Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another Uniquely American Feature

Last month I picked up my parents returning from India at New York JFK airport. That's when I learned that the luggage cart rental has been increased there from $3 to $5. This apparently happened in February 2009 at both NYC airports.

Welcome to the US. Most fellow passengers of my parents were quite upset, and many avoided using the carts and struggled with their bags. Back in the late '80s and early '90s this charge was $1 to $1.25. I suspect Smarte Carte, the private company that operates and rents these carts, has a pretty cozy relationship with the airport authorities. This company's website as well as JFK's official one studiously omit disclosing these rates.

The parallel between these cart charges and non-universal US health care (at least as it existed till today) is obvious. It also points up the inefficiencies of this private, fee for service arrangement that makes everyone except this private company worse off. While passengers are being ripped off we also may be nearing a high cost death spiral as also explained by Krugman in a health care context. That means the exorbitant cart rates will decrease demand for them so much that the overhead costs will be spread over fewer carts, creating a push for even higher rates.

In all airports outside of the US luggage carts are "free", meaning these are included in normal airport charges that should work out to a few cents per passenger. So almost everyone uses carts and the per unit cost is a small fraction of that here. It's high time the airports (like health care authorities) learned from such better practices outside the US.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sheena's Varied Interests, Including This Latest One

Most of our US born nephews and nieces were deeply channeled into specific after class activities from early childhood, with heavy investment of time and effort by them as well as their parents. They gained considerable proficiency and competitive accomplishments in their respective pursuits, including debating, ballet, golf, piano recitals, swimming and martial arts.

Our older daughter Sheena wishes we had pushed her more in this way, too. But we like most parents in our circle in India largely let our kids find their own interests, attended their performances and helped transport them to and from their activities.

In this background, Sheena developed a variety of pastimes, some of them quite atypical. In addition to playing musical instruments, singing and dancing she also became very good at chess and its tandem variant "bughouse."

In our trip to Las Vegas a while back she was taken up with bungee jumping off an 18 story high platform. I as dad felt obliged to go first to ensure it was safe. Though I hid it I was paralyzed with fear before my first jump, but Sheena laughed and joked with the operators while following suit.

What's more, she has kept up and expanded her activities since graduating and working in Austin. For a software engineer her pursuits have ranged well beyond the nerdy. She is accomplished in various modern dances, has been part of a women choir, and played Ultimate Frisbee tournaments in three continents.

Six weeks ago we came to know about Sheena's latest interest when Rubina and her fiancee Shaun visited Austin to celebrate Sheena's birthday. As a birthday present Shaun got and helped install an aerial silk rope through Sheena's home ceiling. Since the past few months she took up aerial silk dancing that was new to us. While a beginner, here's the video of her first performance jointly with good friend Sumina.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Silver Lining - Rising Above It All

A lot of Anita's folks including my parents-in-law live in Mumbai and Pune, so I pay special attention to developments there.

Two recent adverse events were the Shiv Sena agitation against popular Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan ("SRK") in Mumbai, and the German Bakery blast in Pune. These are of course vastly different in terms of severity and criminality. But the reaction they evoked (or lack of it) speaks well for Indians, who will hopefully keep this up.

SRK was right in criticizing the snub of Pakistani cricketers by the Indian Premier League, an antithesis of "ping pong diplomacy" where sports help improve country relations. In response the Shiv Sena which is seldom (if ever) up to any good tried to damage SRK by disrupting the screening of his latest film "My Name is Khan." They announced a "boycott", intimidated movie halls,tore off posters and threatened violence.

But the movie has done very well in Mumbai where it played to packed houses, and in the rest of the country. This notwithstanding its serious theme and lack of box office "masala" that typically lures the masses. Deliberate or not, it also carries a message, sensitizing viewers to some Muslim sentiments which should strengthen communal amity. While the major source of this movie's revenues is domestic, it has broken records in the Middle East and other Islamic markets, as well as in the rest of the world.

In contrast to the Shiv Sena's antics against SRK that are merely a nuisance, the German Bakery blast in Pune was an act of malicious terrorism claiming 17 innocent lives and injuring over 50 others. A little over a year ago I visited this place every other day for almost a month while Anita's parents were in Inlaks Hospital a few hundred yards away.

The victims couldn't have been further removed from any jihadist angst. The patrons of this modest eatery were typically carefree young people or foreigners of limited means seeking peace and solace in the nearby Osho Ashram. Like in the Mumbai Nov. 26, '08 carnage, what would have really played into the terrorists' hands would have been a backlash against India's Muslim community. The main purpose of these acts seems to be to disrupt the India-Pakistan renewed talks as well as to create a communal divide in India.

That has not happened, and the credit for that goes to Hindus and Muslims of India alike. This has also elicited praise in the Western media (like from Tom Friedman after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.) There's no guarantee for the future but every successive instance of collective restraint and a mature response to provocations augurs well for this country's greatness.

Of course it has not always been like this. After the 2002 Godhra violence and communal riots in Gujarat (with alleged state government lapses) the good times started in the time of Prime Minister Vajpayee. Though he headed a nationalistic and supposedly pro-Hindu government, he helped select the widely respected Muslim scientist Abdul Kalam as President of India.

Despite the inevitable hiccups and dissent, further developments have strengthened the climate of inclusiveness and tolerance. In his now famous November 2009 speech, Shashi Tharoor describes the 2004 appointment of Dr. Manmohan Singh to prime minister. Here was a Sikh chosen to lead a predominantly Hindu India, sworn in by a Muslim President, and all this made possible by an Italian woman Sonia Gandhi who headed the largest Indian political party. What could be more eloquent testimony than this?