August 26, 2018

A very warm July

Like many parts of the world this summer, The Netherlands saw temperatures break old records and set new ones. I plotted the historical temperature data for July for the Schiphol weather station and was quite surprised to see how off this year has been:

Historical July temperatures

And to think that just earlier this year, it go so cold that many canals froze and some even thought we would get The Elfstedentocht. While below freezing temperatures during winters aren’t rare in Amsterdam, sustained maximum temperatures below zero that would cause canals to freeze, certainly are.

A frozen canal in Amsterdam

It rains so often here that patches of dry yellow grass are a rare sight in Amsterdam. Not this year. A colleague from Italy remarked that the landscape right outside our office resembled more a place he’d expect to see in Southern Italy than somewhere in Amsterdam.

A field of dead, yellow grass

The media here had descibed this year’s summer as:

Echte zomer maar niet Nederlandse zomer - Real summer, but not Dutch summer

A country that has prepared and continues to prepare for rising sea-levels, heavy rains and flooding, suddenly found itself confronting a severe drought. While we personally didn’t face any water rationing in Amsterdam, many parts of the country introduced measures like irrigation bans. Dykes that are usually damp, were dry and had to undergo emergency repairs. It would certainly be ironical if parts of the country were flooded because of a drought.

Amsterdam buildings don’t cope well with heat. It was uncomfortably warm at work and at home. On the hottest day of the year, even some bridges were jammed shut.

There were many days this July when there were no clouds in the sky. Not even contrails. Couple this with the Northern summer sun that shines for close to 17 hours and you get blindingly bright skies that give me headaches. There was one positive side to this though. Most celestial phenomena - from meteor showers to eclipses - go unobserved in Amsterdam because it’s overcast. The sky stayed clear for the blood moon’ eclipse..

Blood Moon Eclipse

Fortunately, the cold, wet days that I so cherish (but anyone who grew up here seems to despise) are back and I’ve been a touch overexcited.



It has rained pretty much all day yesterday. We’ll need a few more days like this if we are to make up for the shortfall over a normal year (as of today, still 286mm short):

Precipitation shortfall Source: KNMI

p.s. My favourite summer-related news: the heatwave revealed sites where ramparts of old castles or ancient fortification ditches once stood.

June 10, 2018

Day Calendar as a plot device

On a flight recently, I finally paid heed to the wife’s advice and tempered my selection of mainstream Hollywood movies with some world cinema. The Shape of Water shoudn’t have had anything in common with Au revoir là-haut (a French film) but it turns out they both use a similar plot device to move the story forward. See for yourself:

April 21, 2018

The tiled façades of Porto

It’s impossilbe to visit Porto and not notice the colourful, ceramic tile-adorned façades of houses there.

Tiled Façade of a house at Porto

Tiled Façade of a house at Porto

On our trip this week, I took pictures of many individual tiles:

Colourful tiles of Porto

While there, I also wrote a program that’d take a tile and create a collage out of it. Most tiles can simply be placed next to each other left-to-right, top-to-bottom to create a stunning pattern:

Tile Montage

Tile Montage

Others look rather plain or wrong when you do only that. The wife drew my attention to the fact that some tiles were part of a set of four and needed to be mirrored along x and y-axis before being put together. And indeed, doing that reveals patterns that, at least to me, seem imbued with a mystical grandeur:


Tile Montage

Tile Montage - Mirrored

Tile Montage

Tile Montage - Mirrored

p.s. Here is the source code of the said program if you’d like to have a go at it yourself.

March 13, 2018

Two Hong Kong trips seventeen years apart

My first visit to Hong Kong in the year 2000 had left quite an impression on me. I was there again last year. Visiting a country after seventeen years is practically like going to a new country. In the end, I was surprised as much by what had not changed as by what had.

Here are some memories from my first trip in 2000 contrasted with impressions from the one in 2017.

A different world

The trip in 2000 was a business trip1. In addition to paperwork the Hong Kong office had mailed me to help me clear immigration, they had sent the name and address of the hotel in Chinese. And I am glad they did because a printed copy of it had come in handy with the cab. This time I had everything on my smartphone but it wasn’t even needed - our driver spoke and understood English and knew how to get to the hotel.

Thinking back about all my travel anxiety in 2000, I am struck by how difficult it is now for me to even imagine that world without smartphones, Google Translate, online maps and Uber.

Public transport

Hong Kong’s metro had been quite a revelation. Back then, Delhi metro was still a pipe dream. Overcrowded DTC2 and Red Line3 buses stuttering through chaotic Delhi traffic had been my only experience with public transport. To see fast, efficient, air-conditioned public transport that was the Hong Kong metro, had felt like traveling into the future.

After all these years of having used metro in multiple cities across the world, Hong Kong metro still feels impressive for its speed and efficiency. I was delighted to know that their public transport card is still called the Octopus Card4. Even the announcement in Cantonese telling us to mind the gap hadn’t changed one bit. Although, they have now added announcements in Mandarin too.

This time we also used the Kowloon ferry. The view of the harbour skyline at sunset from the ferry was quite stunning.

View from the Kowloon Ferry

The weather

My first visit to Hong Kong had been in August. The weather during that trip was hot and muggy and I distinctly remember being wowed by strong gusts of cold air-conditioned air escaping through the shops at Tsim Sha Tsui each time their doors would slide open.

This time we were flying in December after a week in Singapore - which, even in December, is hot and muggy. Since Hong Kong and Singapore are in the exact same time-zone, we presumed that they’d also be the same weather. Hong Kong in December is anything but. The evenings were a nippy 9ºC and the strong winds made it feel a lot colder. Eventually; and in hindsight a couple of days later than we should have, we pulled out our Amsterdam jackets that we had relegated to our suitcase for the trip.


Since the visit in 2000 had been for work, there was little time for sightseeing. Except for team outings on some days, we’d eat dinner within the mall complex where our office was, and head back to the office to put in another hour or two of work. We did get one free Saturday, which we used for a visit to Ocean Park - a local theme park. This was five years before Disneyland opened in Hong Kong. I distinctly remember wanting to ride the cable cars but being prevented from doing so by bad weather. In fact, they had to shut down most of the rides that day and I had to be content with riding, what must surely be, some of the highest escalators in the world.

This time, we didn’t visit Ocean Park or Disneyland. Instead, we trekked for a couple of hours through the Dragon’s Back trail. It was a cool but sunny day and our trek offered panoramic views of the water, distant green hills and high-rise apartments nestling among them.

Views from the Dragon's Back Trek

Views from the Dragon's Back Trek

Views from the Dragon's Back Trek

After the trek, we found ourselves at a small beach nearby. A beach-side shack served us a serviceable omelette and local beer. From where we sat, we could see surfers of varying degrees of skill trying to catch waves. Given how nippy the air was, the water must be cold but it didn’t seem to bother the surfers.

Surfing Lessons

Another memory that I had bored the wife with several times, and which seemed to grow more vivid on each telling, was that of taking a funicular up and down Victoria Peak. When the funicular train was half-way up, it had seemed that the multi-storyed buildings were sticking out of the hill at an impossible angle. That this was at night and the buildings were well lit, had made the illusion all the more spectacular. It is one of those things that is hard to describe in words.

Since then I had ridden at least two more funiculars (one in Istanbul and another in Bergen) but since neither of them had resulted in a view anything like what I had witnessed in Hong Kong, I had begun to ascribe this phenomenon to my imagination.

We hiked up to Victoria Peak this time. By the time we were at the summit the sun had set and the Hong Kong skyline was brightly and colourfuly lit.

View of the Victoria Harbour from Victoria Peak

To my delight, the funicular service was still operational! I don’t remember waiting too long for tickets back in 2000, but in all these years the funicular has become a very popular attraction. We queued up for some 25-30 minutes for our turn in cold and windy conditions (my thin jacket was pitifully inadequate). The funicular began its descent and within seconds it reached a point from where the buildings began to look skewed! There were a lot more buildings this time - many right along the tracks, so the effect was somewhat diluted. But overall, the illusion retained much of its original potency. I hadn’t imagined all of this after all5.


On the trip 17 years ago, food in Hong Kong was one of the biggest shocks for me. Vegetarian food was hard to come by, and when it did, I’d find the smell and the taste overwhelming. The so called Chinese” food I had been eating all my life in India was clearly a lie. I made mine and everyone else’s life miserable by dragging us to Indian restaurants on flimsiest of pretexts6.

Food this time wasn’t a problem. I am still a vegetarian but after traveling for all these years I am a lot more flexible - adventurous even (as much as vegetarianism allows). Over the last few years, it has also become a lot easier to get vegetarian food the world over. On our first night we did play it safe by going to a Pizza Hut and were surprised to find cucumber on our pizza. It was almost as if the chef was shown a picture of the pizza and mistook courgette for cucumber.

The ride back to the airport

Hong Kong’s Airport Express service allows you to check in your luggage at the metro station itself. This somehow feels even more novel than it did on my first trip here. The ride to airport was fast and comfortable. The density and scale of the apartment complexes rushing past on a clear sunny day outside made me feel like I was part of an opening sequence of a futuristic science fiction movie. But then this is exactly how Hong Kong had felt like on my first trip.

Surfing Lessons

  1. We were flying Thai Airways, probably because there were no convenient flights to HK. But it was probably also because the team I was flying with, had already been initiated into the grown-ups’ world of business travel and airline miles. The flight involved a stopover at the Bangkok airport. This was the first airport outside India that I had set my foot into and back then the scale and the glitz of it all was a strange sort of shock.

  2. DTC or Delhi Traffic Corporation - the state-run bus service.

  3. In the 90s Delhi allowed private operators to run bus services. Red Line buses were first of those. They gained a lot of notoriety for their rash and aggressive drivers. Delhi Metro started operating only two years after my first trip to Hong Kong.

  4. Hong Kong: Octopus, London: Oyster, Amsterdam: OV. When we moved to Amsterdam I thought that OV too must stand for a sea creature. Reality is a lot more mundane. OV is just an abbreviation for the Dutch word Openbaar Vervoer, literally, Public Transport

  5. The ride lasts all of 5-7 minutes and the view I had been moved by to poetic eloquance lasts barely a minute. My memory, as memory often does, had certainly dilated the duration of ride.

  6. I still remember one late evening at work I tried to convince everyone to go out for Indian food becaue it was 15th August - India’s Independence Day. A colleague on our team from South Korea remarked that 15th August was also the National Liberation Day in Korea so we should go out for Korean food instead! The funny thing is that for all the fuss I used to make, I don’t remember where we ended up going that evening.

January 1, 2018

2017: My year in music


Kurt Vonnegut in Timequake:

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, The Beatles did’.

Here is a little tribute to all the artists that helped me appreciate being alive. Very little (if any) of this music was released last year. 2017 just happens to be the year I discovered these artists or songs in. And as for The Beatles, this list includes one jazz piece inspired by them, one cover and a Paul McCartney solo.

The playlist is on Spotify.

Just like last year, the songs are not ranked by play count or how much I like them, but rather in more or less the same order that I came across them. One notable exception is the last track in this list, which even though I had been listening to since July, I decided to include here at the last minute.

En Oruthiye: Sreeramachandra

Spotify | Youtube
Modern Tamil film music defies classification. It’s an ecelectic mix of contemporary electronic, western classical and carnatic/hindustani classical sounds seamlessly weaved with decades-old playback singing tradition that is perhaps unique to India. This song has it all. The opening bars reminded me of Joan Osborne’s 90s hit - One Of Us.
Piccolissima serenata: Renato Carosone

Spotify | Youtube
Renato Carosone’s voice is magical. A simple song from simpler times. Growing up in India one heard a lot of 50s, 60s, 70s film music as that is what the parents would lean towards. Despite the likelihood of this song having ever come up on Indian Radio during my childhood being close to 0, the song manages to evoke nostalgia about those days.
Succar ya Banat: Mouzanar Khaled

Spotify | Youtube
From a Lebanese film from 2007 (Caramel). I have no idea what cosmic (algorithmic?) coincidence caused this song to appear in my weekly Spotify Discovery playlist but I am glad it did. The piano and strings intro almost had me anticipating a German Lied and not a woman singing in Arabic.
Cab’Verde Na Coracon: Nancy Vieira

Spotify | Youtube
Certain songs evoke the warmth of the sunny places of their orgin. I simply need to close my eyes with this song on my headphones and I feel as if I am at a sunny white sandy beach. A welcome discovery during the cold early months of the year.
Down: Marian Hill
Spotify | Youtube I discovered this song because Apple used it for their AirPods ad. The song starts with just a piano playing a simple repeating motif in a minor key. Vocals join the piano after four bars but soon things take quite an unexpected turn. After multiple hearings feels a few seconds too long but it makes the cut for the sheer surprise element.
Ça ira tu verras: Séverin
Spotify | Youtube The sort of music that fills your heart with joy and hope.
Fevgo: Orfeas Peridis
Spotify | Youtube European languages like French, German or Spanish come up enough in popular culture that if I hear two people talking in any of these languages I might not understand them but I’d know which language they are talking in. Not with Greek. Hopefully, if more songs like these keep showing up in my recommendations that would change. A poignant song about goodbyes.
Soul Alphabet: Colleen
Spotify | Youtube Ethereal. At times reminded me of Strauss’ Pizzicato Polka and the second movement of Ravel’s string quartet.
Le Front Cache Sur Tes Genoux: Cécile McLorin Salvant
Spotify | Youtube This one seemed to capture my dark mood earlier this well rather well. Many hearings on, and the piano interleude around 2:06 mark still gives me goosebumps. I seem to have said the same thing about another track (I didn’t know what time it was) from the same album I featured last year. To think that she is just 28 and the music she’d go on to make…
The Finishing: Stavroz
Spotify | Youtube A long-ish electronic intro that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere but around 1:37 mark the tempo picks up and a saxophone joins in and lifts the track to an entirely different level altogether
Paradis Perdus: Christine and the Queens
Spotify | Youtube I learned from Wikipedia that the song interpolates Kanye West’s best-selling single Heartless as well as Christophe’s 1973 song Les Paradis Perdus″. I felt that this song a considerable improvement over the material it uses as source.
La Belle Dame Sans Regrets: Chris Botti
Spotify | Youtube Some inspired trumpet playing redolent of Chet Baker.
Porquè - Original: Pochill
Spotify | Youtube Breezy
Wassiye: Habib Koité
Spotify | Youtube This one grew over me gradually. I’d love to know what the lyrics mean. Sadly Bambara is not a big enough language for Google Translate to have support for it.
Jungla de Asfalto - Acústica: Au/Ra
Spotify | Youtube A song about cities and modern life. Sounds more cheerful than the slightly dystopian contents of the lyrics would lead you to believe.

e.g. a couple of lines from the 2nd stanza:

Emporios al por menor abandonados - Abandoned malls
Amazon Prime la nueva potencia mundial - Amazon Prime the new world power
Shimbalaiê: Maria Gadú
Spotify | Youtube Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
In Fashion: Gregory Porter
Spotify | Youtube I almost discovered Gregory Porter in 2016. Lufthansa’s in-flight magazine in my seat pocket on a flight back from Munich had a little feature on him. I had hasitly snapped a picture of the page with the intention of looking him up but I promptly forgot about it. Only when this song showed up in my Discovery playlist in February last year, did I realise what I had been missing.
Ausencia: Lula Pena
Spotify | Youtube I love songs that keep things simple. This one features just a guitar and Lula Pena’s warm voice. Full credit here to the sound engineer as well - if you listen to this on headphones you’d appreciate how intimate it sounds.
Não Me Deixe Só: Vanessa Da Mata
Spotify | Youtube I have to borrow from Wikipedia again to accurately describe the stylistic elements of this song:

Música popular brasileira (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈmuzikɐ popuˈlaʁ bɾaziˈlejɾɐ], Brazilian pop music) or MPB is a trend in post-bossa nova urban popular music in Brazil that revisits typical Brazilian styles such as samba, samba-canção and baião and other Brazilian regional music, combining those with foreign influences, such as from jazz and rock.

Or in short, should have you tapping your feet in no time.
Walking On the Moon (feat. Aloe Blacc): Roseaux
Spotify | Youtube Fun, playful lyrics:

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon

As you might’ve noticed by now, a lot of songs I listen to are not ones you could hum along. This one is a rare exception!
Aux débutants de l‘amour: Vianney
Spotify | Youtube Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Naan Nee: Shakthi Shree, Dheekshitha
Spotify | Youtube This song is not exactly what you’d think of an earworm’, but don’t be surprised if it begins to loop in your head several days later.
Calaverada: Gipsy Kings
Spotify | Youtube I came across this song just a few days after our Seville visit and somehow in my mind it is now associated with that trip. The singing is just so full of energy and almost feels like a live performance rather than studio recording. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to listen to Gipsy Kings live.
And I Love Her: Brad Mehldau Trio
Spotify | Youtube The music The Beatles made 50 years ago, continues to inspire musicians to date. As far as derivative works go, this is sublime.
Pachai Uduthiya Kaadu: Abhay Jodhpurkar, Harini
Spotify | Youtube A tune at once both familiar and new. Bright guitars, wonderful singing, flute and orchesteral interludes. Though at first it was a little hard to look past the ridiculous Tarzan-themed album cover.
C’est si bon: Janne Schra, Robin Nolan Trio
Spotify | Youtube This is probably one of the most covered French song. It’s hard to best the Eartha Kitt version but I like it because of its gentler touch (e.g. instead of the brass heavy opening of Kitt’s version you get guitars).
Replay: René Aubry
Spotify | Youtube The track begins with piano and the guitar building up a lot of anticipation for about 50 seconds and then the drums come in quite unexpectedly release the tension. Must be fun to choreograph to a piece like this.
Remedios: Gabriella Ferri
Spotify | Youtube Huantingly meloncholic?
Cruise: Lazerhawk
Spotify | Youtube This sort of synth-heavy electronic music is as far as it gets from the kind of music I usually enjoy, and yet I find this track oddly fascinating. Probably because it reminds me so much of a Kitaro mix-tape I used to listen to in my early teens…
Adieu Tchin Tchin: Juliette Armanet
Spotify | Youtube When you listen to opera, you come across a lot of vocal feats on the higher side of the octave. Yet singing in a high octave in contemporary pop music is bit of novelty and that’s what drew me to this song.
Gigi L’Amoroso: Emily Loizeau
Spotify | Youtube The cello and piano opening draws you in immediately. As a song it is a little unusual in structure with a little monologue towards the end punctuated with singing. I leanred only today that it’s a cover of a 1974 single.
O Vai: Vaiteani
Spotify | Youtube Music with roots in French Polynesia and yet sounds very contemporary. The lyrics are in Tahitian but thankfully, French translation is available on the duo’s website. I have a feeling there’ll be more songs by Vaiteani in the list in the coming years.
Gostar de Quem Gosta de Nós: Raquel Tavares
Spotify | Youtube It must be hard being part of a folk tradition like Fado that goes back a couple of centuries. Adhere too much to the genre and you don’t have anything new to offer, adhere too little and you risk being an outcast. Coming across a song that strikes that delicate balance between the old and the new is always a joy.
Mahalla: Carolina Chocolate Drops
Spotify | Youtube The sort of music that catches your attention in a noisy café and makes you want to ask the first available attendant if they could find out what song is playing. Of course these days one just uses Shazam.
Trés Mininu: Mayra Andrade
Spotify | Youtube Music by Mayra Andrade is fast becoming my aural equivalent of comfort food. That’s why there are two of her songs in this list.
Imagining My Man: Aldous Harding
Spotify | Youtube One of the joys of Spotify is how easy it makes artists to share their influences and favourite works. Came across this song in a playlist by Lorde. Aldous Harding shows a wide vocal range in this song. I love how the mood of the song shifts from despairing to hopeful (if not outright triumphant). If you told me I could pick just one song from last year, it’d probably this one.
Segundo Movimiento + Improvisación Cerca De Tu Casa: Sílvia Pérez Cruz
Spotify | Youtube After 1 minute 40 seconds of piano, a beautiful voice joins in, hums along and gives it wings.
Téra Lonji: Mayra Andrade
Spotify | Youtube Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Ojos Grandes: Las Migas
Spotify | Youtube Soulful, contemporary Flemenco music.
Ferré: Colloque sentimental: Léo Ferré, Philippe Jaroussky
Spotify | Youtube Philip Jaroussky sings in a beautiful counter-tenor voice. Once you’ve heard him perform a work, to hear anyone else perform it often sounds wrong.
Let It Be: Miloš Karadaglić, Gregory Porter
Spotify | Youtube If you want to cover a song that The Beatles released at the top of their game, you better be good. Miloš and Gregory are, without any doubt, quite up to the mark.
Matanga: Richard Bona, Mandekan Cubano
Spotify | Youtube Richard Bona’s voice is this song is like warm honey being poured down your ears - without the complications that’d arise if you were to attempt such a thing literally.
Fusion: Rosa Passos
Spotify | Youtube Hypnotic.
Jenny Wren: Paul McCartney
Spotify | Youtube This reminded me of The Beatles of the old (think the White Album, Blackbird) and I was quite surprised to learn that this is a more recent (recorded 2004) solo work by Paul McCartney. When you are an artist as celebrated as Paul McCartney, the fans will pore over every single work of yours and put something equivalent up on Wikipedia. I learned from this song’s page that what I had taken for clarinet in this song, was actually an Armenian woodwind instrument called Duduk.
Efemera: Márcio Faraco
Spotify | Youtube This song evokes in me the feeling of being adrift in a vessel on a calm body of water at senset.
Sacred Heart: The Civil Wars
Spotify | Youtube Talking of metaphors that if applied literally would be uncomfortable at best and fatal at worst, this one should melt your heart the moment you hear the first bars.
Bei mir bist du schoen: Liz Green
Spotify | Youtube I actually thought this recording was from 1930s and not from 2011. I wasn’t that far in the sense that the original song this one covers is from 1932, but that a recording in 2011 would sound so much like one made in the 1930s was a bit surprising. I wonder if they tried to use vintage studio equipment for recording this or treated it digitally to sound like an old recording. Regardless, Liz Green’s voice definitely sounds like one that’d would’ve been popular in early 20th century. Quirky lyrics too:

Bei mir bist du schoen, please let me explain
Bei mir bist du schoen means you’re grand
Bei mir bist du schoen, again I’ll explain
It means you’re the fairest in the land

I could say Bella, bella”, even say Wunderbar”
Each language only helps me tell you how grand you are
Verde: Sílvia Pérez Cruz
Spotify | Youtube Filed under - is nothing like what I grew up listening to but makes me nostalgic.
Soar Away: Dave Douglas, Uri Caine
Spotify | Youtube Bound to do to your mood exactly what the label says - make it soar away.
Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying: Luna Picoli Truffaut
Spotify | Youtube Sung in a high key - the sort of voice you’d use when humming. To carry it through an entire song must’ve taken quite some effort. And as was the case many times last year, this too is a cover of an original.
Neguinha: Márcio Faraco
Spotify | Youtube Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Une belle histoire: Michel Fugain & Le Big Bazar
Spotify | Youtube When you are an outsider to a country’s music, it is even harder to tell if a song is original or a cover. I began listening to a Dutch podcast this year. It’s basically a recording of a late night current affairs radio show put out by one the public radio stations. Between news stories and interviews, they play light music - mostly Dutch, English, French and German songs from the 1970s and the 1980s. This song came up in the episode they published on 22 Jul 2017. It was then that I realised that a song that I had been listening to since April 2016 was a cover of one by Michel Fugain.

Un belle history (A beautiful story) sounds like an appropriate note to end this playlist on.

p.s. There was of course more music in my life this year than listed here. I added 207 new songs to the master playlist” off which I compile this year-end retrospective. There were a couple of songs - one in Hindi and one in Tamil - that I must’ve heard tens of times. My new-found affection for this period of Indian music is making me wonder if I am finally turning into someone from my parents’ generation (surely everyone’s greatest fear when they are in their teens). Music is also an integeral part of many shows that Netflix produces. I wish they’d release this one from Godless on Spotify.

November 26, 2017

Man and machine

We all experience moments when it seems like the whole world is out to get you.

You can issue and return books from the public library in Amsterdam without interacting with a single human. This evening when I placed the books on the conveyor belt at the returns section, it took the books in but didn’t mark one of them as returned. I went to the library help desk and they asked me the title of the book I had just deposited and the number of the conveyor belt that had processed it. They went inside the sorting room, fetched the book out, took my library card and removed the loan from against my account.

In the five years that the wife and I have used the library, this is the first time this has happened.

Our next stop this evening was the grocery store. This is the chain we’ve been shopping at since we set our foot in this country. Things are priced reasonably, the shelves are usually fully stocked (in fact sometimes they’d stock them just as you put the last item in your shopping basket) and their cashiers process things with a speed that surprises us till date. Most things are sold pre-labeled but for vegetables that need to be weighed, the cashiers have a weighing scale built right into their checkout counter. Most other stores in Amsterdam make you weigh and label things yourself. While you could still do that here, we’ve never felt the need.

Of late this chain has been embracing self-checkout counters, especially at their newer branches. If we choose to use them, the onus of weighing and labeling falls on us. Even vegetables that are sold by count need to be labeled with the bar code sticker that the weighing scale print outs (the scale asks you for a count that needs to be input on the touch-screen manually).

The prices that the weighing scale printed at the branch we were shopping at this evening were wrong. The label at the shelf said that the aubergines were priced at 0.89 Euro cents but the sticker the scale printed said 0.99 Euro cents. The same happened with courgettes (shelf - 0.79, sticker - 0.99). We dismissed it as a problem with the weighing scale and queued up for a good old-fashioned human-assisted checkout. After checkout, we asked for a printed receipt just to be sure. The prices were wrong again. A trip to their help desk followed by a trip with a person from the said help desk to the aisle where the vegetables were kept quickly rectified the error. No apologies were issued but we were curtly told that we were right and a refund of 20 cents was quickly provided. This of course was 10 cents too short. Mentioning this got us exasperated looks and 10 cents.

30 cents are not worth the time and energy it took but then we were doing it on principle and not for the money1.

On the walk back home, this got me thinking about the gradual but ever increasing automation around us. The scenarios this evening weren’t quite what the characters in a dystopian Philip K. Dick science fiction novel find themselves in, but they still made me uneasy. What happens when this class of jobs completely disappear from our libraries and our grocery stores. In situations like these, I am relieved when I get quick redressal and delighted if it comes with fake or genuine empathy. Unless the automatons taking over these jobs are programmed dramatically differently from the current state-of-the-art, I am sure we would get neither.

Thanks to a larger-than-usual serving of coffee in the evening, I couldn’t sleep last night. I lay in the bed thinking about how I would’ve reacted had the machines erred in my favour.

The answer for the first scenario came to me quite clearly. Had the system at the library claimed that I had returned a book while I still had it, I would’ve simply gone to the help desk and returned it.

For the second scenario, I am a bit more uncertain. The answer I arrived at bothers me a little. In all likelihood I would’ve assumed that the prices printed by the machine were more current and the people labeling the items in the aisle were simply lagging behind. That is, I would’ve accepted the windfall without any of the righteous indignation that arose when I was (literally) short-changed.

  1. Incidentally, at the prevailing interest rates in Europe, that’s also about the amount that a large sum of principal for a long duration of of time earns you.