Tuesday, 16 October 2012


As the Red Bull Stratos balloon went up higher and higher into space, I was looking at the earth's curvature on the video feed. And I was preoccupied not with the feat or the associated dangers, but with the possibility that a wide angle lens may be distorting the image and making the earth look more curved than it actually would at that height. However, as the moment of the jump approached, all the hard-boiled cynicism went away for a bit, and I had to stop and marvel at what I was witnessing, via a remote video connection on the other side of the planet from where the action was happening. 

I have always been quietly grumbling about how frontiers aren't being pushed anymore. Sometimes when I see someone carrying a smartphone (and I own one myself), I often wonder about the fact that we're carrying in our hands devices that have more computing power than some of the earlier space missions did. We didn't get to see man land on the moon, and we're likely not going to see man land on Mars anytime soon. Yet we queue up at stores when the fruit company releases a new phone, and talk about it as if it were the Second Coming. I'll begrudgingly admit that frontiers are being pushed where we cannot necessarily see them, in technologies that are benefiting us on a daily basis. They might not have the same impact and visibility as landing on another celestial body, and therefore we take them for granted. I like to think that, while flying cars will probably not work out, the future did deliver a personal scaled down version of HAL 9000 in Siri, and that is kinda cool. But I digress. 

The thing is, entire generations looked at the space race, the moon landings, Concorde, and the space shuttle and were inspired to push harder at the frontiers of what we know. Somehow, I cannot see a new phone, or any of the other things that we take for granted, inspire someone to go out there an push the limits. The fact that I was watching Felix Baumgartner live sitting halfway across the globe from him alone should be something to think about, yet I was more bothered about the camera distorting the picture. I was viewing it as a spectacle, as reality television, and not as the amazing feat it truly is. He went up in a balloon. A balloon is not the first thing you think of when it comes to transportation/vehicular records that are still standing. You might start with hypersonic aircraft, solar aircraft, biofuel aircraft, pretty much any other form of flying craft before your list eventually brings you to the balloon. I didn't know there were any records to be broken on balloons, I thought we'd dealt with all of those in the earlier part of the last century, when they were still fashionable as a mode of transport/warfare. Yet, before he even stepped out of the balloon, and an incredibly engineered balloon at that, he had already set the record for the highest flight in a lighter-than-air craft. And then he broke the sound barrier in freefall, which has never been done before. 

Maybe we're all spoilt for choice, the whole lot of us. Amazing things are happening around, and we barely notice. I wonder how many people are aware of the fact that this was not just a record attempt, and that Baumgartner's jump has recorded data that would help design emergency egress systems from future spacecraft. Maybe twenty years from now, when you're flying on a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipSeven and it flies into space junk left by an old burnt-up spy satellite and you have to eject, you'll have Baumgartner amongst others to thank for getting you down on terra firma. A generation or two ago, they had the moon landings to inspire them. We have the Hubble telescope, the Curiosity rover, the Large Hadron collider and people like Baumgartner. Sure, theirs was more awesome, but I think we tend to overlook what we have. Amazing things are happening around us, and there are frontiers to be pushed everywhere. Even in a balloon. We're probably just not looking hard enough. 

Okay. I'll get off the soapbox now. 

(Also, no offence meant to balloon flyers, I just happen to have a personal preference for aircraft that I can actually control :P)

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Yet another juvenile rant..

I'm trying to roll two rants into one here; they're vaguely connected, but I'm not sure how much sense I'll make. Anyway.. 

I recently read a book called Don't Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions. It is written by an IAS officer who quits his job and goes motorcycling across India. By all accounts, it should be a book I'd normally relate to, and that was probably why it was gifted to me on my birthday a few years back. I finally got around to reading it, and I was disappointed. There were parts of the book I could completely understand and love, but the overall balance tilted in favour of disappointment. A feeling of being let down. 

To start with, the book sets up this notion of a guy who gives up everything to go on a journey of self discovery across the country. Someone who says no to a position of power in the establishment, and goes off on that classic rebel pursuit, motorcycling nirvana. The writing is shoddy and rambling at places, but has a certain charm to it, like listening to a slightly drunk guy at a party who has very entertaining stories, but the alcohol just isn't allowing him to structure them properly. However, a third of the way into the book, I got the sense that this was all a sham. He never let go of his security net, like the initial part of the book (not to mention its marketing) claimed. It wasn't quite the I-gave-up-everything-and-stepped-into-the-abyss story it was made out to be. He owned a few restaurants that placed him comfortably on the financial front, and he could afford to let go of his government job and tear up and down the country on a motorcycle. And he hadn't quite let go of the trappings of power. And that is all fine by me. He's above forty at the time this happens, has a family, and I suppose that's not the age where one can just cut the ropes, get rid of the training wheels, and let go. Hell, I would've shivered at the thought at 21. I would've devoured the book and paid no attention to its flaws had it been a simple collection of tales from the road. What ticked me off was the whole posturing, the misleading premise, and the attempt to make it sound like a Che Guevara story from India. 

Which brings me to my second point. Che Guevara had the misfortune of making an epic trip across South America on an old Norton 500, and in the process he saw the plight of the people on his continent, his people, and underwent a metamorphosis into a kickass revolutionary dude who tried to make a difference for those people. However, what he really managed to do was capture the imagination of half of the worlds douchebags, and continues to do so today. I have huge respect for the guy, and my knowledge of him extends outside of what Motorcycle Diaries tells me. I will not go into the mechanics of how he ended up as a silhouette on headbands and underpants, but I do get royally ticked off when people start putting up Che images on their blogs and facebook pages after they've done a few hundred kilometres on a motorcycle. 

George Carlin once said,"I don't have pet peeves, I have major psychotic fucking hatreds! And it makes the world a lot easier to sort out." This is my personal equivalent of that. Right after I'd read the book I mentioned earlier in the post, I saw two acquaintances start pretending to be Che after a few hundred kilometres on their bikes. I ride a bike as well, and my love of bikes is well documented. I come from a family with a strong communist background, and my own views on life are left of centre, sometimes very much socialist. However, each time I go out touring on the bike, I do not expect to return after having overthrown a government or two. The thing is, motorcycling is fun in itself. You don't have to pretend to be a South American revolutionary to have fun on two wheels. To me, those who resort to that are missing the whole point of motorcycling. The fact is, both the IAS officer and my two friends went out to have fun, and I'm sure deep inside they realized that their revolutionary abilities wont make a pimple on Che's posterior. Yet they chose to pretend. Very, very few people have become actual revolutionaries by undertaking a motorcycle tour, and none of them have really matched the scale of Che's accomplishment. There will necessarily be very few Ches and James Deans. Statistically, that makes your chances of becoming a rebel revolutionary minuscule. Less than worthless. Statistically, it probably makes you a douche. 

Che's legacy has been defiled enough by the underpants and arm-bands, and to see bikers join that parade ticked me off. So I started my own revolution, this post on a blog with 3.8 annual readers. Yeah, that'll teach them. 

Rant over.  

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Imli candy and a spoilt brat..

Seat 18A was mine, but I wasn't in it. And I was livid. I could see the little brat in my peripheral vision. All of 3 and a half years of age, he had usurped my seat. His tantrum for the window seat had put me in a spot, and I had to give it to him or else I would've ended up looking like an asshole. The flight was full, and there was no other seat free, let alone a window seat. In a rare occurrence, even the business class seats were full on this Indian Airlines flight, so that ruled out the possibility of using the clout associated with my granddad's frequent flyer card to score an upgrade. I had turned up early, checked-in early, asked for a window seat that would give me a decent view of the wing, and then was relegated to a middle seat. I wouldn't have minded an aisle seat so much. The point is, I reminded myself, that a bonafide aerospace nerd like me should never be deprived of a window seat. And this brat had done precisely that. 

Emboldened by his successful tantrum, he was looking for more things to do. His parents in the row ahead of ours did not seem bothered about his welfare one bit, and I was not very surprised. They probably needed a break. These were better days for aviation, and the flight attendant was coming down the aisle with candy for everyone so our ears won't pop on take off. I cannot remember any flight in the past coupla years providing that simple amenity. I was looking forward to the candy. It was tamarind mixed with sugar and formed into two little balls, within a single wrapper. I was never big on sweets, but this was my absolute favourite sweet in the world. I wanted to shamelessly grab a handful, but stuck to my standard practice of picking three from the tray she held out for me. The kid shamelessly picked a handful, and asked her for more. She said "Beta wait five minutes, I'll get some for you". Pfft. 

True to her word, she was back in five minutes and handed the kid an entire bag of candy. An entire bag. That's never happened to me! In my mind, I was a more deserving candidate for this largesse. The flight was going to be an hour long, and stuck in my middle seat with nothing to do, I decided to sleep. The kid had other plans. No sooner did the take off run begin than he started bombarding me with questions about the airplane. Now this presented a dilemma. I resented him for stealing my window seat and eating all the candy, but I can't resist answering (or at least attempting to answer) when people ask me stuff about airplanes. I relented, thinking that if his curiosity is piqued, he might join the ranks of us aviation fanatics once he's older. After all, it happened to me. Sure, he might grow up to be an obnoxious, candy stealing member of our community, but we're a smallish community so we could use his membership to swell our numbers. 

I started answering his questions to the extent I could. Kids sometimes make no sense, so this was no mean feat. He had his own theories about jet engines and I patiently set them straight. By my estimate, somewhere abeam Daman I lost my patience. He had more questions than I could possibly hope to answer. The kid-o-meter swung to resentment again. The sleep I had forfeited to accomplish an eventually fruitless early check-in was now beckoning me, and I was stuck in an endless barrage of infantile curiosity. In a moment of inspiration, I pointed to a cloud far away and asked the kid if he could spot a plane flying parallel to us near the cloud. Kids are kinda stupid, and he spent the rest of the flight looking for a plane that did not exist, while I slept as best as the cramped seats on the lovely but decrepit old double-bogey main landing gear wala A320 would let me. 

This morning, when waiting at the bakery section of the office cafeteria, I was reminded of the kid and this story. There, under the glass showcase that housed the confectionery, were bags full of tamarind candy. I bought an entire bag, marvelling at my re-acquaintance with the candy in the most unlikeliest of places. I hadn't seen these in years now. The kid must be twelve years old or thereabouts now. I hope he's fine, wherever he is. 

Monday, 30 January 2012

The death of magic

It was a balmy afternoon in 1993. School had come to an abrupt end at around quarter to two, and everyone was herded into the assembly hall. This was highly unusual, but the break was a welcome one for the bored kids of all sizes occupying twelve classrooms. As they walked into the hall, they noticed with interest that the curtains had been put up. Normal business was conducted in the hall without curtains; they were brought out only on special occasions. They also noted with dismay that there were no carpets or chairs laid out, as is usual for special occasions, and this meant sitting on the uncomfortable and dusty concrete floor. Some of the elder ones had figured that whatever this was, it seemed short notice. They were soon seated, and after some squirming about, were all settled in. 

A little boy of about seven or eight was sitting with eyes fixed on the curtains, about two or three rows from the front. He had to take his eyes off the stage when classmates seated nearby interrupted with chatter, but soon all eyes were on stage since they had seen some interesting looking people enter stage from the corridor. The curtains went up, and joy of joys, it was a magic show. It was the first ever magic show the boy had ever seen, and since it magically killed the remaining three periods of class, it was even better. The magician was a portly man with a mustache that looked fake, and he was clothed in flowing robes and a cape. He took centrestage with ease, and soon the kids were all in rapt attention. At least the younger ones were. 

The boy looked on transfixed as the magician performed one trick after another. An assistant disappeared inside a box and reappeared, cards were picked out with unerring accuracy, and a dove was pulled out of a hat. The man was seemingly a god, there was nothing he couldnt do. The cheers grew louder with each successful trick, but the boy was unaware of the noise. This was the first time he had seen anything like it, and he was mesmerized. The magician lifted his wand and waved at the audience indicating that he required silence. The noise fell and the kids paid attention. He required a couple of volunteers, and he asked the audience who among them would help him out. The boy enthusiastically lifted his hand, but a look around told him that pretty much every hand in the auditorium had gone up. 

Just as enthusiasm was turning into mild dismay, the magician pointed to the boy and said "you, young man. why dont you come up here and give me a hand?" Elated, the boy got up and made for the stage. They were seated in the hall according to height with the shortest up front, and if there was another perk to being short, he couldn't quite think of it at that moment. As he climbed the four or five steps up to the stage, he wondered where he would be if the magician were to make him disappear. Would he float through space? Would he become invisible? He saw the second volunteer, a boy younger than him but equally wide eyed, making his way up the stairs on the side of the stage. If they both disappeared, would they meet somewhere in the middle? What if he can't bring them back? What will they tell their moms? 

Trembling with nervousness, the two boys made it to the stage. The magician looked at them and declared to the audience that they were unfit to be his assistants. As elation and nervousness threatened to turn into dismay once more, the portly man produced two capes, and all was well again. The boys were fitted out with capes, the elder one in a fiery orange-red cape and the younger one got a leopard print cape, and the magician turned to the audience and declared them fit to be his assistants. Our boy returned to nervousness and awe. Magic was happening around him, and he was part of it. Better than a ringside seat, he was in the ring. He held out tubes for the audience to verify that they were empty, and watched stunned as the magician produced flower after flower from it. He handed him a white handkerchief and the magician folded it and then unfolded it and turned it red. Finally, after a multitude of tricks, the boy was asked to stand in the centre of the stage. 

Shy and nervous, he took the three steps necessary to propel him to the required location and stood facing the audience. There was a bit of pride in being the assistant, and he wasn't doing too good a job of hiding it as he looked at envious friends in the rows beneath. From the magicians voice over the loudspeakers, he figured that a glass of milk was being placed on his head. He felt the bottom of the glass on his hair as the magician held it above him without placing it on him. He wondered if the glass would in fact be placed on him, since he wasn't too sure he would do a good job of balancing it. He didn't want to mess up the trick and embarrass the great man. The other boy brought a straw that went into his mouth, with the other end sticking out in the air in front of him. The magician announced that the assistant was going to drink milk in this fashion. He was asked to suck in with the straw, and he did for all he was worth. 

The audience cheered in front of him, but something was amiss. There was no milk coming in through the straw, and he had been worried he messed up somewhere. Yet the audience was cheering, and when the magician stepped in front of him to show the crowd the empty glass was when he realized the milk had indeed disappeared. A strange disappointment grew within him. He wasn't as enthused as before when the magician put the glass under his armpit, covered it with the cape, and returned it full with milk again. He was asked to drink again, three or four times, with the same result. He began to suspect this was all some sort of trickery. Why was there no milk in the straw? As he stepped down the stage at the end of the show, classmates gathered around and patted him on the back and asked a hundred questions. He gave a blank smile. He saw the other boy telling stories to his classmates who had gathered around. All he could think of was to go to the playground. 

The announcement came that even though there was forty minutes left till the end of school, there would be no more class and they could all play outside until the school vans came at three thirty. He made his way to the playground and sat on one of the swings, staring blankly ahead as he filtered out the noisy kids on the merry-go-round and the slide. If it wasn't really magic, what was it? He was certainly tricking us, and there certainly had to be a how and a why. How? was there a secret pipe in his sleeve? Why? perhaps he didn't have real magical powers? Over the course of that afternoon, he had lost blind belief and was questioning everything. Three kids a coupla classes elder to him made their way to his swing. They had questions. "Tell me something," the girl who seemed to be their leader said, "did you really get milk in the straw when you sucked in?" 

"Yes", he said, looking at their slightly disbelieving faces, momentarily setting aside his struggle with magic and logic. "It was real magic." 

PS - this blog has been ignored for too long, and I intend to rectify that soon, (hopefully). the flying course is over, but unfinished posts remain to be published. I hope to do that over the course of this year believing late is better than never. This was a story written a while back, one I'm not entirely happy with, but I have nothing else to post for now.