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Showing posts from 2012

Columbia's Last Flight from The Atlantic by William Langewiesche

Space flight is known to be a risky business, but during the minutes before dawn last February 1, as the doomed shuttle Columbia began to descend into the upper atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, only a handful of people—a few engineers deep inside of NASA—worried that the vehicle and its seven souls might actually come to grief. It was the responsibility of NASA's managers to hear those suspicions, and from top to bottom they failed. After the fact, that's easy to see. But in fairness to those whose reputations have now been sacrificed, seventeen years and eighty-nine shuttle flights had passed since the Challenger explosion, and within the agency a new generation had risen that was smart, perhaps, but also unwise—confined by NASA's walls and routines, and vulnerable to the self-satisfaction that inevitably had set in.  Moreover, this mission was a yawn—a low-priority "science" flight forced onto NASA by Congress and postponed for two years because of a

GETTING BIN LADEN from The New Yorker by Nicholas Schmidle

Shortly after eleven o’clock on the night of May 1st, two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters lifted off from Jalalabad Air Field, in eastern Afghanistan, and embarked on a covert mission into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. Inside the aircraft were twenty-three Navy SEAL s from Team Six, which is officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU . A Pakistani-American translator, whom I will call Ahmed, and a dog named Cairo—a Belgian Malinois—were also aboard. It was a moonless evening, and the helicopters’ pilots, wearing night-vision goggles, flew without lights over mountains that straddle the border with Pakistan. Radio communications were kept to a minimum, and an eerie calm settled inside the aircraft.  Fifteen minutes later, the helicopters ducked into an alpine valley and slipped, undetected, into Pakistani airspace. For more than sixty years, Pakistan’s military has maintained a state of high alert against its eastern neighbor, India. Because of t

Inspirational Heroes

I want to talk about real heroes today à not the kind we elevate to the status of demi-gods too easily and unthinkingly. “There’s a secret society of geniuses who weave and shape the fabric of our culture,” somebody had said about Subrahmanian Chandrasekhar (he was known among his colleagues as ‘Chandra’) on the occasion of awarding a medal to Chandra. Yes. Chandra was such a genius and so was Srinivasa Ramanujan. It is not widely known that one of NASA’s space telescopes (‘Great Observatories’) is named after him? à the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The most well-known of the space telescopes is of course the Hubble Space Telescope which has revealed so much about the wonders of our universe in its 20 year long lifetime. Every educated person must consider it his or her bounden duty to be acquainted with the images and the results of these great space projects. To give just a bit of a primer about Chandra, some of his areas of work included these ·          stellar st

James Acord — Alchemist for the Nuclear Age

That's the title of an article about him in The New Yorker. All I can say is ... What a Life ! The only private individual in the world who had license to handle nuclear materials. More related tales here:

Remembering Nehru

I realized with a start that this week is the birthday of my favorite character from the pages of history. When I flip through the pages of history and of course I am no professional historian, I find that I have more regard and affection for Jawaharlal Nehru than anyone else. Of course, there is Mahatma Gandhi. And there are others belonging to India and to other nations whose achievements I find awe inspiring or admirable or creditable or inspirational. Internationally, there were men like Washington to Jefferson to Lincoln – three of the great presidents of the United States. There was Napoleon and there was Lenin. And Mao. The 20th century was a period that provided enough scope for megalomaniac men of varied hues to chase their dreams. So, recent history is replete with larger than life characters – some who achieved an astonishing amount of infamy such as Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini to others who have left their mark on human history which is essentially positive:

Is Life Beautiful

When people are ‘lucky’, they tend to reflect on their good luck and tend to thank providence profusely for it and reach conclusions such as “Life is Beautiful.” I always wonder if life is indeed beautiful – and, even more pertinently, how valid an argument it is to reach that conclusion when one happens to get “lucky” by chance. I recall numerous instances of people who survive natural disasters thanking the Lord for letting them live while others died. Without citing any particular incident, let us just think for a moment how fair that is – to thank God for letting you live. How about the others who died? Were they at fault somehow and deserved to die? The recent serial blasts in Jaipur killed many people. Did the good Lord decide that these people were unworthy of living and so deserved to die and so the terrorists were in fact agents of God. So, why spend so much resource in trying to find them and punish them? The September 11, 2001 attacks in the US were carried out by pe

Richard Feynman on the Gap Dividing Science and Human Culture

A few quotes from the incomparable Feynman: " … people — I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people — are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way … And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that — why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them? Incidentally, about knowledge and wonder, Mr. Bernardini* said we shouldn’t teach wonders but knowledge. It may be a difference in the meaning of the words. I think we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is. " " … as I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame. If we look

My Billion Dollar Building

I am planning to build a house to live in. I am thinking out-of-the-box and thinking big. Really big. I am planning on building a 50-storey residence for myself and my little family. You think that’s a bit big for a single family? No, no, let me explain. The first five floors of the building will merely constitute the car park for all my cars and those of my guests. The next five floors will be service floors that will house various amenities such as a laundry and warehouses to stock food supplies, etc. Then, the next ten floors will be for my guests. There will be master bedrooms and massage rooms and Jacuzzis and gyms and sprawling bathrooms and facilities for playing lawn tennis and basketball and squash. The next five floors of the building will house a common library to provide intellectual stimulation to my friends as well as me. There will be five floors on top of these devoted to entertainment. There will be 5 movie theaters with various seating capacities. There

US Presidential Election 2012 Electoral College Map

All the Electoral College maths of the U.S. Presidential Election 2012 in one map.

Incredible October

October 15: We inch towards (or gallop towards -> depending on how you feel about this year) the closing of 2012. I don't know if the present month of October has been more frenetic than the rest of the months. But it feels to me as if it has been. So I am inclined to do a running summary of the month as a diary entry for future reference. Among the many October surprises have been the *win* attributed to Romney in the first Presidential debate as we approach the quadrennial presidential election in the U.S. Felix Baumgartner jumped from 40 kms up in the atmosphere and thanks to the magic of TV, perhaps billions of human beings -- sitting in their drawing rooms, waiting at the airport lounge, drinking beer in the bar or elsewhere -- were witness to the successful accomplishment of this feat of superhuman dare-devilry. There are not many records to be made left to make - this was one of the last for the forseeable future and the door is now closed on this one as well. Unless

Weekend Reading

Second U.S. Presidential Debate: Obama vs. Romney 2012

Hopefully President Obama will have managed to silence the commentators with his spirited performance during the second debate. Maureen Dowd won't be pointing to Barack Obama's biographies in next column pointing out how the President is averse to confrontation and how that's at the core of who he is. I thought the over-reaction to the 1st debate had been unjustified -> I knew Mr. Obama will be in a feisty-er mood this time around since that's what the constituency demanded. Mr. Obama stood up to the pretentious and oh-so-fake Romney without appearing to be jarring or a bully -> both qualities that are the trademark of Mr. Romney. The candidates got to almost a dozen questions with a tough-to-rollover Candy Crowley as the moderator. On Libya, Romney was particularly egregious as a foreign policy novice. On financial matters and tax issues, Romney sought to show that he had a plan -> the only problem was that this was a plan that is entirely distinct from t

Ayn Rand Was Right

Do we exalt the John Galts and Howard Roarks among us or despise them? Do we admire the ultimate, self-centered and selfish capitalists or the selfless, self-sacrificing altruists? Oh sure there are the Martin Luther King, Jr.s and Mahatma Gandhis and Nelson Mandelas and Aung Sun Suu Kyis we like to point to as icons and worthy role models for our children. But look deeply and we find that we are obsessed with the wealthy. And who are the wealthy? Why do we let the Robert Rubins, Sandy Weills, Jakc Welchs, Jamie Dimons and their Wall St. brethren keep their millions? Because we consider that right and their right. Let alone the hedge fund people whose entire purpose is to become billionaires. How many people explicitly make life choices that will lead to a life of service -> not be a charlatan like Mother Teresa but just helping the underprivileged without trying to 'achieve' greatness by so doing. So Lance Armstrong and Greg Mortensen and the Evangelical Christ

Why Obama Will Still Win in November

The historical record which clearly shows that presidents don't get re-elected when the unemployment rate is high doesn't much reflect the demographic reality of today. There are not that many white, young, unemployed people who buy into Romney's vision of the free-market creating umpteen millionaires and hence removing poverty and making Social Security, Medicare and other safety nets unnecessary. May be Obama will win because of these factors even if he comes across as wonky or lackluster or not-aggressive-enough in the debates as the media and all the pundits have been harping on. It's tough to believe that Americans can be so forgetful about recent economic history when W. came into office with a surplus and there was debate between Gore and W about what to do with that surplus. Bush explicitly cut taxes for the rich as he had promised to do (at a cost of a trillion dollars) and ran up a trillion dollar bill for an unnecessary war in Mesopotamia. The TARP des

Strange Creatures of Planet India

So, who are you? Or, what? Are you a Congi? A CRT? Perhaps a pseudo-secular Indian. Or an Internet Hindu. Or a right winger. A Hindu nationalist (dwelling outside India?). These are some of the gems that one comes across as the frenetic debate rages in this country about the direction we wish to take. Clearly, India is 'resurgent.' India is not the first nation in the history of the world where people suddenly acquire a heightened sense about who they are just on the basis of their imagined or real history. History is fact -> except when it's entirely fiction that people want to believe . Nationalistic pride has not been a positive force in world history - just think of Japan, Italy and Germany in the 20th century. A sense of superiority based on notions of nationality, race, or religion makes people blind to reason and facts. Yet in the 21st century, despite the world wars and the Rwandan  and  Balkan  genocides of the '90s, we are again seeing resurgent na

Dress Sense and Common Sense for Women

I read one more article by one female about how women have the right to wear what they want, when they want, where they want, etc. I would love it if women wore revealing clothes whenever they were in a public place -- not merely skin-hugging tight jeans, but short , short skirts like those Hollywood celebs wear which reveal their panties intentionally or otherwise. The top of the dress should reveal good amount of the boobs as well or preferably have wardrobe malfunctions - manufactured or otherwise. Young good-looking women wearing these clothes should preferably visit areas of Delhi at 2 a.m. which are particularly untouched by the rule of law. May be they can have their grandmother accompanying them who should be carrying 2 lakhs in cash or wearing a good amount of gold jewelry. The amount or number of incidents of rape in India seems not-too-high -> that's probably because most such incidents are in fact not even reported to the police either because the perpetrato

The Abortion Debate

Just want to put my thoughts on the topic on the record here. I haven't thought about this issue much. But it seems to be a recurring issue in developed nations such as the United States and the U.K. It seems obvious to me that there are far more important and serious challenges facing the world out there. In India, the far bigger issues facing women have got to be issues such as domestic violence. I believe millions of women must be silently suffering from malevolent males -- drunk or otherwise. Society in India is structured in such a manner that women have very little explicit economic value and in a poor society, it's the men who make the money -- howsoever little it might be -- who hold the strings. To change this state of affairs, women will need to realize that taking care of kids and cooking have got to be secondary to developing skills and expertise. It's a kind of long term change that is tied in with a lot of other issues and in the next 30 years, we'l

First U.S. Presidential Debate: Obama vs. Romney 2012

This is the early take from the media pundits on this debate. The verdict being that Obama lost the 1st debate. I think that's a bit over-the-top because: Remember Obama's "long-game"? This is the 1st one. Two more to go. Are voters going to vote based on Romney's enthusiastic lying or Obama's soberly pointing out the fact that Romney doesn't really have an alternative, that Romney talks about repealing Obamacare without saying much about how. Here are the takes from a few pundits. Well, I’m with all the other talking heads: Mitt Romney won this debate. Barack Obama lost it. I mean, he got his butt kicked. It was, in fact, one of the most inept performances I’ve ever seen by a sitting President. Romney–credit where it’s due–was calm, clear, convincing (even when he was totally full of it) and nearly human. The real mystery was Obama. Where on earth was he? Why was his debate strategy unilateral disarmament? W

If Gandhi Were Alive

Let’s consider a few fun possibilities that would occur if Gandhi were around today. What would happen to all the self-proclaimed Gandhians? Would Gandhi be in favour or opposed to Anna Hazare? What would Gandhi do with lying lawyers like Kapil Sibal or tendentious toadys like Digvijay Singh? May be Gandhi would go on an obligatory spin in the skies in the Sukhoi and the LCA Tejas. Would Gandhi have been miffed at Pokhran II àIndia’s famed nuclear tests of 1998? May be he would have gone on a fast unto death. And how would the glacially moving poet Vajpayee have reacted to that? Though he was lean and thin, still Gandhi would need a knee-cap replacement surgery at this age. Would Gandhi hum along with the catchy Kolaveri D tune or criticize it as nonsense … somewhat like … err … Javed Akhtar? May be Gandhi would have preferred Gangnam Style and we would all be seeing a YouTube video of him dancing merri

The Inscrutable Enslaved Indians

The rich Indian shall spend her honeymoon basking in the sun draped sands of the beaches in Mauritius and Seychelles and Pattaya and elsewhere. She shall go saree and shoe shopping in Dubai and London. Depending on her social class, she shall sashay down the London High Street (is that where the top brand-name shops or boutiques or whatever they are called are located?) and shoo in to Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and then Bergdorf Goodman and also visit the Bijan boutique on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. These are surely the immutable laws of nature --> enforced more stringently by the ruling gods of the universe than other may-be laws such as those said to have been discovered by Newton upon the fall of an Apple iPhone. Indians will surely continue to perform these activities even in the 22nd century. Or till all the hydrogen in the interior of the sun runs out and the dying sun blows out like a grotesque, bloated corpse in another five billion years and devours Earth itself

Trying to Defend Religion

It's tough to find a single good thing about religion. Let me try. Shivam Vij argued at Kafila how and why he' s a Hindu and not a terrorist. I am wondering what's the thing about being a Hindu that appeals to him. He says Hinduism is a religion of peace. So what? Many people also say that Islam is a religion of peace. Which doesn't seem to be the case right about now considering the violent reactions of Muslims in many of the world to the silly Prophet Mohammed film. Muslims always react with violence to similar acts that they consider to be 'insulting' to the Prophet. Islam is a religion where there's no scope for argument. The case is permanently closed. That is of course not unique to Islam by any stretch of imagination. Closer to home, Hinduism has many mythologies which are funny and ridiculous and otherwise intelligent people somehow suspend their disbelief to agree with obviously stone-age notions.

Who After Manmohan Singh?

The irony about Rahul Gandhi's failure is this. People may be rejecting his charms -- such as they are -- but in its place, what are they opting for? I think they're opting for something worse. I think people are becoming ever more conscious of various local identities based on religion, language, caste, etc. So you have regional Hitlers springing up all over the country. Since you mention Uttar Pradesh, the guy who eventually won, one Mulayam Singh, is apparently known to run his district in such a manner that the district is 'untouched' by the rule of law or the machinery of law enforcement. Mulayam is The Law there. Then there is the satrap named Narendra Modi who taught a lesson to the Muslims in 2002 and runs a financially uncorrupted administration focused on development of the state and now based on his record in Gujarat, aims to become the Prime Minister of India.

Preparations for the Afterlife

So how do people prepare for the time when they are dead? How well prepared are you? You could say that some people tend to be better prepared than others. People like Steve Jobs had cancer and battled it. Some forms of cancer like what Jobs had or what Christopher Hitchens had are incurable or on the borderline between curable and incurable. If you happen to get one of these ailments, of course you know that your time on Earth will soon be up. Not that anyone is ever immortal. So far. So I don’t know if it really matters much if we happen to get a form of cancer or inoperable brain tumor or glioblastoma like Ted Kennedy. And what does one do about one’s vast wealth after one’s body becomes one with nature? Well, luckily or unluckily, most of us in India don’t have to worry about such matters as not many of us are billionaires with our personal 30-storey buildings. But here are a few examples of some famous folks and their instructions about stuff to be done when they di

Solution to the Economic Problems of America

I read the cover story on Newsweek which talks about whether a college degree is all that it is cracked up to be. I don't even want to talk here about stingy and weird American parents who pretend to be martyrs or heroes just because they 'paid' for their kids' college education. I mean ... Anyway, here's a look at the economic brute facts of life for Americans and people of other advanced/developed nations. Some things appear obvious to me as an Indian: Americans whose mother tongue is English should not have to go to university to learn English. Not in the 21st  century. Less lawyers are better. Progress is unidirectional and not cyclical. The assembly line of Ford is not going to be re-invented. Ever. Hopefully we'll also never again be making airplanes and tanks by the thousands in assembly lines. Thousands of women are not going to be sitting at telephone exchanges. Managers typically work without secretaries now. We live in a world of robotic

Let Us Build A Second Moon

I have had this idea probably since a decade and a half. My idea is simply this: why can’t there be a permanent full moon out there in the evening sky? Of course, those of you who have always been city dwellers need to get out of your cities and go into the countryside and experience a moonless starry night for yourselves and see the dazzling vista that it presents. And you need to sit on a sea beach on an evening when there is a full moon in the sky and experience something which is awe-inspiring and timeless. We need to find time in our busy lives to spend some time in the lap of nature and reflect on the grandeur of the universe which has been there for almost forever and unless we humans do something drastic selfishly, will go on almost forever as well. Why I use the word ‘almost’ is because, of course, nothing in nature is permanent – nothing really lasts forever . Even the mountains and the oceans and indeed this planet that we inhabit and the moon that we admire and the sun

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