René Seifert

Entrepreneur, Global Citizen, Flat World, Internet, Web 2.0, Innovation, Start-Up

Archive for April, 2008

Icebergs, Web 2.0 Expo and mental Freeze

Just arrived in San Francisco after that loooooooooong 12 hour flight from Munich in the loooooooooong Airbus A340-600, the strech-limo among commercial airplanes. Before heading to sleep to be as fit as possible – given the 9 hours time-shift – for the Web 2.0 Expo starting tomorrow, still wanted to share this fantastic picture from 34,000 feet north-north-west of Reykjavik. The icebergs of artica, standing proudly in their white serenity far beneath the engines of our Airbus. (Yes, and I am aware of the irony that the very same engines at that altitude might cause the icebergs to fade and that I am part of the problem …)

Icebergs-NNW-of-Greenland

I am happily looking forward to the conference which I had attended last year already. It's a very hands-on event with learnings not so much like on the Web 2.0 Summit in November on the Big Business and Grand Talks of Bigwigs, but rather on getting things done. Not too bad either, if this is what the end matters.

So now I stranded here in San Francisco for a week, me, the "Digital Nomad" how a phenomenal special in "The Economist" has put together two weeks ago. Lots of worthwhile thoughts which had also made me think. For one, geography is definitely history. Many offices no longer have settings for each employee, but they rather provide space which can be instantaneously designed as an individual or collective place – with ubiquitous Wi-Fi. Or you don't really need an office at all, working from home or connecting from e.g. a Starbucks is increasingly becoming the norm. Anyway, the "Third Place" besides or between home and office is the new buzzword for both an infrastructural framework of the “homo mobilis” and a huge opportunity for innovative entrepreneurs. Thanks to tools like virtually accessible disk space, online social networks like XING or Skype the walls of a company and the borders of countries have been flattened alike.

Not really surprisingly, I could find myself very well in this portray. And I could second the downsides of this development. Being always on, everywhere connected but never there. I have been describing my state of mind increasingly like a self-selected semi-autism where I am cognitively in my own world with little influence of the real world around me. As a remedy I have actively sought to connect to friends whom I care for in person at these places to make that decisive difference. At the end, that's what I realized, nothing can replace the holistic experience of having someone you care for in front of you, with his or her mimic, gesture and kinetics. Poking someone on Facebook and poking someone on the shoulder is not one and the same thing.

Visiting Vatsalya-Orphanage in Bangalore

Something I really don’t want to miss out on reporting was my visit to Bangalore’s Vatsalya Orphanage last Saturday. Thanks to my neighbour Shashi who is like a sister to me, takes care of my house when I am travelling and likewise of me when I am at home in Bangalore, has been involved for years into charity work for this place. The entire “Abhaya Ashram” of the compound has been handed over by the Maharaja of Mysore in 1948 then under the title of “Association for moral and social hygiene” – so says the inscript carved in stone at the entry.

I bow my head in deepest respect for all the work which Shashi and the other volunteers are putting into making this place a little oasis for those who would otherwise be forgotten and left behind. The place is neat, in good shape and very well run which is a challenge by itself: hiring some full-time staff, refurbishing things which need it most and constantly trying to find donors for funding.

Vatsalya Bangalore 02

I got such a very warm welcome by the around 50 children who were waiting in excitement for the “Uncle from Germany”, sitting row by row on mattresses. Many questions which I had to answer from “What do people eat in Germany” to “Why are you so tall”? I spend a good there, at some point solving some algebra equations with them (they really got all of them right). It was indeed for me very touching seeing all these bright, curious and energetic kids in front of me who certainly did not have the best start in the past, but thanks to Vatsalya could look into a brighter future.

Here is the bedroom of the children where they start their day really early at 5.30 am. And I could tell that they made a very robust and disciplined impression without missing out on giving them as much love as such a setting allows for. (Here are, by the way, a few more pictures on Flickr.)

Vatsalya Bangalore 10

My words in Vatsalya’s guestbook started with: “Where there is caring, there is hope”. Yet “caring” should not just remain an abstract metaphor on paper, but ought to translate into an obligation for myself to make a difference. For instance, reasonable money can pay for many clothes, books or desks in the classroom. And spending time there means equally doing a favour to the children as it doing a favour to myself for staying grounded to the realities of life and receiving these small little gestures that money can’t buy.

Update: Thanks for all your kind comments asking how you could help individually. Ideally, please contact the institution directly as they will be able to best answer the different ways that fit into the overall concept of Vatsalya. Here are the contact details:

Abhayashram,
4th Cross,
Wilson Garden,
Bangalore – 560027
Phone: 080 22220834 or from abroad +91 80 22220834

Email: ashi_abhaya {at} yahoo.co.in

My favourite Indian Song: “Bulla Ki Jaana Maen Kaun”

I remember when I heard this song for the first time in the back-seat of a car driving through Mumbai, it's humid heat, it dusty streets when hardly any traffic moves forward, I was taken in immediately. It came from a CD which I understood was from the same artist, and as distances in the speed of snail in Mumbai provide ample time, the song came at least three times. I must have heard it a few times on random occasions, but never "got a grip on it". Untill I recently bought a compilation of "Top 50 Bollywood Songs". And as I lost it, so I found it. "Bulla Ki Jaana Kaun", by the Indian artist Rabbi Shergill. My phantom pain of missing out on the songs got more than alleviated by the additional detection of the video on YouTube. Here it is, and it is as stunning as the song, it's very much like India, it's kind of also a bit of "my India".

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

"Bulla Ki Jaana Maen Kaun" actually means "I don't know who I am" and pays tribute to the famous Urdu poet Bullae Shah, a beacon of peace between rivalling Muslims and Sikhs in Punjab. It's worthwhile noting that the poet wrote at the beginning of the 19th century, yet his message hasn't lost anything from its relevance today. In sync with the lyrics, the video shows what the mystery of India is about. Many people, different people who in spite of their various background form a "unity through diversity" as writer and diplomat Shashi Tharoor explains in his fluid book "The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone". And the pre-eminent statement "I don't know who I am" serves much less a confession of one's disorientation or, worse, lack if identity than the acknowledgement of one's humility during the pressing quest for truth. 

Hope you like the song, too, along with the video, the entry-scene of the magic Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, with it's fast cuts, it's deliberate blurs, it's changing places, colours and faces. In all the possible abstraction of a song, its whole mood reflects precisely that India is a never-ending stream of discovery. Where now knowing who you are, is both a starting point and and end in itself. 

Flying with the “Dead Head” on Lufthansa 754

Yesterday I had a very inspiring flight with Lufthansa 754 from Frankfurt to Bangalore, because my seat-neighbour was a "dead head". What sounds grim to the uneducated ear (like mine was till yesterday as well), is a common expression in the aviation industry. It means that a flight attendant is on a flight (sometimes even in uniform) as a passenger, because this flight serves as a transportation flight to her next mission where he or she will be on duty. The reason yesterday was that there was no paying guest in the First Class, hence Lufthansa kept it empty, but therefore was coping with a surplus of flight attendants. Yet, for the return flight of the same crew which will leave tomorrow morning from Bangalore to Frankfurt on LH 755, there again the plane is fully loaded, hence the flight attendant is required. 

Another thing I can assure: My "dead head"-neighbour was very much alive and very friendly, too. And as I always want to know it all, I poked her with tons of question which she patiently answered. How the crews constantly change and they have been trained to work together well in each and every constellation, but that for a longer trip of a few days team-spirit would kick in which would even make a difference for the better. So, it's basically like in any other profession.

What I really appreciated was her commitment which she had towards her company which was true and genuine, and not just a show to please me. And my own observation with Lufthansa's service overall is really positive, and especially it has improved over the last 10 years. In the vast majority, the crew expels a solid German charm which is perfectly fine: It's not subservient, good so, but I'd describe it as friendly, fast and efficient. As the service on board is improving, the gap to the service level on the ground (especially in Germany) is widening. What I have experienced there already from the check-in counter to the desk in the lounges was abysmal. 

When I asked my neighbour what the two shittiest incidents were in her 10 years of flying, she mentioned two. The second-shittiest was a flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt when a passenger got a heart attack. Thanks to the defibrillator on board, a doctor who happened to be on board, managed to re-animate the person and recommended a safety-landing to bring the patient to intense care on the ground. The plane was already somewhere at the east coast of Canada and the nearest airport was prohibitive because of bad weather. An other, further airport seemed possible, the plane was in descend, the captain advised the crew that due to bad weather and a short runway that it should prepare for a "safe landing". The weather was that bad that in the final approach, however, the captain decided for a go-around with next destination Reykjavik in Island. At this point the patient who scratched the end of his days by a narrow margin started to argue with the crew. 

Not what one might expect, that he was scared for his life and why the plane didn't land to get him to hospital. By contrary, he insisted he was fine, he needed to go to Frankfurt, because he would miss his connecting flight. Yet, the pilot clearly told him "no way", first because the doctor said differently and second, by now the plane had burnt so much fuel through the missed approach that it had to land for refuelling anyway. In Reykjavik all went fine, the ambulance took the patient and the plane could continue to Frankfurt within one hour.

Clearly number one of my neighbours bad events happened on October 7th, 2002 when a Boing 747 from Lufthansa in marginal weather conditions was set for approach to Mexico City airport. The crew on the flight deck got a warning from the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) about another plane which would intersect the course of their flight. Air Traffic Control (ATC) gave instruction NOT to climb what was exactly what TCAS commanded. As the planes got closer and closer, the pilots – according to their training – decided to ignore the ATC, follow the TCAS and pull up. My "dead head" sat on the left side of the plane looking out of the window when the Jumbo went into a steep climb, just at that moment the clouds cleared up for a moment and she saw the other plane, an Airbus from Mexicana Airlines, under-flying the Jumbo at 30 meters distance. Pretty shitty picture, isn't it. I found an online-source about the incident here.

The investigation found out 1.5 years later that it was the clear fault of Mexican Air Traffic Control and the pilots had saved the lives of their own 388 plus 120 people of the other plane through their disobedience. Interesting I found the smart way of my neighbour to cope with the incident: She wanted to come over it, deliberately requested the same flight again and for landing asked the captain to watch the landing from the jump-seat from the cockpit. After seeing how this landing could go smooth and safe, she managed to mentally tick it off once forever, and continue enjoying her work as she had always done.

Bonvu.com: Smart Service for European Shoppers in the U.S.

The frenzy in Europe is all around because of the low Dollar. I heard of people flying to New York to go shopping for designer clothes which could be less than 60 % compared to European price levels. Sure, seeing Big Apple for a weekend as an experience itself is worth a trip. (I will be in San Francisco myself in 3 weeks for the Web 2.0 Expo and I am just considering getting myself an Apple iPhone . so here we are … )

Yet who is really just into getting stuff cheaper does not have to travel to the U.S. necessarily. What I like at eBay from the very beginning, even before it got traction in the German market with its German site, was that it made the world definitely flatter. You could see products on their flagship .com-site, bid for them and if you were lucky, win. Yet, it became pretty clear that there were a few hick-ups: First. many dealers did not ship to an address outside of the U.S. and made that pretty clear from the beginning. For second, buying an exciting article in the “long tail” for $8.37 and then paying for shipping to Europe (provided the dealer would do it) some $60, not to mention the hassle with customs declaration, made the whole procedure thoroughly unrewarding.

Bonvu.com seems to narrow that gap by offering a solution to exactly that. You get an a shipping-address in the U.S. (Bonvu’s logistic centre), you can have you items inspected (including a picture which is sent to you), being stored for a while, getting bundled with other incoming shipments (huge benefit), made ready for customs clearance and finally being sent in one shipment to your home address in Europe. Great, isn’t it. Of course the company takes a fee for that service, but looking at their ratecard , the prices are absolutely reasonable.

I really like this sort of service, because a similar concept similar brought me 4 years ago to India. There is still so much potential to not just do such a service between the U.S. and Europe, but also between many other countries. And there is absolutely no reason why free people in a free world should support the artificial windfall profits of fat corporates based on inexplicable price differentiation.