally competitive. "This is the new world order promoted by the West" we said, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, we thought that it was perhaps a winning formula for "developing" our economies. We embraced it with all fervor, and another Asian Tiger was unleashed.

It therefore pains me now to see the West talking about the same trade protections that they forced us to dismantle, when the changes they thrust on us developing nations for so many years have come back to impact them. When US multinationals grew at breathtaking rates during the 90s, fueled by new-found revenues overseas, did anyone question it? Did they wonder about the lack of a safety-net for workers in third world countries who were out of work because their industries had vanished in the face of international competition? I seriously doubt it.

Fareed Zakaria correctly points this out in "What the World is Hearing" in the recent edition of Newsweek.

The US's hypocrisy in matters of democracy (supporting despots in the Middle East) created the disenchantment that fueled terrorism. However, given that this hypocrisy involves jobs (which affect people more directly) rather than politics (which doesn't), and also impacts much larger populations (Central and South America, all of Asia) I fear that the resentment that this will create will have much deeper and larger consequences. A sobering thought, indeed.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The pursuit of excellence

This post originally appeared as part of a larger article on Water, No Ice (

Watching my son grow up in the US, going to a US school, I often wonder about the impact of this culture on him, and the values and lessons he’s getting from the environment around him. These lessons are often very different from, and sometimes at odds with, the values I grew up with in India. In some matters, there’s a conflict brewing, and I know it’s going to result in a serious disagreement someday.

One specific area where I see this conflict is the role of praise or “positive strokes” in motivating him. The American system seems to lay a great emphasis on positive praise, often going out of the way to avoid criticism of any sort. Anything a child does is worthy of praise. “Good job” or “That’s wonderful” rolls off tongues with such ease that it makes me cringe.

I’ve been at the receiving end of this glib praise on a sports team that I’m a member of. Even after losing a game, often miserably, I sit down and honestly ponder the mistakes I made - the lack of fitness, or too many unforced errors. It’s not that I’m depressed or anything; I’m just trying to figure out what I need to concentrate on to do better then next time. But my playing partners are prompted to “motivate” me by telling me that I’m “selling myself short” or that I “shouldn’t be so hard on myself”.

I don’t remember it being like this growing up in India. Praise was something to be earned by doing really well. When you went home with a report card showing you got 95% in Math, your parents normally asked you “What happened to the other 5%?” They might’ve been on the other end of the spectrum and we often do “sell ourselves short”, but it taught us to set ourselves high standards to achieve before we’d get praise and be able to rest on our laurels.

On the flip side, we may often fall into the same trap that our parents fell into – the inability to appreciate the positive aspects of a situation. If something doesn’t meet one’s expectations, I find it impossible to honestly offer praise, or if I force myself to – I feel terribly dishonest inside.

Coming back to the influence of these contradictions on our children, I often worry that they’ll grow up resenting their parents (who never seem to genuinely appreciate what they’ve achieved) and craving the praise of their teachers and coaches, who seem delighted with anything. The child may never realize that there’s a world of possibilities out there if they only tried harder; possibilities that are well within their abilities.

Praise, yet motivate to strive higher – that’s the fine balance we have to strike. I’m not sure there are any clean answers to how to bell this cat.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Soaring above the Bay

This post first appeared at Water, No Ice ( in April 2007.

You hear the controller say “Cessna 4-3-0-2-Lima, Runway 27, cleared for take off.” You turn around to make sure your passengers are all belted in. “Ready to fly?” you ask. They nod eagerly. The next few seconds are a bit of a blur – the rapidly increasing sound of the engine, racing down the runway till suddenly all that seems to fade away as the aircraft gracefully leaves the ground beneath it. You look down at the little planes dotting Oakland airport as they get smaller, and then suddenly you hold your breath – just beyond the boundary of the airport, the magnificent structure of the Oakland Arena and Coliseum have come into view – your once-in-a-lifetime experience of a flying tour of San Francisco Bay has begun!

You spend the next 45 minutes looking down on the traffic on the Nimitz Freeway, imagining what a traffic reporter's job would be like, admire the beautiful colors of the spinnakers on the sailboats in the bay, look down on Alcatraz island, as tourists disembark from the tour boat to begin their visit to the island prison, and finally, look down on the wonderful rust-red Golden Gate bridge in a way that few of your friends can.

In my own case, there was never any doubt that I'd become a pilot. I grew up on Air Force bases in India, watching my pilot father fly fighter aircraft every day as part of his job as a test pilot in the Indian Air Force.

Other than a year of gliding in New Delhi's Safdarjang airport, I never got a chance to pursue my love of flying in India. From friends who became civilian pilots in India, I heard horror stories of the challenges of learning to fly in India – the high cost, limited facilities, unreliable aircraft, unprofessional flying schools and instructors, yada, yada, yada…

But when I moved to the US I found that finally realizing that dream was, truly, a piece of cake. I enrolled in a flying school in Hayward, and within a few weeks, had soloed, and was well on my way to earning my Private Pilot's License. 5 months later, I passed a 'check-ride' with an FAA examiner, and was rewarded with a typewritten document that authorized me to rent planes and carry passengers. My wife was my first passenger, and our first flight was a lovely day trip around the San Francisco bay, over the Golden Gate bridge, and then to Half Moon Bay for a wholesome brunch at the '30 cafe' at the airport there, named after one of the runways, Runway 30.

Over the years, we've taken trips as far South as San Diego, North to Oregon (Crater Lake, with another flying couple – we shared costs and flying responsibilities) and Eureka / Arcata, East to Yosemite, Lake Tahoe / Reno and a number of small places that we otherwise would never have visited. I've taken hundreds of friends on the 'Bay Tour' I described earlier. All of them return with a wow on their lips, plenty of unique photographs, and an overall feeling of awe.

Many people ask me about flying and I then realize that there are many myths about earnings a pilots license that serve as a barrier to discovering this truly fascinating sport. I hope to dispel some of them here.

The first and most oft-quoted barrier is the cost of flying. A flying license generally costs $5,000, give or take $1,000 – the actual costs depend on how long you take to earn your license, since students generally rent an aircraft and pay instructors by the hour (these represent the largest segment of costs of your training). Since most working folks can only fly weekends, this means it'll take you 5-6 months to complete the necessary hours, which means you'll end up spending $1,000 or so a month.

On an ongoing basis, you pay for the time you rent an aircraft and for the fuel you use when you fly it. I fly every other weekend, so it costs me $150-200 a month to maintain my hobby. You'd agree that's a pretty reasonable price to pay for such a wonderful and unique activity.

The economics are pretty good on a long trip too. For example, on the trip to San Diego, we flew for a total of 7.5 hours. So although we had the plane for the three days of the Labor Day weekend, I only paid for hours flown, and the trip therefore cost me around $600. Given that there were four of us, it works out to $150 a head, slightly under the $160 Southwest Airlines would've charged us to get there and back. The best part was, we were in San Diego by 9:30 AM, while on Southwest we would only have been there by 1:00 PM.

The second question people ask me is whether it's safe. There's no denying that there is an element of risk involved in flying, like there is in any sport. However, the risks in flying are not significantly greater than lots of other activities that we indulge in on a regular basis, including driving. Risks are minimized by doing things sensibly – training well, staying current, making the right decisions, ensuring that your aircraft is well maintained, being careful about your preflight, and not putting yourself in situations that exceed your ability. Most accidents are caused by pilots who do dumb things – flying into weather that they're not qualified to handle or in situations that are beyond their capabilities.

Flying makes you take responsibility for your actions in ways that nothing else does. When you're up there alone, there is nobody else to rely on, nobody to blame, and no Escape button to turn to. It teaches you things about yourself that you didn't know existed. A solo flight on a late evening when the setting sun paints the sky with a truly beautiful and sublime palette even gets you thinking about God.

Why Fly?
Of course, if I've convinced you that it's safe and the costs are reasonable, you may still ask me “Why Fly?” There are many reasons, and each pilot probably has his own; I'll give you some of mine.

To start, I love the freedom that flying gives me – this might sound like cliché, but getting airborne is like being born again – the bonds fall away as you put more distance between your aircraft and the ground.

Second, it gives me the opportunity to visit places that I would never have otherwise considered going to. The beautiful approach into Half Moon Bay airport, for example. Or the view of the Golden Gate from the air. Or the little town of Columbia, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where a short walk from the airport lies a quaint little mining town where you can rent pans and pan for gold, see people in period costumes and even see a horse drawn fire engine.

Lastly, it is an activity that leaves little room for sloppiness – I take pride in staying proficient and current and in the pleasure that a smooth landing in a stiff crosswind gives me. As I mentioned, flying is an activity that demands you take ultimate responsibility for your actions – no excuses or complaints.

How do I start?
Do I have you hooked? Find a flying school in the airport near you and set up an introductory flight with an instructor. Go up (the instructor will let you handle the controls once you are in the air) and see if you like it. If you think flying is for you, discuss a schedule with that instructor that you can financially support, and get started. There are some great resources on the web for beginner pilots — or, for example. All the best and happy landings!!

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