Sunday, October 22, 2017

Knowledge and Experience

Bheeshma was lying on the bed of arrows in the middle of Kurukshetra battlefield. The arrows that had pierced his body were shot at him by by his own grandson, Arjuna. Bheeshma was blessed with the boon of choosing the time of his death. Bheeshma decided to wait on the bed of arrows for some more time, however painful it were, before welcoming his death and renounce the physical body.

Bheeshma's entire life was a web of curses and a boon. Many curses combined together behind this one boon to dictate the events in his life. Some of these curses were taking shape even before his birth itself! Considered as one of the foremost warriors of his era, he was witness to many events during his life time. While lying on the bed of arrows, he reflected on the events of his life and the reasons for which he had to face the long wait. Two reasons are given for his long wait.

Lord Brahma was taking a walk along the seashore. Lord Varuna, Lord of the ocean, suddenly came up with big waves and sprayed water on him. Brahma became enraged, told him to calm down and said - Shanto Bhava - (शान्तो भव). Coupled with this, there was another curse on him and Ganga, the divine river. During a celebration in the court of Lord Indra, he was continuously staring at Ganga when her shoulder garment was blown away by the wind while all others looked elsewhere. Ganga was also staring at him. Brahma cursed them to be born on earth and live as man and wife. Varuna took birth as Shantanu, a name derived from the first curse. He met Ganga and asked her to be his wife. Ganga accepted on the condition that he would not question her on any of her actions. The day he questions her, she would be free to dissolve the marriage and go away. The two curses brought them together on the earth as Shantanu and Ganga.

Eight brothers, known as Ashta (eight) Vasus, went to the hermitage of Sage Vasishta. They were well looked after by the sage and treated with all comforts despite living in the forest. The Vasus learnt that all this was due to a sacred cow in the custody of the sage. The youngest brother was tempted by his wife to take away the cow from the sage. Other seven brothers assisted him. The sage cursed them to be born on the earth. The eight brothers repented and begged the sage's mercy. The sage somewhat relented and reduced the rigour of the curse for the seven brothers who only assisted in the attempted crime. They would be born on earth, but get released immediately due to their death, he said. The last brother who was the main offender would however have to lead a full life on earth, he insisted. These eight brothers were born as the sons of Shantanu and Ganga.

As soon as a child was born, Ganga would take it and throw it in the river. Shantanu could not question her as per their arrangement arrived at before the marriage. Seven sons were thus killed. When the eighth son was born, Shantanu could not hold back and stopped Ganga from the child being thrown in the river. Ganga handed over this eighth son, named Devavrata, to Shantanu, dissolved the marriage and left. 

Devavrata was educated by many a stalwarts; he was a student of Brihaspati, the Guru of the Devas, Shukracharya, the Guru of the Demons, Sages Vasishta, Chyavana and Markandeya. He learnt the secrets of archery and warfare from Lord Parashurama. He became a treasure of knowledge and the most learned man of his time.

Meanwhile Shantanu fell in love with Satyavati, the daughter of Daasha Raja. Daasha Raja was agreeable to offer her in marriage but wanted her son to succeed Shantanu as the King. Devavrata being the elder son was now standing between the marriage and the throne. Shantanu did not want to deny Devavrata's rights. But Devavrata found the reason for his father's sadness and persuaded Daasha Raja for the marriage. He told Daasha Raja that he would forego his claim to the throne and Satyavati's son would be the King. Daasha Raja was not satisfied with this offer. What would happen if Devavrata's children claimed the throne in due course? Devavrata went a step further. He promised Daasha Raja that he would never marry and remain a bachelor for the rest of his life! This removed the final hurdle and Satyavati married Shantanu. Devavrata was now known as "Bheeshma" due to his vow to remain a bachelor for the rest of his time and defend the Hastinapur throne as a dedicated protector.

Bheeshma was now tied to the Hastinapur throne by his own vow. He abducted three daughters of the King of Kashi to get them married to his step brother Vichitraveerya. Eldest of them, Amba, was in love with another King, Salva, and therefore was released by Bheeshma. Salva refused to marry her after the abduction. She returned and demanded that Bheeshma marry her. Bheeshma cited his vow and refused. Amba went to Bheeshma's Guru Parushurama and sought his help. Having refused the Guru's advice to marry her due to his vow, Bheeshma had to reluctantly fight his own Guru Parushurama. After more than three weeks of fighting, it was declared as a draw. Amba now took birth as Shikhandi with the sole goal of becoming the reason for Bheeshma's death. Arjuna used Shikhandi as a shield and felled Bheeshma on the bed of arrows.

Lying on the bed of arrows, Bheeshma was reviewing all happenings in his life. Karna had the sympathy of all for his misfortune, but his own misfortune was far greater than that of Karna. He could not even breathe his last as there was one more duty that he had to perform.

What are the two reasons for his long wait on the bed of arrows? First reason given is that he waited for Uttarayana Punyakala, the time when the Sun starts his journey northwards. The second reason given is that he had to wait for the conclusion of the war and satisfy himself that the throne of Hastinapur was safe. Both were minor reasons. The belief that those who die in Uttarayana alone go to heaven is not true. Reaching heaven or hell is purely dependant on ones own deeds during the life time. Only the paths traced for the onward journey during Uttarayana and Dakshinayana are different and it does not affect the final destination. Otherwise half the people can never reach heaven as they die in Dakshinayana. As regards safety of the throne, it was well known that Pandavas would ultimately win the war and Yudhishtira would occupy the throne at the conclusion of the war. This being the case what was the real secret behind Bheeshma's long wait?

Once the war is concluded and Yudhishtira is anointed as the King, Krishna brings the new King and his brothers to Kurukshetra battlefield to meet Bheeshma. Bheeshma recites "Vishnu Sahasranaama" and seeks Krishna's permission to welcome his death. The discussion between Bheeshma and Krishna goes thus:

"Pitamah (Grandfather), you are the treasure house of all knowledge in the world. There is no other person on this earth who has amassed the amount of knowledge as you have done. The list of your Gurus itself is a testimony to this. You have one real reason for holding your life till now. Your exemplary knowledge should not go waste. King Yudhishtira is the right person to receive this treasure. Please advise him urgently when you are still here".

"Krishna, when you are yourself present here and advising Pandavas, who am I to advise Yudhishtira?"

"I may have the knowledge. I do not have your experience. Mere knowledge is not enough. Experience is equally valuable. Furthermore, your knowledge and experience should pass on especially to your successors in the family. Please pass on your knowledge and experience to him before you embrace your death".

Bheeshma duly obliged and advised Yudhishtira at length. His advice is recorded in the latter part of Mahabharata. Once the duty was completed, he renounced the human body and concluded his life's journey.

This has a great lesson for all of us. Knowledge is indeed important. Experience is equally important. Knowledge and experience are to be passed on to the next generation. That ensures continuity. And thus life goes on.....

Saturday, September 30, 2017

At the Tip of the Tongue

Which one is the most important organ in a human body? Opinions may differ. Heart could be one answer, as most death certificates suggest that the life went out because heart stopped functioning. The intellectuals may argue that it is the brain. Lungs are indeed important as well. Hands may compete with other organs as most of the work is done with them. Legs are not far behind as they carry all other organs wherever they go. Medicos use the term vital organs for a collection of various organs. One way to answer this question could be to remove one organ after another till a body dies. Even then what we get is a technical answer which does not address the real question. Mere living is not enough. Life has to be meaningful. There should be some achievement to show at the end of one's life. Otherwise it is a beastly life, say many a valued and revered texts.

Some people are very popular with others. Wherever they go, they are respected. Others flock to them and would like to spend some time with them. There are some others who make people run away from them. Some bosses are loved. There are some other bosses who are feared. There are some more bosses who are simply hated. There are administrators who are loved even after they vacate their chairs. There are other administrators who are feared when they are in power but ignored and treated with contempt when they lose their seats. When in trouble and in need of help, people try to find someone to confide and seek advice. These are persons who are liked by all friends and relatives. There are persons who are hated by all friends and relatives. Some succeed in managing and persuading others even in difficult circumstances. What makes these distinctions? Why there is such difference among people around us? This indeed is an interesting question.

The word "Tongue" has as many as 37 meanings in online dictionary, including 'slip of tongue' and 'tongue in cheek'. It is one of the organs in the body that has multiple functions. It is an important member of the digestive system. Life would never be the same if tongue were not to identify taste of the food items. It is one of the five sensory organs and we realise its value when we lose taste temporarily due to sickness. Tongue is also a tool for communication. It's value is known to those who cannot speak. Salesmen know the best use of tongue for achieving their targets. An ancient text "Subhashita Ratna Bhaandaagara", in one of its verses, proclaims that tongue is the most important organ of the human body. Not just the body, but it is the tongue around which the whole life of a person revolves.  

Accumulation of wealth and its uses stand on the tongue. For earning and building wealth, one needs to interact with people. It is not only for earning but also enjoying the fruits of the wealth that is accumulated over time. Tip of the tongue is the place where Mother Lakshmi, Godess of Wealth resides. Just as the sweet and positive words help in developing relationships and earn wealth, bitter and negative words drive away relationships and wealth. The process of earning, developing, retaining and enjoying wealth stands on the tip of the tongue just as driving away the same wealth also is at the tip of the same tongue. A key opens a lock as well as closes it. Entry and exit of wealth are by the use of the same tip of the tongue that acts as a key.

Saint Purandaradasa says that one should be like jaggery (sugar-like) while dealing with relatives and friends (ಬೆಲ್ಲವಾಗಿರಬೇಕು ಬಂಧುಜನರೊಳಗೆ). Dealing with near and dear ones should be with compassion and aid relationship building; not relation breaking. It does not mean that one should be untruthful; truth can be couched in palatable language. Many people pride themselves as being cut-and-dried in dealing with others. It only drives away others. Purpose of life is not to do this; it is for co-existence. Again, it is the tip of the tongue that ensures that friends and relatives stay with you or desert you.

The tongue is the organ that exposes us and often ends up in our being in undesirable situations. There are innumerable stories and anecdotes where uttering wrong things at the wrong time resulted in persons being arrested and imprisoned. Many a criminals got away from their crimes and might never have been caught but for their boasting of their exploits or blurting out the truth in an unguarded moment. There are many examples of innocent people as well going to jail by speaking unwanted or unnecessary things at wrong times and places. The tip of the tongue can free us or imprison us as well.

Life can come to an abrupt end due to the tip of the tongue. We are witnesses to many a road rage cases where due to some words spoken in the heat of the moment, someone is killed. When getting into arguments with others, real issues take a back seat and a wrong word spoken or interpreted wrongly enhances the tension and may even result in death of someone. Tip of the tongue brings in death as well in such situations.

All this is simplified and explained in this verse from Subhashita Ratna Bhaandaagara:

लक्ष्मिर्वसति जिह्वाग्रे जिह्वाग्रे मित्र बान्धवाः|
जिह्वाग्रे बन्धनं प्राप्तं जिह्वाग्रे मरणं ध्रुवम् ||

Lakshmeervasati Jihvaagre Jihvaagre Mitra Bandhavaah|
Jihvaagre bhandhanam praaptam Jihvaagre Maranam Dhruvam||

There is an old story about a fight between the tongue and teeth. Teeth threatened the tongue that they will cut it if it does not behave. Tongue is said to have replied thus: "Don't ever threaten me; one wrong word from me will ensure the end of all of you!".

Teeth are safe as long as tongue is in check. When tongue misbehaves, consequences can be disastrous. Tip of the tongue is indeed the most important organ of the human body!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Not Just For Walking

Many words are easy to understand but difficult to define. We have to take the help of dictionary to find a proper definition for such words. The word "Footpath" is not one among such words. It is probably easy to define and its dictionary meaning is also quite simple. Dictionary meaning of the word footpath is "A path for people going on foot". Another definition is "a narrow path for walkers only". Both these definitions make two things very clear; the size and use of footpath. It is expected to be narrow and it is reserved to be used only by walkers. It is also to be used only by people going on foot.

There were days when footpath was considered safe for people going on foot as they need not worry about other modes of transport, usually heavy and fast, going on the road. The road part and the footpath existed side by side. As Panchasheel is being suddenly remembered today, after fifty years, we could as well say that footpaths and the roads had a time of peaceful co-existence. Not any longer. The density of vehicle population is overtaking human population and hence it has become important to increase the size of the road and reduce the extent of footpath. In addition to the reduction in size of the footpath, it has found many other uses as well. Even gods have chosen to make their homes on footpath. Shops have come up there. They started on temporary basis but became permanent in due course. There are even "Footpath Merchants Associations" to fight for the rights of selling on footpath. Of course, there is no footpath walkers association. In cities like Bangalore it is common to see traffic police chiding two wheeler drivers for running their vehicles on the road. "Why do you come here? Can't you see so much of space is available on footpath?", they say!

Some areas of Seattle city are excellent examples of alternate uses of a footpath. Seattle is an important city in the Pacific Northwest and is growing faster than many others due to some of the growing companies operating from there as headquarters. The old city still maintains its charms. Each house is different in these residential areas; there are no multi-storied buildings and concrete monsters. The houses stand in the middle of landscaped gardens withe each having a different type of pathway leading to the main door. There are flowers galore and fruit bearing trees around the house. Most of them are not fenced and yet the gardens are perfectly safe. It is a city where you may find an apple tree full of red ready-to-eat apples during your evening walk on the side of footpath and still find them that way after two days. Vegetables are grown in the garden around the house and there is no danger of theft or being eaten away by free roaming cattle. Footpath is strict for pedestrians only. The vehicles on the road stop and allow a person on foot the right of way to cross the road. In short, roads and footpath have a wonderful and peaceful co-existence.

There is a picture given at the top here. A newcomer to the city would wonder what this is. It is a footpath library. Residents of the area have put up such structures in front of their houses. The books purchased and read are later kept in such library shelves on the footpath. Anybody going on the street can check the books in the shelf, decide what is to be read and take the book with them for reading. The shelves have doors but no locks. If you have books that you do not need at home, you could also add to the collection. There are no accounts kept and there is no need to return the book at all. A book taken from one shelf can be returned to another shelf elsewhere, if one wants. It is a wonderful community service centre and they are always full of books. They are used regularly but there is no vandalism or theft in the regular sense of the words.

Another use of footpath and median can also be seen in Seattle. For orderly and safe vehicular traffic, most roads are provided with median space to divide traffic on the two directions. Space available on medians is not used for walking. We can find some plants in such space all round the world. But Seattle has something more than this. In many median space, vegetables are grown. Cabbage, tomato, eggplant (brinjal), lettuce, and other similar vegetables are grown here. A picture of such median garden is given alongside. A regular checking of these gardens for a full month showed that somebody was watering them regularly and de-weeding them. The vegetables were allowed to grow to their full potential without being taken away by somebody in the middle of day or night. There are flower gardens as well and the beauty of the flowers in them is a delight to watch whether you are walking on the footpath or driving along the road. 
An extension of usage of surplus resource has been highlighted in the press here last week. Dr Issa Fathima Jasmine of Beasant Nagar, Chennai (See photograph on the right) had a problem of disposal of remaining food items each day. She was giving it away to an old lady sitting in her street corner. Then she thought of many others who need food like that old lady. But one does not know whom to offer as some may get offended when it is offered to them. It is also a difficult proposition to wait for someone with food in the hands leaving aside other work one has at home or at office. Dr Fathima has solved this problem by keeping a community refrigerator outside the Besant Nagar Tennis Club. The initiative is called "Ayyamittu Unn". Avvayars (meaning respectable lady) are a series of Tamil poets who have enriched the literature by their valued works. One collection of poems titled Aathichoodi of Avaviyar has a poem, the first stanza refers to "share the food with the needy before you eat". The food sharing has now got extended to clothes and other items as well.

In fact, this is not something totally new. It is reported that there are community fridge system in Mumbai and other cities as well. The idea of sharing or giving away something which still has some value for others has been there for generations in our country. More and more organized efforts are now finding expressions in different forms.

The world is always a better place to live with co-existence. "Love the life you Live; Live the life you Love", says a mural (a large painting on the wall of a building on roadside) in Seattle. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Kickstarter and Crowdfunding

When we study growth of civilization over the last several centuries, we come across contributions of several people in the form of inventions. These inventions rendered difficult tasks simple, provided resources for further research and development, and thereby enriched human lives and surroundings. There are indeed big names remembered for their contributions. They have got their right of place in the annals of chapters of development. Yet there are thousands of others who toiled as much as the famous ones, but never got the recognitions they richly deserved. Then there are innumerable unsung heroes whose names never came out, but their contributions are used in many applications and inventions. What we have today is a sum total of the contributions of all three such groups.

It is possible that many contributions lapsed before taking a concrete shape which resulted in great loss to mankind. They might have subsequently come in some other shape or form. But the loss of time would have been a significant factor. This was all the more true of times when documentation and communication had not yet developed to the desired level. Nor there was an efficient system of publishing and recording rights of individual inventors. There could have been instances when the inventors themselves did not know the value of their own contributions. Thanks to the present day technological advancements, there are abundant opportunities for ideas to germinate, take shape and reach their logical conclusions. The pace of growth is now in geometric progression due to these factors.

When we analyze the reasons for many ideas and inventions to lapse before reaching an ultimate level, three factors stand out. The first was failure of recognition of the ideas by the ones who had them in their minds and initial actions. The ideas or actions were forgotten before their importance was noticed to the fullest extent. Then there were others that were identified by their owners, but did not receive support from the surroundings. The concepts could not sustain due to lack of encouragement from concerned authorities or society at large. License and permits, and clearance from governments did not come speedily enough as the promoters did not have the requisite muscle or money power. The third reason is due to lack of resources to expand the ideas and give a final shape to the products. Among all the resources required, financial resources is the most important. Many brilliant ideas never took final shape for want of funds for their development.

Gopalaswamy Doraiswamy Naidu (1893 -1974) was an engineer and inventor and is often referred as Edison of India. Popularly known as G D Naidu, he made invaluable contributions to various fields of technology. A self-taught man, he was a genius in the real sense of the word. His life story is a very interesting study in the background of the events in the country during his lifetime. His inventions are visible in many areas; industrial, electrical, mechanical, agricultural and automobile engineering. He never had education beyond primary level, but rose to the position of principal of a polytechnic! He was an outstanding example of achievements of a man without formal education.

G D Naidu did not like to go to school. He was a very mischievous boy at school and was throwing sand and stones at teachers, and sent out of school. His education ended there. He worked as a waiter in a hotel in Coimbatore and saved money from the meagre earnings. From the funds so saved, he bought a motorcycle, which was very rare in those days. Picture of the motorcycle is given here. He dismantled and assembled it repeatedly and became a mechanic. From the earnings as a mechanic, he started Universal Motor Services (UMS), purchased a bus and ran it between Pollachi and Palani. In a few years he had one of the most efficient fleet of buses for public transport. He started National Electric Works (NEW) and brought the first electric motor in India. 

Naidu did research in the field of agriculture as well and identified new varieties of cotton, maize and papaya. He started production of cheap radio and television sets under the brand UMS. I have seen UMS radio and TV in my uncle's house. He built cheap cars but could not go for mass production due to not getting license from the government. It is said that he started construction of a house at 6 AM in the morning and finished by 5 PM. The house was ready in 11 hours! He started Arthur Hope Polytechnic (named after the then Governor of Madras) and became its principal. The polytechnic is now known as GCT (Government College of Technology) in Coimbatore. His inventions and prototypes are kept in the G D Naidu museum in Avinashi Road, Coimbatore. The museum is now celebrating its 50th year.

The concept of Venture Capital has taken off during the last few decades. During the first half of 20th century, financing new ideas was an exclusive domain of a few wealthy families. The Rockefellers was one such family that encouraged funding new ventures. After World War II, efforts for institutional financing framework for ventures which had high growth potential but highly risky, gathered momentum. During the last three decades Venture Capital Funds have come up very well providing a robust structure for finance at different levels to upcoming business ideas and plans. Today Venture Capital funding is available in millions of dollars. Many ventures thus financed have become success stories and encouraged both entrepreneurs as well as VC funds in their respective pursuits.  

For ideas to germinate and reach VC funds is still a difficult task. Big ventures are able to reach these required levels. What about very small projects which do not measure up to the standards expected by VC funds? There are innumerable start-ups which do not need big finances, but resources of the promoters are not sufficient to fund them. At the other end of the spectrum are people who are prepared to invest small amounts to back ideas that interest them. Thus we have a scenario in which ideas requiring smaller funding stand on one side whereas a large number of people (the crowd) are ready on the other side to stake small amounts on such ventures. This type of situations have led to an era of Kickstarting and Crowdfunding. There are intermediaries that bring together the two groups so that the ventures can take off. 

Kickstarter is an American Public Benefit Corporation based in Brooklyn, New York. The goal is to "Help bring creative projects to Life". We old timers are familiar with kick-starters, a pedal used to start a machine by kicking it. Most vehicles, especially motorcycles, had it by kicking which the vehicle's engine came to life. We have seen Motors (buses were thus called then) in our childhood which had an iron rod used for starting its engine until modren touch start engines arrived. Crowdfunding is an activity or process of raising money from a large number of people, typically through a website, for small business projects. Kickstarter, launched in 2009, has so far generated more than 2 billion US Dollars from over 10 million backers to fund over 2,60,000 creative projects.

The ventures cover a variety of ideas like stage shows, comics, films, journalism, video games, technology and food-related ideas. People with business ideas place their offers on the website giving details of their plans and a minimum funding target before a fixed deadline date. Funds are collected only after the target amount is subscribed by the crowd. If the target is not reached, the project does not take off. Anybody anywhere in the world can contribute to the projects. The website gets a fee from all successful projects and payment processor also charges a fee for the services rendered. The website has no role after funding process is completed. Investors are offered the products or dividends if the project succeeds and it is between the promoters and the crowd. It is said that people from more than 20 countries are now actively participating in crowdfunding. There have been many success stories as well as failures. Each investor invests a small amount and does not mind taking the risk for that amount. They may get good returns as well if the venture succeeds. It is said that there are ventures that have raised more than a million US Dollars in 24 hours!

Crowdfunding is catching up and there are many websites providing similar services now. This is another diversification of fundraising and utilizing activities today.

G D Naidu suffered from licensing and permit raj. He struggled due to lack of support from the surroundings. He was choked due to shortage of funding opportunities. Things have changed in the present times. Make in India has said goodbye to License and Permit raj. There is a large crowd around the world ready to invest in new ideas. Environment is pregnant with new ideas and opportunities to promote them in the light of success stories of modern entrepreneurship. Times have indeed changed the very look of things.

G D Naidu would have loved to be active in the present times!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Majestic Mount Rainier

The term Pacific Northwest is used with reference to the geographical region between the Pacific Ocean in the west and Rocky Mountains on the east. Oregon and Washington states of the United States of America and British Columbia province of Canada form the core geographical areas of the region. Sometimes even Alaska and the northern mountainous regions of California are also included in this term.  The area has bountiful natural beauty with the Pacific Ocean on the one side and the coastal mountains, Cascade Range, Olympic Mountains, Columbia Mountains and the Rocky Mountain range on the other.  The Mount Rainier National Park in the Washington Cascades is one among the many tourist attractions in the area. Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada), Seattle (Washington state) and Portland (Oregon state) are the major cities in the Pacific Northwest. Water bodies, hills, wild life and rich vegetation have made the area attractive to visitors. Many man made monuments and attractions have enhanced tourist interest in the region.

Mount Rainier stands 14,410 feet (4392 meters) above sea level and dominates the southeastern skyline horizon from Seattle and surrounding areas on any clear day. Its snow clad peaks can be seen from several miles distance. The mountain was originally known as Mount Tacoma or Mount Tahoma and forms a part of the Cascade range. It is said that Tahoma meant "Mother of Waters", signifying the six major rivers in the area, that take their birth from the perennial melting glaciers on the mountains. Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy who surveyed the Pacific coast in 1792, named it as Mount Rainier after his friend Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. Both names were being used until the establishment of Mount Rainier National Park. Facilities for the visitors and tourists have been improving since then and Mount Rainier has become a important tourist destination for people visiting Pacific North West. 

Mount Rainier is in fact an active volcano and counted as one among the 16 worldwide active stratovolcanoes. That makes it one of the most dangerous volcanos in the world. In case of eruptions, the damage would be wide-spread. The ash eruption may affect areas up to Vancouver in the north to San Francisco in the south. Geologists have identified 26 major glaciers and 36 square miles of permanent snowfields that cover the peaks of the mountains. Two volcano crates of more than 1000 feet diameter are visible at the top of the mountains.  

Views of Mount Rainier varies from season to season. The green valleys below the mountains is a wonderful sight during the summer months. The all-white snow clad view in winter months has its own beauty. One can say that it is a matter of opinion, but the views during the months of August are a sight to behold. On a clear sunny day in August, the mountain offers a majestic view with lush green meadows in the foreground. 

One of the best views of the mountain is seen from a lake near Paradise visitors center. on a clear day with no winds blowing across, the reflected image of the mountain peaks can be seen in the still waters of the lake in the valley below. The lake is appropriately named as the "Reflection lake". The picture given alongside has captured this view beautifully. The area around the valleys is a popular destination for hikers and campers. Backcountry skiing, winter sports and rock climbing are the activities indulged in by adventure lovers. August month also offers great views of miles and miles of subalpine wildflower meadows. Waterfalls and small rivers and rivulets add to the beauty of the scenic spots and view points. Parking is a perennial problem, but the mere drive along the roads is itself a rewarding experience.  

The park can be visited from three different approach routes. Our visit yesterday was from the Seattle side. The 54 mile drive to the mountain had around 25 miles in the climbing road through the forest areas. It was a pleasant drive amidst wonderful scenery. The sunny day gave ample opportunities to see the majestic mountains as well as green meadows in the valleys, subalpine flowers, clear lakes and rivers and enabled enjoying the true grandeur of the Mount Rainier.

If you are anywhere around Pacific Northwest with a day to spare, Mount Rainier is the place to go! 

Monday, August 7, 2017

It will shake you...

All stakeholders love profit making companies. Loss is a dirty word in finance and banking, except when it refers to the competitor's financial statements. The era of computer accounting has changed how financial statements look now. In the days of manual accounting, black was indeed beautiful. It was so because loss was shown in red ink in the statements then. Companies pride themselves in stating that they have an interrupted profitability record. Investors love to invest in profit making companies, and more particularly regularly dividend paying companies. All companies do not make profit every year. Even those who make profits are unable to declare dividend every year. Regularly profit making companies also skip dividend payments in some years. Most regularly profit making companies declare dividend once in a year. Shareholders look to these annual announcements with interest and hope. Occasionally they are rewarded with bonus shares or a bumper dividend. It could even be said that receiving dividends on investment in shares depends on the companies profits as well as investors luck. Some companies declare mid-year or interim dividend followed by a final dividend. A dividend every quarter is almost unheard in the annals of business enterprises.

Then there are industries and businesses that follow a cyclical pattern. They have their up years and down years. Good years are almost certain to be followed by bad years. Managements of such companies have special strategies in place to deal with such cyclical patterns. There are industries whose performance depends on performance of the economy in general. They ride on good times and wobble during bad times. Thus consistent profit making and dividend paying is indeed a golden achievement for companies in such industries, during these turbulent times.

How about a company that has continuous profit making as well as dividend paying record? Also a record of paying dividends every quarter for a long period of time?

Southwest Airlines is a company that belongs to this rare category. It has all these features. As a company in the airline industry, its performance is directly linked to the performance of economy in general. It is a part of the turbulent industry, literally and figuratively. In a boom year the performance can be better and in the years of depression it has all possibilities of nosediving. But Southwest Airlines has  a record of continuous profits for 44 years. It has been paying dividends every quarter for the last 41 years. The Airline recently declared dividends for 164th consecutive quarter!

Southwest Airlines is indeed a very interesting case study for academicians as well as business enterprises.

What makes Southwest Airlines such a distinguished company? Those who use its services frequently are well aware of these features. Some of them are:
  • Goodwill earned over a period of time by providing efficient low-cost flying experience.
  • One of the best overall on-time performance.
  • "When you fly, your bags fly free". The airline allows two checked-in bags as against one bag by most other airlines.
  • "No assigned seat" seating system. Seat numbers are not assigned at the time of booking or checking in. Instead a boarding group number is given and one can choose any available seat once inside the aircraft. 
  • The company uses only Boeing 737-700 and 737-800 aircrafts. While this in itself may not be a special feature, this facilitates training of all crew members efficiently and flying as well as cabin crew are at home on any aircraft in the fleet. (Those of us who were in banking industry during the initial years of computerization with different vendors know the difference!)
  • Friendlier cabin crew and courteous behavior.
  • "Bring your own food" system that allows flyers to bring food from home and use it on flights.
  • "Not charging change fees" that allows flexibility in travel plans and last minute changes without extra cost.

A statement printed on the paper napkins reads "In a world of many "No"s, we are a company of many "Yes". 

The flight to Chicago Midway airport had taken off as scheduled from Philadelphia International airport at 5.30 PM on Saturday, 5th August, 2017. There was some anxiety in the mind as the connecting flight from Chicago to Seattle was to take off within one hour from the scheduled landing at Chicago. The airline policy of no assigned seats came in handy as seat 1C, the first seat for getting out of the cabin on landing was available for grabs. 

The usual message from the CEO in the airline magazine, kept with safety instructions to be followed in the aircrafts, made interesting reading. Gary Kelly, Chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines had mentioned that he would sum up his 31 year experience with the company in "Our People". I was going through the article when the cabin attendant enquired about the choice of soft drink to be served. The CEO had mentioned that the company looked for three qualities when they hired people: a Server's Heart, a Fun-LUVing Attitude and a Warrior's spirits.

I was just handed the apple juice cup when the pilot advised on the PA system, all the passengers to get back to the seats and fasten seat belts. He said that we may experience some heavy turbulence for the next few minutes. We were cruising at 36,000 feet and generally not much of it happens at that height. For first time flyers turbulence can indeed be scary, but seasoned travelers take them in their strides. There were indeed some instances in the past when drinks were spilled during such extreme movements of aircraft in the air. But what happened at this time was indeed different. The violent shaking threw out all the liquid from the cups of all three of us in the front seats. The cabin assistant had to use sheafs of paper napkins to wipe the soaking liquids. The turbulence continued for several minutes. Cabin attendants ran to their seats and buckled themselves. It was indeed an experience! Many might have suddenly remembered long forgotten prayers on their lips. After about 15 minutes, things were back to near normal and rest of the flight was uneventful with smooth landing at the Chicago airport. We got extra serving of juice to compensate for the wet dresses!

The entire thing fell in perspective when a news item on the next morning was read and understood. 

An American Airlines flight (flight number 759) had taken off from Athens in Greece to Philadelphia nearly ten hours ago when our experience on southwest airlines happened. The flight was full of people who had spent their vacation in Greece. The 10 hour flight was another normal flight and the aircraft had cleared its flying over the Atlantic. Passengers later even described that the American landline was visible from the sky. A sudden strong bout of turbulence hit the plane. A man who was on his seat flew high, hit the ceiling and landed hard on his father sitting on the next seat. Ceiling of the aircraft was splattered with coffee and there was coffee flowing in the cabin. All flight attendants ran for safety. After sometime, one attendant appeared and said that she was the only one able to serve others; other flight attendants were injured and needed help themselves. The turbulence lasted for sometime, but final landing at Philadelphia was indeed smooth. 

Ten people including seven flight attendants were hospitalized after the flight landed in Philadelphia. Travelers said that it was as if the aircraft was on a free fall. The experienced pilots and the capabilities of modren aircraft had saved the day. There was no forewarning and the previous aircraft that had just passed that area had only reported mild turbulence. There was no time to react or go around the troubled area in the sky.

We were on the Southwest flight to Chicago, a few hundred miles to the west in the sky, around the same time.

Safety instructions like being with seat belts on at all times while seated and reading safety instructions are often ignored by travelers, especially the frequent flyers. The American Airlines flight 759 experience is a timely reminder to highlight the importance of safety instructions. 

Thomas Campbell's Loichiel's Warning mentions ".... And coming events cast their shadows before.."  It is a famous quote that is often used to say that shape of things to come are given out by some warnings well in advance.

Not always, as this turbulence showed.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A long way to go .....

What does a traveler coming out of an airport after a long journey desire? First thing could be searching a relative, friend, known face or contact who has come to receive at the airport gates. If this is found, it also solves the problem of transportation into the city. If there is no such comfort of a known face or contact, the next thing could be transportation into the city. It is the same whether the destination is a hotel or one’s own house. A peaceful and comfortable ride without hassles of luggage handling is one thing that anybody wants at that point in time.

Modern airports have many solutions to meet this requirement. There are metro services linking the airports with city areas that provide efficient and fast transportation. Many airports have bus service that are comfortable and cheap. If both these are not available, the only alternative is to take a taxi ride.

There would be good experiences as well as bad ones when one compares what was faced on the several such trips taken in the past. The details of the experiences would certainly vary. But the establishment and following of the systems indeed makes the difference to such experiences.

A reflection on these issues, while sitting at the CDG airport at Paris for a connecting flight, indeed brings out very interesting aspects of such encounters in different cities.

As you come out of Bengaluru International Airport, the only two alternatives available are the taxi service and city transport buses. Metro is said to be coming, may be at the times of our grandchildren. City buses are fine for those traveling with a handbag. Even here, the way in which the buses are parked at the terminal reminds of the maze games one plays on their mobiles. Those arriving with heavy luggage, especially after long international flights, have the only option of taxis to take them up to their doors. Usually there is a line of waiting taxis ready to hire, but the process of reaching one's destination is often painful.

Though waiting in the line for a fare, the cab driver is more interested in knowing where you want to go than yourself. Some of them ask other fellow drivers in the line if they are interested, in case the location is not to their liking. They are happy with passengers who have little or no luggage. Heavy luggage puts them off. When the car boot is opened, the driver waits to see if you volunteer to handle the luggage yourself. More often than not, you find the boot dirty with a bucket and dirty cloth occupying the place that is actually meant for baggage. Popular taxi operators do not provide the option of bigger vehicles for airport duty. The taxi driver will be generous to offer help to you in such situations. He suggests that you hire another taxi exclusively for the luggage. There was an instance when two of us arrived with four suitcases. The driver was kind to suggest that we take two taxis and one person with two bags can travel in one taxi. Problem was easily solved! There are private operators who provide bigger vehicles but they are parked away from the gates. You have to walk the extra distance to get into them. Their charges are also very high.

Once in the taxi, the problems are not over. The driver asks you the route he should take. When you give the route, he offers many explanations why it should not be taken. Ultimately he takes the route he wants. Married people understand this system, but unmarried people find it strange. Many of them do not know even important landmarks and you are required to give directions. Strangers to the city have a big problem on their hands. Drivers ask about the place from which you have arrived. If you answer, there will be further questions. The drivers are often shabbily dressed and unshaven. If you ask them why they are so, they say that their duty hours are like that. Even if the taxi company claims that their cabs are all AC vehicles, the drivers do not use AC. If you insist, they grudgingly act or advise that it is not required for Bangalore weather conditions. Most of them get calls on mobile while driving and unhesitatingly receive them without excuse. After all, it is his cab, his mobile and his own friend calling him. The calls are usually long and mostly centers on where is he and how many trips he did that day. Fortunately, no additional charges are levied for giving all this information to you.

As the cab eases from the airport and reaches the tollbooth, he stretches his hand for the toll charges. There is no system of paying the toll and collecting along with the fare at the end of the journey. Once toll is paid and the cab is on the highway, he switches on Radio City or Mirchi FM and you are given a generous dose of the music he wants. If you ask him to switch off, he scares you that if he does so, he may doze off. I once suggested to a cab driver to use earphones. He said that ear phones disturbs their concentration! Cab companies claim that card payments are accepted but many of them do not do so for some reason or the other. When you reach your hotel or house, you are indeed relieved. The memory of cab ride erases whatever problems you had on the flights!


A line of taxis wait outside CDG airport in Paris. The next taxi moves towards you. The driver is well dressed and polite. If you have more pieces of luggage, a bigger vehicle from the line comes to you. The cab driver picks the luggage and arranges neatly in the clean boot. You have to give the destination address. The drivers know the roads and lanes and you are taken up to the building you are looking for. They do not talk unnecessarily on the way, During our last visit, there was a charge of one Euro baggage handling charge per piece of luggage. There were no charges for small items carried inside the cab. 

The system has been further streamlined now. The fair table is more simple. The amount to be paid from CDG airport to left bank is 55 Euros. It is 50 Euros for the right bank. Irrespective of the distance amount is the same. Left and right banks refer to the banks of the river Seine that flows through the city. If it is from Orly airport, the fares are 35 and 30 Euros respectively. The fare is the same whether it is during day or night or rush hour. It is the same on week days and weekends. There is no extra fare for baggage now. The fare is same for up to 4 passengers. An additional 4 Euros are charged for each passenger in excess of four. Drivers have earphones if they desire to listen to their choice tunes. If a cab is called on phone from home to go to airport, it arrives within minutes. The cab driver handles the baggage. Extra politeness is shown to the aged and differently abled. Overall, it would be a pleasant experience.

The purpose of this post is not to suggest that the systems are excellent everywhere and our systems are bad. There could be bad experiences elsewhere also. There may be good experience in Bengaluru as well. 

We have a long way to go in improving our cab services if our tourism is to progress and traveler friendly, and making our cities popular tourist destinations.