Random chatter on the channel

There are some things that can be categorized and some that cannot be; and then there are these little uncategorizable (I created a new word…Hurray!!!:D) things that have this “Aha” factor about them which tend to not get talked about. Sometimes its an interesting movie, a soulful song, a useful tip from a fellow human being etc. that makes you go “Wow/Gee/Ooh/Mmm/OyeHoye” … somehow these things fall through the cracks when you write, unless you’re writing a review.

My life has been filled with countless such little things (like everyone else’s), and so here I am here trying to share some of these. I decided to call it “Random chatter” because of the randomness that arises from bunching together unrelated things in a bulleted list and also because the phrase sounds nice to my ears. Seems to fit the definition of the word “Arbit” quite well (short for arbitrary, origin: IIT lingo; interesting to see many of the words have been passed on to mainstream language).

-> I came across a series of travel/city books titled “Cheap Bastards guides”, these guides have specific tips on living a free life in cities like Boston, NYC, San Francisco & Chicago. Here’s the website http://www.thecheapbastard.com/, they do mention they even got the website done for free. Pretty Cool! But going by the principle, why would someone want to pay for these guides, shouldn’t they be available for free ๐Ÿ˜€

-> Found this gem of a website for online music. It has all the good ingredients: very user friendly, is free, Minimal ads, no popups, no clutter, no player installation needed and a very very good music collection. May I present http://www.dhingana.com/. Key features: allows you to create & maintain multiple playlists and share playlists, here’s a more exhaustive list. Do visit their About Us page.

->Some movies that I thoroughly enjoyed (and learnt some things too ๐Ÿ˜‰ ):

  • The Notebook (it feels nice to be a hopeless romantic sometimes)
  • The scent of a woman (watched for te 3rd time, am short of words for this movie, I can just say its fantastic)
  • The Shawshank redemption (it’s good to have a short term and long term plan)
  • The story of Us (very realistic movie, liked the idea of thinking about your high and low for the day)
  • Pay it Forward (based on a beautiful idea that works on the honor system)
  • Ahista Ahista (life can be simple & sweet)
  • Swades (watched 2nd time, it isn’t easy to follow your heart, but it can turn out to be the right choice)
  • Good will hunting (See below)
  • Dead Poets Society (See below)

This is the below that was mentioned above: The world likes conformity, it makes it easy for people to categorize people, but is that the purpose of our being…to be categorized? Humans have individuality and are NOT like Cattle! I look around and see that the majority of our systems are built to treat all people and situations alike … rules, company policies … somewhere somehow individuals are forced to conform. The greatest thinkers, inventors, artists, revolutionists weren’t conformists…gotta remember that!

-> Visited New York city a few days back. It was a trip I was looking forward to and I read a lot on the internet to understand the basics. A few key points:

  1. I over-read :, it’s possible to enjoy the city without the weeks of reading that I did. On the other hand, preparation does help and knowledge, as you know, never goes waste. It did help me navigate around the city more efficiently.
  2. NY City and subways aren’t as dangerous as the movies of 90s made us believe.
  3. The city is fast paced, crowded and the city’s character is similar to Mumbai/Bombay’s.
  4. Walking across the Brooklyn bridge is nice, and view is better if you’re walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan rather than in the other direction.
  5. A visit to Empire State building is worth the wait (it has approx. 90 mins of wait) and the view from the 85th floor is amazing. But, it’s really crowded unlike what we see in the movie Sleepless in Seattle.
  6. Walking is the way in NYC, you tend to walk for miles and not know it. Ofcourse you do know later when your feet ache like hell. Good walking shoes help!
  7. NY hotdog & pizza is something you shouldn’t miss.
  8. Taking the one day unlimited use fun pass for the Subway is a good idea.

-> Found two awesome Indian restaurants around Boston to satisfy my Punjabi taste buds and keep me going…(Research has proven that Tandoori chicken contains a chemical that is found to reduce home sickness :D, don’t ask me who the researchers were though)

  1. Punjabi Dhaba @ Cambridge: simple restaurant, self service, the USP of this place is the flavor and price. Flavor is way way better than most Indian places around here and prices are so affordable that makes me wish we could eat there everyday if we lived closer. There’s usually a long queue at this place running right into the street, and its a long wait, but the wait is worth every minute. No cards, only cash.
  2. Kashmir @ Newbury Street: classy 4-star Indian restaurant. USP is food and ambiance, is a little pricey though. There’s also an outdoor seating and the place has flavored hookah, I don’t care much about the hookah as I don’t smoke any more. Here are some reviews.

-> One of my school friends has been working on this India search engine called Dwaar, very interesting website. Give it a shot, it might help you find what you had been looking for … http://www.dwaar.com/

-> To wind up this post, here’s a very interesting article from the Wired magazine that talks about how games can be leveraged to makes machines learn from human behavior.


The SQL query that made me smile

A few days back, I filed my income tax online. To many, that may seem like something ordinary but to me, being able to do that online was a milestone in itself. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that when I heard that taxes can be filed online, I started off exploring with a pessimistic outlook … maybe the website would be down … the system might be slow … will it be reliable … will it do what it claims. I had reasons for thinking this way, as over the years I’ve seen that these processes and the bookkeeping behind the curtains has been largely manual and on paper. And I’ve had my shares of experiences that have made me form my opinions … I’ve stood in queues for hours, I’ve visited the IT office(*1) and seen how much time & effort it takes to locate a physical file and have always wished that someday (maybe in 10-15 years), things would get computerized. I wasn’t expecting it to come so soon though.

The experience of filing my tax online was a surprise so pleasant, that I was actually …. QUITE surprised. I entered my name, date of birth and PAN number and the query pulled up my address on record. I’m a programmer myself and have written quite a few queries myself but let me tell you … no other query has given me so much happiness. For this query to be able to fetch data meant that the records existed in digital form and could be queried. That, in itself, opens so many avenues and limitless possibilities.

The overall process including registration, downloading and filling up the form and uploading the data took me less than an hour. The overall workflow was very thoughtfully designed, with a few exceptions which I’ll come to. I was able to file my tax from halfway around the world and there was only one manual leg in the process (since I didn’t have a digital signature).

These were my highs and not-so-highs..

The Highs:

  • Was able to file tax online
  • No attachments (Form-16, investment proofs) required
  • Non-proprietary software for filling the return Form. These days, Adobe Acrobat can be considered a standard software.
  • Query for PAN in registration process boosted confidence, was quite fast too
  • Website has an advanced users option (for programmers) where XML data could be edited manually
  • When filing tax without a digital signature, the acknowledgment form is generated as a downloadable PDF file (which has to be printed, signed and submitted in the IT department). Generating a downloadable PDF was a thoughtful design considering people want to retain acknowledgment in soft copy for their records and also may not have a printer at hand to print immediately.

The Not-So-Highs:

  • The name of IT website in digital signature didn’t match with site name verbatim due to which the browser gave a warning.
  • The completely automated option requires a digital certificate. Only certificates issued by one of the 7 affiliate agencies is accepted, even certificates issued by international issuing agencies aren’t accepted. None of these companies sell digital certificates online, so human interaction is required.
  • The return form gave a prompt for upgrading Adobe acrobat when it was opened in Acrobat version 6. When the upgrade option was chosen, Adobe Acrobat got upgraded to Version 7 and not Version 8.1. As per the IT website, the version needed Adobe 8.1.
  • The document opened up without any prompts/warnings when opened in Acrobat 7. While exporting to XML though, all dates in the form were getting dropped from the XML and was causing validation errors wile uploading. This problem was solved when user upgraded to Acrobat version 8.1.
  • IT department could’ve given a FAX number where the signed acknowledgment could be faxed directly. Or maybe an email address where you could send the scanned copy of signed acknowledgment. This would save a trip to the IT office (*2)

Overall, filing tax was a Breeze; IMO, the process isn’t perfect yet but it definitely a big step forward. Believe it or not, I actually jumped with joy after completing the process in less than an hour. And the SQL query for PAN, that’s brought on an instant Smile!

(*1): The best part about visiting the IT office at Mayur Bhawan in Connaught Place, New Delhi … getting to have the Special Choley Bhature/Rajmah Chawal/Kadi Chawal at Shankar Market…Mmmmm, I can smell those bhaturas from here
(*2): Maybe that trip really is worth it (Refer *1).

Pizza Do-Pyaza

I love Pizza, but I never used to find anything fancy about it. It was a simple recipe: grab a flat pie of bread circular in shape, spread cheese & tomato paste and throw in vegetables, maybe some processed cold meat too. Bake it in an oven and there you have a pizza. Well, not quite … you might argue! The pizza, in today’s avatar, is much more than just a simple snack. It’s a foundation on which innovative ideas are being applied, and a few million rupees of advertising bucks too.

More than a decade back, when I tasted the pizza for the first time, it was at a small bakery in New Delhi. When I took the first bite, there was lightening in the sky and time stood still. Well, not really! But yes, I had my first pizza at a neighborhood bakery and honestly, I don’t remember the experience clearly so I guess it wasn’t anything extraordinary. But I do remember that I grew to be very fond of baking pizza at home. It was a simple recipe and the end-product was interesting too. I remember treating my sister to many a home-burnt slices of Pizza. The microwave hadn’t come out in the market back then and we had the conventional oven in which it was difficult to figure out when the temperature got too hot.

Since then, I’ve seen numerous creative brains trying to do things to the good old pizza and making consumers pay for their creativity. The mission, should anyone choose to accept it, was to sell the Pizza in India. And so, the fun began.

First they saw the pizza base: plain Jane & not sexy at all. Mr. A attempted to change the pizza base from circular to square and renaming it to Pizza sandwich. It didn’t work. Then Mr. B figured that the pizza base lacked identity, and tried to stuff it’s insides with cheese. That impressed people but made the pizza base feel very sad & bloated. Mr. C took a clue from that and figured out that if veggies get to eat pizza base stuffed with cheese, non-veggies deserve chicken in the base. The bones were spoiling the shape of the base, so they decided to go with Chicken Ham. Mr. D noticed that the pizza base was putting on weight so came up with the idea of thinning it down, and so the Thin Crust was born. The pizza base today feels insecure in our country and is fast losing its original identity.ย Then they saw the cheese and tomato and alas, it failed to impress them much. They moved on to the toppings next and instantly saw vegetables. “If Vegetables are fresh, so will be the pizza”. A great idea, and they tried to create a brand called Freshizza. Then one fine day, a regular guy was cooking up a quick meal at home and realized that all he had in his refrigerator was a pizza base and leftovers from last night. He put his culinary skills to test & Eureka!!!: the idea of Indian pizzas was born … Tandoori aloo Pizza, the Murg Makhani Pizza etc. I’m sure that the road that lies ahead promises an adventurous ride on a plate (literally), the Fat Man predicts that Samosas and Dhoklas will soon make appearances on your Pizza.

Well, the Pizza is not a very complex product and numerous diversifications had been tried already. What remained was the price & presentation. Massive wars have been fought between competitors on these two fronts. Carefully laid out combo deals, discount coupons, Happy hours, guaranteed in-time home delivery: it’s amusing to watch that majority of the marketing campaigns don’t talk about the product at all. But they do guarantee that they will deliver in 40 minutes, whether or not the toppings arrive on the pizza base or piled-up in the corner of the box. They do claim that you will get 4 pizzas in 200 bucks, the pizza base may be stale though. There will be 9 toppings on the pizza, but did someone mention what quantity of each.

In the war for selling Pizza, each brand has established its own brand image and corresponding place in the market too. Some brands have the infrastructure to deliver a decent product at a high cost though, but they are too fascinated by Indianizing the Pizza. Someone else has an OK product but doesn’t offer a dine-in; home delivered pizza when reheated in a Microwave doesn’t taste as good. Someone else sells awful stale pizzas but priced cheap, if that makes you happy. When you find that the product is satisfactory, pricing is right, taste is authentic, you come to know that the chain doesn’t have a budget to print menu fliers; you have to take pains to connect to the Internet & refer the menu on their website while ordering for home delivery. Makes you wonder whether that’s a strategy too … working for their rivals maybe.

Marketing wars between competitors is expected and natural too. But, ruining the product’s identity in order to sell is pure manipulation.

One of the many definitions of Marketing is “the commercial processes involved in promoting and selling and distributing a product or service”. When marketing begins to influence the product’s identity, it crosses the line principally, even though it might manage to sell. The true test of marketing is to sell a product as-is, without distorting it. If we have to convert the good old pizza to a product that has a base stuffed with rice & rajmah and topped with daal makhni and shahi paneer …. well, then we should accept that either the product or the market segment being targeted is not quite right. If the consumer wants Rice, rajmah, daal makhni and shahi paneer, you can give the customer what he wants and save My-Dear-Pizza the sacrilege.

Look beyond the Pizza and you will start to see a similar trend all around. International chains like Subway & McDonalds have a prominent Indian section in their menu. Some see it as a positive thing for the Indian cuisine, but is it really so? An Indian restaurant becoming popular in the west may be something positive, but indianizing international cuisine to reach out to volumes: definitely not.

The Fat Man likes the good old pizza and loves Tandoori Chicken too, but Tandoori Chicken on Pizza, No Thanks!