Posts by "Peter"

Bus Anxiety

I’ve discovered a time investment fear disorder during my daily commute too and from work. My new office is actually closer to the south pole than it is to my apartment so the daily journey is one of the toughest aspects of my job (16 hour days are a cinch by comparison).

The commute has got all the more harder recently because the temperatures have started to soar and even the nightime temperature doesn’t dip much below the mid-30’s. Add to that, 85% humidity and you have yourself a free outdoor sauna.

In the evening my commute involves a 15 minute power walk to the station, with a laptop strapped to my back. The end result, as I stagger up the 40 steps to the platform can only be described as the drowned rat look. Marathon runners probably produce less sweat in a two half hour race that I do in that 15 minute walk. I then take a non-ac train to central Chennai where I disembark and my bus fear rises.

By this stage of the commute my hair has afro’ed out from the sweat and humidity, my shirt is sopping wet and my shoes are making scquelching noises because they’ve filled up with the sweat cascading down my legs. Frankly it’s a mystery why my girlfriend is still with me when she sees me like this.

There is an air conditioned bus that runs on the route I take. The catch is that it only runs once an hour and they don’t appear to run at a fixed time each hour. Given the sodden state I’m in by the time I need to catch the bus I’m longing for that little bit of luxury an a/c bus can bring. The problem is, I don’t know if it’s coming or already been because some days it will turn up at 6:20, others at 6:45 or sometimes it doesn’t turn up till gone 7.

Of course, there are plenty of regular buses I could take, but I think I’d rather have the back of my eyeballs scraped out with rusty razor blades than be rammed up against someone’s armpit in the suffocating heat.

And so, in an attempt to relieve the bus anxiety, I have taken to turning up at the bus stop as early as possible. I plonk myself on the seat, fire up Angry Birds and wait and wait and wait and wait for a bus. Will it come in the next 10 minutes? Will I have to wait 40 minutes? What if it doesn’t come at all? As the minutes go by, stress levels tick upwards.

At this point I should point out that in the last 4 months I’ve compiled what could possibly only be described as Chennai’s most comprehensive database of bus timings from my stop. Over the months I have been diligently noting down the times of every bus that I could take. Essentially I have found that this was a rather pointless task, given the traffic in Chennai, no bus can run to a schedule once it departs the bus station.

That said, I have discovered that 6 times out of 10, the A/C bus will turn up between 6:30 and 6:40. Occasionally it shows up much earlier, sometimes a bit later, or, with some depressing regularity, not turn up at all.

It is said that even the best financial traders fail to maximize their profits because of fear. A fear of missing out on the bigger rewards if they stay in the game just a bit longer. If these hot shot bankers came and stood at a bus stop in Chennai and waited for the A/C bus to come, then they’ll understand the true meaning of the fear of missing out.

The fear arises because the longer I’ve been standing there, the more time I’ve invested waiting for the A/C bus. As each passing normal bus goes by, my investment increases. As each bus passes that clearly has available seats, and I let it go on by, my stake has increased. I’ve given up the opportunity to get the normal bus in the fear of missing out on an even greater reward, or, in this case a pleasant A/C bus with comfy seats and where you are not being intimately acquainted with the arm pit of a stranger.

If I were to simply get on a normal bus now, all that time, all that sweat, that I’d invested would be in vain.

So how long is too long to wait? I know that more often than not, the A/C bus comes at 6:30ish. But what if it hasn’t come? What if it’s coming in the next 5 minutes? What if there was traffic at the start of the route? What if…I get on a normal bus, full of armpits, and the A/C bus rolls up just behind it?

These my friends and random readers, are the troubles that plague me on a daily basis and form the basis of my new theory on bus-time investment fear, but you can call it Bus Anxiety.

Sums Up Politicians Quite Nicely

A driver was stuck in a traffic jam on the M25.

Nothing was moving.

Suddenly, a man knocks on the window.

The driver rolls down the window and asks, “What’s going on?”

“Terrorists have kidnapped all of our MP’s during a sitting of parliament and they’re demanding a £100 million ransom otherwise they are going to douse them all in petrol and set them on fire. We are going from car to car urgently collecting donations.”

“How much is everyone giving, on average?” the driver asks.

The man scratches his chin in quick contemplation and replies, “Roughly a gallon.”

Democracy For Sale

When it comes to interviewing for jobs in India you never really know what you’re going to get (which is probably the same the world over but I’ve never interviewed anyone in England so am in no position to say!). Often candidates haven’t been taught how to handle an interview, say the wrong thing, don’t say enough, say too much, don’t let the interviewer speak, cut the interviewer off in the middle of a question or worse they have read a “how to ace your interview” guide on and come up with answers like “my biggest weakness is that I’m a workaholic.”

My company is currently doing interview rounds as we look to expand our team and as usual the process has thrown up a number of anecdotes. My favourite one so far went like this…

A young man enters the office. He’s from a small village in rural Tamil Nadu and visibly apprehensive, nervous and uncomfortable in the surroundings. His answers are short and he’s got no conviction in what he says. Determined to bring the young man out of his shell the interviewer tries a number of light conversation topics like films, food and family until she hits on one topic where his face lights up light a 1000 watt bulb. “actually it’s my life’s dream to be an MP for my village” he tells her, then continuing, “I will bring development and jobs, make electricity come and make sure everyone has healthcare. Then I will campaign for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka and bring the Sri Lankan government to justice.”

Suitably impressed with the eloquence and passion with which the young man has described his ambitions the interviewer asks him how he plans to get elected. The young man brushed the question aside and said “I will join whichever party gives me the most money then I will pay everyone in my village to vote for me.”

And that is south Indian politics 🙂

I’ll Have A Boot Please

I was sitting in a bar in Delhi the other day where they brew their own German style beer on the premises and after 4 years of Kingfisher it’s like liquid gold in a bottle. The beer wasn’t the only thing unique about this bar though because I noticed one of the waiters carrying this boot of beer to one of the tables. I couldn’t let it go by without taking a quick snap of it – it’s not something you see each day!

I'll have a boot of beer please

Creative Packaging From Indigo

Indigo is a budget airline that operates in India in much the same vein as EasyJet or BMIBaby. The budget airline sector in India is pretty crowded and with rising fuel costs forcing up the prices getting customers is harder than ever. Indigo have a unique style that permeates every part of their business, it’s the little things that separate them from all the other carriers. On the flight just before we landed the hostess requested everyone to turn off electronic devices, but part of the speech also included a note about making sure you save your work before you shut down your laptop. Very small, but it sticks in your mind. Airplane food also gets a tough time from many frequent travellers but Indigo has made a big effort to bring something unique to the food as well. The picture below is the box the sandwich comes in. It’s in the style of a matchbox because the sandwich contains a lot of chilly. Simple, smart and stands out enough for someone like me to mention it on my blog. A great marketing effort by Indigo!

Sandwich box for Indigo

The Plastic Road Campaign

During the monsoon season, which comes at different times of the year depending on where you are in India, the deluge of water inundates the the drainage system and turns the roads in to shallow canals. I’ve posted my fair share of pictures and videos on this blog of roads that are completely submersed after days of non-stop rainfall. It’s not so much that the drainage system is poor, it’s pretty extensive, it’s mostly because of the volume of water that can fall in such a short period of time and the drains can get blocked by the detritus of the city. Every year before the monsoon season starts you see frenzied activity as the authorities clear out and prepare the stormwater drains.

During and after the monsoon season, many roads in Chennai look like this as the water washes away the surface

All this water turns the roads of Chennai in to a labyrinth of pot holes as the upper surface is washed away. The effect it has on the traffic, not to mention what it’s doing to private and public vehicles is pretty horrendous – which is of course the only reason I haven’t bought myself a car yet; it would cost too much to maintain! (seriously!). Pot holes have also caused injury to pedestrians and in one extreme case last year a young girl lost her life because the storm water drains that run along side the roads had collapsed and as the girl was walking along the submerged road, fell in the hole and unfortunately drowned.

I can’t confirm that this happened in Chennai but many websites say it did!

There is a solution to the pot-holed roads though which is to use recycled plastic and mix it in to the bitumen compound. This creates roads that are harder and far less susceptible to water damage – pretty awesome when your roads are submerged for three months of the year! The results have been so successful that in several test roads around the city with some having lasted several years without damage. Thanks to these successful trials the Corporation of Chennai decided that it was time to finally solve the road problem and roll out plastic roads across Chennai.

There was one problem though: The Corporation of Chennai has a reputation slightly better than the ebola virus and PR skills taken from the book of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster mitigation team. Simply put, even if the Corporation is able to put out a message the public are not likely to listen it it.

Step in the Stella Maris MA Public Relations class of 2010. They have taken up the cause and put in place a PR campaign to raise awareness on the importance of segregating and recycling plastic across their ward (the city is divided up in to wards and zones). Named Plastic Salai (salai means road in Tamil), the campaign has been so effective that it has not only taken their own faculty by surprise but has won the accolades of the Chief Commissioner of the Corporation of Chennai who heaped praise on them during a recent live radio interview.

Before the PR students started their campaign the Corporation was having to import plastic from other states to use on the roads since 1 tonne of plastic was required to lay just 1KM of road. This is pretty insane because walk along any road in India and you’ll see plenty of discarded plastic bags, plastic pouches and plastic packaging material. The Corporation was collecting around 7.5 tonnes of plastic a week but the latest figures suggest that now well over 50 tonnes has been collected – probably in no small way thanks to the awareness that has been raised by the Plastic Salai campaign.

The students have created a Facebook page with all the details of their campaign so far and have engagement rates that would make every social media manager in the world salivate and turn green with envy. There is also the Plastic Salai blog which has indepth analysis of everything the students have done so far (and is far better at explaining how great plastic roads are than I can) and a regularly updated Twitter account.

As well as doing some pretty amazing social media work and organizing the rally pictured above, the students have also created some very professionally produced videos like the ones below:

There is also this educational animated video that has apparently gone down a treat with school children and corporates alike and businesses have donated money to the cause based on seeing this video alone!

Finally, what’s a holistic PR campaign without a brilliant catchy tune? Several of the students put together this amazing song which got plenty of air time on the Chennai radios and has notched up well over 1,000 listens on

The campaign has the secondary benefit of getting more people to think about recycling their plastic. Most rubbish that is thrown out is actually recyclable and one of the reasons the stormwater drains are not as effective as they could be is that they are clogged up with – you guessed it – plastic.

All in all, this has been one of the best campaigns the city has seen in a long while. It’s getting citizens to be more involved with the civic authorities, getting people to think more about segregating waste and improving the infrastructure of the city so that the roads become safer and longer lasting.

Technology Fail

It’s strange how we don’t notice technology until it fails us. In India we have to put up with daily power cuts that can last up to two hours and sometimes even the whole day. Even though we know the cuts are coming it still seems to catch us off guard by coming at a really inconvenient time.

Today I had the option of leaving the office fairly early, I just had to get some paperwork printed and photocopied. Of course, technology failed me as the office bought a new super whiz printer with wifi but the computer stubbonly refused to talk to the printer regardless of whether it was connected by USB, ethernet or wifi. I exhausted my entire arsenal of ninja Google search skills looking for a solution but all in vain. The printer was a Canon by the way, just incase you were thinking of buying one. In the end the computer gave up and said “you know what, good luck on that one because there ain’t no printer around here”.*

Then this evening I was supposed to be involved with a pretty exciting call to a PR company in America. The way it works is you fund your Skype account with some money and you can call a number in the US to be patched in to the confernce. The moment I funded my account the Internet died on me so I couldn’t connect. I knew it was fairly important so I called in from my pre-paid Indian number (calling to a US number, youch!) which lasted all of 5 minutes before it burned through all the credit.

10 minutes later my Internet came back so I quickly connected to the conference again via Skype but that lasted barely 3 minutes before the Internet conked out again. I’ve had Internet installed for 8 months and it has never gone down, the one time I really need it and it fails me.

Today was just one big fat technology fail.

* Actually the printer didn’t say that exactly, I was just giving it a bit of anthropomorphic personification. What it actually said was “Runtime error X00111XXX01100. Please try again” which basically means the same thing.

America 2.0

Read this interesting article from the New York Times today, it seems to make a lot of sense. India appears to be embracing consumerism as if its life depended on it with newer, bigger, flashier malls being thrown up all over every city in the land and branded stores all over the place.

Just like in America and England, the newly created aspirational middle classes are fueling their addiction to Apple, Levi, Gucci, BMW, Sony, Starbucks and foreign holidays via credit cards and bank loans. Citibank had a stall in the food court of my office building the other day with a banner that read: Why put your dreams on hold? Get a Citibank personal loan and have your dream today!

The bank that I use, Standard Chartered, is also on a mission to get people to take out loans to fuel the middle class addiction; the image below is from their Indian website – basically they are saying “You deserve to go on your dream holiday for 6 days so don’t worry about spending the next 5 years paying it all back with interest“.

Anyway, this journalist puts in a far more eloquent way than I can so have a read.

How India Became America -

How India Became America – NYTimes.com brick has come down in the great wall separating India from the rest of the world. Recently, both Starbucks and Amazon announced that they would be entering the Indian…

Extreme Danger – Useful to Know

Bit of a science lesson for you today, chaps.

Chennai is a coastal city in the tropics which means that most of the time it feels like your whole body is wading through pea soup and you have to push the air out of the way. The air is literally saturated with water and right now it is worse than ever. Today it was 32°C outside which might seem quite nice but the air humidity was 94%. Humidity is a measure of how much moisture is in a body of air and when it gets to 100% it means the air is completely saturated and can’t hold any more water – your sweat will simply pool on your skin as it has no where to go.

The human body keeps cool by sweating and then evaporating the moisture from your skin which works pretty well if it’s 32°C outside and the air is fairly dry, say 60% humidity or less. Above 60% humidity is where the problems start because less sweat is able to evaporate in to the already saturated air so 32°C with 60% humidity actually feels like 37°C because you’re not able to evaporate enough sweat to cool down.

As I said earlier, today in Chennai it was 32°C with 94% humidity which (apart from feeling like wading through water) makes it feel like a rather balmy 51°C. The American Government weather site has some reassuring information for temperatures and humidity like this: Extreme risk of death, do not go outside.

Useful to know!

Everything and Nothing Changes

Every time I’ve gone through Chennai airport I’m always amazed at how much it is changing and how fast it’s changing. When I came in 2006 immigration consisted of a couple of security guards sitting behind some rather old wooden desks and when I returned in 2008 immigration had changed to a big hall with a row of 8 metal cabins.

Currently they are building a new Chennai airport which is a big task in itself but the planners have given themselves the exciting challenge of building the new airport on top of the old one while the old one is still being used. Over the years the departure and arrival locations have been moved about more times than a nomadic tribe and the departure lounge has grown and contracted like a life size accordian.

There is further change still with the manic construction of the new metro rail system that is being built concurrently everywhere in the city above and below ground. Pylons are going up and boreholes are being sunk. The Metro Rail Construction boards that block entire lanes and spring up along the sides, and often the middle, of the road have become the bain of motorists lifes. Main arterial roads have been reduced to little more than side streets, 5 mile detours are a common occurance and residents can wake up one morning and discover their whole street is now blocked off. Still, it’s radical change that is needed and Chennai will have gone from nothing to a substantial metro network within just a few years.

Down to the south of the city you will find more change as Chennai’s IT corridor, the back office and grunt work to thousands of businesses around the world, as mega office complexes are thrown up. Quicker still are the super luxiourous gated townships which are springing up to accomodate the noveou rich IT couples who are working in shifts to programme the Internet banking platform you are using everyday on your computer.

As I left the airport it’s not the number of motorbikes or tuk tuks that you notice anymore, you can’t move for the amount of BMW’s, Mercedes, Jaguars and Range Rovers that are on the road. As you drive from the airport in to Chennai you pass Audi showrooms, Ford showrooms, Jaguar showrooms, Porsche showrooms, there’s even a Harley Davidson showroom here now. Capitalists and those driving being driven in the BMW’s call it progress, the socialists of the world would point staggering gulf between the haves and have nots.

Change is happening so fast, blink and you’ll miss something, come back again next year and the Chennai you remember will be different to the one you remembered.

And yet, amongst all this development; new metro systems, Porsches, steel and glass skyscrapers, the more things change in Chennai the more they still seem to stay the same.

As you step off the plane at Chennai airport there is a distinct smell in the air. I noticed it when I first came and I still notice it now. It’s like the air just hangs around and can be picked up and you have to fight your way through it. It’s air with presence. At the immigration desk the lady was at the end of her patience as she snapped at the couple in front of me because they didn’t go up to her desk quick enough and when it came to my turn she didn’t even look at my paperwork before plonking a stamp in to it. No change there then.

After baggage collection – which if you are ever going to Chennai be prepared for a long, long, long wait for your bags to come, it’s never got quicker in the 6 years I’ve been coming here – I usually book a Government taxi to get back home. The Govt taxi counter is recognizable because it’s the most delapidated counter in the far corner and where other counters advertise their Toyota Cruisers, Mercedes and Honda Accords the Govt counter displays some rather faded pictures of cars your grandad may well have driven when he was young.
To get to the counter you have to fight your way past an army of over eager taxi reps for private firms vying for your business before you reach a guy who couldn’t care less whether you used this Government taxi service or not. I use it because it costs half the price of private cabs and I’m a bit of a cheapskate.

It was actually touch and go this morning whether I would get a taxi or not because I handed over a 500 rupee note and it was promptly handed straight back to me because it had a miniscule tear in the midle and therefore was entirely unacceptable to the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward. No problem. I handed him my bank card, put it on the plastic, I indicated. Ah. The Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward didn’t accept debit cards. I opened my wallet which was bulging with notes but alas together they didn’t reach the amount for the fare, all I had was the brutally mutalated 500 with a tear so small it would challenge even the best electron microscope to measure the length of it. With a deep sigh and a theatrical display to show he was clearly doing me a favour he plucked the note out of my hands and threw some change back at me along with an official Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document, in triplicate.

I had to take this receipt to a man who was waiting outside, but like the other official he couldn’t give a damn if anyone came or not. He took one of the chellan copies of the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document and insisted that he push my trolley the 20 metres to the Official Government of India Taxi’s Pick Up Point which was staffed by a man sitting at a desk in the open who in turn was chatting to other men who were sitting on upturned bits and pieces.

The new man behind the desk took another chellan from the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document and shouted at a driver to pick up my bags. The person who pushed my trolley 20 metres was still hanging around looking at me imploringly. Tutting to myself I reached in to my wallet and handed over a ten rupee note. A look of total disdain flooded across his wizened old face, and he shook his head “sir, dollars only”.

I’m not sure what I was most shocked and taken aback by; that he wouldn’t accept his own curreny or that he thought I was American!

Once in the car, which is just like the one your grandad used to drive when he was young, we entered in to the crazy and hectic Chennai traffic. “Going to?” the driver asked, “Nungambakkam” I replied, in my best Indian accent which actually sounds more like deformed Welsh person with a speech impediment, “ah, which place?”.

Ambassador Taxi

Directions in Chennai operate on an iterative landmark basis so first you need to focus the mind of the driver on the general area, once they’ve got that then you give a big landmark which may or may not be near the place you want to go but it gives some relativity on where you want to go. A landmark can be a restaurant, hotel, station, major road, temple, college or anything else that is big and well known[1]. In my case I gave the name of a big chain of restaurants called Sangeetha’s, it’s not near me but from that area I can give directions.

“Sangeetha’s, sir?” the driver asked as we weaved in and out of traffic. The fact that he had to ask took my concern senses up to Defcon 3, especially given that with my limited Tamil I’m in no position to explain directions. “Yes, Sangeetha’s restaurant” I replied. “Ok, sir”, we drove a little further in the traffic maelstrom before he looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “sir, Sangeetha’s hotel?”, “Amma, yes” I replied, in India if you want to go out to eat you go to a hotel, if you wanted a room and bed from the hotel you would be very disappointed. A few minutes later my driver was on the phone, my concern senses went to Defcon 2 as I picked up words like “foreigner” which meant he was talking about me, “sangeetha’s” which meant he was asking where it was and finally lots of “ammas” and “seris” which meant he was understanding the directions being given.

Excellent I thought to myself as he hung up the phone, on our merry way. Or not, as we swung on to a petrol station forecourt, although not anywhere near a pump. “Two minutes, sir” the younger driver said to me earnestly via the rearview mirror “petrol”, I looked back to the pump and wondered how…oh, nice, he had a 2 litre plastic bottle, out he got ran over to the pump, filled it up with bright orange petrol and came trotting back to the car. With the bottle of petrol securely wedged under the front passeger seat we were back on our little adventure, but it wasn’t to last.

Since the car was built in two centuries ago the ability to sit idling in traffic for long periods of time in the quickly rising Chennai heat was matched only by myself and before long I was dripping sweat and the car was bellowing smoke. Once again we pulled over and the resourceful driver pulled out another 2 litre bottle of water. “Two minutes, sir” he said through the usual rearview mirror mode of communication and he popped the hood (I know I’m not American but saying pop the hood is just so much cooler than saying “I say old chap, would you mind awfully lifting the bonnet“). Within seconds there was the distinct sound of instantly vapourizing water as it turned to steam the moment it came in contact with the engine. Two litres of cooling water poured over the engine later and we were good to go again.

Chennai taxi

“Rhomba hot” the driver said to me, he wasn’t kidding, it was getting very hot.

As we drew nearer to where I wanted to be the driver suddenly yanked the car down a little side street, a “Whoa, stop!” nearly escaped my lips, but I’ve lived in India long enough to know that drivers tend to know where they are going and if they go a route you’ve never been down before then don’t worry until they stop somewhere that isn’t where you want to be. Nine times out of ten it’s just a short cut.

Alas, this was one of those one out of ten times. Concern senses were now at Defcon 1.

We were stopped outside the most downtrodden building in all of Chennai in a backstreet of goodness knows where. “Hotel Sangeetha” the driver beamed. By coincidence it was also one of those times in India where hotel actually meant the room and bed variety. “Illa!” I cried, which means no, “Amma! Hotel Sangeetha” and he pointed enthusiastically at the broken sign. “Illa!” I tried again and then asked him to go back to the main road, “Sir, Hotel Sangeetha” he tried one last time before finally reversing and thinking I was the most stupidest foreigner he’d ever met – didn’t even know where his bloody hotel was!

Old hotel

Finally I did get home though and the driver wasn’t bashful about asking for a tip, without even getting out of the car to help me lift up my rucksack. “No dollars?” He asked as I gave him 50 rupees. “No dollars” I said, waving him off.

Ah, I was finally home.

I opened the door and the apartment looked very clean and tidy so I gave my past self a pat on the back of a job well done.

First things first though, 16 hours on the road and a very sweaty taxi drive later, I needed a shower so I switched on the hot water and waited for it to heat up.

And then, to prove to me that Chennai hadn’t changed a bit, the power went off.

Ah, Chennai, you have changed so much and you haven’t changed a bit. I love you and I hate you.

[1] Although you couldn’t use Dawn French or Fern Britton

Note: None of the photos are mine, they are stock photos!

Getting The Grammar Right

My New Year’s resolution called for me to improve my grammar over the course of the year and to take a little bit of extra thought about what I’m writing. It’s not going to happen overnight and will be a long process, I’ve almost trained myself out of writing things like “Dell have launched a new laptop” and “Google are the number one search engine” and will catch myself (most of the time!) if I make this mistake. I came across this grammar Nazi blog post that[1] I think I need to print out and read daily.

20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes | LitReactor

20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes | LitReactor are 20 common grammar mistakes I see routinely, not only in editorial queries and submissions, but in print: in HR manuals, blogs, magazines, newspapers, trade journals,…

1Please let me have got this one right! It’s restrictive, right?

Chimps Have Better Recall Than Humans?

Just watched the video in the link below where a chimpanzee can see a series of numbers flashed on to a computer screen quicker than it takes a human eye to register what it’s seeing and then proceed to recall the exact position where the sequence of numbers appeared. I don’t think even the Rain Man can compete with that! I certainly could have done with some chimp memory back when I was applying for my air force scholarship, apparently my own number recall ability was beyond useless!

BBC Nature - Ape versus machine: Do primates enjoy computer games?

BBC Nature – Ape versus machine: Do primates enjoy computer games? chimp genius can complete a computer memory test in less time than it takes the average person to blink – and much faster than any human rival. But do the world’s…