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.