Thursday, June 21, 2012

Booking Indian Railways tickets on third party sites

Whenever I have to make train reservations on IRCTC, I say my prayers and summon up all my reserves of patience. I love trains and not just because they are a reasonable alternative to overpriced flights. Trains offer charging points for laptops, and many routes have almost non-stop 3G/ EVDO internet connectivity, so I am a happy camper on any train these days. But I dread the ordeal of booking on India's busiest and most frustratingly slow e-ticketing site. Once it took me half a day to book a ticket and I wept in frustration after my card got  charged 3 times without the booking going through.

I was initially thrilled when travel sites like Cleartrip and Yatra got the green signal to issue train tickets, thinking that the ordeal of IRCTC would be behind me forever. It was not, and a new kind of ordeal has started.

Suketu Mehta observed in his novel "Maximum City" that flyovers in Mumbai did not really solve the purpose of reducing the traffic - instead they brought you faster to your traffic jam. That's exactly how train bookings function on third party sites. The  gateway is still IRCTC and the gateway still cannot cope with the flood of traffic. On Cleartrip, where I recently tried a train booking I can see the availability and even select the station and train (which is way  further progress that I make on IRCTC) but when I make the payment, I have more than once gotten the message that my card was charged, but the booking could not be confirmed. Cleartrip, irritatingly wanted me to contact them. IRCTC thankfully has no desire to be contacted and refunds are automatic. Of course, they are on Cleartrip as well, but if your  card has been charged and the site invites you to contact them, you feel obliged to do it. And that is more work than I have to do on IRCTC.

Also with IRCTC when the booking fails, it fails completely and without doubt. You have no choice but to start again. With Cleartrip, the doubt remains until they resolve it. Once, after a failed booking attempt on Cleartrip, I received an SMS 8 hours later from IRCTC confirming my booking - I checked the PNR status and it was valid. Cleartrip however was completely silent on the whole affair and the booking did not show up in my account. In fact, I was confused for a moment whether the booking had been done through Cleartrip or through IRCTC as I had been alternately trying on both sites that morning. Again, my work has multiplied. Instead of wasting time trying to book on one site, I waste my time on two sites and yes, that means almost double time wasted.

It's not the fault of Cleartrip or the other travel sites, it's still the fault of IRCTC and it's dog in the manger attitude. In fact, as of February, it is mandatory to have an IRCTC ID even when booking through the travel sites. Another layer of registration, which really defeats the purpose of booking through another site.

Why, why is it so hard for IRCTC to set up a better gateway? Facebook is home to nearly 800 million people and has no down time. And Facebook is not an ecommerce site which makes money with every transaction. I wish they would pull up their socks and get serious about business. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

So a coffee grinder from the US will not work properly in India?

I am familiar with the term 'globalisation' in a vague way, but this month, I got a taste of what happens when it's absent. As you are aware, electricity is supplied at different voltages in different countries. There is no real reason for this and no one seems to want to standardise it. It exists to incommode people who carry gadgets across countries and continents. If I ever join the proponents of globalisation, I will push for standard electricity voltage across the world. Here's the reason for my cribbing.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I purchased an espresso machine last month. I have been looking for a grinder to pair with it so that I can get 'real' espresso. At first I thought of a hand grinder - maintenance free, no need for tech support, environment friendly, cute and compact. Then I pictured myself in my coffee-less morning stupor, grinding beans grimly (and espresso requires extra grinding to bring coffee powder to the requisite level of fineness). And I figured that this idea was not going to fly. The grinder probably would - out of the window, and very soon.

So I looked for a coffee grinder on Amazon and finally found one I liked and purchased - the Capresso Infinity Burr Grinder at $80. It seemed to offer the best combination of specs at a reasonable price. However, I made a big mistake, which I realised only after the order had shipped. I assumed that it would operate at dual voltage. Even devices without inbuilt dual voltage capability can be used with a step down transformer which converts 220V (the electricity supply in India) to 110 V (the electricity supply in US).

A chance doubt made me write a mail to Capresso customer care and I received this terse reply 

"The machine is only manufactured for use in the United States.  It will not work properly outside the United States due to the Hz differences."

Now I know a little bit about electronics and next to nothing about electrical devices. So I ran in panic to the real expert in my life - my Dad, who is an R&D guy and engineer of the old school. He gave me the explanation which I reproduce below.

The  spec sheet on the Capresso site says that the grinder operates at 120V/ 60 Hz. In India, we receive power at 220V/ 50 Hz. The difference in the frequency of power can make a big difference to some appliances which use motors - including grinders. It causes the device to do two things.

1) It will draw more current which could lead to overheating and burning of the motor.
2) The motor will run more slowly (My Capresso Infinity runs at 440RPM according to the manufacturer and this could slow down further to approximately 400 RPM)

I had a moment of panic thinking I had to ditch my grinder. But things are not so bad. When Dad figured that a coffee grinder has a very short duration of usage (not more than 5 minutes at a time), he assured me that there is a good chance the device will not get harmed. Also, the slower the motor speed, better the coffee. To give you an idea of this, a regular blade grinder for coffee runs at 18000 RPM. My grinder uses gear reduction to slow the speed, so that it does not heat up the coffee beans and destroy the flavor.

The nuisance is that this device is timer-based, which means that I will have to experiment to get the right combination of quantity/ grind.

So in a nutshell, it's fingers crossed till we get the device and figure out if it works or no. I will post an update after  some weeks of usage.

As an aside, most electrical products manufactured in the US do not seem to support dual voltage. Of course, it's a country with huge internal consumption and probably does not need to think of the international market as a source of revenue. But dual voltage does not cost a lot to implement on any device and could make life easier for people who want to use  these products across the word. Just because something is Made in the US, it does not have to stay in the US.