Sunday, December 4, 2016

If we are to go cash-light…

Credit: Street art in Fort Kochi by GuessWho!
An India that uses no cash; as ideas go that’s pretty seductive. And viewed from the corridors of power, it’s probably even more captivating given the possible rewards, especially the political and reputational capital that will accrue to whoever helms the desertion of cash.
But the thing is, cash has evolved over centuries into an almost perfect instrument for the exchange of goods and services because it is instantly valuable, widely accepted and convenient. And that’s the sort of utility it would be injudicious to discount while imagining a cashless world.
The other thing to remember is that grand ideas often ignore or gloss over the devils that lurk in the details. And if experience is anything to go by, we in India appear to have a congenital ability to believe that the details will take care of themselves. Mostly though, they don’t.
Given how many Indias exist, sometimes in parallel, sometimes intersecting, it would be imprudent to embark on a single sweeping move to a cashless economy. Instead, adopting a strategy of aggregation of marginal gains through small but continuous improvements could get us there just as quickly, but without the trauma and uncertainty that will obviously accompany a forced move.
It’s also probably premature to talk about a cashless India at this moment, given how many of the more evolved economies, with fewer people, still use a fair bit of cash. Instead, it would be more sensible to aim for — at least in the medium term — a cash-light India where cashless transactions overtake ones that use cash. Getting there will, itself, be a pretty significant accomplishment.
The government has created a committee to look at how India can go cashless, and that’s a welcome step. But as someone who uses both cash and e-payment options, what concerns me is that a move to a cashless economy or even a cash-light one should benefit all Indians. And if we are to make that transition to e-payment relatively painless we may want to address some of these issues.  

Scrap minimum limits and transaction charges
Very often in India, you have to either spend a minimum amount to use a debit or credit card or pay a transaction charge. And sometimes, no matter how much you spend, you still have to pay a transaction charge if you use a card.
If we want e-payments to dominate, these constraints on electronic transactions have to go, permanently. Of course banks and card and e-wallet companies need to earn their bread. So perhaps some of the bright people in Delhi’s North Block or at the RBI can figure out a way to scrap transaction charges on e-payments while also ensuring that the companies’ revenues aren’t hit; government subsidies or tax breaks, perhaps? And while they’re at it, could they look at banks removing transaction charges on online and offline bank transfers for non-premium customers too?

Creating the infrastructure for e-payments 
Some months ago, I was settling a large-ish bill at a hotel in a slightly remote location. But my card just wouldn’t work despite being swiped through three different machines from three different banks. Finally, a hotel staffer gave the machine with my card in it a hard whack and voila, the transaction went through. I’m not sure if the problem was with my card, the hotel’s card machines or its Internet connection. But I shudder to think of what would have happened if I’d found myself in a similar situation over the past few weeks and whacking the card reader hadn’t worked.
While the use of e-payments has steadily grown over the past few years, it’s clear that the infrastructure required to ensure these systems function flawlessly hasn’t grown as quickly. And over the past few weeks, e-payments have shot up but anecdotal evidence indicates that incidents of card or e-wallet failures have also increased possibly because of the high levels of stress on the networks. In several instances, outlets that claim to accept e-wallets weren’t actually ready to do so.
Another aspect of going cashless is the need to address quality levels in our banking and financial infrastructure. Given how iffy e-payments often are, we need to have laws that prescribe and enforce minimum standards for all technology, material and other elements — cards, electronic chips, card machines, network gear, Internet connections and so on — used in our banking and financial infrastructure.
Yes, the RBI does have guidelines on certain aspects of electronic transactions, but it’s unclear if they are legally binding and what happens if banks don’t follow them. And yes, India’s Information Technology Act has some general provisions that can be applied to electronic financial transactions. But what we need is a law that specifically and comprehensively covers issues related to electronic financial and banking transactions, including oversight, processes and systems, technology standards and equipment and material standards.

Better consumer education
A few months ago, several people in Kerala were tricked into parting with their debit card information, including the PIN, to someone who claimed to be calling from the victims’ bank. In each instance, the victim was defrauded of several thousand rupees. What was disturbing about these incidents was that all those who were defrauded were mid-level government officials who should have known better than to reveal sensitive financial and personal information to an unknown caller.
At first glance this seems to be an instance of people being careless with personal information, but that’s not the entire picture. For instance, I often get a call, ostensibly from my bank, a few minutes after I have used my card. The caller usually wants me to confirm using the card and then insists I authenticate my identity by revealing more personal information — just the sort of thing banks warn customers against doing. Occasionally, I’m even told the transaction will be cancelled if I do not confirm my identity by answering the questions put to me.
It’s in these spaces where banking and technology intersect that people, including otherwise careful people, seem to throw caution to the winds possibly driven by the fear of losing access to their money. And given that many of us are still not entirely comfortable with technology, though we may use it, there’s room for things to go awry.
The RBI and individual banks frequently highlight the need for exercising caution, especially while revealing personal information or using debit cards or conducting online transactions. But obviously, this isn’t enough. While there’s certainly an element of individual responsibility involved, it’s also important to invest in much more effective and widespread initiatives to promote awareness of safe banking practices.

Information security and privacy protection
In India, we tend to be very blasé about privacy. The general approach seems to be ‘what’s the big deal’, which is reflected in the existing patchwork of guidelines, rules and laws on privacy and data protection. We’ve even had public figures quip about privacy being dead since people use social media, without realising that using social media involves an element of choice that doesn’t really exist when it comes to banking and similar transactions.
Then, there’s the issue of data security, which has become particularly urgent over the past few months after a series of fraudulent transactions using stolen debit card information. There’s so much of opacity around some of these incidents that it isn’t yet publicly clear just where and how the breaches occurred and what their impact is.
Given that researchers at Newcastle University seem to have hacked Visa credit cards in just 6 seconds can’t help wonder how secure all these e-transactions and digital transactions really are. And I really don’t think biometric protection offers any sustainable answers either.
What all this highlights is that it’s time for us to get serious about protecting personal financial information, especially if we want to promote electronic transactions. Of course there are certain circumstances under which financial data will have to be accessed and shared; credit reports, for instance. So what we need is to spell out very clearly who can access an individual’s personal financial data, for what, to what extent, what such data can be used for and what happens if there is a security breach. And this will be possible only if we have coherent and comprehensive privacy and data protection laws that match the best in the world.

Ensuring inclusive banking
Quite a bit has been done over the past several years to reach out to those on the margins and improve financial inclusion. But for many, banking is still extremely unfamiliar territory. So any move towards a cashless economy needs to be preceded by meaningful efforts to help people on the margins get comfortable with modern banking and help them learn how to use banking and e-payment technology safely. In addition, banking technology infrastructure across the country needs to be bolstered and those who work in banks and financial institutions need to be trained to be more empathetic and inclusive while attending to less-affluent customers.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Making cheese at Beecher’s

A version of this piece is in the July issue of National Geographic Traveller India.

My gloved hands feel a trifle wobbly. The large crumbly cream-ish loaf I’m cradling weighs only a couple of kilos, but the thought of flipping it over makes it feel like a tonne. It looks easy, but I’m worried I’ll make a hash of it. I take a deep breath and flip. The loaf emerges unscathed; I flip another and another.  
I’m in the glass-walled cheesemaking kitchen of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. And I’ve been helping to cheddar cheese — cutting curds into loaves, then stacking and flipping the loaves multiple times to drain out all the whey.
For as long as I can remember, cheese has been an integral part of my life. The first cheese I tasted as a child was probably a cheddar from the now shut Koshy’s department store in Bangalore. Since then, I’ve discovered and enjoyed cheeses from around the world, developing a special fondness for Roquefort and Mimolette from France and Kikorangi from New Zealand.
And then, in 2013, I nibbled on a sliver of Beecher’s Flagship Raw Milk and fell in love. It tasted like no cheese I’d sampled before. Creamy and nutty, with a sprinkling of magic, there was something comfortingly elemental about it. It was heaven in a wedge — the taste of home. It was also the beginning of a quest to learn more about this artisanal cheesemaker, visit its cheesemaking facility and, of course, sample more of its award-winning cheese. 
On a hot summer morning, two years and many emails after my first bite of Beecher’s, I’m in the heart of Seattle’s Pike Place Market all set to spend a day at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. My wife and I are early for our 9 am appointment so we wander through the market, famous for its fresh produce and interesting handcrafted goods. We dawdle in front of the fishmongers’ stalls with their eye-catching displays and the flower sellers’ tables. Framed in a window between two stalls is a swatch of the cerulean waters of Elliott Bay.  
The Beecher's cheesemaking kitchen in Seattle.
As we watch, people line up in front of the Beecher’s store-café eager to breakfast on its Mac and cheese or grilled sandwiches. Others peer through the glass walls of the adjoining cheesemaking kitchen.  
We enter the store and luxuriate in the heavenly burnt-butter aroma of sandwiches on the grill and tangy vapours of tomato soup bubbling in a pot. While we wait for Sharif Ball, then the company’s head cheesemaker and production manager in Seattle, I think about the Beecher’s story. It begins in 2002, with food entrepreneur Kurt Beecher Dammeier leasing space in Pike Place Market and deciding to make great cheese, fuelled by childhood memories of local cheeses and a passion for pure, fresh, wholesome and flavourful food.
Today, the Beecher’s store, café and cheesemaking kitchen in Seattle is a Pike Place institution that draws tourists and turophiles or cheese lovers alike. The company also has a second facility in New York’s Flatiron District and cafes at Seattle-Tacoma airport and in Bellevue near Seattle.
Escorting us into a cramped office next to the long, rectangular kitchen, Ball points us towards lockers where we stow our bags and change into smocks and trousers, pull on boots, arm guards, masks and caps, and wash our hands with warm water and soap. Just inside the kitchen, there’s a further cleansing ritual as we pull on gloves. I feel like I’m entering an operation theatre, but understandably, hygiene is an obsession here.
The kitchen itself is all gleaming steel — vats, pipes, trays, shelves — broken by swathes of white of the milk and curds. Cheesemaking in Beecher’s is an almost 24-hour operation, beginning with the milk being tested and pumped into the large vats very early in the morning. The store in Seattle processes about 18,000 litres of cow’s milk, free of additives, hormones and antibiotics, sourced from dairy farms near the city, every day. So it comes in fresh, says Michael Staley, one of the company’s expert cheesemakers.
Beecher’s pasteurises the milk that goes into most of its cheese. The pasteurised milk is then pumped into an open vat where microbial cultures and rennet are added causing curds and whey to form. This mixture is repeatedly cut, ‘cooked’ ­ — stirred and heated — and pumped into another vat where the whey is drained and cheddaring by hand begins. Salt is added and the salted curds are packed into moulds called ‘hoops’ and loaded into a cheese press for 8-12 hours to drain out more whey. The cheese is then cut, vacuum-sealed and aged for several months or years depending on the type of cheese being made. Of course, not all cheese made by Beecher’s is a cheddar and the process varies accordingly.
Even as Staley takes us through the process, I’m struck by how physical cheesemaking is, with the effort involved in cheddaring and the hours spent on your feet. One of the other cheesemakers quips that it’s a good way to stay fit.
I also notice how involved in the process Staley and the other cheesemakers are, working with an effortless expertise, cutting the curds one minute, washing the equipment the next, all the while checking on the temperature, acidity and moisture levels of the milk and the curds and keeping track of the time each process takes.
The Seattle facility makes about 1,800 kg of cheese every day, Ball says. Much of the cheese produced is the company’s immensely popular Flagship, though it makes several other types. There is, for instance, the buttery but spicy Marco Polo with lightly milled peppercorns blended in and the smoky No Woman, infused with Jamaican Jerk spices that pack a punch. The Raw Milk Flagship I fell in love with, though, is made just a couple of times a year, with special precautions since it involves unpasteurised milk.
The Beecher's store-cafe in Seattle's Pike Place Market.
While we talk, I look out through the kitchen’s glass walls. It does feel a little unnerving with the curious onlookers outside, their faces and cameras pressed-up against the glass. Yet the glass walls bring the market’s bustle and colour into the kitchen, giving it a shot of energy.
What is it that makes Beecher’s cheese special, I ask Ball. Pat comes the reply: “Attention to detail and quality.” He thinks for a bit and adds: “Everyone here wants to make delicious cheese. A lot of love goes into it.”
As we leave the cheesemaking kitchen and head to the café where a Beecher’s grilled cheese sandwich awaits, I think about that. Food made with love and joy. No wonder the cheese tastes like heaven. 

The vitals                                   
Visitors can watch all the action in the cheesemaking kitchens of the Beecher’s store-café in Seattle while enjoying a meal (1600 Pike Place; 9 a.m. -7 p.m. daily; mac and cheese from $5.02 and grilled cheese sandwiches from $5.94). Some Pike Place Market tours, including Savor Seattle, stop at Beecher’s for tastings.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

For my father

For a heartbeat, a lifetime of devotion triumphed over dementia’s raging incursion. As the opening bars of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ to mark the end of this year’s Republic Day Parade in Delhi drifted from the television, my 89-year-old father started and then attempted to stand up on legs that no longer quite work. Somewhere inside a mind whose circuits have almost been obliterated by dementia, the old soldier knew that this was his country’s song and that he had to stand to attention.
He isn't perfect. But in the 30-odd years he was an officer in the Indian Air Force and the decades since, commitment to India and its people were the values he lived by. And one of those values was to stand to attention for the national anthem.
Once, a few years after he retired, we were at an event in my school. The school band struck up the national anthem, not to signal the end of proceedings, but as part of their repertoire. And like a shot, my dad was on his feet; this drew some strange looks, but we all followed. I squirmed then at the unwelcome attention that came our way. But now, whenever I think about that incident, it’s pride I feel, dusted with a pinch of shame for having squirmed back then. 
And that is what I breathed into his ear a few days ago. Hoping that somewhere inside what lingers of his mind a cluster of neurons would fire and let him know how very proud I am of him and how much of the good there is in me is largely because of him.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Writing with a punch

Did a version of this for The Hindu Sunday Magazine/Literary Review 

In October 1994 the Kerala Police arrested a Maldivian woman, writing the first lines of what was to become the ‘ISRO spy case’. Initially taken into custody for allegedly staying on in India after her visa had expired, the woman, Mariam Rasheeda, was later charged with espionage. Over the following weeks the reach of the ‘spy’ case expanded, bringing into question the loyalties of an assortment of individuals, including two scientists with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Some months later, it became clear that the ‘spy case’ was a fairy tale and in 1998 the Supreme Court confirmed that the case had been fabricated. It is presumably this ‘real-life incident’ that has inspired C.P. Surendran’s novel Hadal.
So there’s Miriam Zacharias, a young-ish aspiring writer from the Maldives, who takes a break from her life back home and heads to Trivandrum to write a book. There, her path crosses that of the intriguingly-named Honey Bhimrao Jaspreet Kumar, a cough syrup-swigging, oversexed police officer from Delhi on a punishment posting as the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Officer in Kerala’s capital. Honey, who’s terrified of falling coconuts, wants to have sex with the luscious Miriam. And when she refuses, he dreams-up up an espionage case against her and her Indian paramour Roy Paul, an ISRO scientist. 
Hadal — derived from the Greek ‘hades’ or ‘underworld’ also refers to the deepest trenches in the sea where pressure is extremely high — is not just the Miriam-Honey-Roy story. It is interspersed with a smorgasbord of tales, some of which seem tangential, at best, to the overall plot. So there’s the story of an Indian couple whose son has been taken into protective care by the authorities in Norway. Then, there’s American academic-activist Haws and the tale of his involvement in an agitation against a nuclear power plant in a village somewhere south of Trivandrum.
That Surendran has a way with words is undeniable. There’s a lushness to the writing that makes Hadal less of a book and more of a film. The words and the images they conjure are powerful, often vivid, and the universe they build is sometimes surreal. Like this line that stayed with me: “Ever since, Roy had been faithful to Old Spice, and had developed a weakness for the lingering fragrance of the truth in small runaway treasons in hotel rooms like this.”
It’s equally undeniable that Surendran’s writing, like his speech, is often self-consciously droll and occasionally smart-alecky, with characters who echo these traits. Like the whistle-blower who says: “I’m a whistle-blower.” Or the cast of interesting characters, occasionally with quirky names, that populate the book — Cardinal Telespore Lobo, the church leader; Thomas Lawrence Pappan, the crafty chief minister; and Aladi Ram Mohan, Honey’s mentor and partner in crime.
Then, there are the pithy one-liners that pepper Hadal. Sample this one from the book’s anti-hero, Honey: “The world was a crowd-sourced construct.” Or the one from Roy: “The substance of the (sic) evil was the heart.” Clever as these meditations on the universe are, they begin to grate just a bit after a while.
What is slightly more disconcerting is the rather abrupt change in pace, with the pleasing languor of the early portions giving way to haste in the final chapters. Things happen in a rush and suddenly it’s all over, with an ending that resembles a “crowd-sourced construct” that doesn’t quite go the distance.
Now the extent to which a work of fiction reflects reality is flexible. Yet, details that match reality add to the power of the narrative. But what nags me about Hadal is the baffling lack of attention to detail right through. For instance, as anyone with some familiarity with the Indian bureaucracy knows, it’s rare to find a very senior bureaucrat who drives himself around or waits at an airport baggage carousel to pick up his bags. Yet, Aladi Ram Mohan does just that. And he’s supposed to be the head of the Intelligence Bureau.
Similarly, at the risk of sounding like I’m nit picking, it is a little strange to read about Kerala’s chief minister Pappan wearing “loose, white linen trousers.” A Kerala minister wearing trousers rather than a mundu or dhoti while in the State is unlikely.
Such distractions apart, Hadal is a work in which the craft, for the most part, sparkles, dispelling some of the gloom of the world it portrays.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Celebrating Concorde

In the picture to the right, is the most famous nose in the world. Well, perhaps I should have added a qualifier like ‘arguably’ or ‘possibly’ or ‘perhaps’ in the previous sentence, but the Pinocchio-ish nose of Concorde is rather distinctive. Of course, Concorde itself is unique for it is one of only two supersonic airliners or supersonic transports (SST) to have flown commercially. 
The rather distinctive nose (and the body behind it too) in the pictures in this post is of the Concorde referred to as ‘Alpha Golf’, with the registration number G-BOAG. Now on display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Alpha Golf was the plane that operated the final scheduled Concorde flight on 24 October 2003. 
It was 12 years ago today that Alpha Golf flew from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport to London’s Heathrow airport. Or to put it a little differently, it’s been 12 years since ‘Speedbird Concorde 002’ operated from JFK to LHR, executing a Canarsie climb on take off.  
For 27 years, Concorde operated by British Airways and Air France almost put ‘time in a bottle’ as they flew faster than any airliner before them or since. They could, for instance, fly from London to New York and back in the time it took an ordinary aircraft to fly one way. As the British Airways site says: “Concorde’s fastest transatlantic crossing was on 7 February 1996 when it completed the New York to London flight in 2 hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds.” And the Concorde flew for many more years than its rival, the Russian Tupolev Tu-144. 
I came face-to-face — almost, since it towered over me — with my first Concorde at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia a few years ago. My more meaningful Concorde experience was a recent tour of G-BOAG. Among the most striking aspects of this aircraft that defines the age of glamorous and luxurious air travel is just how cramped its cabin is.   
Besides operating British Airways’ last Concorde schedule, Alpha Golf also has another record under its wings. On its very last flight to The Museum of Flight in Seattle, on 5 November 2003, Alpha Golf set a New York to Seattle speed record of 3 hours, 55 minutes, and 12 seconds. 
There’s some talk of getting Concorde flying again. I’m not too sure if that’s going to pan out.
I know, though, I’ll never fly on Concorde, probably. And yet, I can’t help wishing I had, for there’s something about this aircraft. Even something as ordinary as a recording of the final conversation between Kennedy air traffic control and the pilots of Concorde feels special. That’s the magic of Concorde.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Museums of flight

The 'Great Gallery' of the Museum of Flight Seattle
A short version of this piece is part of my story in the October issue of National Geographic Traveller India.

What’s interesting about Seattle is that it is home to so many aviation-related attractions. Boeing is, of course, the most obvious of these, but there are several others too.
The oldest of these is the Museum of Flight and its aircraft restoration centre. Then, there’s the Flying Heritage Collection established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which focuses mostly on military aircraft from World War II. Finally, there’s the Historic Flight Foundation’s museum and restoration centre for aircraft manufactured between 1927 and 1957. 
Besides Boeing’s Everett factory and the Future of Flight Center, I really wanted to visit all three museums. But with just three-odd days in Seattle and so much to do, I had to choose — and the Museum of Flight it was on this trip. I found it especially attractive, not just for its collection of aircraft and aviation and space-related memorabilia, but also for its airpark that offers visitors an opportunity to tour the interiors of some pretty interesting aircraft.
Among the world’s largest private air and space museums, the Museum of Flight is in the town of Tukwila, just south of Seattle. It’s actually located in the southwest corner of Boeing Field, formally known as King County International Airport.
In fact, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower exhibit — on the museum’s upper floor — is a great place to watch aircraft movements at the airport. And in addition to learning about how air traffic controllers and towers work, the ATC mock-up allows you to listen to real-time conversations between the controllers at Boeing Field and pilots as they land at the airport.
The museum’s 'Great Gallery' is home to a diverse squadron of aircraft, ranging from deadly fighters such as the MiG-21 to unique craft such as the Wright 1903 Flyer Reproduction, a replica of the Flyer in which the Wright brothers made their first flight. It also has an M-21, a variant of the A-12 — the earliest type of Blackbird or SR-71 aircraft — that carried an unpiloted drone. Other attractions within the museum include a 30-minute tour of the Space Shuttle Trainer Crew Compartment.
However, I was more interested in what was outside the museum: in the airpark, where a disappointment awaited me. ‘City of Everett’, the first Boeing 747 or Jumbo Jet to be built, was not open for tours when I visited. I’d obviously goofed-up on my research! But there were several other equally interesting planes to explore.
Conference room on board SAM 970
First up, was a stroll through a gleaming British Airways Concorde. It was an illuminating experience, but more on that soon. 
Next, was a tour of ZA003, the third 787 Dreamliner to be built. While used mostly for flight tests, it was also a demonstration aircraft for Boeing’s ‘Dream Tour’ in 2011. What struck me most about the plane is how spacious it feels, even in coach! 
My final port of call in the airpark was SAM 970, the Boeing 707 that was the first jet to serve as Air Force One. Delivered in 1959, the aircraft was on a number of flights that played a role in shaping the history of the world. VIPs who’ve flown on it include US presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, as well as others such as Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and Henry Kissinger.
It was fascinating to walk through the plane’s plastic-shrouded interiors, taking in the communications room and the conference room, and thinking about the discussions that took place in this ‘oval office in the air’.
Note: It seems the 787 Dreamliner is currently not open for tours as it’s been moved to a new aviation pavilion scheduled to open in summer 2016.