Saturday, October 25, 2008

Destination Moon

Another date was just added to the long list that Indians like to remember. Along with the birthdays of great leaders and deities, historic and mytholigical events, 22nd October 2008 will hopefully be another date that brings a glow to every proud Indian's face. For on this day, India joined the elite club of nations that have sent a mission to the Moon. Chandrayaan-I (which literally means "vehicle for the moon"), at the time of writing this, is in an orbit around the earth with an apogee of around 76,000 Kms, which will be increased in 3 more bursts to put it into the grasp of the Moon's gravity and subsequently in an orbit around the Moon.

The Moon? Why not Mars?

This was the first question shot back at me as I disclosed this well-kept secret to colleagues in Strangeland. Not surprised at the obliviousness to activities outside their "well". However, good question.

When the "Cold War in Space" was going on between Strangeland and erstwhile USSR and they were racing to get to the Moon, Indian scientists were still literally in their diapers trying to launch rockets that breach the atmosphere. After all, we were a young nation recently freed off Colonial rule and grappling with the teething problems like poverty, population control, self-reliant economy, that we still fight to this day. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) began by launching weather and communication satellites using the launch-services of other nations, and gradually perfected the art of launching satellites themselves with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), indigenously developed over the years.

It is clear that for a nation that does not have a free flow of green bills to fund research, a small, less risky step to establish itself in the space fiefdom is better suited than to blast its way into the "We've been to Mars" club. Former president Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, a revered national hero and scientist, also urged ISRO to shoot a probe to the moon and mark the silver soil with an Indian flag, anticipating a race in the near future to exploit the Moon's resources. After all, the responsibility to tend to almost a sixth of the world's population requires such forward thinking, doesn't it?

Does a moon mission feed the hungry?

One of the boiling controversies around the world has been whether the $86m spent on the Chandrayaan-I mission is criminal given the fact that over 200m children in India are undernourished. I am not sure if these are comments from self-righteous trolls from the West who think they have a handle on all their social ills. Maybe it's burning envy that leads to such comments. It is too naive to look at things in such a narrow perspective. With this argument, India should also abandon all the huge sums of money spent on any kind of welfare like education and first ensure children don't die hungry. Agreed the problem is severe, but space research and technological progress are not antithetical to welfare.

Studies in Strangeland have shown that the huge amounts spent on NASA have more than paid back on the investments in terms of technological spur, motivation, and introduction of new economies around the sector that feed off the scientific advancements. A few years ago, bright Indians graduating from prestigious institutes would look around for opportunities, and shrug their shoulders and fly abroad to greener pastures. How many of those will now be forced to think twice, and be motivated instead to join institutes in India?

As for the Indians who oppose the money spent on Chandrayaan-I, I only have this to say. Stop watching cricket, feeding the mammoth economy that spins money around the sport, and wastes resources including time and moolah. Stop overpaying the whole cricket system, from the players to the babus. Where is the national pride in that sport anyway, however hollow? How many more children can be fed by sacrificing futile cricket investments?

Strangeland, strange response

The one news article I caught on CNN related to India's mission betrayed yet again the jingoism required here in Strangeland to maintain high confidence in the face of despair. Announcing the mission to the viewers, the news item quickly moved on to China's (the new communist foe to observe and overcome) recent space achievements, and asked why the US has stopped its missions to the Moon at a time when everyone else seems to be on the bandwagon. It was finally wrapped with a chest-thumping cry - "Cos we've been there, done that, almost 40 years ago!". Strangeland is clearly wary of the Tiger and the Dragon.

Here's wishing everyone involved in the mission to the Moon - you make us proud!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Ebony and Ivory, Mars and Venus

My stint in Strangeland happens to coincide with one of the historic moments in Strangelandian history, and I get to witness first-hand some of the most remarkable events taking place as this nation tries to finally shed the image of an intolerant society when it comes to choosing the president. In one of my very early posts back in October 2005, I had ridiculed that the White House should really be renamed to the White Man House so that it becomes explicit who is allowed to become President of Strangeland.

Little was I to know that in less than 2 years since, both the words "White" and "Man" were about to be challenged like never before by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. After Hillary's bitter acceptance of defeat, the Republican nominee John McCain, revived the interest she had generated in female voters by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. It is yet to be ascertained if at 72, McCain has the legs to run really, while Palin, having already announced herself as a "Hockey Mom" and "Pitbull" has made it clear for the record that she is willing and capable.

On The Stand

One thing that caught my eye was how the media is allowed - in fact they deemed it their right - to corner the candidates and put them on a pedestal dealing with all sorts of questions and responses on issues. In Homeland, in stark contrast, the politicians decide when and where they will speak to the mass public and what they will be willing to talk about. The media there is really no more than a pair of omni-present eyes and ears that notes every move and jots down every word they can get their hands on. We never get to know our leader up-close and personal. They are but a face behind the microphone, and it is upto us to sort through the truth from the unavoidable bag of lies.

Putting candidates on the stand brings out this other side which we don't see in rehearsed speeches written by stunningly skilled writers - responsiveness, reaction to questions and real issues without the luxury of peeking down on a piece of paper. I personally think that is very important to allow the voters to decide who they want to choose.

Foot-in-mouth, head-up-backside

Of course, one can only enjoy the obvious results of the reflex action tests that mediapersons put candidates through - the truths that slip out, the gaffes that they can't tie down. When that happens, hapless campaign managers have to come out and firefight to put the words into context and turn them on their head.

In this regard, I like to compare Palin to a mix of Govinda (MP from North Mumbai) and Laloo Prasad Yadav (Railway Minister in cabinet). When she calls herself one from the "small town" and "far away from the politics of Washington", I can only remember Govinda's election-winning catch-phrases like "Virar ka chokra". When she talks about her hunting and pets, memories of Laloo describing his morning chores involving milking the "bhains" inevitably shoot back. Who says Homeland politicians are obscure?

When it comes to lies, half-truths, dodging issues, walloping the opposing candidate, dirty scandalous tricks, I don't think Strangeland politics is far behind Homeland at all; only more transparent. Tons of TV shows on news channels and comedy networks pick up on these sly remarks and put them in perspective for all to see. For instance, John McCain is taped saying the "fundamentals of the economy are strong" and that he has no fears for it only 2 weeks before the Wall Street crash, when he then comes out to say "we are in the midst of the worst crisis" he has ever seen.

The debates

Another interesting aspect of the campaign here in Strangeland are the live, televised debates between the candidates. While the nation watches, the two of them fight it out for mass approval in 90 minutes of feverish argumentation. There are few better ways to analyse the candidates than simultaneously being able to weigh them against each other. Another advantage I am sure the voters in Homeland would love to be able to have. All we get are mass rallies, memorized lines and jingoistic slogans. A debate brings out the best and the worst in the candidate, shows you how strong they are, how smart they are, and how gracefully they can deal with heated discussions. I don't need to choose one of these candidates, so I simply enjoy the debates like only a Homelandian can.

In exactly one month's time, the ballot will be held and the verdict will be out. Hopefully, it will be the historic ballot that everyone looks forward to. As for Homeland, I really don't think it matters who wins. History shows that no matter who the President is in Strangeland, the foreign policy remains mostly along the same tangential - aggressive, self-serving and self-gratifying.

Select famous phrases from the candidates

"Do you know what the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull is? It's Lipstick!" - Sarah Palin.

"Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice president of the United States of America. Quite frankly, it might have been a better pick than me." - Joe Biden.

"On this Memorial Day, as our nation honors its unbroken line of fallen heroes -- and I see many of them in the audience here today -- our sense of patriotism is particularly strong." - Barack Obama.

"It's easy for me to go to Washington and, frankly, be somewhat divorced from the day-to-day challenges people have." - John McCain.

"They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska." - Sarah Palin.

"As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day?" - Sarah Palin, before she was chosen to be the running mate.

"The role of the vice president is to break ties in the Senate and inquire daily into the health of the president." - John McCain.