Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Republic On Strikes

Probably everyone knows Germany is of the most advanced industrial counties in the world. But only few know that trade unions' strikes happen so often that sometimes it is referred as 'a republic on strikes'.

I was quite shocked too, initially. I have seen union strikes in South Asian countries, where dispute is more political than actual industrial. Thus, general impression of strikes is negative and rightly so. Recently, two of few international brands that are present in Nepal, Pizza Hut and KFC announced they are closing down operations in Nepal because they are not able to deal with workers' union. This is kind of story I am mostly used to when it comes to 'strikes'.

So how is it different in Germany? I don't know yet, but things just seem to work out here. 2015 is posed to break strikes record, previously held by 2006. Everyone seems to be striking - train drivers, pilots, day care center staff, bank employees etc. There is large bank office in my neighborhood, and I already saw large number of people carrying flags written 'Wir Strieken'  three times since last month. All these strikes are organization/occupation specific, and general public is not affected directly. Except when Lufthansa pilots or Deutsche Bahn drivers do it. There, almost everybody is affected.

How is public opinion? As far as I understand, Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn strikes make headlines. The problem with these two is that pilots' union has grounded Lufthansa many times, not employee union. Ditto with Deutsche Bahn drivers, simply because they can. There seems to be rising concern here that handful of workers who are in pivotal position can cause such issues. And there, I think public opinion is quite negative. Otherwise, strikes are means of collective bargaining and it's good thing. In May, Bahn drivers union GDL called for six days long strikes. An op-ed on DW read that dealing with it is 'a piece of cake'

Even though strikes can be frequent, they are well organized. For example, when GDL was in strikes in Berlin and urban rail network was not functioning, replacement buses were provided all over city. For long distance, there were many emergency trains still running.

I personally find it very interesting especially, 'yet Germany has very competitive economy'. If a country is industrial powerhouse, I guess workers need to have power to bargain too and it seems to work that way just fine in Deutschland. So, how does it work out? That's question I haven't found a concrete answer yet.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Charlie Habdo, surveillance state and privacy

I have been thinking and reading a lot about privacy on the internet lately. I also went to watch Citizenfour, a documentary movie that films how Snowden brought NSA secrets to public and genuinely raises issue of privacy once again. And then there happened this barbaric attack on press, Charlie Habdo.

Aftermath of the incident, there is real discussion on how terrorists can easily do that magnitude of attack and how intelligence services all around the western world aren't doing enough to tackle that. And to make latter more effective, first thing most of the politicians are looking into is surveillance, with British PM Cameron openly calling to have access to every communication we make on internet or phone or any device. No wonder we already know, GCHQ has a more power over it's citizen than any other intelligence agency.

And not a surprise, the German counterpart are also seeking for more power. Till now, Germany has better privacy laws partly because of it's dark history, first by Nazi's misuse of Jews population data and and few decades later by extensive spy network of East German secret police Stasi on it's own citizen, and total tragedy that brought in society.

The second thing they seem to be interested is in censorship. Indeed, it is already happening with Indian police reportedly blocking contents that published Charlie Habdo related cartoons

Now, both of these measures they plan to take directly collides with our basic right. With the NSA revelation, I had some hope that there would be some kind of pressure from public to restrict power over our information. That didn't happen. And Charlie Hubdo attack will sure further dampen discussion of privacy. 

Shall we give up our privacy and some freedom to fight terrorism? Will doing so will improve our security? Who will have access to our secret information? Won't anyone misuse that information whenever they can (history repeating itself?)? Or shall we protect our privacy and freedom no matter what?

Sadly, there are just questions with no answer. It doesn't give good feeling either way. May be Chuck Palahniuk was wrong in saying that 'we hadn't had great depression or great war'. Probably, challenges of our generation are in different shape and form.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Berlin Diaries: Settled

So now I have an apartment and Bluecard(residence card), feels like I am settled.

I read  excellent article - 'How to find a flat in Berlin' by Jon Worth just before I came here, which became very helpful during my search. There are few websites for apartment listing, one has to contact and arrange appointment to visit flat. Usually it's mass viewing i.e agents invite all the people who are looking for flat at same time. In one flat I visited, there were around 25 people who came to visit.  

After viewing, interested people fill form with basic details, monthly income etc. Then agent selects tenant based on above provided information. These all sounds like very competitive. For quite a long, it seems Berlin was known for low rents but not anymore as demand is very high. I visited three flats, got selected by one of them. At the end, I took a flat from a colleague who was moving to some other place. 

I also received Bluecard on third week of September, just two months after I arrived in Germany. I had to go to Foreign Registration Office in Berlin, submit my documents(same documents which were submitted to get work permit, and visa). D category visa allows to work, even though my residence card was processing (so I started work a day after I arrived here :D). I had to pay 110 € as application fee, and they also provide a paper which is temporary residence permit. 

After about three weeks, they said they would send a letter by post office. That letter never came in my case, which was supposed to let me know status of my application.  So, I went there without it, and my residence card was already there ready to be picked up. It was faster than expected :)

So that's that. Now I really want to explore Berlin tech communities, which I haven't done because of above things. I am looking forward to my first Django Meetup. Already feeling jazzy ;) 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Berlin Diaries: Media consumption - a step backward

Recently I had to pay my first rent. There is concept of cold (kaltmiete) and warm rent (warmmiete). Cold rent means that tenant has to pay for heating costs and some other charges himself. Since mine is later one, I thought I only had to pay total rent amount quoted.

 I saw some other charges too. Electricity is not included in it, which is fine. But there is  fee called GEZ amounting €17.98 per month. I asked a local friend what this charge was. She said it's fee I have to pay for TV, even though I don't own any TV or have any connection for that matter. I got bit of a shock there and decided to do bit of research.

Turns out it's a fee every household (flat) has to pay for public broadcasting every month. This fee was initially for public radios and TVs, and people have to pay separately because somehow government won't use tax money for that purpose. Some years ago, only those who subscribed paid for it. Then they started broadcasting over internet as well, and since every household would have internet connection - they made the monthly flat fee required for everybody. 

There is worse than that. Every time when I try to play my favorite song - Wind of Change by Scorpions I get this message.

Yes, Wind of Change and most of popular songs are blocked in Germany. There is an organization called GEMA which collects all fees from public broadcasting and distributes to artists or production company. Then there came internet, and internet is public. Since everything that is put on internet is 'public broadcasting' GEMA wants a flat fee from any website which does so, including Youtube. As far as I understand, Youtube has agreed to pay percentage of ads revenue - but GEMA wants a flat money. The thing I don't understand is why GEMA is after Youtube, because above song was put on Youtube by Scorpions, the band themselves for free. 

There are many good things in Federal Republic, but media consumption is not one of them. It's hard to digest the fact that my favorite song is blocked. For me this is step backward - remember, I lived in India before I moved here.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Berlin Diaries: Summer

So I arrived in Berlin :) It's been few weeks already. My previous two visits to Europe was in winter and spring. But, Summer it seems is just great. 

Temperature is hanging around 20-30° Celsius. City looks very green, with many parks. It's rains every two or three days - light rain, compared to monsoon back home. Most of the days it's bright sunny, with cool breeze whole day. There is nice river Spree which flows through center of city. My office is just behind the river, which I very much like it. I am living in a society apartment and travel by public transport all the time, so far people seem very friendly (who said Germans are unfriendly?). Berlin streets are full of graffiti, in some cases more than expected. 

I have already been to most of popular tourist spots in Berlin in my last visit. So, I won't be much fond of visiting them again. What really excites me are small details, streets, people, parks etc. I have been trying different foods. I love sausages, and eat them all the time. Berlin has significant Turkish and Vietnamese population. I tried Falafel on first day. That was disaster, I could not even eat half of it even though I was hungry. I guess there are different types of falafel - I can't remember which one I ordered. Anyways, since then it's been no go for Turkish foods for a while(definitely want to try all of them sometime later)

Seems Berlin is quite cosmopolitan. I want to learn Deutsch, too bad that everyone speaks English with me. It doesn't seem that easy, especially pronunciation. I can't even pronounce word 'Deutsch'. How do people pronounce it? I have bookmarked this link to practice it :D I believe understanding basic written Deutsch should not be problem after some time though. My tax papers don't come in English, so I need to be able to understand them.

Deutschland has it's own keyboard layout, because there are four more characters in Deutsch than English. Keyboard was major hurdle at work for me. I tried to adapt to it for about a week. At the end, I found it too annoying for having to search for right keys instead of writing code. So had to order QUERTY keyboard.

While the type of work I do hasn't changed much - writing software for fun and profit, I am very excited to be in this city. Ich bin ein Berliner :)

Monday, July 14, 2014

A flight to Shanghai

This is part of series of blog posts on Farewell India

As mentioned in previous post, after visiting so many places I stopped travelling within India. Then last summer, I booked a plane ticket to Shanghai. It only took three days to process my tourist visa. China was one of the few countries I always wanted to visit. This was also an opportunity to see one of the most exciting countries in the world.

On a fine summer day, I headed to Mumbai Airport. I don't understand why government officials in India look so dull, bored and are always in anxiety. The immigration officer looked at me as if I was criminal and he was there to decide highest punishment. Out of blue, he asked me how much I made and how was job market in my field. I hardly found sense there, still answered with smile. He lazily stamped my passport and I headed to boarding gate.

My flight, Air China was full of Indian traders who were going there to get cheap products. Guy next to me joked how come I spoke such a good Hindi, even though I looked like Chinese guy returning home. This is major taboo Indians have towards North East Indians or anyone who looks mongoloid for that matter. 

At afternoon, I landed in huge modern Shanghai airport. I suddenly found myself trying to speak sign language as opposed to India, where you could get away with English (at least in urban areas). Everything else is better though. Train travel takes way less than it takes in India with average intercity passenger train speed of 350 Kms/hour (average speed of fastest intercity train, Deccan Queen between Pune - Mumbai is around 60 Kms/hour. Can you see the differences?). When I saw huge train station in Shanghai, I remembered Indian Railways. The worst place to be in India is train station, where it smells shits everywhere, gets so crowded that your fear you might get lost, full of people sleeping on bare floors all day all night. Whenever I go to train station, it scares me. And there I was in Shanghai station in disbelief, drinking free mineral water that came on my ticket, using their free Wi-FI, seating on a proper waiting room under air-conditioned building.   

Infrastructure is just bigger and better, from airports to roads to train stations, you name it. Roads are wider, traffic is well managed, restaurants look clean. I found women workforce everywhere. In India, people try to compare to China on almost everything. Once you visit there, I will feel China is just way ahead of India, which has solved many of the problems India is facing and comparing two is just useless debate.

After travelling for few days, I had to fly back. But I came to know I was not allowed. There is one clause in travel rules, that any Nepalese travelling directly from China to India has to get visa. This is stupid rule obviously, and I have no idea how it came to effect. Nepalese get almost every rights on par with Indian citizen, except voting. And here they are telling me that I need visa to go back to country where I live. I asked Indian embassy in Shanghai how many days would it take to process visa and what type of visa I needed to apply for. They replied it would take more than a week, and had no idea what type of visa I needed to get. If I go for tourist visa, I was not tourist. Same with other types of visa, business, student etc. I am resident of India, who is living here for past four years and has legal rights on par with Indian citizen. At the end, I did a bit of research online and found that if I take transit flight, then I was allowed. (As stupid as it might sound, I cancelled my ticket and booked Malaysia Airlines flight transit via Kuala-lumpur.)

At immigration, Chinese official smiled and greeted me. He was done with process within less than a minute and wished me safe journey. I happily thanked him. There were few electronic buttons for feedback with options form very happy, happy to not satisfied. I took that opportunity and pressed 'very happy' button. I wish I could have told him how awesome they were.

I slept during whole flight. After hours, I wake up. Plane was about to land at Mumbai Airport, I looked outside. I saw miles of slums. Needless to mention, that was our dear India. 

Five years in India, a lookback

This is part of series of blog posts on Farewell India

On summer of 2009, I and couple of friends boarded in a plane to New Delhi. We had finished high school, and were heading for college. It was first time we were going far away from home, which means there was bit of fear in everyone of us. But we were also very excited for so many reasons. We were young full of energy and enthusiasm. We were too happy to escape from family and parents and live freely in a new country.

While on plane, we watched the Himalayas go further away every passing minute. Within two hours, we landed in 43 degree celsius. Next day we travelled by Indian Railways to Pune, a city known for it's weather and colleges. It takes more than 30 hours from Delhi to Pune in normal passenger trains. I had never done that long journey before, but it's all normal here. Indian Railways is show, passengers outnumber seats in every train by huge margin, it is dirty and feels like it was never upgraded once British left. 

Anyways, the journey itself was very memorable. In school, I was taught India was one of the most populous countries. Here I could see vast endless empty land. For someone like me who grew up in remote hills in western Nepal, that scene itself was unforgettable. 

After arriving in Pune for few days, we got admission into fairly well known colleges under University of Pune. But soon I discovered, colleges here are pathetic. Faculties act like a primary school teachers, the ones who are tough. They didn't seem to have needed knowledge to be a faculty, asking questions in class was discouraged, students were punished like primary school kids, in so many occasions exam papers appear with full of printing mistakes. I could go on and on. My life as college student here was terrible. Sure, the college I attended isn't among best colleges in India. But still is fairly well known all around.

Outside of college, we started to feel freedom of being far away from parents. Personally now I feel had been very rebellious. I rejected so many things that were made to us to believe by school or society (even though I was wrong in many occasions, I believe). We did nonstop partying. Travelling was something that happened so frequently. On winter of 2009/10, we went to Rajasthan. It is full of palaces, which doesn't interest me a single bit. But it has great Indian desert, to my surprise. On summer, we went to northern state of Himachal, from Chandigarh to Shimla to Manali. Within three years, I managed to travel many of the major states and cities reaching mountains, great desert and sand dunes, beaches and crossed thousands miles of empty deserted lands by train. Then I almost stopped travelling within India unless it was needed as I din't find any interesting anymore. Though I still wanted to visit Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

During that time, I also developed deep interests in many other subjects like web/internet, economics, development etc. Many times, we debated whole night on those topics. The fact that college didn't provide the environment I wanted; forced me to look elsewhere. This is where self learning came. I would just search best resources on internet, download and continue reading until I got eye strain or exhausted. With internet getting richer with resources everyday, that habit still continues. 

On last year of my college, I did internship in a small IT firm. After college, I started my first job at Changer Technologies, a Dutch company with development office in Pune. This is where real education started. I worked with people from diverse backgrounds, different countries and cultures. Fast forwards, I spent there more than two years, met some great people, developed great friendships, and needless to say - learned a lot.

My life in India has been wild ride. On next post, I will write about issues that excite and depress me.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Solving Nepal’s bus ticketing system

Bus is primary mode of transportation in Nepal. Geographically, most of the country is covered with hills and mountains. This makes other means of transportation very difficult. Indeed, this might be quite strange for outsiders that Nepal doesn’t have rail network.

I needed to travel from Kathmandu to Baglung. I have to book ticket, and for that there is no way but have to go to Bus Park ticket counter. No, travel agencies don’t sell bus tickets except if it is tourist bus, which is luxurious and bit costlier than normal ones.

In the morning, after an hour of travel on local bus (which always faces traffic jam in the valley) I reach ticket counter. There are four guys selling tickets. I book a ticket, and reconfirm my seat number and bus details.

I pack my bag and go to Bus Park in the evening. I try to board in the bus. I see another guy sitting on my seat. I ask him if he has ticket. He says he has, I reluctantly request him to show his ticket. That’s right. He has ticket. I recheck my ticket. Damn, two tickets were issued for same seat. Bus is full by now, those who didn’t buy tickets were standing on the passage. I tell the bus helper either to arrange seat or to refund my ticket money. He looks helpless, and tells me to adjust in packed bus. I travel adjusting whole night without sleep, furious in everything I see. I feel something is quite not right about this whole thing.   

After few days, I plan to travel back to valley. This time I book on bigger bus, hoping this might be better with folding seat where I could actually fall asleep. Luckily, I get a seat. But this bus also had same problem that many passengers had to suffer, multiple tickets for same seat.

There are many other problems our primary mode of transportation has, making millions of traveller’s life worse. Booking ticket itself is difficult that only specified counter sell tickets. The fact that many people travel without ticket shows that getting ticket is ridiculously uneasy. Most of the time, buses are either over packed or almost empty. In case of former, many passengers travel by standing or sitting on passage even in long routes. Since passengers don’t have tickets booked, they charge whatever amount the want. When I see people travelling in horrible situation even after paying money, little bit of humanity dies in me every time.

That bus nightmare actually made me think how we could solve the problem millions of Nepalese face everyday. Is there any solution to problems we described? I don’t know, but I propose one below.

Better bus ticketing system: electronic booking

Electronic booking system, where people can book bus tickets on their computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. All they need is Internet connection. This might sound like crazy idea for most of the Nepalese who know nothing more than Facebook, I think this is most convenient and advanced way of solving above problems.

How does it work?

Basically, passengers can go to for eg. http://nepalbus.com and enter their details (i.e name, place, destination etc). It will show the ticket price. Passengers pay the ticket money via bank account, debit card, credit cards, online transfers etc. Even though many people might not have all those payment methods, a nearby travel agent can easily provide that facility.

Wherever a passenger books from, all the data is stored centrally. So there is no chance of repeated booking unlike doing it manually in current system. For example, if a passenger books a ticket in Pokhara with seat no. A1 on bus ABC, same information will be stored in central server and that information will be available everywhere immediately. So whenever someone in Kathmandu tries to book on bus ABC, seat no. A1 will be shown as taken and it can’t be booked anymore.


While most of advantages of electronic booking are apparent, I document some of them below.

1. Booking bus ticket from home.
With electronic booking, I don’t have to travel hours in jam packed traffic to get my ticket. I can book from convenience of my home using my electronic device. This also enables me to do advance booking to get desired seat and bus.

On the larger note, this would enable easier access to tickets that they would not travel without ticket.

 2.  No multiple tickets for single seat
Machines are so good at it that the multiple ticket for same seat issue can be virtually wiped out. As I explained before that since all the data is stored centrally and every information is updated instantly everywhere that there is no possibility of multiple tickets being issued. Book ticket, travel in peace.

3. Better occupancy management
When I was travelling to Baglung, our bus was totally pack, there was no space even on passage while second bus was almost empty. If people had information that second bus had empty seats, they would book for that one.

The other issue is, when a bus ABC travels from Baglung to Kathmandu, there are passengers who booked up to Pokhara. Say if 10 people booked ticket for Pokhara, there are no ways to know in current system that how many seats are available from Pokhara.

In electronic system, it would clearly show that 10 seats are available and can be booked. Better occupancy.

4. Efficiency and cost effective
Electronic booking can be very fast and fact that I don’t have to go to bus counter makes it no brainer. It is also better to reduce human manual errors.

And since people can book tickets themselves, this can be huge cost reduction to bus operators.

5.  Better travel planning
When I visit Europe, I do all the travel planning at least two weeks in advance. Why? Because I can book ticket online, get all the route information, the time it takes, costs and any modes of transportation etc.

When I landed in Kathmandu, I had no idea where I could go and where I couldn’t on my limited holidays. There is no way to know route information, timing, costs etc unless I go to counter or call my old friends who travel frequently in any specified route. And we brag about being tourist friendly country?

All in all, I think this can be really good solution. The whole write up is solely based on my experience. It’s really difficult to get actual data about the issues I mentioned above. After some more time, I plan to add challenges to implement such systems in present context in Nepal. Please feel free to comment, correct and brainstorm.