Things to do while On-Hold

Have you ever been ‘on hold’ while on the phone? ‘Of course, YES’ I hear you screaming. In today’s world of remote operations, being on hold when you dial a number for any type of service is as certain as being stuck in a traffic jam on a Friday evening.

The good folks who design these telephone systems – be it at a call center, reservation desk or even a life-or-death emergency service – have excelled themselves in causing frustration to the caller in ingenious ways. At the beginning it was just a simple message, “Please wait for the next available representative”. Or just a deathly silence after the curt, “Please hold”. Then came music, of sorts – consisting of one song with the same three notes repeated in an infinite loop. When the average hold times exceeded the length of a music album, we started getting into full programs with smooth jazz, hard rock and other exotic variations – I am told that some systems even have a menu for you to select the type of music that would cause the maximum increase in your blood pressure.

And, don’t forget that, in some systems, you will not have the luxury of being on hold till you actually navigate through the complex menu structure wherein you have to enter a random sequence of single digit numbers and one wrong punch could be the fatal mistake that could send you back to the beginning or, worse, disconnect you with a pleasant, ‘invalid selection, good-bye’. Especially while dealing with a multi-lingual menu where the options are repeated in several languages, you find yourself on razor’s edge trying to decipher your own language spoken like a foreign dialect. All in all, it feels like being in the last five minutes of an SAT exam – except that the five minutes are really a few hours.

Another aspect to contend with for the caller of this wait-wait-hold-hold game is how to keep yourself occupied during the long on-hold saga. Do you attend to your email while listening to the nerve-racking music that could end any second with, “Good morning….Thanks for calling ……How may I assist you?” at which point you may well have forgotten what you called about? Can you risk dashing to the kitchen to grab a cup of water or coffee? What if you had to attend to nature’s call? Do you rush to the bathroom with your phone and if the hold time ends at the exact moment when you are ‘getting ready’, do you risk being embarrassed or valiantly throw away 30 minutes of your time by disconnecting?

With all the occupational hazards involved, it is no wonder that, many a time, I wake up to my alarm in the wee hours of the morning to make that fateful call to a service center, hoping to be Number-1 in their queue!

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Being Directed

“Er….. Could you please tell me the way to the nearest Mini Market?”

This seemingly simple question asked by someone in a hurry to get daily supplies could trigger delivery of a whole book of intricate directions – or a simple grunt with a ubiquitous nod (or is it a shake) of the head.

Seeking and, more importantly, providing colorful directions is an art that has evolved over time, invariably with a touch of local lingo. Several years ago, while living in the city of Bangalore, I realized that all city streets were classified into two buckets – down and up – in random order. Many a time, I have been nonchalantly pointed in some direction and told, “go straight down this street, go round the traffic island, turn left and go up”. I soon realized that one had to carry a specialized altimeter before venturing out to a new place.

In a similar manner, a New Yorker always measures distances in city blocks. In places like the UK where there are rotaries (traffic circles) at the drop of a hat, directions are given in terms of which exit to take from the rotary. There was a bewildering moment for me when someone told me to take the “last but one exit” from a complex rotary. Needless to say, I was never able to exit the rotary!

In small towns, you always get directions in terms of landmarks. The kind and eager folk giving you directions assume that you, a total stranger, are as familiar with the topology of the town as any lifelong resident. They try to steer you to your destination through a complex maneuver involving passing a tall, green tree; turning a corner near a brick house with a flag in the backyard; or even a pile of rubbish in a corner. It is actually simpler to ask, “where is so-and-so’s house” and someone will gladly walk you to the said house!

Asking for directions in a popular tourist place could result in unexpected responses and unintended consequences. “How do I go to the Botanical Gardens?” might beget something like, “You are obviously new here. Why do you want to go and see some ill-maintained, withered plants? Just head down in the opposite direction and enjoy the beautiful river side park”. Figuratively and literally changing your direction!

The age of GPS has introduced a whole new dimension to this game of ask-ask-no-direct. GPS directions are kind of cool (the youngsters of today know no other form of guidance), especially with the array of voices available to choose from. But you need to be able to mentally measure, judge and follow instructions such as “in 200 feet bear right” or “turn left, then right…… stay straight to go left”. Blind faith in GPS instructions must be accompanied by the ability to drive your car on roads, rails, water and air – not for the weak-hearted, by any stretch of imagination.

Reading a Book

I am old fashioned and read books – I mean the physical, printed material in black and white (sometimes with a dash of color added for effect) with a cover announcing its name. I have tried, fought and lost the battle for keeping my brain activated through digital pursuits in the form of Kindle and other e-readers.

I often make a spectacle of myself in public places like coffee shops and trains when I open my 300-pound, hardcover book and try to read a page or two. In particular, youngsters (which for me is anyone under the age of 50), look curiously at me and suppress their chuckle and amusement. The more daring ones glance at the title (boldly printed across the top, of course) and wonder ‘who the hell is Sherlock Holmes?’. With sound judgement they decide to leave me alone and maintain their distance from the dinosaur.

At home, my family complains that I am wasting precious real estate by still maintaining my collection of non-digital reading material. They also are convinced that my stubbornness poses serious risk of injury from falling bookshelves and people tripping over books in unexpected locations. There is a constant battle between books being hidden away in inaccessible places and my valiant attempts to retrieve those when I feel the need to entertain myself.

By far the biggest challenge for book worms like me comes from travel. Preparing for travel or, more precisely, packing before an upcoming trip, poses serious challenges. Depending on the duration of the trip, I try to select my array of books. While my wife urges me to pack more than one shirt, instead of 10 hardcovers for 2 weeks, my children are berating me for carrying an entire library. I end up carrying a few tonnes in my backpack, having been banned from using space in the suitcases.

Being forced to travel frequently for business, I try to squeeze in some reading during flights – another bad idea. Quite frequently, my hand luggage, containing my precious book, is usurped and checked-in at the last minute by the airlines gate agent leaving me high and dry. During the flight, I can only stare enviously at my co-passengers happily engrossed in their e-books. On those occasions when I carry a tiny cabin bag, I am parked in the middle seat with no possibility of elbow (or other) movement. I am forced to maneuver with my legs and retrieve my bag, inside which lies my precious asset, from under the seat in front. With deft movements of toes and thumbs, I sometimes manage to actually retrieve the book and open a page, drawing dirty stares from one and all in close proximity. Then, I perform for a while the delicate dance of keeping my book open at the right page, balancing my drink and avoiding encroachment of the imaginary lines of space between adjacent seats. I quickly realize the infeasibility of the situation, close my book and smile at the digital neighbors.

Nowadays, I wisely retire to the local library to hide in plain sight with my books.

Watching a movie with Aunt Agatha

Let me begin by stating that Aunt Agatha is not a real person but represents a domain of several hundred people, one of who is likely to be present in every family. So, replace her with the appropriate character in your circle of family and friends, fasten your seat belts and …… enjoy the movie.

Aunt Agatha is sitting next to me eagerly waiting for the movie to begin. I go to great lengths to explain to her that the plethora of scenes and characters that appear on the screen is not part of the movie but various advertisements that she could ignore. Then starts the actual movie and the Columbia Pictures logo comes up – the beloved aunt promptly states that she has seen this movie before. I reassure her that this is a new movie released just that day.

The opening scene involves two people being shot in a dark alley. Aunt Agatha is enraged that there is not enough light on the street and therefore the victims’ families should sue the local town authorities for unsafe roads. When the same two people walk into an office in the next scene, she exclaims, “ghosts walking – not possible”. I calm her down and explain that they are showing a scene from the earlier part of their life – and she remarks, “why can the Director chap not even get his scenes in the proper sequence”.

By now several people in the audience are giving us pointed looks and I feel the urge to take preventive measures. I whisper into the aunt’s ears that she should nudge me if she wants to say something or ask a question. She nudges me right away and asks me under what circumstances she should nudge me. I grit my teeth and ask her to be quiet. In no time she nudges me a dozen times and asks me why person-A appears with person-C in location X while just a minute ago she was talking to person-B in location Y. I patiently tell her that there are four different people and two different scenes in two different points in time. She mumbles, “why does everyone look the same and why is every restaurant decorated the same way?”

I attempt to buy some peace by getting her a bucket of popcorn but this only ends up annoying more people around us – they are now the involuntary recipients of flying pieces of the said edible as the good aunt fumbles around with the bucket.

It has now clearly become a losing battle for me to try and follow the movie since I am constantly explaining to Aunt Agatha what happened in the movie ten minutes earlier. Honestly, at this stage, I am more concerned with plausible ways to remove the relative from the venue and hoping that none of the co-spectators will recognize me later on. Independent of the fact that neither of us have had a chance to follow the actual movie, my aunt is determined to see the end, as though she is waiting for the closing ceremony of the Olympics.

Later, when I am thanking my stars as we exit the cinema hall, I nearly crash into a wall when the good aunt declares, “that was a good movie”!

Inflight Announcements

I apologize for not being able to get away from flights and airports. Maybe every minute I spend in either looks like a year. Anyway, I, like many others who have been on a plane at least once, have been curious, bored, amused, irritated and felt like jumping out of the window at various announcements that never seem to end while flying.

I just want to get from point A to point B using an airplane where walking is not a viable option. I love to be ignored and left alone. I carefully avoid eye contact with my fellow travelers, especially those in close proximity, with the hope of enjoying some solitude. I make a beeline for a corner seat if available and try to listen to some music using my headphones.

But alas, I am first told to remove my headphones and pay attention to some important safety information delivered in a monotone worthy of a funeral service. In today’s world of aviation, the inordinate but perfectly normal delays in taking off, that act as a prelude to any actual flying, seem to provide an extraordinary opportunity for the cabin crew to list the million ways in which your life could end – in multiple languages if you are flying international. Some first time fliers are known to have collapsed after hearing these announcements.

Once airborne and just about when you are thinking of settling down with a book or otherwise trying to ‘relax’ (remember the instruction to ‘enjoy your flight’ before takeoff?), there is a stern warning about wearing seat belts while being seated. This is followed by a plethora of announcements (well timed and evenly spaced to prevent passengers from engaging in any other activity or thought) regarding complimentary drinks and pay-per-view movies, amazing deals on credit cards and donating to charity as well as imploring you to get rid of your trash one last time – often resulting in a feeling of being in an extremely busy mall rather than in an enclosed space in the sky.

The thing that takes the cake, without a doubt, is the inane, pilot announcements. You see, in the modern consumer driven world, every business is trying to be ‘informal’ and ‘friendly’, presumably as advised by some management expert with a hefty consultancy fee. So, pilots compete with the cabin crew for airtime and start behaving like chatty cab drivers. They keep you abreast of the minutiae of their work such as the paper work required to be completed before takeoff, their jostling with air traffic controllers for a vantage position in the take-off queue and excruciating details about the assigned flight path and the number of bumps you may expect during the flight. Once at the ‘cruising altitude’, when passengers are recovering from the ‘inflight service’ consisting of free water and three peanuts and mistakenly trying to settle down, especially in an overnight, long distance flight, the co-pilot (a.k.a flight engineer), not to be outdone by the captain, gives you exciting details about your ground speed (in knots, of course), the head wind and geological characteristics of the mountain that you happen to be flying over at that point in time.

You grin (or grit) and bear it and thank your stars as the aircraft comes to a halt at the gate. As you wrestle your way out of the aircraft, the lady from the ground staff, who has usurped the microphone, makes an announcement about the carousel on which you may claim the suitcase you have avoided checking in.

Miles to go before I sleep

When Robert Frost famously wrote, “….and miles to go before I sleep”, he certainly did not have in mind the treacherous task of earning and using air miles, aka frequent flyer miles, from various Airlines.

Even for the occasional traveler of today, the pressure is on to belong to the club of seemingly select individuals who form a family of supporters for each brand/airline. And, since no one airline is effective or appropriate for any two successive journeys that you make, you soon find your wallet or purse (even keychains) bulging with airline cards occupying pride of place alongside your credit cards, insurance cards and a host of other ‘essentials’.

Enter the world of online accounts to manage your activity. Some airlines require you to enter the set of hieroglyphic characters that constitute your member number, others force you to create a user name (with embedded non-English characters of course) followed by secure passwords and other details. If you are like me and forget your credentials, you end up creating a multitude of membership numbers. Then, in order to combine the 3 airmiles that you have in each of the 20 duplicate accounts, you attempt to merge these into one – easily a year-long project.

Of course you forget to mention your member number when you are super excited while booking a low fare that you found on the Net at 2 AM. “No worries” you tell yourself, a week after completing the trip. The system promptly tells you that it is too soon to request credit for missing miles. “Oh, well” you say to yourself and come back to do the same job after a few months and you are promptly told, “sorry – too late to claim that credit”. You grind your teeth and decide to be more vigilant in the future.

Depending on your expertise, you may play the miles game with a higher handicap and try to earn miles while renting cars and booking hotels. You now have a multi-dimensional (insert your favorite puzzle / game here) to solve. The crowning glory usually comes in the form of ‘magazines for miles’. While the enticing offer supposedly tries to help you use your miles before expiry, you invariably end up with three copies of Golf Digest, Whiskey Advocate and Coastal Living – the only magazines that fit your budget, I mean, miles.

Some airlines tempt you with a ‘family’ account and you scramble around and enroll all your kith and kin and since they will have none of this nonsense, you become the de facto editor for their airlines membership accounts. You keep track of all their travel plans and exercise hawk like diligence in entering their member numbers into all their bookings. This also means keeping track of a complex algorithm of first-in-first-out and other Operations Research models to ensure that every airmile is used before it expires – which might also mean egging on a family member to travel by that airline soon, to prevent the corresponding miles from expiring. You are, by now, under constant pressure to keep the system operational to the point where you feel that you are the extended family’s in-house travel agent – and you start getting travel booking requests via email.

When you do try to book the so-called award flights, you are rudely hit with the fact that the only flights you are eligible to book are connecting flights with 2 stopovers for a distance of 200 miles (actual distance to be flown is around a thousand miles), taking off at midnight on a Tuesday and returning within 10 hours (you may as well not get off the plane).

You do get to celebrate when you actually travel (proudly, I suppose) on an award flight and sit next to a soul who has paid a fortune for the same journey. And, as you disembark with a justifiable sense of achievement, you start the planning for your next award flight!

The Password Nightmare

If you are sitting in front of your PC (if you are over 50 years of age) or staring at a mobile device (if you are under 30) and struggling with, “sch#m!t1/” or “Sc-h^m%…..” or some other weird and unpronounceable word, let me say, ‘Welcome to the maze called ‘Remembering Passwords’  –  otherwise known as, “Victory of Machine over Human”.

Passwords are a necessary evil that came into existence as the digital world evolved. In the centuries gone by, those who were lucky enough to have a PC probably had one place to log into and had up their sleeves ingenious passwords such as ‘abc123’ or ‘12345’ or something at the same level of complexity. And, more often than not, such a sophisticated password was written down on a piece of paper and stuck to the monitor in the living room.

Then came the online explosion – bank accounts, credit cards, multiple email accounts, online groups, Facebook, and so on. Overnight one had to develop an elephant memory for remembering passwords (called ‘credentials’ by the nerds who designed them). Again, simpletons like me were able to beat the system for a while with the ubiquitous ‘abc123’ as the universal password – but not for long. The powers that be, backed by real and imaginary security threats, started designing complex algorithms to force unsuspecting users to create passwords that were difficult to break – and more difficult to remember, if I may add.

Try creating a humane password for your bank account where the requirement is a minimum length of ten characters, no two characters repeated, beginning with an uppercase but ending with a non-alphabetic character with at least two numbers in between. You outsmart yourself by designing a word straight out of hieroglyphics, memorize it and try to adapt it as your panacea for all (password) evils – till you get to your next online account that politely but firmly informs you that the password cannot be more than 8 characters long and, sorry, no special characters allowed. You are ready to jump off the cliff at this stage.

But, wait, there is more, as they say in those intrusive TV ads! You have to change your password every 90 days (no doubt to keep you safe and secure, though at the risk of driving you insane) and you cannot use the past ten passwords. This is when you start keeping a written log of your password history with scant regard for the very security that the password is supposed to enhance.

There are of course other nuances with passwords such as the hints that ‘help’ you retrieve forgotten passwords – the high school where your grandma studied in her ninth grade (I am not sure if my grandma made it that far in school), the third letter of the month in which your eldest sibling was born (what about people who don’t have siblings?) and so on. This soon begins to look like a mystery adventure with Sherlock Holmes.

Let us end with a silver lining to this miserable saga. The increasing use of biometrics and retinal scans – with nothing to remember – as acceptable and preferred forms of identification may bring the much needed relief to the password challenged population.

A Conversation – of sorts

A conversation is defined as “oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas” by Merriam-Webster and as “interactive communication between two or more people” by the more modern Wikipedia. Both are obviously naïve and unaware of how so-called conversations take place in contemporary social media driven society.

Fundamentally, today’s conversation is part of a multi-tasking adventure by the participants, with the number of tasks per head varying from two to infinity. Some less talented people, in addition to the in-person interactions (!) taking place, carry on a parallel conversation on their mobile phone. The more skilled ones, however, juggle with multiple chat sessions and peruse/post messages on Facebook, WhatsApp and a plethora of other must-indulge-in-every-minute applications – including posting about the discussion currently (not) taking place.

Another characteristic of modern conversation is talking only in questions (as they do in game shows such as ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’). People usually do not wait for answers to any of their questions – and to match this expectation, the responder treats every question as a rhetorical one and proceeds to the next topic with the speed of a car accelerating at a signal about to turn red.

The phenomenon reaches hilarious proportions when three or more people are involved in the said multi-tasking adventure. Let us follow one such conversation between three friends (I have limited the participation to three, based on my own limitations in multi-tasking).

Peter: Hello, how is it going? Did you all have a nice weekend?

Sheila: I will call you later …… Hi Betsy! Mom, I said … I will call you later.

Betsy: Hello Peter, how is John, your little one, doing?

Peter: Well, John is …..

Sheila: Hi Peter, how are you – did not see you earlier….. excuse me (looks at her smart phone)

Betsy: Oh my God! (vigorously swipes on her iPhone)

Peter: (looking lost) Ladies, is everything OK?

Sheila: (looking at her phone) Betsy, did you see where Bill was having dinner last night?

Betsy: (looking intently at a photo on her phone) Is that Bill?! Could hardly recognize…..Peter, you were saying…..

Peter: Never mind.

Sheila: Peter, you look a little off color today. Anything…..I forgot my brain, I mean, purse, at home…..My brain is not working…

Betsy: You never told me about how John is doing. Is he ……

Betsy: Hey, look….they are crazy……they did not deliver the Mother’s Day flowers to my mom….What a bummer.

Shortly thereafter, all three walk away looking at their smart phones.          QED

A Visit to the Supermarket

Of all the things that I dread having to do, a visit to the supermarket easily ranks at the very top – well above the unpleasant but equally unavoidable visit to the dentist. There is a kind of panic, akin to jumping off a cliff and realizing that you forgot to take the parachute with you, that sets in as soon as I am told that it is that time of the day/week/month when I am required to head in a certain direction.

The first obstacle to overcome in the adventure is to find a parking spot that is free from risks such as damage to your car from freewheeling trolleys, decoration from ice-creams and pies that kids getting into cars in adjacent parking spots are likely to be spraying, I mean eating, or simply being a spot that is impossible to locate when returning with your shopping bags.

Entering the supermarket feels like entering a traffic junction where dozens of roads meet with the proverbial infinite paths to choose from, the only certainty being that I would head down the wrong road/aisle to start my journey. I customarily take a shopping basket instead of the more convenient trolley on the assumption that I am buying only ‘a few things’ as my folks at home had indicated by way of encouragement. The result is that, halfway through my shopping escapade, I feel like I am working out in a gym carrying impossible weights up and down aisles.

To avoid a second trip to the dreaded place in the not-too-distant future, I usually carry a list of items I am expected to return home with. The only problem is that this list, similar to the announcement of finalists in a beauty pageant, is truly in a random order, which in turn results in my traversing the full length of the store to pick up successive items which seem to be mysteriously arranged in exact opposite corners.

I wonder if I am the only one challenged with the ability to pick up even mundane items like bread and milk amidst the bewildering variety of descriptions, more like computer technical specifications, that accompany the myriad of choices available for each of these – hardly what our forefathers were thinking when they coined the phrase, ‘bread and butter’. What is the difference between ‘free range’ eggs and ‘cage free’ eggs? How low is the fat content in a ‘low fat’ milk can? How many more types of grains are there in a ‘multi-grain’ bread as compared to a ‘seven grain’ loaf?

After completing the equivalent of a two-hour workout in a gym, I triumphantly head to the cash register with the least number of customers ahead of me and, of course, end up spending the maximum amount of time to actually get to the cashier, silently watching the queue in adjacent counters melt like fresh snow in the midday sun. After I am made aware of several stupid mistakes such as carrying the wrong coupon with an invalid date and picking up the wrong buy-one-get-one-free fruit basket, I am ready to jump off the cliff – yes, without the parachute. I am in some sort of a trance as I pay the cashier, lug the shopping bags to the car and wriggle out of the parking lot without hitting anything or anyone  – until the cell phone rings …..”Hi, we forgot to add cheese to the list……”.

Browsing in Traffic

Hold it. Before you accuse me of offering ill-founded (if not illegal) advice to browse the web while driving (which, I suppose, is certainly a less dangerous activity than texting as you are in a read-only mode), I would like to make it clear that I am pondering on the nuances of browsing in digital traffic.

Readers who are old enough to remember will no doubt recall the good old days of leisurely reading through the daily newspaper or the weekly magazine without having to be on high alert to respond to the barrage of messages arriving on your smart phone (smart, really?!) in millisecond intervals. Perish the thought and move on to contemporary times and join the digital highway.

When the first digital version of my favorite newspaper came out, I was thrilled because I no longer had to wait for my dad to finish reading all the editorial essays and solve the world’s problems before I could get a chance to look at the sports headlines (our family code of ethics prevented separation of pages in the newspaper or jumping the hierarchy). And the wait for the paper boy to whizz by on his vehicle of choice followed by retrieval of the item of interest from the garbage dump into which it was regularly thrown was over. Everything was (your favorite smiley face here).

But my happiness was short-lived. First, it was the plethora of newspapers on the Net competing for one’s attention. Unlike the physical paper, every one of which had to be paid for, the digital media was free. Add to this the variety of periodicals and nameless news feeds that I had succumbed to by providing my email address during brain-dead moments, I was in a traffic jam worse than my worst nightmare on an interstate highway.

Let us move on to the next stage of this saga. After serious pursuit of meditation and yoga principles, I discipline yours truly to practice amnesia on non-essential web links and limit myself to browsing only the chosen sites. However, I soon realize, to my horror and dismay, that all the traffic on the Internet gets routed to the one site that I am on at any point in time. There are pop-ups (I have never been good at playing whack-a-mole), alerts (my computer seems to be a living encyclopedia of real and imaginary viruses), greyed content (why has everything gone so dark? where is the ‘close’ button on this moving gadget on the screen?),  one-question surveys (please, let me read the paper first before giving an opinion on the news), advertisements for defibrillators (how do they know about my recent heart attack?) and offers for my evening soup (is there a secret camera above my dining table?) – all superimposed on the one paragraph that I am desperately trying to read. It feels more like playing a video game than browsing a newspaper.

After fighting a losing battle for several days, I find myself sheepishly standing next to my dad with his face buried in his (physical) paper – ‘Dad, I would like to catch up on some sports news’!