The Urban Legend of Process Improvement by Flies

I once received an email about how men’s urinals at the Amsterdam Schipol airport have pictures of a fly on them. Apparently having such a picture causes some subconscious compulsion in men to aim better, resulting in lower costs of cleaning. I had a hard time believing, though, that such pictures were indeed present. That was till my most recent trip to India via Singapore’s Changi Airport.

While making a trip to a restroom in the recently completed Terminal 3 (it was opened to the public on 9th January, 2008), I noticed that there was indeed a fly painted on the urinals.

Do you see it?
Do you see it?

Do you see it now?
Do you see it now?

I checked a few other restrooms in the terminal – all had this feature. Quick research using the (free) internet available at the airport told me that some terminals at the JFK International Airport in New York too have this feature.

I didn’t try to visit the older terminals to see if they had this design. As it is I received some what-a-weirdo stares from the janitors when I tried to take these pictures with my phone.

Doing an Asok

For all the money a consultant makes, the job is often thankless. Nothing exemplifies this better than today’s Dilbert:

There are some parallels and some non-parallels between Asok and me:

  • Asok, like me is an IIT graduate. Worse still, like me he is trained to sleep only on national holidays

  • I must have flunked the course where they taught us to reheat tea by holding the cup to my forehead

  • But I did meet the prerequisite for getting in

  • Asok is an intern, hence his position at the company is not permanent. As a consultant my privileges at my client are pretty similar, except that a consultant probably earns about 4 times more than an intern

  • I must have also flunked this other course, since I am still nutty about a lot of things:

My kinship with Asok often reminds me of this classic scene from Lage Raho Munna Bhai:

Yes, just keep doing it hoping that some day things will be better.

Paul Zoolander McCartney

Remember the laugh riot Zoolander? Remember how Derek Zoolander had those patented looks? Blue Steel, Ferrari, La Tigre and Magnum?

Derek Zoolander's La Tigre, essentially the same as Blue Steel, Ferrari and the revolutionary Magnum
Derek Zoolander's Blue Steel, essentially the same as Ferrari, La Tigre and the revolutionary Magnum

I caught this movie quite a few years after its release, so when Starbucks signed up Sir Paul McCartney, the look was still fresh in my mind. And here is what I spotted at a Starbucks outlet:

Sir Paul McCartney, looking suspiciously like Derek Zoolander
Sir Paul McCartney, looking suspiciously like Derek Zoolander

Everybody reminds somebody of someone else, but this resemblance was spooky. What do you think?

I am a Frying Pan

Back in the day when I was doing my technology baccalaureate (Okay, I am showing off – I mean BTech) there was a team among my batchmates that was working on developing a text to speech generator in 1998. The concept certainly sounded both good and novel, till I graduated and was introduced to BonziBUDDY in 2000. At that point my friends’ idea only felt good, not novel. Also fascinating were concepts like voice recognition software and speech processors, which essentially worked the opposite route.

The trouble with speech processors is that they have a fairly complex problem to solve. Even for a single language like English there are so many different pronunciations and accents that they can drive you crazy. I have already documented “schedule” being pronounced as “shedyule” and “skejyule”. In addition I learnt the hard way that the Brit / Indian pronunciation of geyser is actually offensive in the US. Firstly you are supposed to say “hot water spring”, and if you say “geyser” you are not supposed to pronounce it as “geezer”, but “guyzer”. Forget the difference in British and American pronunciations – each country where English is spoken you have multiple pronunciations and accents. Followers of cricket will chuckle at the recollection of Geoffrey Boycott, a staunch Brit saying rubbish (“roobish”), cricket (“crickit”) and wicket (“wickit”). And when you go to a country like India the pronunciations and accents can have you in splits. Just imagine a simple line, “Will you have some food?” being said by a stereotypical Bengali, South Indian and North Indian:

Bengali: Ooill you hab some phood?
South Indian: Vill you haoow some foodda?
North Indian: (Forget it – they would bypass English and ask you the same question in Hindi)

(Apologies if the above offends you, but I know of several people in each of the buckets above who speak in this manner)

Which is why I find it really amusing to see the ubiquity of automated voice based response systems provided by different companies. There are so many reasons why it is not a good idea to let loose a half-baked speech processing software on an unsuspecting audience that it makes you wonder about the people in charge. One of the funniest commercials highlighting this was an ad for a Kyocera phone:

Another is the more recent Mac vs. PC ad from Apple:

Some speech recognition software is heuristic in nature, however, and that helps improve the process. But whatever be the case, my luck with automated speech processing has been disastrous to say the least. Most of the time I end up hating an automated speech processing-based response system within 30 seconds of my encounter. Here are some snapshots from different telephone calls. A lot of these come down to the fact that I have a tough time doing the American accent sub-consciously and I avoid doing it consciously.

System: Please say what you would like to do?
Me: Talk to a representative
System: Okay, so you want to go to a mail order pharmacy. Is that correct?


I have a subscription for Vonage Visual Voicemail. It tries to transcribe a voice message to text and sends me an email. In some cases it butchers a message left by an American, but that is nothing compared to the hideous mockery that takes place with some messages left by Tanuka’s Indian friends. The messages are in English and have the sporadic Indian interjections:

  • A devastating massacre:
    Date : May 19 2009 03:41:12 PM
    From : 1408xxxxxxx
    To : Sayontan Sinha (1408yyyyyyy)
    "Hey, hi Tanuka. This is (??) here. We are leaving in another 10 minutes because (Mojin Paki Pasbi?) and Toni Pasbi will go to library and return it. I just wanted to... that mushroom dried scar is simply rich of that side(??) get the door speaker I wanted badly. Okay when you return just give a call. Bye. "
    --- Brought to you by Vonage ---
  • Or an abject surrender:
    Date : May 07 2009 10:49:32 AM
    From : 1408xxxxxxx
    To : Sayontan Sinha (1408yyyyyyy)
    We're sorry. We were unable to transcribe this message. You will not be charged for this message. Please listen to your voicemail.
    --- Brought to you by Vonage ---


And the piece de resistance:

System: Before we start, can you please say your first name?
Me: Sayontan
System: You said Frying Pan. Is that correct?

Who Died and Put You in Charge? (Part II)

In continuance of my previous “Who Died …” post, here are a few more gaffes

  • Sehwag Ki Ma (Sehwag’s Mother)
    Reliance was in the process of rolling out its mobile service in India roughly the same time as the 2003 Cricket World Cup. They had Virendra Sehwag as their brand ambassador. The ad went something like this: Sehwag isn’t batting very well and his fans are getting quite frustrated. A father and son among the spectators are pretty tense about the match. Then suddenly the father’s phone rings. The father says, “Sehwag ki Ma?” He then thinks what he should do. The son seizes the phone and runs into the field and lobs the phone to Sehwag. Sehwag’s mom tells him, “Viru beta, kar lo duniya mutthi mein” (Conquer the world). Sehwag blasts the next ball for a six.

    The ad was so *wrong* at so many levels. Why would Sehwag’s mother call up some random stranger (unless of course …)? Secondly, how would the stranger know straightaway that this was Sehwag’s mother (unless of course …)? Thirdly Sehwag’s form was an absolute disaster during the World Cup. He hardly made any noteworthy score apart from the finals. People began commenting “Sehwag apni ma ke phone ka intezaar kar raha hai” (Sehwag is waiting for his mother to call him) just to highlight how awful it was. Reliance probably realized how corny the ad sounded and changed the dialogue to “Sehwag ki Ma ka phone?”. Not that it made much of a difference.

    BTW, if you were wondering about the “unless of course …”, of course I mean “They were probably family friends”, or “Sehwag might have given the phone to them for safekeeping”, unless of course …

  • Kabhi mobile, kabhi computer (Sometimes a mobile, sometimes a computer)
  • At roughly the same time as Sehwag’s mother, Reliance hit upon another catchphrase – “Kabhi mobile, kabhi computer”, to highlight the fact that the phone was capable of a lot more than just making calls. This was actually a pretty good line. However, as is bound to happen with new technology, the phones faced teething problems. One of the problems was that they would overheat quite alarmingly. So the users started saying, “Kabhi mobile, kabhi toaster” (Sometimes a mobile, sometimes a toaster)

  • The Official Drink of the 1996 World Cup
    In the stakes for big advertising Coke managed to become the sponsor for the 1996 Cricket World Cup. They came up with the rather innocuous line, “The Official Drink of the 1996 World Cup”. Pepsi, though, smelt blood and went rather aggressively after Coke, marketing their drink with “Nothing Official About it!”. With its impressive array of brand ambassadors Pepsi won hands down. It took Coke a few years to recover from this and only with later ads of Thums Up and Sprite were they able to make fun of Pepsi to any extent whatsoever.

  • The Planning Commission’s map of India
    A few years back the Planning Commission of India released the Five Year Plan (I don’t recall if it was the 10th plan, starting 2002 or the 11th plan, starting 2007) with a map of India on the cover. The map showed a truncated Kashmir, which is in contradiction to India’s official stance of showing the disputed parts as Indian territory. This was really weird given that the Planning Commission botched this up. Wonder what they were smoking …

  • House numbers in Hyderabad
    The powers that be decided several years back that postal addresses in Hyderabad would be so weird that it would be futile to attempt to figure them out. So you have a house with address 7-1-40/B/1, Ameerpet or 16-3-41-1/C, Domalguda. It might have been okay if Ameerpet or Domalguda were small areas, but no – no locality is small enough. Plus most roads don’t have a name or number. Good luck finding that address.

  • Zzyzx and This
    During a trip from the Bay Area to Las Vegas we noticed a city named Zzyzx. The name wasn’t unfamiliar, since I used to watch Kyle XY. But it felt weird to actually see a city with this name. Well, there are grandiose reasons why you would want to name a city something such as this. Apparently the founders wanted this to be the lexicographically greatest city in the World. Fair enough. But then why would you like to have a city called D***o? Imagine saying, “Tremors measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale were felt in D***o today” or “Hi, I am Dick. And I work for D***o Construction Company” or “There was large-scale loss of wildlife in a raging bushfire in the region around D***o today”.

That Really Stung!

I had bought a motorbike in Bangalore in mid-2000. If you are familiar with the lay of Bangalore, you will know that Brigade Road is one-way in its most glamorous section and two-way in a section that few people know even exists – the place in front of All Saints Bakery / Sparks / Urban Edge. My office happened to be in Raheja Chancery, the building opposite All Saints. To get there you would have to pass All Saints, take a U-turn and go about 50m. Or you could cheat and go about 10m on the wrong side of the road, thereby saving yourself around 100m of driving distance. So, with a new bike and nary a care, I cheated. And then a traffic cop stopped me. A lot of Indian traffic cops are out to make a quick buck and would not hesitate to fine you (or take a bribe) even if you have done no wrong. I was a clear offender, so I knew I had it coming. What ensued next was the most interesting conversation

Cop: What were you doing?
Me: I was in a hurry
Cop: So?
Me: So I thought that I maybe I could take the short cut…
Cop: And?
Me: Well, there was no traffic coming in this direction and it was only around 10m
Cop: Are you educated or uneducated?

If you are wondering, the small font is not a formatting error. It is just that my deep baritone voice had become more mouse-like than I thought humanly possible. And after the last question I had no voice left. I have been called a lot of things in my life, but somehow this was worse than everything else put together. I could only look on sheepishly as the cop let me off without even a fine. After that incident I haven’t ever driven on the wrong side of the road – even if there is nobody watching.

At IIT-D we used to have a concept called “Socials”, which, to the uninitiated will appear extremely weird.It involved girls of some college in Delhi visiting a boys hostel for an evening of socializing. Several among us thought of it as a rite of passage. Several among us looked at it as an evening of unbridled ogling. And several of us simply felt it was a waste of time. Typically a person would have belonged to all three categories in the course of 4 years. I did participate in the socials once – during my fourth semester, when the visiting college was Indraprastha. I did manage to befriend someone and called her up the following weekend.

The socials happened the weekend before 14th Feb and we had exams from 12th to 14th Feb. So I happened to be calling her on the day right after Valentine’s Day. We talked for a while, then came the topic of what we did on our respective Valentine’s Days. I complained about being stuck in an exam. And then:

She: Oh, I did not do anything. I am not … Valentine
Me: Yeah, precisely.
She: (a long pause)
Me (thinking): Oh S***!! Did I really say that?

The “…” is because I could not understand what she had said at that point. This is often the case with old payphones in India – the slightest disturbance in the phone’s machinery can result in an onslaught of static. I responded with what seemed like an absolutely reasonable response. It is only during her pause that I figured out what was said in the ellipsis. She had said, “I am not anybody’s idea of a perfect Valentine”. It goes without saying that we didn’t have any further conversations after that.

Maria Sharapova once remarked regarding her clay-court play: “I am like a cow on ice”. You could probably apply the same analogy to my dancing. During a Deloitte party in Hyderabad I was asked by a lady to dance with her. In spite of my protestations regarding my complete lack of grace in this department, she dragged me on to the dance floor. Compounding the situation was the fact that I was wearing a kurta-pyjama and chappals. A little while later she burst out laughing at my discomfort and kindly accompanied me off the floor. Since she was a friend of mine I didn’t have to endure any embarrassing remarks from her.

Somehow the instinct that makes you want to dance is completely absent in me. As a result I have had to learn some typical dance moves that help me live to die of shame some other day. Folks might be familiar with the roti belna (where you pretend you are using a rolling pin to flatten out dough, then pretend to toss the flattened dough from one hand to the other), kite flying (where you imagine that you are holding the twine for flying a kite and tug at it over your head first on the right side and then on the left), toweling dry (where you think that you are holding a towel in both your hands and wiping your back dry) and some other such moves.

I was, however, certified a disaster on the dance floor long before I learnt the face-saving moves. During my first Rendezvous in 1996 I was generally impressed with the droves of young ladies paying a visit to the IIT-D cultural festival. My friends and I would hear some guy bragging about how well he it it off with some visitor and would privately wish that guy a slow, painful and girl-free death. Come the last day of Rendezvous, it was time for some drastic measures. My friend Ahuja and I were dancing at the podium, hoping to spot some unsuspecting girls whom we could subject to our torturous dancing. We did manage to find one such pair and danced for about 10 minutes, after which they excused themselves. We high-fived our way back to the hostel, finally having something to brag about.

The next day I bicycled to class, while Ahuja took the bus. Lo and behold! Who should he see there, but the two people who we danced with! One of the girls happened to spot Ahuja and immediately started talking loudly enough for him to hear:

You know ya? We were at the podium last night and these two guys came up to us and asked for a dance. Those two had no clue about what they were doing and were clapping their hands and pumping their fists as though they were happy to see us dance. Those dumbos didn’t know how to dance at all.

Naturally I heard this by proxy, but it was embarrassing enough to be told to the whole hostel. I remain a dumbo to this day – Tanuka will vouch for that.

Who Died and Put You in Charge?

Here are a few things that really make you question the infinite sagacity of the folks in charge

  1. In cricket the first testicular guard was used in 1874 and the first helmet was used in 1974. It took people over a hundred years to realize that the head is also very important.
  2. The rankings in Miss India contests used to be: Miss India, Miss India First Runner Up and Miss India Second Runner Up. The winner would go to Miss Universe, the First Runner Up to Miss World and the Second Runner Up to Miss Asia Pacific (or some other contest). Since 2007 the organization committee showed their wisdom. They renamed the titles as: Winner = Miss India World, First Runner Up = Miss India Universe and Second Runner Up = Miss India Earth. So Miss India World ranks ahead of Miss India Universe. Whoever knew that the World was larger than the Universe!
  3. “Dial M for Manipal” – Okay, I guess you would like a catchy tagline. So Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” could be morphed into “Dial M for Manipal”. But wait – this tagline is/was for Manipal hospital. So would you like to go to Manipal in an emergency and get murdered? I don’t know if and when the Manipal guys changed this line, but it really used to crack me up when I was in Bangalore from 2000 to 2002.
  4. It is common to have barf-bags in the seat pockets in front of you in flights. On a flight of Indigo Airlines in India last year for the first time I noticed a barf-bag with a message, “Hope you feel better soon”. Normally this wouldn’t be noticeable: who, after all, would go opening the barf-bags? But in this case the bags and the accompanying caption were conspicuously placed so that they would catch the eye of the passengers. It was as though they expected the passengers to fall sick!

Why So Serious?

For the few Indian readers that I have (not that I have any non-Indian readers), do you remember Flop Show? Do you remember the episode where Jaspal Bhatti made a TV serial?

He intended to make a tragedy, which unintentionally ended up becoming an award-winning comedy. A conversation with my brother Kokonad today sent me back to the days of Flop Show. Our conversation was through IM:

Koke: I like your blog… it’s really funny
Me: Thank you. I did not think there were too many funny entries there.
Koke: Style of writing sentences in general. :-). It’s like you truly seriously mean to say “…” (something in Bengali that I had remarked on our trip to LA and San Diego, which had Koke and Tanuka laughing uncontrollably) but it is funny to us!

So there you are – here I am, trying to seriously weigh two sides of every issue (unsuccessfully, of course) and people are having a laugh. This happens to me quite often. Remember Spontaneous Rotflosis? When I talk I am probably more serious than most people. If the Joker from The Dark Knight was present, he would probably have asked: “Why so serious?”

Heath Ledger as the Joker... Why so serious?
Heath Ledger as the Joker... Why so serious?

And yet, I wasn’t trying to be funny.

Quel dommage!

Did you know that a company called Despair, Inc has copyrighted the frownie (the “:-(” that you put on your text messages and chats)? They sell “Motivational products and posters for pessimists, underachievers, and the chronically unsuccessful” and call their products “Demotivators”. They start off with a picture of their COO:

Just Condescending
Just Condescending

Check their site out – it is a masterpiece of gloom, something that Marvin the Paranoid Android could find great use for. Of all their demotivators, I found this one the most apt for me and my profession:

If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem.
Consulting, indeed!

I looked at their website for copyright information to ensure that I was not doing anything wrong by putting their stuff on my page and here is what I came across:

I want to put your images on my homepage without crediting you or acknowledging you in any way, so that I can do my small part to violate the copyrights of your photographers and whoever else might have a commercial interest in your intellectual property. How cool is that?

It is okay with us provided you promise to throw an online tantrum when we ask you politely to stop.

On the F.A.Q. for Despair, Inc.