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Twice Bitten, Nary a Chance to be Shy – The Vodafone Kolkata Tales

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Some years back, during a somewhat extended visit to Kolkata, I was made to jump through hoops and rings of fire after picking up a prepaid Vodafone connection for my local communications during my stay. There was no 3G those days; nevertheless, the experience was distasteful enough to make me launch into an uncharacteristic and rather long and rambling rant in a blog piece. Those of you, interested in going through this rather long piece, will find it here.  [ The Vodafone Pummel ]

Six years later, circa 2013, very little has changed. Or so I discovered when, during another extended visit to Kolkata, a combination of laziness, convenience (in the form of a nearby Vodafone store @ 204, Sarat Bose Rd. , near the Southern Avenue crossing) & possibly a subconscious streak of masochism led me to revisit this onerous institution which could well be representative of the state of Telecom services in India.

Unlike my earlier ramble, intended in parts to be sardonic & mildly amusing, let me confine myself to the bare, dry facts.

After initial inquiries and a brief wait, I was handed over to an executive with the name tag ‘Debashis’.

I made it known to him that I wanted to pick up 3 post-paid 3G/ mobile broadband connections, two of them to be used with smartphones and one to be used, together with a dongle which I intended to purchase, for broadband internet access on my laptop.

After a quick discussion, we settled for a 8 GB scheme for the broadband internet access using the dongle and two supposedly ‘unlimited’ schemes for 3G access on the smartphones (in reality, that translates to up to 1 GB / month at 3G speeds ; subsequently at 2G speeds). After furnishing the necessary documents & identification and making all payments on the spot, we were repeatedly assured by Debashis that activation would happen shortly, possibly in a few hours time.

Later that evening, I dialled a number I was asked to, for activation. After going through the identification procedures, I was assured by the Vodafone person at the other end that activation will happen within a couple of hours. True to form, that assurance fell by the wayside.

The next day I received a SMS about ‘physical verification’. Fortunately, later that evening, a person turned up for the purpose (apparently they are under instructions to pay surprise visits). He went through the process clinically & quickly & assured me that he will be ‘calling in’ his report very soon and that ‘activation’ in a few hours that day itself. That didn’t quite turn out to be true.

Sometime the next day, I discovered that internet access had been ‘enabled’, though the speeds were the painfully slow 2G speeds. I called up Vodafone Customer Care to mention this, registered on the Vodafone site, wrote an email for good measure and requested for a quick resolution of the issue. Despite various platitudes & assurances, nothing happened really for the next couple of days. Someone at the Helpdesk finally told me that if I was indeed interested in a quick resolution, I would do well to visit the Vodafone store and speak to the executive concerned who had sold me the packages.

I did so a couple of days down the line, picked out Debashis from the several front desk salespersons at the store & asked to speak to him. He assured me that he will take care of this right away and complimented me on my patience and tolerance (compared possibly to most other customers who by this stage start getting somewhat prickly & thorny).

Some hours after this, internet access on the smartphones started happening at 3G speeds, though neither on my laptop nor on the smartphones, I ever managed to attain speeds of 7 Mbps or more (Speedtest.net) which, I had been repeatedly assured initially, was the least I should expect.

Despite the delay and several hiccups and the considerable amounts of time spent in even getting the service I had signed up and paid for, I was almost ready to believe that my previous experience was a one-off aberration and that Vodafone had improved in the 6 years that had elapsed since that first experience. Having spent over 3 decades in the IT & Telecom industries across Asia Pacific including India, I should have knownfeline mattress better.

Vodafone delivered the sucker punch a few days later, when the bills arrived. I will spare you the gory details but even for a fortnightly period, the amounts were humongous and not at all in accordance with the postpaid 3G mobile internet packages I had signed up for.

I went through the same routine that I have mentioned earlier and eventually was told by someone in customer care that I should take up the matter with the executive who had sold me the ‘packages’. In less than 3 weeks, I had to undertake my 3rd pilgrimage to the Vodafone store and pick out Debashis.

I was again reassured by him that he will sort out the issue that day itself or latest by the next working day. I was told to remind him through SMS messages and ‘missed calls’ (apparently much in vogue in this city ) if I didn’t hear from him by the end of that day. As I was beginning to expect by now, days passed and there was no comeback from the ‘friendly, reassuring’ Vodafone sales executive, despite my sending out text messages to him with the concerned numbers regularly. Nearly a week passed by during which I received a call late one evening from him, telling me that while he had referred the matter already to the concerned department, there had been no comeback from them till date. Finally, in utter exasperation, I made a ‘missed call’ to his number one evening and he responded shortly afterwards. What he had to tell me this time blew my mind. Apparently, since I had started ‘using’ the services even before my 2nd visit to his store (refer narrative above), after which he taken on the task of getting the ‘3G mobile internet services’ activated, despite the 2G speeds at which the mobile internet  had been operating till then, I had been charged for a few days as per some ‘fancy ad hoc rate’ Vodafone has and not as per the 3G mobile internet package I had signed up for.

If the narrative above is rather too labyrinthine, here’s the elevator pitch. Vodafone, despite repeated promises by multiple agents & individuals, repeatedly delayed activation of the contracted services, failed on more than one occasion to respond promptly and satisfactorily to my queries & concerns and capped it all by sending me a bill which was way too high and not at all in accordance with the package I had signed up for. Subsequently, the concerned Vodafone salesperson  tried to fob me off with the story that I was somehow ‘responsible’ for all this, particularly the ‘erroneous’ amounts reflected in the very first bill. [ Check out update 1 below ]

To be fair, amidst all these crumbling rooftops and falling pillars, the only folks who have responded professionally to some of my emails till now are people who man the Nodal care services for Vodafone Kolkata (nodal.kol@vodafone.com ). The rest of it, as I have endeavoured to explain at some length here, has been a veritable train-wreck in terms of customer service & orientation.

A quick search on the net as well as a glance through Vodafone’s social media pages / accounts tells one that not too many are exactly enamoured with their services. Additionally, Vodafone seems to be under investigation by regulatory bodies like the TRAI for apparently flouting certain laid down norms and by the tax authorities for defaults on taxes payable. The only bright spot amidst all this are some of the interviews by the person responsible for Asia Pacific & Indian operations, Mr. Marten Pieters, that I came across. Well, Mr. Pieters, I am not quite sure what the priorities are at this point of time but, as you can see, things weren’t too hunky-dory six years back and have hardly improved noticeably since then. Possibly these heathens in chaotic developing countries like India need to go through some pain to understand the big favours MNCs like Vodafone are doing to them.

I leave it to the readers of this blog to mention whether this is the case particularly with Vodafone Kolkata or with Vodafone all over the country.  I am also curious to hear about a cross-section of experiences people may have had with some of the other major Telecom service providers in this country.

This narrative, at this moment is an unfinished tale and I will be back with updates in the not-so-distant future. Keep watching this space to find out how the saga unfolds.

Update 1

Emails detailing the problem and linking to this blog by way of details, copied to other IDs which are meant for escalating such problems, one presumes,  were met with stony silence. In the absence of any kind of comforting communication, which is possibly unrealistic to expect under these circumstances, even a mere acknowledgment would have been somewhat reassuring. Possibly, one-off retail customers like yours truly don’t quite merit such attention. A routine mail from local customer care, tried to reiterate the same ‘storyline’ as the one narrated above through an email.  Subsequently someone from Vodafone Care, Kolkata’ called up and needed to be explained in great detail, over & over again, all that has been narrated here. At the end of these rather irritating exchanges, the picture became clearer though. Here is the executive summary.

1. On 31st July, while at the Vodafone store, I had clearly discussed & settled for 3 data plans, 2 of them being the 1 GB Unlimited plan for 2 Smartphones & one the 8 GB unlimited plan which was planned to be used, together with a dongle purchased during that time from the Vodafone store,  for 3G internet access on laptops / other mobile devices. Despite being repeatedly told about the urgency for activation of the data plans, the salesperson in question did not activate the 1 GB Data plans for the smartphones. He did so for the 8 GB plan however.

2. This fact clearly escaped me because the elaborate forms needed were filled up by the salesperson alluded to, who, after obtaining the necessary ID documents & proof from me, got me to sign on the dotted line, assuring me that everything else will be taken care of by him. In good faith, I signed and exited the store, feeling reassured.

3. Due to non activation of the 1 GB Data plans, internet access, after a couple of days, was restricted to the slower 2G speeds. Puzzled by the fact & unable to resolve the issue, as stated earlier, I was forced to make my 2nd visit within a week to the Vodafone store & speak to the concerned executive. It appears that thereafter he quickly activated the data plan, which as per the discussions & earlier agreement, he was supposed to do on Day 1 itself i.e. on 31st July.

4. Vodafone apparently charges such ad-hoc accesses of the Internet at 2G speeds as per some humongously high rates. Unknown to me, Vodafone kept charging me at these rates for several days till the data plan I had signed on for initially on Day 1 itself was quietly activated after my 2nd visit to the Vodafone store.

5. Whether this is an error of omission or commission on the part of the salesperson mentioned, is not quite clear. However, Vodafone customer care executives have been repeatedly trying to obfuscate the issue & claim that they were quite justified and right in billing me the way they did. If there is any intent to redress the wrong done and resolve the issue satisfactorily, it has not been evident from the tone & tenor of the communications, written & verbal, till date.

Update 2

Since multiple people from Vodafone continue to try & obfuscate & distort the issue and fabricate post-facto scenarios in an attempt to cover up for their acts of omission, commission & negligence, I have sent out the following detailed communication to all concerned in Vodafone and to the various regulatory authorities and statutory bodies on the 12th of September, 2013. Here it is, unabridged:

It is now fairly clear to me that Vodafone, Kolkata circle is engaged in a game of hoodwinking first-time & gullible customers, fabricating a sequence of events post-facto to justify their acts of omission, commission & negligence, possibly wilful & deliberate at times & backing up frontline salespersons who commit such acts possibly because they do so with the active encouragement of the management.

It is also evident that despite various fancy names & slogans, Vodafone’s attitude towards the customer is one of supreme indifference & unconcern, bordering on hostility at times.

As would be evident from the various communications below, Vodafone has neither cared to answer several pertinent questions raised during these exchanges but has stuck to a crafted scenario which is, in parts, fabricated post-facto to cover up for their negligence, acts of omission & unprofessional & unethical practices.  Here is a summary of the queries which have not been answered either satisfactorily, convincingly or at all.

1. On 31st July 2013 when I stepped into the Vodafone store on Southern Ave, / Sarat Bose Rd. crossing, Kolkata, as a first-time retail prospect and was directed to a particular salesperson, no attempt was made to either show me the internal forms which are now being alluded to as the defining & clinching document in this whole process. Instead, various talk time & data plans were told to me by the concerned salesperson at the end of which I chose 2 specific talk-time & 2 3G data plans for two smartphones I already had as well as a 3G data-plan solely for usage on internet enabled devices like laptops etc.,.  While I repeatedly requested for a quick activation of all services and the concerned salesperson repeatedly assured me that this will happen in a few hours time, at no stage was I ever informed that the activation, particularly the data-plan activation might take several days. I have subsequently come to understand from informed external sources that this is the case presently. This constitutes a deliberate suppression of facts and an attempt to mislead and provide glib & false assurances for ‘closing a sale’.

2. After asking me for the requisite IDs & photographs, the salesperson was insistent on my paying the sums mentioned on the spot and on my signing on the dotted line in an internal form, assuring me repeatedly that he will take care of all other formalities & processes. At no stage was even an attempt made to explain the various entries in the internal form that is being alluded to repeatedly here; neither was any attempt made to walk me through the form or to get me to fill in any details in the mentioned form. This appears to have been a willful attempt to keep me from reading any fine print in the form and to build up a provision for covering up internal errors & acts of omission and possibly for deliberately misleading customers who may not know any better.

3. It is now claimed that since apparently no data plan for the smartphones had been opted for (a white lie which Vodafone keeps clinging on to & repeating), I was charged for access at slow 2G speeds @ 10 p / 10 KB. At no stage had Vodafone either informed me of this fact or obtained my consent in any manner about such services & charges before or during this event. To state this now, after the charges have been levied already, constitutes clearly unethical & less-than-transparent business practices on Vodafone’s part.

4. It is also now claimed by Vodafone that during my 2nd visit to the said Store on 3rd August, I had opted for certain 3G data plans for 2 smartphones which were subsequently activated.  In fact, the 2nd visit to the Store was to get the issue of ‘slow, non-3G speeds while accessing the internet on my smartphones’ remedied, as advised to me by someone from the Vodafone helpdesk earlier. Since I did not either fill-in or sign any form on that day, how did someone in Vodafone go about deciding that such 3G data plans could now be activated? If, as stated by Vodafone in their several responses, such ‘internal forms’ are essential documents for activation of services, including data plans, how can anyone in Vodafone take it upon himself or herself to activate such ‘paid services’ without a filled-in & signed form from me? If someone can indeed do so, it clearly shows that their internal systems are susceptible to & designed for gross customer abuse.
Further, how did someone take it on himself to activate such 3G data plans for smartphones without ascertaining in any manner or form whether the handsets I have are indeed capable of  accessing such services and operating at 3G speeds? Is this not another example of callousness, negligence & either misleading or demonstrating complete unconcern for the customer?

I now understand from some friends and associates with whom I have shared this experience that several even old-time customers have suffered similarly at the hands of Vodafone Kolkata and that unhappiness with one or more of their services as well as their attitude towards customers in general is the cause for considerable unhappiness among quite a few.

What has been your experience with Vodafone in India? Do share your experiences by commenting on this post.

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The Browser Bruisers

Browsers

The Rupert Murdoch owned WSJ recently came out with an article alleging that Google had been violating the privacy of millions of users using Apple’s browser, Safari. The full article can be read here.

WSJ: Google’s iPhone Tracking

Even before the dust had settled on this one, Microsoft came out swinging, alleging that Google may have been doing the same for their browser, Internet Explorer also. Dean Hachamovitch, Corporate VP, IE, came out with this blog post.

Google Bypassing User Privacy Settings

The hard facts, as so well compiled & expressed by Anthony Fawcett  are as follows:

Safari doesn’t provide an interface to set a site by site exception for cookies, you’re faced with either having a broken service because cookies required for operation cannot be set, or completely turning off all cookie restrictions. Those are the two options for users. Google cleverly came up with a legitimate way to get the necessary cookies stored, but as a result some other cookies were also getting transmitted. Google altered the implementation to only send the necessary cookies for the opt-in cross domain services to operate.

For a start, no, they didn’t violate privacy law. None of what they did has any effect for users that do not opt in for the cross domain services, which require cookies to operate – which is what this is all about. The cookies expire in 24 hours or when the browser is closed. The cookies contain no personal identifiable data, nothing more than an authentication state and a session ID. So let’s stop with the whole “privacy abuse” thing. Let’s also stop with the whole “tracking me” thing, a 24 hour/session cookie cannot be used for any kind of effective tracking – which was never the intent.

The only browser in the world that still cares about P3P policies is IE. Every other browser manufacturer dropped support for this years ago. It’s buggy, badly designed,  poorly implemented, and does nothing to provide actual privacy protection but like “affiliate signing” allows sites to lie about the purposes of cookies and to bypass your regular cookie settings and get special treatment. No one uses P3P except where you need cross domain services and you need to support IE6 with them (since literally, it’s pretty much the only way to get IE6 to consistently store cookies when working cross domain).

Google services give IE a compact P3P policy header which tells the browser to ignore P3P settings for cookie restriction. This lets Google do cross domain services on Microsoft’s broken and bug ridden browser suite.

If Google didn’t do this you would not be able to use cross domain G+ services without lowering your overall privacy setting or adding a cookie rule exception for every service.

IE – as the only browser that implements P3P – is the only browser that requires a doctored P3P policy to do this. Even Facebook does exactly the same thing!

MS Edge BrowserNow if you want to talk Safari, it’s the same situation – only there isn’t even the option to use a P3P policy. Safari’s cookie settings are a joke and a usability/privacy protection nightmare.

Do you know that Facebook does EXACTLY the same thing so that people can “Like” other sites? The only real difference is that for Google you OPT-IN to having these features on, whereas Facebook just does it anyway.

So you want to know exactly what data they collected? NONE.  Because they weren’t trying to collect data. They were trying to establish a cross domain authentication check so when you like something on the web it registers on your profile. That’s it. No big conspiracy theory. No stealing of the datas. No rifling your private information and transferring it behind your back. Simply working with broken browser implementations to accomplish what the USER actually ASKED them to do.

At what point does one conflate security and privacy? The two are entirely separate and dealt with by entirely separate bodies of law.

P3P is not a security technology, it is not even a privacy technology.

Did you know that no browser other than IE implements support for P3P and that it was actively removed from Mozilla, and never added to Opera, Chrome, Firefox, or Safari (no Safari does not support P3P either). In fact, it’s been recognized as a bad, privacy breaking technology since IE6 first debuted support and broke a slew of web-sites.  EPIC calls it “Pretty Poor Policy” ; that’s right the Electronic Privacy Information Centre calls it a really bad policy.

Do you know what it is and why it was invented? It’s a technology that inverts the “trusted network” paradigm to allow affiliate advertises for Microsoft’s networks to place cookies on your computer for tracking purposes even though you’ve disabled 3rd party cookies as a general rule. That’s why it was invented, and why it was implemented in IE. The same reason Microsoft gave priority passage to your inbox for spam email from their marketing affiliates in Hotmail.

A cookie is not a program that uploads datas on you, it is not like Path transmitting your entire iPhone address book to remote servers without your knowledge and beyond your control. It’s a text file. It contains text. It usually contains less than 50 characters of text. It’s used to persist information on your computer, not take it away. For instance, it allows application developers to record the fact that you are logged in, and an id to reference your session, which is what Google uses it for. This is necessary because HTTP itself is what we call a “stateless” protocol. It has no memory between requests. To get around this and make applications, developers use a server side construct called a ‘session’ that acts as a bag to hold information in between requests. The ‘bags’ are labelled with securely (on good implementations) generated IDs, so they can be told apart. Only, because HTTP itself is stateless, the server cannot tell which ‘bag’ is yours, it needs to know your ID. The HTTP protocol provides a mechanism to send a cookie with each request, and developers store the needed ID in just such a cookie. When the server receives it, it can identify your bag.  Bingo, session-based activities are now possible such as playing games, shopping with a shopping cart and so on.

There is only one problem though. The security implementation around cookies to prevent people stealing them and using them for impersonation and session hijacking (getting access to your ‘bag’) means that only cookies from the same server you are visiting can be read and written. This throws a spanner in the works when two services hosted on different domains need to work together. The server you are accessing gets what is called “first party” permissions. It can read and write cookies at will provided you don’t have cookies disabled completely. The second server though cannot write cookies unless you allow third party cookies in your browser settings. Without that permission, the script that runs on the page that provides Facebook’s ‘Like’ button let’s Facebook know that you liked the page. Without that, they can’t update their opengraph records without which they can’t tell Facebook who you are when you click that link.

Nothing Google has done has stolen or has the potential to steal any information from you.

Do YOU have “allow me to +1 sites on the Internet” turned on in your G+ profile (it’s off by default)?

If not, then NO, you were completely unaffected by this.  If yes, then YOU EXPLICITLY TOLD Google to do this

If you turned that feature on, in Safari, you have 2 ways for it to work,

1. You disable all cookie protection

This may be a bad option if you believe that cookie restriction is a measure for enhancing privacy?

2. You open a new frame and send the information you need directly to your own server. Since you are first party where your own server is concerned, this is how it is INTENDED to work. Google can still only read Google’s own cookies containing nothing but what Google wrote there. Google didn’t break anything in the HTTP protocol or any standard to do this.

So why the concern over tracking? Because people don’t understand how this works. If you have 3rd party cookies turned off in Safari you should not have any other Google cookies, so nothing extra would have been sent. The only way you could even have sent your Ad Sense cookie ID is if you had one to start with. And even if you did, and it did get sent, the code that handles the G+ +1 action would not have the slightest interest in it, and would simply discard it. Ad Sense IDs are only any use to the Ad Sense network. And even if it made it as far as the Ad Sense network, it contributes no information because there is no page view information associated with it.

So nothing was stolen, you were not violated, your privacy was not breached. Google simply changed the way they did something to comply with the browser security requirements.

Not doing so, and requiring users to disable all cookie protection to Like or +1 or do any of the plethora of cross domain activities you do without even realizing it when you utilise any of the most popular web applications, would be the only real wrong that could have been perpetrated here.

Here’s a simpler, easier-to-understand explanation for what has been stated above.

Safari as a browser isn’t buggy. However their policy choices are flawed and specifically bad from a security and privacy standpoint.

Someone compared this ‘intrusion’ to a burglar entering your home because he finds the lock to your front door broken. This is a flawed analogy.  P3P is optional, and is something the web server elects to participate in or not as the case may be. Very few do at all.  However, this isn’t at all like entering someone’s home and making away with his stuff.

It’s more akin  to someone coming to my business and saying “Hello, yes, I’d like to make use of your custom service”. I say “Sure, just sign here, okay, I’ll give you a special ID card that will enable you to access the service, but you’ll need to show it to the agent who will be doing the work for you so that he knows you are authorized for it.” Only, your wallet is shut and latched in such a way that you can’t actually add cards to it, so you have to go to Microsoft and have them add the card for you.  Being helpful, I am giving you a new card and putting it in your shirt pocket for you and reminding you to show it to the agent whenever you ask for the service.

For Safari it’s slightly different. The lock on your wallet is enchanted so that you can only put and take out ID cards for the address you are currently standing at.  You don’t have any control over the wallet except to bust the lock on it and let any and all cards be put in by everyone.  So, instead I say “Tell you what, instead of putting the card in your wallet, I’ll make an exception and when you get there just give me a call and I’ll give the number to the agent over the phone, and he can write it on a card for you there and then.

[ Hat tip: Anthony Fawcett  for the explanatory content ]

Why do you think the WSJ & Microsoft launched on the finger-pointings and the muttered accusations? I am sure you would be able to come up with a couple of good guesses at least.

(Note: Neither I nor the person whose explanatory content figures here has any professional association with or happens to be an employee of Microsoft, Google, Apple or Wall Street Journal )

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Game over, Facebook? (or How Facebook Keeps Shooting Itself In The Foot)

Why Facebook Is The New Yahoo – Datamation

This blog piece really supplements the points made in this article (link above ). The points below are essentially to further amplify and expand on the contentions in this piece.

Facebook logo

Image via Wikipedia

Early adopters will recall Facebook as a rickety, buggy apps which had very few people who had gotten on to the bandwagon and a whole lot more of bugs together with a  generally pretty crappy UI. While after the dot.com bust at the beginning of this century, clueless commentators & hapless analysts have been desperate to hype any emerging trend to the skies, Facebook progressed & grew beyond its wildest dreams more because it happened to be in the right place at the right time & owing to the many errors of omission & commission by its forerunners & contemporaries.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

All through this spectacular growth story, Facebook kept on playing fast & footloose with the privacy & the needs of some of its serious users. It kept on playing around with its UI, which, despite several makeover attempts, remained crappy & reminded many people of Web 0.5 rather than Web 2.0.  It was a hacker’s delight and it put up a brave front  every time someone demonstrated the relative ease with which it could be hacked into. It kept on experimenting with the length of texts for posts & comments for posts without so much as a by-your-leave or even a warning to most unsuspecting users. It merrily downgraded photographs uploaded for display, a fact unknown to most of the hordes for whom uploading to Facebook pics of your latest vacation or your dog became a status symbol of sorts.

While Facebook has of late been demonstrating a zeal for real names (because Google+ is a real name network from the time the beta was launched? ) for much of its existence, it didn’t give a damn about who registered on the network, beyond the cursory reminder that pre-teens were not allowed. I know of several people who promptly proceeded to have Facebook accounts for their dogs & cats & even proudly proclaimed the ‘fact’ to their friends. Many others opened multiple accounts on Facebook, under a host of pseudonyms & assumed names and let their ‘special’ friends know which account they used for which purpose (for a hint think Farmville & Cityville and the need to conceal from a certain ‘set’ of friends the fact that one was incurably addicted to it). In any case Facebook didn’t care two hoots about what got on to your Stream from numerous Farmville posts for example, auto-generated when your friends got on to it.  Messages & pokes from perfect strangers followed the same pattern. Anybody could write anything on your wall or read your comments to others’ posts in many cases, without you either knowing or being able to do anything about it. Your friends could add you on to any groups they happened to be a part of, without bothering to think whether you may actually be reluctant or unwilling to join a particular group they happen to be part of.

When serious users & geeks raised howls of protest about this, Facebook embarked on the first of its many hamhanded attempts to appease the unhappy & outraged users & introduce controls for users’ accounts & privacy. At times deliberately and, on other occasions, unintentionally, patching & taking care of a particular area of concern seemed to open up new cracks & areas of unhappiness.

Amidst all this, Facebook’s numbers kept growing because for the vast majority of people, privacy, security or poor user UIs & unannounced, ad-hoc restrictions mattered little. Aside from registering one’s dog & cat, it became an online rolodex for many and once its numbers grew beyond a certain threshold, peer pressure ensured that most people felt compelled to open an account on Facebook at least to prove to their friends that they weren’t anti-social in the least and kept themselves abreast of new developments in this ‘digital age’. Some proceeded to ‘befriend’ just about any Johnny who could be found on FB & was willing to be added, thus growing their no. of friends relatively quickly into the high 3-digits category, assuming that this fact alone gave them some kind of a bragging right over their friends whose ‘friend counts’ were nowhere near that. If you have seen posts or comments from anything more than 10% – 15% of your ‘friends’ on Facebook, you must belong to an exceptional minority indeed!

Facebook has from time to time quoted the total no. of people who have registered. Information regarding what percentage or numbers out of these have been dormant and for how long, hasn’t been forthcoming. Whereas e-mail clients knock off users who haven’t had any activity on their account for say 6 months or one year, Facebook never ever knocks off anyone and makes it virtually impossible for anyone to leave even if he or she wants to. It has always been designed to be a one-way street.

There are many who suffered through all the twists & turns of a badly designed & executed app like Facebook simply because by the time they decided it was decidedly crappy and were planning to leave, most of their ‘friends’ had gotten on to it. Added to it was the fact that it was the most visible and high-profile social media platform in most parts of the world and hence there was peer pressure to at least stay on nominally, irrespective of whether one liked or hated the experience. Along the way of course there were the added attractions of games, pages for organizations & businesses and e-commerce among others. Facebook also managed its marketing & media efforts quite well, aside from the misfortune of getting caught out in its efforts to deliberately and, in a sustained way, slander Google.

Quel ricco sfondato di Mark Zuckerberg, founde...

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook

To use an analogy which will be quite understandable to Indian readers, you don’t start with an Ambassador car and then try to make it into a Honda City say, by periodically tinkering with the carburretor, steering wheel or spark plugs. Despite any tweaks to these subsystems the overall experience would still remain a distinctly unsatisfactory one. Of course from time to time groups of people just switched off & turned to various alternatives and though that outflow has gotten stronger in recent months, overall, it didn’t really matter much. There were always newer markets to conquer & newer people to sucker and, as a result, the total numbers kept growing, albeit at a much slower pace than what had been experienced sometime earlier.

All through this process, Facebook copied bits & pieces from here & there and then once it grew big and attracted major funds, went on a spree acquiring smaller, promising start-ups. It kept tweaking privacy settings, UIs & groups but never ever came up with the big idea or a really innovative one. Copying others has always been its forte which was amply evident when it revamped Groups and made it as close as possible to popular e-groups which had been in existence for ages, with a few more bells & whistles added.

Ergo, its desperate strategy of copying Google+ & Twitter now & remaining relevant & hopefully ahead in the race is nothing surprising.  Given its near-total bankruptcy of big ideas & innovative ones, one would in fact have been quite surprised if it hadn’t done so.

In doing so however it has given short shrift to much of its loyal user base. Most of Facebook’s active users aren’t too bothered about privacy & possibly quite like the idea of broadcasting to the world what they had that morning for breakfast and taking a peek at comments made by their ‘friends’ for posts which should not concern them normally. Much like Twitter, Facebook possibly owed its growth & success to the fact that it managed to adhere largely to the KISS (Keep It Simple & Stupid ) principle which would have been comforting to most of its users. It had a great opportunity to distinguish itself from johnnies-come-lately like Google+ which quite a few people might find somewhat complicated & confusing to test-drive & muster. Alas, in its desperation, it is trying its best to become another Google+ by churning out poor versions & pale imitations of G+’s major features without realizing that, in the medium & long-term, it can’t win the battle with Google because Google, in addition to being the big honchos of Search, has its fingers in over half -a-dozen apps like YouTube, Picasa, Documents, Reader, Calendar, Talk & Maps, in addition to having control over cloud computing, browsers, operating systems & even mobile hardware companies now. And, end of the day, content and its easy shareability & deliverability rules above all else, doesn’t it?

Jerry Yang and his co-founders were the Internet big honchos in the late 90s, having their fingers in everything from Searches to E-mails, E-groups, News portals & Blogs among others. It took less than a decade for it to be reduced to the status of an also-ran in virtually each of these areas. Given the fact that upward spiral & downward plunge cycles have gotten shorter in the Internet era, one finds it hard to visualize Facebook & Zuckerberg five years from now as anything other than an also-ran, still bent on mindlessly copying from the newer games in town what they perceive as ‘killer-features’, to regain lost glory. Didn’t someone tell them that mere imitation is not only the best form of flattery but also the first big steps towards ceding a position of leadership?

P.S.

A couple of instances of how patchy Facebook’s hasty makeover is:

1. Facebook now allows you to choose from among lists. Unlike g+ though which allows you to select one or more circles, just an individual even or all circles, extended circles & public, Facebook gives you the choice of choosing a particular list, a predefined category like Friends or Public generally which is far more restrictive in addition to not being intuitive at all.

Facebook appears to be forming Smart-lists of friends by primarily selecting those among your friends who post or comment much more frequently than others. Sadly, this can hardly be the basis for your default choice of ‘good friends’. While one can manage & tweak the list as desired, the default  option seems downright hazardous. Remember when Buzz tried to do something similar and it blew up in their face (possibly helped along by Facebook, its media managers & ‘friendly’ blogs & publications).

Facebook now lets you follow folks who opt to be Subscribed to. How is that any different from Pages that one may have elected to follow earlier? Extending the page functionality to individuals & making it an opt-in feature can hardly be called a major innovation or upgrade, isn’t it?

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The Fall of The Print Media and The Rise of Digital Media, Including Social Media

An archived article from the New York Times about the steady decline of the print media in recent years. This appeared towards the end of 2008. The situation, if anything, has considerably worsened since in the markets that this report refers to.

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NY Times article on print media Nov. 2008

The precipitate fall of conventional print media at the hands of digital media, including social media, continues as this archived piece from the NY Times states. The trend hasn’t been reversed in the last 3 years at least as this archived article from CNN will show http://is.gd/VrIiAG . Recent studies point to a consolidation among print media. Thus large national & international groups like the NY Times or the Washington Post will survive this onslaught and possibly even gain temporarily owing to the decline and closure of smaller print media. Some recent data & metrics suggest that social media may actually be helping to cushion & stall the decline of players in the print media to an extent.

The situation is no different for print magazines as this archived study from as far back as 2009 will show http://is.gd/B0d2pL

The big print media players are now heavily leveraging on social media to remain relevant and alive. Here’s a recent article that describes the various ways that this is happening. http://is.gd/4bc485

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In India the situation is somewhat different owing to the following factors
1.The low penetration & reach of land broadband networks (ref. piece from the Economist on this issue, shared earlier in this group http://econ.st/iNvNXj ) together with the relatively low availability of relevant hardware to access broadband networks, specially in semi-urban and rural areas.

2. The grossly delayed introduction of 3G mobile services which has also helped to stunt the growth of digital and social media together with other content available digitally.

These don’t seem to be by design but rather owing to the lack of focus and inefficient implementation by the national and several state govts. This situation will hopefully reverse and resolve itself in the coming months and years and hence the trends mentioned above will become very evident in the Indian market too in the foreseeable future. Its not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Finally a word about Twitter, one of the major planks in the social media universe currently. It is amazing how the twitter platform, whose initial usage was largely restricted to people tweeting their friends about where they were planning to have lunch or go shopping or holidaying has expanded in scope with brand extension & usage diversification largely being defined and driven by its ever-growing numbers of users globally. Twitter today is getting to represent more of a news network than being merely a social network as this article so appropriately details http://is.gd/dSCviY .

Masthead - New York Times

In fact this ever expanding usage of Twitter is making the organization seriously contemplate launch its own news network as mentioned by one of its co-founders recently. http://is.gd/aNUkkt . While by default much of this is already in place and operative what is left to Twitter is to enter into the necessary tie-ups & partnerships formally and find ways to monetize the whole idea.

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Of Japan’s handling of one of the biggest natural disasters they have faced, doomsday prognosticators & lobbies which have single-minded agendas, often irrational

Protesters

Protesters against nuclear plants

 

The catastrophic events in Japan, after the double whammy of a quake and a tsunami  which wrought havoc, widespread destruction & death in its wake, typically illustrated the fact how bad news is extremely newsworthy and grabs attention & eyeballs much better than any strictly factual, objective reporting. It also illustrated how self-professed or media created analysts & experts tend to come out of the woodwork and circulate around all kinds of views & scenarios which often have little factual grounding & basis and tend to emphasize and amplify the ‘bad news’ as best as possible. And seizing on all this bad news & bleak doomsday scenarios, lobbyists and various faux liberal activists & ‘jholawallas’ with fixed, often highly prejudiced & inflexible agendas start screaming their heads off about their favoured point-of-view, such breast-beating & screaming often having very little objective or factual basis. By way of illustration, relevant links with brief comments follow.

Bill Durodie, writing in TODAY summed up this scenario rather well. His piece can be read [ here ]

Yukio Edano

Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano

 

The way the political leadership in Japan responded to the crisis & the hands-on approach of the Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano & also the PM Naoto Kan, both fairly new to their jobs, was exemplary. Even then, some people expressed their disappointment & unhappiness at the situation despite the fact that these men were on top of the rapidly developing situation for most of the time and were taking decisions needed to be taken quickly, working in tandem and by rotation, tirelessly & spending sleepless nights. An idea can be got from the piece [ here ]

The exemplary sense of duty, courage and the great sense of sacrifice demonstrated by both the employees and the contract workers of the TEPCO Fukushima nuclear power plants has been written about fairly in detail and the Fukushima 50 (actually that’s a misnomer dreamt up by someone looking to create an eye-catching byline for the story, since apparently the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant had about 180 people working in batches of 50 for short periods because of the extremely risky & hazardous conditions) are possibly on their way to becoming an integral part of Japanese folklore. Some of the pieces about this group of brave, selfless men & women can be read [ here ], [ here ] & [ here ].

The blog of Michiko Otsuki, a young female employee of the Fukushima Dai-ini plant which quickly and efficiently achieved a cold shutdown can be read [here]. While this is translated from the original in Japanese, the original blog had to be taken down by her, because all kinds of people started misconstruing it and deliberately giving it all kinds of slant.

The way the Japanese people in general have reacted to the disaster and the crisis has been exemplary and there are lessons to be learnt here for much of the rest of the world. Nicholas Kristof of the NYT, who was the bureau chief in Japan some years back and who witnessed the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in ’95 writes about that experience [ here ] & about the lessons that can be learnt from the present disaster [ here ]. The lessons the British could draw from the way the Japanese have handled this whole episode till now can be read  [ here ]. One wonders what lessons the Indian politicians, bureaucracy and even the people may have drawn from this. Given the severe administrative & governance deficits presently plaguing the country as well as the serial scams which come to light virtually every week, one doubts of course whether either the politicians or the bureaucracy is even in a frame of mind to learn any lessons from any such event or episode.

The most dismaying, perplexing or amusing, depending on the way one looks at it, has been the coverage of the potential nuclear meltdown situation, following the earthquake and the tsunami at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. While the basic source of information was principally from TEPCO personnel on the ground, Japanese officials & bodies like the IAEA, mediapersons, homegrown experts & instant analysts who came out of the woodwork by the dozens revelled in painting all kinds of scenarios, mostly bleak, and giving their armchair interpretations of what the reality is possibly like, implying in the process that the information frequently being shared by the concerned Japanese personnel & officials was not possibly reliable or even believable. Since there is no point in even providing the links to some of these works of fantasy, here are some links from industry bodies & sources with some integrity about the situation [ here ], [ here ] & [ here ].
An informed, objective presentation about the modus operandi of nuclear power plants like Fukushima can be viewed [ here ]

Now that the heroic band of men & women, generally getting to be known as the Fukushima 50, have succeeded in stabilising the situation and reattaching the power cables which would enable water to be pumped in again to cool the reactors (check this link here), I presume that the media will soon lose interest in the whole business since hopefully not much bad news will be forthcoming from here onwards. The current situation in Libya will of course dominate the news cycle for a few days at least.

Timeline Graphics of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant problems

 

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Random musings about the loud & largely unprofessional Indian mainstream media

Barkha

Barkha Dutt

I believe when the uprising in Egypt started attracting major headlines internationally, some members of the Indian mainstream media rushed to Egypt to provide on-the-spot coverage. Why this was necessary in the first place was a mystery since the Mid-East in general, including Egypt & several other countries would not quite be high-up on the typical domestic mass-market audience or viewer’s list of interesting places in any case and since that is typically the market most national & regional news-channels in India

Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour

cater to, the move still remains largely inexplicable. Maybe this constituted a pioneering attempt to broaden the horizons of the target audience, as it were. One also wondered what was the typical Indian angle, if any, that they were planning to cover since there weren’t a large number of Indian expats based in Egypt in any case and also since the Indian govt., generally clueless & not knowing which way to turn, as is fairly typical of the way it conducts its foreign policy, continued maintaining a studied silence on the whole affair. In any case several major international publications & channels like Al-Jazeera, NYT, Guardian & CNN to name a few were already doing an excellent job of covering the developments extensively & timely. Also, this being Revolution 2.0, as many have suggested since, constant updates on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube & Google were available to those who had access to such channels and cared to check periodically about what exactly was happening.Soon these gentlemen & ladies made a sorry spectacle of themselves after landing up in Cairo. Instead of reporting about developments on the ground they became the news themselves and ended up whining,

Sagarika Ghose

screaming & tweeting about how they were being harassed, followed, arrested, threatened etc., etc.,. Ostensibly the only one to have been spared such treatment was the outrageous Ms. Barkha Dutt, who soldiers on thanks to the UPA & Prannoy James Roy. She then busied herself going sight-seeing all over Cairo, filing dispatches by selectively cutting & pasting the

considerable volume of material already available on the Egypt affair & pretending that she was arranging to get an exclusive interview of Uncle Hosni as soon as Christiane Amanpour had finished with him. Unfortunately, despite her vocal championing of the Revolutionary Kashmir Stone-Pelters’ Association, she couldn’t get any of the folks in Tahrir Square to chuck even a couple of such ‘missiles’ generally her way which could then lead to dramatic coverage about the ‘brave & intrepid Barkha Dutt reporting from the scene of action despite grave threats to her life (i.e. mortal danger)’.

Having lost a great deal of face vis-a-vis her competitors who could triumphantly talk about being followed, harassed and even imprisoned, she & her boss planned to best them the next time around. Soon Libya happened & despite NDTV‘s target audience apparently having even less interest in Libyan affairs than in that of Egypt, she landed up with a team in Egypt again and decided, apparently on the spur-of-the-moment, to venture forth into ‘liberated’ Libya. This became all the more necessary to upstage the competition which had landed up too, in an effort to beam live reports from the ‘scene of action’.

Arnab

Arnab Goswami

She then apparently set forth in vehicles hired in Egypt across the Egypt – Libya border, which is long & largely porous at the best of times. Thousands of Libyans & Egyptians, apparently go across it daily, mostly to earn their daily bread in a neighbouring country, without bothering in the least about niceties like checkpoints, entry permits or Visas. However when Ms. Dutt went across this virtually unmanned border, it was projected as an extremely brave & hazardous move to the target audience, generally clueless about what the ground realities at that point in that part of the world were (if they were aware, they wouldn’t have been tuning into NDTV’s dispatches anyway for regular updates). Soon, this became a full-blown story about Ms. Dutt’s adventures in ‘extremely dangerous’ territory, while she prattled & tweeted her way across miles & miles of largely deserted countryside. The hordes of folks who follow her on Twitter apparently got into paroxysms of anxiety & delight alternately, exhorting her through tweets to take care, stay in touch & even come back to keep ‘life & limbs intact’. Any stragglers she may have come across in the largely deserted countryside became ‘fighters & revolutionaries of a liberated Libya’ who were egged on to voice their ‘views’ about the ‘momentous change’ happening and about Gaddafi’s repressive regime among other things.

NDTV apparently fashioned a full-length feature out of the ‘Adventures of Barkha Dutt’ which played out to their prime-time audience. The competition was thus upstaged and in a paradigm shift, the correspondent became the centre of attraction and the news herself. The synergies between championship cricket, soap, Bollywood & ‘breaking news’ which are the four pillars on which most news channels in India survive and even thrive on thus got greatly reinforced and the target audience went to bed happy after being riveted by this latest edition of ‘news soap’, Bollywood style.

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The Cathartic Experience Of Passing Through Kolkata’s International Airport

Air travellers, specially international ones, go through the routine of immigration & customs and then baggage clearance before taking a cab, a bus or a train to their destination in the city they have travelled to, almost with a bored air of having been through it all. No doubt there are good, average & somewhat poor terminals and the average length of time in going through the cycle mentioned above can widely vary across different cities.  The overall experience can be anything from being a pleasant to a trying one.

Even if one is a frequent traveller, nothing would quite prepare one for the entire range of new experiences, sensations & moods that one can invariably experience while getting into or out of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport at Kolkata. Mere words would hardly suffice to bring you a true flavour of what lies in store for you. Here are some vignettes though which could serve as a prequel for those who haven’t quite experienced it yet.

Before the aircraft quite comes to a complete halt, most passengers, at least in most economy classes of most arriving flights, would have jumped out of their seats and wrestled their hand baggages out of the overhead baggage compartments, announcements & admonitions by the flight crew notwithstanding. If you happen to be occupying an aisle seat, you would be well advised to either follow suit or get out of the way to avoid being bonked on the cranium by one of these hand baggages on their involuntary downward descent path.

Once you have wrestled your way out of the aircraft, you are usually confronted by a ladder, apparently of World War II vintage, which subscribes to the open concept. If it happens to be drizzling at the time, accompanied by gusty winds, the ‘open’ concept is not exactly conducive to your reaching the terminal building in bone dry condition.

International Boarding Gate 1 at NSCBI Airport...

The boarding gate at the NSCB Int'l Airport, Kolkata

Once you have successfully descended, you are directed to get into a bus which, under other circumstances, is possibly used to ferry heavy luggage around the airport. After it has picked up its full complement of deplaning passengers, it chugs its way lugubriously towards the main terminal building.

Once you get off the bus, just outside the main terminal building, your acclimatization process starts. Dogs & cats can be seen sheltering under broken down trolleys housing dilapidated brooms. Once you have negotiated your way past these relics, you find yourself  in a large, starkly painted room with no temperature control except a couple of whirring, somewhat noisy ceiling fans. Other than the immigration officers, this enclosure is manned by members of the Kolkata police who may direct you to one or the other queues snaking their way across, in between shouting out instructions and terms of endearment to each other.

The immigration officers are mostly taciturn, silent men who give you the occasional up-from-under look while riffling through your passport & associated documents. Any attempts at being friendly are roundly rebuffed and I have actually seen a person who thanked the officer on completion of the process, being chided.

Once you near the baggage carousels, you are likely to find that most functional trolleys have been taken up by those who got there ahead of you. You might still find a large number of trolleys lying around. Unfortunately, they have seen better days and as you will discover,  are not quite in shape for ferrying heavy baggage from Point A to Point B. Unless you happen to be one of the first ones out of immigration, finding a functional trolley becomes a somewhat tense experience. While cooling your heels and running around to discover a functional trolley, if you want to relieve yourself, maybe just to while away the minutes, why, you only have to follow your nose to get to the right place. Signages are simply redundant.

Just when you may start breathing easy after having found a trolley which is generally in one piece, you would discover that your passage anywhere near the particular carousel where your baggage is supposed to arrive, has been cut off by a solid thicket of bodies, fenced-off by a forest of trolleys parked just behind them. You have very few choices other than hanging back and occasionally trying to sneak the occasional peep through the thicket of bodies. By the time the front-rankers have collected their baggage and departed from the spot  and you have managed to edge in to a vantage point in the immediate proximity of the carousel, you may find that it is stationary and your baggage isn’t visible anywhere on it. Don’t lose heart though, for the ‘friendly’ baggage-handlers who mill around are wont to pick up certain pieces of baggage from the carousel and stack them in some unobtrusive corner where they may not quite be spotted easily. The parameters they follow in choosing certain pieces of baggage for this treatment is best known to them and to the airport management possibly.

What happens when you finally make your way out with the baggage, specially during the late evening hours, is well documented. You can read all about it in detail [ here ], [here], [here] & [ here ].

Some actual passenger feedback can also be found [ here ] & [ here ].

What happens when you are planning to depart from this airport? Let me narrate one of my many experiences, which is fairly typical, with additional details wherever necessary.

The airside of the International Terminal, Kolkata

The airside of NSCB Int'l Airport Kolkata

Recently, while returning, since the flight was delayed, I virtually spent the better part of the night & early morning in that airport. I witnessed passengers in front of me at the gates being turned back by security because some bozo in immigration had stamped the wrong date on their passport earlier. While getting my boarding pass I noticed the guy at the counter taking over twenty minutes for one passenger. Now this boarding pass is issued at one of a series of counters which are situated in a cul-de-sac of sorts, right at the end of a hall. Both while making your way to the counters and then wending your way back to the immigration counters, you encounter myriad other passengers, for your & myriad other flights, either making  their way to this cul-de-sac or rushing back from it after having secured their prized boarding passes.

Anyway, to get back to my story, at about 2-30 am in the morning, the stationary nature of the queue I was in was just a wee bit too much, so, after a while, I was energized enough to step out of the queue and let the guy have a short, sustained burst of monologue  from me, telling him in no uncertain terms what I thought of him and his mode of operations. His supervisor then ran out from some room where he was possibly playing Pac-man all this while & tried to explain away the delay by fibbing that the response on the terminal he was using for ticketing was pretty slow that day. He then quietly took the guy’s place & I figured out that the earlier guy was a trainee who was actually learning on the job while the people in the queue kept shuffling their feet & gazing at the ceiling.

The overall experience, once inside, is further enhanced by hordes of passengers either aimlessly milling around or rushing for something or the other(often one can’t fathom what the rush is about in any case) while a horde of their family members & relatives crowd around outside the main entrance, waving vigorously and shouting out instructions, admonitions

Kolkata,  Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Internat...

One of several notices in NSCB Int'l Airport, Kolkata

and terms of endearment. Many of these guys revel in elbowing you, jamming their overloaded wobbly trolleys against your ankle or your nether regions & stamping on your foot when you have just stretched them out a wee bit and are trying to get philosophical about the ordeal you are undergoing while trying to complete the mundane, staid task of getting into an aircraft going someplace.

Once you are through with the security check, during which, going by the law of averages, you are fairly likely to encounter a mustachioed Jat or a Bhaiyaa from U.P. who is quite clear that his job entails checking out the shape, position and actual quantity of your nuts among other things, you get into a somewhat filthy lounge with filthier restrooms to match where you are supposed to cool your heels (after parking your derriere in a rather uncomfortable chair) till the gates open. Once inside, you truly begin to realize what ‘collective farming'( যৌথ খামার ) is all about and why Lenin and specially his latter-day flag bearers who have ruled the State for the last three decades are so enamoured of the idea. Since flights generally serve meals on-board you are not expected to gorge yourself while waiting for the gates to open. In case you have difficulties resisting the temptation to stuff your face, the fare available inside is severely limited in both range & scope. And if all that still does not quite manage to discourage you, paying through your nose for a tiny cup of near-cold coffee which tastes like dishwater, would do the trick.

The boarding area of NSCBIA International Term...

The boarding lounge at NSCB Int'l Airport Kolkata

By the time you get on-board, you are a suitably chastened, humbled person who has just had the wind taken out of his sails. Possibly Kolkata International airport is designed to have that effect on all who may happen to pass through its dysfunctional terminal.

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