Monday, February 27, 2006

Dialer tune to convey "I'm driving"

Some background on where I got this idea. We went to Kallar during our Trivandrum stay. Kallar is a tourist spot about 50km from Trivandrum on the way to the Ponmudi hillstation. Once you reach the spot, you need to take a hike of about 1 km to see the Meenmutti water walls (see pic). The hike goes through a really dense forest; you can even encounter wild elephants. We took a guide and the place is very pristine. I think that is a good outcome of lack of development; nature still not robbed of its beauty.

Okay, back to the geeky stuff. We had hired a car from Trivandrum and the drive up wasn't easy due to the curvy roads and bad road conditions. The roads were damaged quite a bit due to the recent heavy monsoon. Our driver was a skilled man; but he was constantly getting phone calls on his mobile. Being a passenger, I wasn't comfortable seeing him manage those difficult curves with one hand. I thought of ways to reduce the hazard of cellphone usage while driving.

There are legal steps like mandating hands free usage while driving. I think quite a few states (like New York) already implement such steps. I believe the serious risk is not that you don't have an additional hand on your wheel; but it's about mental diversion. Your brain is being distracted while you are talking. And to compound the issue, your caller doesn't know that. Usually a fellow passenger in the car doesn't distract you at difficult driving conditions, because he/she can see the surroundings. But that is not the case with a phone caller. The caller can tell something really exciting (and hence very distracting)at exactly the same time when your car needs your full concentration. So how about letting the caller know before you pick up the phone, that you are driving? This can help the caller avoid the call altogether or at least keep it really short.

So the phone provides a feature, like a profile selection, to say "you are driving". You select that profile before you start your drive. Any body who calls you will hear a message like "I'm driving now.." along with the normal ring tone. You can still pick up the call; but we at least we know the caller isn't going to keep you distracted for too long.

BTW after a week from our trip, I did read a post in slashdot elaborating future phone features very similar to the above. But it was more fancy -- like detecting that you are in a theater (thru' GPS say) and automatically switching to a vibrate mode.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

India trip: $5 ATM fee rip-off

During my India trip, Priya and I spent about 3 days in Trivandrum. By the last day, we were running out of cash. I didn't want to use my Bank of America ATM card as I was a bit afraid about the service fees. But we really needed the money; so decided we'll use an ICICI ATM. Since ICICI is supposed to be one of the best banks in India, I thought it is a much safer bet than any of the tons of other company ATMs.

After a couple of days of our return, I checked my online account and was shocked. There were two service fees; both mentioning ICICI. One for about $0.91 and another for $5. During all my previous use of ATMs in India, the service charge was $1.50. It was never $5. The worst part this time is, the ATM did not inform me of the service charge. It used to say 'there will be a $1.50 fee.. do you want to continue?'. Nothing of the sort; I punched in Rs 4000 (about $90 and few cents) and there came out the money. No notice whatsoever about any service fees. I think they should have at least informed me of the potential service charge.

A couple of days back, I called up Bank of America to try to waive or reduce the charge. The lady who answered told me that it is all stated in the policy when I opened the account. Do they expect me to read something that was given to me in 1998? I told her that at least the ATM should inform me of the service charge. She said sorry and nothing can be done. She also said the $5 was charged by my bank and not ICICI. I was cursing ICICI until then. I realized I can't do much; I just told her that it is a real rip-off and asked her to put those in any customer feedback form if she can.

Some lessons learnt for getting money oversees.
  1. Credit cards are still one of the best methods. Citibank master card charges about 3% total. It seems master card charges 2% and citi another 1% (it may be the other way; but the total is 3%). I read Master cards give some of the best exchange rates. I do see that in my credit card statements. I saw American express charging only 2%. But overall I am not fully sure amex gives a better deal with exchange rate. So overall I think credit card is still the way to go.
  2. Most banks charge 1% on the amount withdrawn and a flat service fee of $5. So unless really needed, avoid this method. If you really have to do, make a few transactions of bigger amounts. In some countries (India is not one of them) like UK, Cananda, you can use a specific banks network to avoid the fee. For bank of america, it is Barclays in UK, Scotia in Canada (Global ATM alliance). Google or check your banks website. The customer service lady told me that even if I use a Scotia bank ATM in India, I will be charged. There was one in Coimbatore which we had planned to use. BTW, if you are betting on going to the bank of america office in Madras, you will be surprised. There is no ATM there. The security person there (the office was closed that day) said BofA in Madras handles only corporate accounts these days.
  3. Convert US bills ($20 or higher) through your "local" contacts in India. I guess, by and large, this is where you get the best deal. Of course it may not be totally legitimate.
  4. I heard on Michael Finney's show on KGO, that traveler's check is no good. You don't get good exchange rates.
I wanted to try 3, but didn't carry sufficient dollar bills. I think that is
something to try out on future trips.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Being miserable with jet lag

It's been a week since my return from the India trip. I landed here last Sunday night. I went through a terrible jet lag the whole of last week. It's only now, I'm slowing limping back to normalcy. I never felt this big a jet lag in any of my previous trips; the last one being in May 2004.

I woke up at sharp 5:30 AM and just couldn't go back to sleep. I really didn't know what to do since I am not usually out of the bed anytime before 9 AM. This year the winter in bay area is breaking some 50 year old records in lowest temperatures. That didn't help a bit for my miserable times in bed from 5:30 AM to 9 AM. I realized there are some interesting programs in KTEH channel 17 at such early hours in the morning. But after a day or two, I didn't like watching TV that early in the morning. I have read how some old people suffer from insomnia; well I did experience that. And it is terrible.

By 3 or 4 PM in the afternoon I felt so sleepy at work. I was lucky that work wasn't that demanding and I could take off early. Around 7 PM or so, I felt such an irresistible urge to sleep. I just can't stop it. I had to sleep for 3 to 4 hours. I know this won't help my body to adjust to the new routine. But I was helpless.

On Thursday, after 4 days of misery, enlightenment struck me. I went to the oracle (read google) and asked "How to reduce jet lag". That turned up a few interesting articles; mostly for sportsmen and athletes to cope up with jet-lag. One of the suggestions really helped me. That is don't sleep too long when you get the sleeping urge; use an alarm or a friend to wake you up. I did that Thursday night; and slept for just about an hour around 7 PM. That did help.

Some points that can help to minimize jet lag.
  1. Jet lag is more pronounced on west to east travel than vice versa. So for most of my India trip, the return trip (always across pacific) is going to be problematic. So this is something to remember on any future onward trip to East coast, Europe or a return from Hawaii (which are probably the only remaining items on the "to-travel" list)
  2. The more routine your life style is, the more pronounced the lag is. I think this is one of the main reasons for my jet-lag this time compared to my previous trips. There is nothing here that can be changed.
  3. Take plenty of rest the day before the journey. I made the common mistake of trying to be awake, so that I can get easy sleep on the plane. This was a big mistake. You need plenty of sleep, the day before you travel. I traveled on a Saturday morning train from Trichy to Madras, reaching Madras in the afternoon. I went to the IIT campus on Saturday afternoon and then to a wedding reception on Saturday evening with my flight being on the Sunday morning. I think this lack of rest prior to the journey contributed significantly.
  4. Drink lots of water inside the plane. The body gets very dehydrated in an air plane environment (6000 ft pressure and very low humidity).
  5. No alcohol immediately before/during/ after the flight. There was some suggestion about food intake; I didn't pay much attention because I don't eat a lot in flight anyway.
But the bottom line is, it seems the body takes 1 day to adjust for every 1 hour of time-zone change. That means for a India return, it take 12 days -- that is way too much time. But it has already taken me a whole full week. I hope some of these tips should serve well to not ruin the first days of a future vacation trip.