Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Technology and etiquettes

Every generation is faced with its challenges. For pre-historic people it was surviving. A little later, while not getting eaten was perhaps still high on the agenda, with the invention of tools, fire, and farming, it was perhaps having enough food for the coming winter. Fortunately, for us, these questions have mostly been answered and in some cases laid to rest with the matter that now gives us the fossil fuels. That is not to say that the spring of challenges has dried up. With our own evolution, the challenges facing us have evolved too; sometimes giving us opportunity to better ourselves and at times giving us repose to reflect on our progress.

In this brave new century (21st, if somehow this is still being read long after this century) we have achieved a lot. Survival in most of the world is almost guaranteed, unless one is unfortunate to be in the midst of genocide (e.g. Hutu-Tutse), large scale famine and drought (parts of Africa and sometimes Orissa, India), geo-political instability (Israel – Palestine), religio-fascist militancy (Bombay, Bangalore, Kashmir, New Delhi, London, New York and other places of interest) or generally in the Southern United States denouncing country-music, NASCAR and religion . But, I digress.

With each technological advance, our society developed rules of etiquette and politeness. With the invention of language, greetings were offered to acquaintances and sometimes strangers; when doors were invented, gentle, civilized people held them open for their fellows; seats on buses and trains were offered to the elderly, women and children. Sometimes etiquettes are so important they are codified into laws: when changing lanes or turning, it is not only polite, but required to indicate; smoking is on the decline in closed public spaces and even prohibited at some.

With each new development, it takes people time to think of being courteous with a technology but sooner or later everyone gets the hang of it. Well, okay maybe some drivers in Nashville (and Bombay and New York and every other place where people live and drive) still have to grasp the idea of turn indicators, but hey, you catch my drift. Most people get along and get out the other persons way as soon as they can.

The rapid evolution of technology, however, is imposing a very volatile flux of situations and society perhaps is having difficulty accommodating one’s own convenience with respect and consideration for others.

Amongst this century’s (well technically the turn of the century’s) greatest advances are the proliferation of the Internet and other communication media. Voices, images and ideas are communicated across the globe the very moment one creates them (or at least as fast as our current understanding of the universe allows). Never before has so much power been in the hands of so many.

While cell-phones represent the pinnacle of accomplishments in technology, convergence and convenience, cell-phone users personify the worst etiquette offenders. The more important a meeting or presentation, the greater the chance of a polyphonic ring-tone echoing through the darkened room; more solemn the occasion, more inappropriate the pop-tone; the quieter the library, the longer the conversation and the louder the voice.

What is it about having the power to converse at a moment’s notice that keeps us from being masters of conversation and instead turns us in to slaves of the people calling? Why is it that people find it utterly important to fiddle with the phone while hurtling down the freeway at 70 mph? Why is it that people insist on discussing intimate, personal details about their health or the status of their passports in the middle of the library at sound levels that put jet engines to shame and for durations that make fossils seem fresh?

Why is it that a vibrating BlackBerry takes greater importance than the presentation that’s outlining the technology that protects the country you love and live in? What metric is it that demotes the significance of a lecture that someone (or more likely their parents) paid $1500/ hour to below the urgency of an inconsequential forwarded text-message from a non-descript “friend” who’s forgotten a month after graduation? What makes the struggle of an ICU patient assisted by a defibrillator nugatory compared to the need to order pizza for waiting relatives, especially in the face of signs that specifically request abstinence from cell-phone usage in the ICU?

While I am a fervent believer in social freedoms, I am an equally ardent subscriber of living harmoniously in society. When will we realize cell-phone etiquettes and how? Are New York, Washington D.C., and Bombay on the right track by legislating bans against hand-held phone conversations while driving? Are cell-phone jammers employed by opera houses and theaters the last resort? Are they our only hope? Are… hold on, my phone’s ringing, and I’ve really got to take this one.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Why Nike, Why?

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a pithy that one comes across every now and then in the South. Apart from generating a few smirks, ribs and the obligatory references from non-Southerners about the trailer-park-dwelling, middle-aged woman with missing front-teeth whose “home” has been ravaged by the recent tornado, it does convey a very human longing for status-quo.

Some may argue that it exemplifies xenophobia or paranoid superstition emanating from a lack of understanding of underlying mechanics. Others blame the behavior for keeping the world in the depths of the dark ages, or highlight it as the key differentiator between “boring traditionalists” who stick with what works and “exciting entrepreneurs” who “boldly go where no one has gone before.” Yet others may pander it very cogently as the distinction between the uptight stodginess of an actuarial and the vibrant spontaneity of a hep youngster (a la PC vs. Mac).

While “change is good” generally stands true, it does incur a certain cost. And sometimes, the cost of a change may be considerable compared to the gain or excitement afforded by the change. Don’t believe me? Try changing your “better halves” on a whim. But I digress. This blog isn’t about changing your significant others (for better or worse).

It is, however, about the brand of sport shoes I like to buy. More exactly, it is about the shoes I’ve been buying for the past three years for playing racquetball. After trying several brands (Reebok, Nike, Adidas, Fila, et al) I came across a pair of Nike Air running shoes that I really liked. These were light enough to allow for running, but sturdy enough to be durable and versatile. Each pair would last me about a year plus, depending on the abuse I hurled at it (and sometimes on myself). They generally wore very well and predictably, maintaining excellent grip all along. The traction was just right for my style of playing: half running, half shuffling-sliding. Overall, I was very pleased with Nike for having made these available at a reasonable price of $39.99. I had been so pleased with these shoes that I had been buying them over and over without even bothering to look for another brand / pair. Thanks Nike, from the bottom of my heart.

Last week, after my game of racquetball, I realized that my feet were taking a beating. And the reason was pretty apparent: the soles and walls of my year-old shoes were beginning to wear from within, creating pressure points that aggravated my feet. So naturally, I found myself heading out to my favorite Nike store to pick up another pair of Nike Air Monarch II

Having performed this routine a few times now, I was on auto-pilot. Entered the store, nodded to the check-out girl, bobbed and weaved through the various displays (totally ignoring the Chicago Bears jerseys at throw-away prices now that they had lost the Super Bowl) towards the shoe racks at the back of the stores, right to the aisle where my favorite size 9 Nike Air are stocked.

“Nike is so cool that they maintain generally the same layout so that I can find what I am looking for really easily”, I was saying to myself, when I was rudely aware that some thing was wrong. I stared at the display shoe in front of me and the words “soccer cleats” bubbled forth from the labyrinths of my brain. “Hmm… okay, they must’ve moved the shoes to another aisle”, I said to myself and started to browse the different aisles.

“Walking.. ehh
“Running… getting warm
“Cross-coutry… warmer
“Traning… warmer still
“Nike Air… bingo!
“WTF!!! Nike Air Monarch III?

I looked at the display again, and then read the box and then examined the shoe again. “What’s with the Monarch III and why do my shoes look different from the ones displayed?” I reproached the air beside me, which insisted on staying obstinately reticent.

Taking heart, I examined the remaining aisles and even the clearance sections only to come back to the disquieting silence next to the Monarch display. As I scanned the boxes at the bottom, I noticed a pair of Nike Air shoes very similar to mine on a pair of feet moving down the aisle almost tracing the path I had just returned from.

“Hi there”, I called out to the person belonging to the shoes.

“Hi”, he responded back.

“Are you looking for Monarch IIs?” I ventured while pointing at my shoes.

“Yeah. I’ve had these for a while and was hoping to get another pair. I see you’re wearing the same ones.”

“Yep I am. I actually went around looking for these and didn’t find them. And these Air Monarch IIIs aren’t exactly the same thing.”

“Ya I saw those too, but was hoping to find what I have on.”

Someone from the Nike staff must’ve heard us and came over to offer help. When posed with the problem of finding newer clones of the shoes we were sporting, he came up with a very (un-) helpful suggestion.

“They’ve been replaced by the Monarch IIIs, which are much better. Why don’t you try those instead? They’re on sale for just $49.99.”
To his and Nike’s credit the shoes did look somewhat similar, but were noticeably different in shape, and distinctly different on sole treads and feel (which were the reasons for the “WTF” to begin with). Nevertheless, I tried on the shoes for a second time and wasn’t too pleased with the fit and feel. Different size, different width (E instead of D) and still the same dissatisfied chagrin. U2 crooned “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” ironically on the store musac (the background “musical accompaniment” that several stores have as part of their shopping experience).

So after a while of trying different styles and sub-brands of running / training shoes (I even went to the Reebok store next door), I came back to the Monarch and bowed in submission, forked out $54.95 and ushered them into my life. I tried to acquaint my feet with the nouveaux royals, but like truant tyros, they have as yet refused to play nice together. A few more sessions on the court and I’m hoping we’ll have “the start of a beautiful friendship”. Otherwise, I hope Nike stands good on its return policy.

Why Nike, why did you have to go about changing the pair that I (and at least one other person in Nashville) liked?