Monday, 24 May 2010

Plane crashes and the ensuing danse macabre..

this has been a bit of a bad year for aviation. the AF447 crash in the atlantic, the yemenia crash off the coast of moroni, the turkish airlines crash at amsterdam schiphol, the afriqiyah airlines crash at tripoli and now the air india express crash in mangalore. each of these crashes led to extensive reporting by the media, as they well should be covered. but somehow when it comes to aviation, the media never seem to get even the basic facts right. this, in turn, means the general public never get to know the facts about these accidents. all they get are some twisted half truths which further propel the aviation related myths that are already existent in their minds. whenever i see these reports, i am usually reminded of something i read in the outlook magazine long back, in the diaries section that they used to publish on the last page. it was a story about a reporter who was rushing to cover a mig-21 crash that happened near palam airport, and even before he reached the site he was relaying back 'facts' to his publication, making outrageous claims that there were 30 people on the aircraft. i would think that pretty much everyone knows that a fighter plane cannot carry more than 2 people, 3 in some cases. and turns out the journo's cabbie corrected him and told him that very same fact.

even though these journalistic lapses are generally annoying, the fact that so many crashes happened this year meant that the annoyance has been slowly creeping within me and taking the form of full blown anger. and the reporting by indian media in the aftermath of the air india express crash was the last straw that broke the camel's back. do they even think before they send out these reports? there are some basic journalistic ethics that need to be followed but i guess in these days of sensationalism, those go right out the window, and titles like 'BURNING PLANE' in font size bazillion are what sells. even so, i feel compelled to write this, knowing that this may not make any difference.

the accident : we are all too keen to pass verdict before we know what happened. this has been the case with pretty much every accident, not just air crashes. in india, if two vehicles collide, almost 90% of the time the blame is placed on the bigger vehicle. unless the smaller vehicle did something ridiculously and obvsiously stupid, the smaller vehicle gets away scot free. similar rules are extended to the sky too. the first half-fact is usually treated as the final cause of the accident. in this instance, there are reports which state that the pilot missed his touchdown point on the runway byh 2000 feet. this was immediately labelled as pilot error, and some of todays papers insist that this was the cause of the accident. none of them talk about other possibilities and facts. no one mentions that the actual zone on the runway where he can safely touchdown extends at least a thousand feet, and that even if he missed that by another thousand, he might still have had enough runway left to stop his plane. no one talks of the millions of possibilities that couldve caused the pilot to miss by thousand feet, if at all he did that. i would say that there are a good number of plausible scenarios where the pilot need not have been at fault. yeah alright, truth is boring.

the point here is this, avoid speculation. its stupid, it propagates unnecessary lies, and i personally think that its disrespectful to the people involved. these crashes are a reminder to us of the dangers inherent in aviation, no matter how much we've tried to mitigate them. and people sitting on armchairs on the ground and commenting on the jobs of those who actually face these dangers angers me. to the media, please state the known facts, and please verify them before stating them. if you wish to speculate, do so intelligently, through someone who actually knows a thing or two about not just flying, but air accidents on a whole. the so called aviation experts presented on the tv channels so far are prize chumps and jackasses in my opinion, who are spouting half baked opinions. get credible people, if you wish to discuss this incident, and not someone who would disrespect the dead crew for a few soundbytes.

the airline : air india suffers from what i like to call 'the aeroflot syndrome'. the airline has done a lot of cutting edge stuff over its lifetime, but being a state owned carrier it will always have public perception going against it, especially in terms of safety and service. sure, some of the service points are debatable, and i'll gladly debate that another day in another post, but i see the safety perception as a bit unfair. i wouldnt go out of my way to vouch for their safety, but i will say they are as safe or unsafe as pretty much any other airline in india. their maintenance practices are probably better than average, would be my personal assessment. but note, its only a personal assessment. in any case, some sections of the media making dubious hints at air india maintenance etc would be well advised to stay clear. i mean, what is it with these people? cant they wait at least for the interim report of the accident investigation? and if you look at the air crashes the past year, it includes a first rate carrier like Air France, as well as carriers like Yemenia who aren't exactly well known. it includes brand new airliners as well as old ones. what does it all say? nothing. wait for the individual damn investigations to conclude.

the airplane : the 737-800 has had 8 hull loss incidents so far. if you count from the first generation 737, thousands have been built. this one had a line number 2481, and was two years old. what does that mean, again? probably nothing. we dont know YET. there is always a section that comes up with dubious assesments of the aircraft type, sub-type and even manufacturer. the 737 is not unsafe. nor is the a330, which had two crashes in 12 months. hell, even the tu154 that crashed with the polish president on board, which is a soviet era aircraft known to have a bad safety reputation, is acutally quite a safe aircraft since many of its accidents were caused by factors beyond the aircraft or crew. a few were shot down by missiles, one ran into snow ploughs on the runway that atc had failed to clear, and one was in a mid air collision due to atc error. yet even aviation buffs give me a weird look when i tell them i want to fly on a 154. i do not have a deathwish, i insist it is a safe plane. sure, there have been planes with design flaws, but the planes involved in this year's crashes dont have any known serious flaws, and to insinuate otherwise without proof would be irresponsible. even in the case of the fedex cargo md-11 that crashed in narita, this holds true. the md-11 has certain quirks of handling, but i doubt it has been established as a design 'flaw' yet.

the airport : mangalore airport has a bit of a peculiar runway, which is elevated, and has steep runoffs at either end. it is debatable whether there was adequate space in case of a runway overrun. people will second guess the decisions behind making the runway the way it is now, and it is very probable that the runway may have played a part in the accident. probable, not conclusive. but guess what, a sizeable number of airports have such problems. we build airports where we can, not necessarily where we ideally should be. we cannot always build perfect airports, sometimes they have to be built within some constraints. in madeira, portugal, the runway extends out in to sea on huge pillars. this plane would probably have been a goner there too. what does that say? nothing. airports arent perfect, we have to work with what with have. huge runways on plain spaces are probably possible only in deserts. where there is population and terrain around, we adjust and work a little harder. deal with it.

the crew : one of the initial statements i heard on the news was that pilot error was ruled out because the captain had 10000 hours flying experience. sure, but that does not rule out error. it probably does minimize it, but does not rule it out. but ill concede that one since it's at least not disrespectful to the poor chap. then came the news that the pilot is a british national of serbian origin. there have been some two-bit publications making an issue out of foreign pilots working in india. the nationality of the pilot probably had nothing to do with the crash, such generalizations are borderline racist i would say. for example, all russian pilots arent drunk, all chinese pilots arent bad with english, and all spanish traffic controllers aren't atrocious with their accents. some are, but only just as many as you would find in india, england or the united states. in any case, the key is respect. indications of pilot error or not, speculation on their actions is useless at this point when no facts are known. also, i have a bone to pick with the pilot unions who have brought in pilot workload as a factor. the wreck hasnt stopped burning yet, and these hacks are already pushing union agenda. there isn't anything yet to prove pilot workload as a factor, and pilots should be the last ones making such claims before the investigation is complete. at least out of respect for two dead colleagues.

in conclusion : there is never one single cause for aviation accidents. it is always a series of systemic faults and flaws that culminates in an accident. sure, it may have been triggered by something immediate and plausible like pilot error, but there are always systemic underlying causes. in every damn accident. and the reason we have improved aviation safety over the years is because we have studied these over and over again, and imbibed the lessons industry-wide. in country like ours where there have been incidents where aspersions were cast over the findings of investigative proceedings in the past, the media has an important role and opportunity here to bring us some honest investigative journalism. it's always easy to make scapegoats out of pilots, and if the media stupidly plays up half truths, the real truth may get lost in the cacophony. sure, you could call it pilot error, and train all pilots flying to mangalore a few extra hours on the simulator to understand the airport better, but the systemic causes will strike elsewhere in a different form and incident, and claim more innocent lives with it. the focus should be on an honest investigation, and to learn the lessons from its as soon and as effectively as possible.

Monday, 17 May 2010

An ode..

i think that there comes a phase in the life of pretty much everyone who's gone to art school, when they fancy themselves a philosopher. like all phases, this one too affects people differently and for different durations. for some, its so quick a flash that you'd miss the philosophiness if you blinked, and for some others its a lifelong affliction. i dunno what it was in my case, but i sure did have the phase as well. i guess i relapse into it occasionally, whatever.

the funny thing about this phase is how we usually try to grapple with what we think are deep philosophical problems. it needn't be the traditional philosophical schools of thought, it can be anything really. in a design school, design philosophy was often the preferred brand. it was often derided as gyaan, etc, but grapple with it we did. and quite often, when we thought we had a certain amount of grip on it, we dispensed it to others as well. it was probably a necessary phase too, to some extent. yet in other cases, i just wanted to invent new ways of shutting people up. in any case, this post is from back then. maybe its one of my relapses.
i struggled with lame metaphors, that was my poison. while my well meaning but (in retrospect) perhaps clueless pals debated such gems as 'what is the perpendicular to your existence?' i was applying metaphors left right and centre, trying them on for size and seeing what fit and what didn't. i called them gems cos even today i cannot fully decide whether they were genuine questions or mere efforts of a few daft brains overreaching themselves. but yeah, metaphors were my thing. i didnt talk about them much i suppose, though i had my moments of being carried away too, and may have dished it out to hapless souls at parties.

i thought life was like a rocket, ready to blast off into space. when you start off, like a proton rocket ready on the launchpad at baikonur, you need all the lift you can get. you cant even take a crap without help, all you can do is lie there and cry. and all that lift, or support in the form of family, friends, education and the rest propel you upwards. the whole sky is yours, you can fly any which way you want. and people do. some dont get enough lift and follow flat trajectories, others get everything possible and streak through the sky blazing bright paths that can be seen and followed by those beneath or behind them. some dont even lift off at all, and just burn up on the pad.

as you go along, you start losing lift. and gravity being a cruel mistress begins to drag you down slowly. parts start falling off as components that have served you well in your upward climb become expended and move away. you may have loved that booster rocket but once it's purpose (ordained, perhaps?) is done, it slowy drifts away from you while you watch. but life goes on, and the next stage ignites and propels you even further towards your apogee, and so on. i saw these stages as the people and forces in my life. you lose some as you fly away into space, some remain till the end of your mission, some come in and kick start you when you need a new phase en-route. some you try and desperately hold on to yet are slowly prised away. and depending on how much you were being propelled, you succumb to gravity, or attain escape velocity.

for the record, i had discarded this back then, since i didnt like the ending, where in any case you burned up either on the rather immediate gravity induced re-entry or the eventual one after years in orbit. maybe it didnt quite fit my whole hypothesis back then, i dont quite remember why exactly i discarded it without effort to make it fit. anyway, i was reminded of this old metaphor of mine recently. I lost perhaps the most important person in my life. and corny/weird as it may be, i feel like that rocket, having lost the huge first stage thats propelled it so far. feeling weightless, still floating upwards, wondering with a fair bit of terror whether the next stage would kick in before gravity does her work...

i'll miss you grandad. see you on the other side someday.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

notes from THE concert..

Bhagwaan ka memna (i used to call it bhagwaan ka bakra before someone told me memna is a better word) played the summer storm festival at palace grounds bangalore this saturday, and I WAS THERE :P
Just thought I'd put together a blog post outta my thoughts as well as badly blurred cellphone pics, and badly recorded youtube clips by others. Random as usual, kindly adjust..

Palace Grounds : I'm sure that place is designed to confuse. I mean, if any enemies were to attack the maharajas in ancient times, it would surely have been futile. There's just way too many entrances leading nowhere useful, that the enemy strike corps would just have packed up and taken a rickshaw home. We nearly did, as well. After a frustrating two hour drive through peak evening bangalore traffic, we took another 45 minutes to find the correct damn entrance. And all the maharaja's folks at the entrances, who probably mistook us for an enemy strike force, feigned cluelessness regarding the location of the concert. But get there in the end, we did. And miss the first song, we did. And scream like an idiot for the band to play the song that i missed but hadnt realized id missed it, i did.

Kyazoonga : these inept morons were in charge of the ticket counter. there was one counter to buy tickets on the spot, and one to pick up tickets which were booked over the internet. Strangely, the folks who bought their ticket on the spot made it to the concert on time. the ones like us who did the allegedly smart thing and booked online, we missed the first song thanks to the bumbling idiot at the queue for the pick up counter. i strongly urge my annual readership of 3.5 people to reconsider their decisions if kyazoonga are ever in charge of online bookings for an event you want to go to.

Preparation : how do you prepare for a metal concert, especially something as intense as Lamb of God? well, let me put it this way. the last time we went to palace grounds, it was for the Oktoberfest, and the preparations required then were pretty obvious. This time though, Chetan (my batchmate from college) asked me a seemingly innocuous "How do you prepare for this concert?" and i was stumped. In the end, i gave him instructions to wear a black t shirt, and then follow steps similar to Oktoberfest preparations.

Chetan, Sagar : Chetan did not follow instructions, and turned up in a rather bright purple tshirt. Which turned out to be a good thing. when the group got split up in the crowd, he (and to an extent, sagar too) was a six foot purple beacon we could all locate and meet up with.

The Crowd : I was surprised that this many people turned up for a hardcore metal concert. But i figured that one out later. Most people turn up for the concert experience, and aren't really really into the band. Sure, they knew a few of the more popular Lamb of God songs, especially the ones that play in the pubs, but not much more. The hardcore fans were only a handful, and you could spot them easily since theirs were the only voices singing (or is that shouting) along when the comparatively obscure songs were being played.

Moshing (and other dangerous activities) : I thought most bands these days had an anti-moshing stance due to people getting injured. But these guys actually asked for mosh pits from the crowd. I'd always wanted to give it a shot, and now was my chance. I eagerly entered the pit, and got bumped about quite a bit, and was thrown out the other end of the pit. There was yet another pit a little ahead, and this one turned out even more insane. There were a coupla jats in it, who had no clue what they were doing or who they were listening to, and they simply kept saying bh*nchod m*chod and roughing up everyone else in the pit. word of advice, never mosh with jats. in fact, try avoiding even the least violent of activities with them.

Vid Shot on the way to Row two.

Since there werent any lateral crowd segregators, it was possible to go all the way up front, if you had the stomach for it. I decided to give it a try anyway. as long as you kept a constant push in the direction you wanted to go, the movement of the crowd would eventually get you there i figured. and it did get me to one row short of absolute front. there was just one row of people in front of me. now, it needs to be mentioned here that i attended this concert stone cold sober. yes, i was at various stages termed a loser. the problem with sobriety when you're in second row is that you're painfully aware of the fact that most of the crowd there are sweaty stinking guys who are stuck to you, and you cant quite take that. so, just as i was about to give up and head for the relative safety and comfort found only on the edges of the crowd in a metal concert, they played my favourite song.

So i endured a little while longer, enjoyed the song while in second row, caught the closest glimpse yet of Chris Adler my drumming hero, confirmed that he does look as relaxed in reality as he does in the videos when he's doing batshit insane beats per minute, and then got the hell outta there.

F-Bombs : they fuckin dropped the eff bomb everytime they opened their fuckin mouths man. started off saying that they're from richmond motherfucking virginia, called the crowd fuckers every now and then, and urged us to make some fuckin noise and break some fuckin shit. they were fuckin awesome, id say but i normally dont fuckin use that many eff bombs :D .

Also, was i the only one amused when they dedicated a song to that absolute punk rock dude mahatma gandhi?

Verdict ? It was an awesome, if a bit short, concert. Their songs have helped me vent in times of utter frustration, and it was sort of a dream come true to see this. I'm betting they will return, since they seemed as surprised as i was to see the crowd that turned out. and if they return, i'll go again as i have a feeling the next concert will be even better.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

On Context..

So I met my cousin after ages last week. I noted with happiness that he's grown up now since the last time i saw him, turning 13 this year. I also noted with concern that unless my uncle and aunt were planning on having another kid, I'm gonna soon earn the unenviable position of being the shortest amongst the cousins on my mom's side of the family. But of course, thats not the reason I'm writing this, the reason is that for the first time in my life, perhaps, i felt a generation gap with someone younger than me. yes, you may proudly sniffle and wipe away a tear of joy since i might just be showing signs of growing up there.

Since we met at a funeral which was a rather traumatic experience for the both of us, we stuck together spending time avoiding the adults and generally spending quality time together. for purposes of this blog post, the cut-off age for adulthood was set at one year above my age. Now, at some point in my conversations with young cousins and nephews and nieces, they ask me about my job, and i tell them. Usually this is followed by a facial expression generally involving widened eyes to indicate that they are suitably impressed. this cousin, though, did not bat an eyelid. what he did, instead, was to launch into a detailed conversation on cockpits and aircraft in general. He had seen all the episodes of 'Air Crash Investigation' and knew by heart the subtleties of various crashes. It was my turn to adopt the expression i mentioned before, as our conversation drifted on to a discussion on the sioux city air crash.

Turns out, the kid is a storehouse of knowledge. He seems to know far more than any kid i knew when i was his age. And then when i thought about it, the other kids i know now who are as old as him all seem a lot smarter on average. Of course, the prima facie suspect would be the internet, which is pretty much the single largest difference between what his generation and mine had. Sure, once i grew up and saw fancy toys like r/c helicopters and stuff in the store, i kinda wished that they were around in my childhood. but that seems to be a constant difference, for i've heard my mom remark about a lack of choice in toys when she was a kid. But the internet is a sort of game changer in that sense i suppose, since libraries were around forever, and tv has benefited (or is that harmed?) at least a coupla generations before his, including mine.

But there was one little problem. He lacked context. I noticed this when we were taking a walk down some woods on our way to an old pond. He was interested in nature like a lot of kids his age, but knew nothing about the insects or plants around him. He did not know various kinds of ants, was irrationally afraid of all species of millipedes even though he was fascinated by them and knew they were harmless for the most part, and he could not grasp how a 'vellaka' (which is the malayalam name for small coconuts that usually fall prematurely from the tree) was essentially a miniature coconut. Yet he knew vast amounts of facts about stag beetles and rattle snakes on continents far far away, and i'd never even heard about the former until he mentioned it. i did google it later, though, and it seems like a fascinating creature. In any case, my point is this. All the information in the world, without the proper context and background which gives it perspective, is essentially useless i guess, except for winning quiz competitions maybe. Having a fact-sheet about jungles in your head without ever having seen even a thicket, does not necessarily make you a useful guy to have on an amazon expedition. You need empirical knowledge to counterbalance theoretical knowledge i guess.

So, I counted myself lucky that the internet came at a time when i could appreciate it, and not before. And therefore i spent the time before the internet playing in the mud, building toy trains and ships, and going on bicycle rides far far longer than mom wouldve permitted if she'd known. I counted myself lucky that i know a cobra from a krait from a rat snake from a water snake which made all the difference when searching for lost cricket balls in marshes near paddy fields.

And in the little time i had left with my cousin before we headed back to our respective cities, i taught him how to spot and catch antlions, how vellakas of a certain size made good projectiles that would carry far enough and sting but rarely hurt someone, how to use the stem of a papaya leaf as a snorkel, how to jump off walls without getting hurt, and most importantly, how to skip stones on the surface of a pond. For a kid trapped in a ninth story apartment in the thick of bombay, i hope it made some kind of difference.