Saturday, May 31, 2008

Unmanned on Mars

Last Sunday NASA’s exploration robot, Phoenix, touched down in the Vastitas Borealis, the plains below the northern pole of Mars. It survived entry into the Martian atmosphere, deployed its parachute, landed gently in what is informally called Green Valley, dug its foot petals into the spot where it will stand for three months, unfolded its stoic little arms which have a reach of 160 square feet, and set about its scientific experiments.

That event, a culmination of painstaking research and development, triumphed over a history of exploration plagued by crash landings, disappearances, technical collapses and other booboos collectively known as ‘The Mars Curse’. (People in the scientific community, of course, being less superstitious, scrupulously attribute the failures to a being called ‘the Great Galactic Ghoul’ which is known to live on a diet of space probes.) After 193 million kilometres of travel over almost ten months through the cold silent void, and at a cost of $420 million dollars, Phoenix is beaming pictures back to earth that prove what scientists have long suspected: that there are lots of little rocks all over the place.

I’m kidding. We already knew about the little rocks. Two Mars Exploration Rovers, called Spirit and Opportunity, have been labouring their way over those little rocks since 2004. Phoenix is there to stand in one spot and dig some inches into the Martian ground in the hope of finding what scientists think might be buried ice, judging from the polygonal lumps that dimple this region of Mars. What’s really going on, of course, is that the whole project is being funded by a shadowy bottled-water conglomerate with an eye on the future.

I’m kidding. No bottled water giant would agree to sponsor an unmanned mission on which a lawyer could not be present. But the possibility that there might be water on Mars raises exciting possibilities for the presence of life, as we know it (it might be nasty, brutish and short, but it’s all we have).

I find the whole thing staggering—that, sitting in a room somewhere on planet Earth, human beings can control a little machine through its long lonely flight and make it see and do various things on the surface of Mars on our behalf. Amazingly, and in a first in the history of space exploration, another probe already orbiting Mars was able to photograph Phoenix coming in to land with its parachute deployed.

While trying to wrap my head around this, I looked up the history of Mars exploration, and discovered, to my shock, that the first successful landing of a probe on Mars took place in 1976. Flybys had happened before that; the Mariner probes orbited and photographed Mars in the years leading up to the first landing. In 1976, however, two Viking spacecraft landed successfully on the Red Planet.

That’s 1976, people. Here’s one way to think about it with some sort of perspective: we had landed a machine on Mars, and caused it to conduct scientific experiments, three years before the Walkman was invented. Viking touched down on another planet before the advent of MS Dos (1981), Windows (1985), disposable cameras (1986), and the Internet (1990). I mean, we were fiddling about on the surface of other planets a quarter of a century before we had the iPod (2001).

I don’t know about you, but that makes my hair stand on end. I’m going to be watching Phoenix with admiration over the next few months, and I’m not how I’ll take it when they just let the little fellow freeze over when the Martian winter sets in. But maybe that’s because women are from Venus.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Happiness in a cup

It’s hard to put your finger on why, exactly, but there’s a difference between tea drinkers and coffee drinkers, and frankly, it might be that coffee drinkers are sexier, and that’s all there is to it. Who ever heard of a post-coital cup of tea, for instance, or tea rings on a tortured manuscript, or meeting a first-time date over a cup of tea? As far as I know, it’s hard to get high on tea.

These are both personal and cultural choices. If animals made these choices, cheetahs and eagles would drink coffee, and cows and duck-billed platypuses would drink tea. Predictably, I’m one of the wimpy tea-drinking types. If I were a coffee drinker, perhaps I would associate my morning beverage with slinking over in my negligee to finally ask the name of the tousled stranger with a cruel twist in his mouth who’s still slouching around my living room, rather than with squinting at the newspapers in a dumpy dressing gown with mismatched socks.

Centuries of cultural instinct apply. I’m told that my little finger stands to automatic attention when I raise my cup, which would look stupid if it were a cup of coffee, even though it also looks stupid when it’s a cup of tea. I’m low-energy and placid. I like to sit and watch the rain with my cup, not gulp caffeine between board meetings. I like High Tea with poncy little sandwiches and buttered scones. How could I possibly damn myself further? Oh yes, I like Joan Baez.

Worse: it’s not as if I’m open to experimentation. A cup of tea is unacceptable to me unless the water has been just shy of boiled, a pinch of long-leafed Darjeeling tea added, and the infusion steeped for exactly three minutes (timed with a proper kitchen timer) before being strained into a large cup in which I want to be able to see both each molecule of the liquid and the bottom of the cup, after which one may add two teaspoons of milk and one spoon of sugar. That is the Perfect Cup of Tea, and the only one I will drink.

Unless, of course, this particular concoction is not available. I have in my time, out of desperation, had to drink the most godawful sludge: yak butter tea in Ladakh, which many people pretend to like in order to appear culturally sensitive; salty nun chai in Kashmir, which even if it weren’t so pink would put me in the mood for a good vomit; dhaba chai, which is overboiled tea and milk carefully engineered to exactly that proportion most unflattering to each; masala chai, which should be thrown back into the pot and used to sauté onions for a curry that, if you’re lucky, will disguise its taste; and tea stall tea in Myanmar, which is red and thick and nothing short of weird.

If I’m really desperate I might even enjoy one or more of these, but I have to be desperate, and enjoyment might lie in pinpointing just how far short each falls of the Perfect Cup. A couple of respectable exceptions are possibly green tea or jasmine tea, though these are both to be downed medicinally rather than with real pleasure.

Coffee drinkers are equally fussy, with their interminable squabbles about beans and quantity and frequency; but less fusty, with their grinders and shining little machines and thin frames and nicer sunglasses. What really rankles is that it’s all so very seductive. When I’m in a coffee-drinking land I turn my back on my tea-drinking cohort without a second thought, and imagine myself to be edgy and sophisticated; but at the end of the day I’m a platypus, and you can’t hide that for long.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

World pieces

I’m not a big fan of Days and Weeks, by which I mean those days and weeks that commemorate the fabulous spirit and contribution of people that you can then forget about for the rest of the year. There are hundreds of them, from big media-led extravaganzas like Mother’s Day, which repays women’s bonded labour with the emotional purchase of a card each May, to more niche occasions, such as Telecommuter Awareness Week, which passes more or less unsung each February. If I cared, I would be outraged by the fact that Freelance Writers Appreciation Week, also in February, gets even less attention.

But I don’t, so I was surprised last week to discover a Day that did not leave me entirely cold. It fell on May 10, 2008 and was the world’s first-ever Pangea Day. Pangea is the name of the great big undifferentiated landmass that scientists say existed on planet Earth before tectonic forces split it up into continents and bits and pieces and sent them floating across the oceans until they ended up in the positions we know as the world map.

Scientists love to say dubious things like ‘This wee tiny bit of white crap is a shard of the earbone of a peaceable herbivorous creature that lived four hundred million years, four months and two days ago, stood sixty-one feet tall, had three heads, and ate nothing but baby corn,’ when they weren’t even there; but the continents of the world all fit together so nicely that I have to admit that they’re probably right about Pangea.

Pangea Day is the brainchild of documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, who in 2006 won the yearly $100,000 TED Prize in Monterey, California. (For those of you who haven’t heard of TED or read about it here, look it up at, unless you love missing out.) TED prize winners are granted a wish, and can use the money to translate the wish into reality. Noujaim’s wish was “World peace”, which, as she pointed out, sounds like a beauty pageant sound byte, but is really, actually, genuinely what she most wishes for, and hang the cynicism. And that’s the thing about Pangea Day that gets me; it’s not sentimental claptrap. It feels rather more matter-of-fact, along the lines of: “If we don’t do this peace thing very soon, we’re going to self-destruct faster than you can say ‘carbon emission’ or ‘bomb blast’”.

Noujaim was looking for a way to bring people together across borders and cultures and genders, convinced that being able to see the world through somebody else’s eyes is the most effective way to engender social change; and as photographer and film-maker she believes in the power of the image to deliver differing realities to people.

Enter Pangea Day, on which twenty-four short films by independent filmmakers, selected out of over 2,500 submissions from over a hundred countries, were screened simultaneously at six locations worldwide, and broadcast in seven languages over television, the internet and mobile phones. Have a look at the films for some really smart, funny, provocative, surprising, touching life stories in countries other than yours. ‘The Ball’, for instance, from Mozambique, or ‘The Man Without a Head’ and ‘I’ll Wait For the Next One’ from France, ‘Dancing Queen’ from India, or Noujaim’s own ‘Mutual Recognition’ from Egypt/the US.

You can see how an experiment like this might, actually, open minds and create some space in which to encounter difference in a friendly fashion—quite apart from making some good short films available for free. I hope Pangea Day catches on as a yearly tribute to the whole world; it’s possibly the only form of global warming we can afford.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Urmila’s greatest hits

Of the two skills I have, good parenting is not one. If intuition, forbearance and selflessness are prerequisites, I’m not in the running. It’s a good thing that I decided not to have children, because when women like me make the mistake of having babies, we end up losing them in the market or messing them up beyond repair. Either way, we have to rely entirely on the earthy wisdom of other, more experienced women.

A cousin of mine has just had her first baby, and although I just remembered that she might read this and would like to say that she is a peerless parent and nothing like me at all, she too has benefitted from being shored up by an ayah who delivers herself of the most riveting baby advice. Some of it is befuddling, some of it is impenetrable, but all of it is interesting. Here, in no particular order, is the list of sage nuggets that my cousin calls ‘Urmila’s greatest hits’.

1. If the child rubs her feet together, she will grow up to have a fiery temperament.
This seems to be based on some association between rose petal velvet and flint, both producing sparks of some sort.

2. Condensation on the baby's room windows is "dangerous water."
It sounds as if it should star Meryl Streep, but it’s just caused by rapid cooling.

3. If you leave the baby's clothes to dry overnight, she will catch a chill. If you wring them out hard, the baby will be wracked with pain.
I’m all for this one. You can discipline a kid with a scolding or a ‘time out’, but let’s face it, voodoo is just more fun.

4. If you wash your hair and use too much water while showering, the baby will catch a chill.
It’s the family version of pathetic fallacy; the sins of the father (mother) are the sins of the sons (daughters).

5. If you drink cold water the breast milk will get chilly and the baby will start sneezing.
Basically, whatever you do, that baby is going to catch a chill, and it will be your fault

6. It's because you're thin that the baby is a big girl. She had more room in the belly to grow.
And if you’d only sucked in all your internal organs for nine months, the baby might have had a bigger nose.

7. When the baby starts talking her potty goes wrong.
That happens to me.

8. The dimples on her bottom signify that the next baby will be a boy.
There they are, spending millions on gene research, sex determination and suchlike, when all they have to do is get toddlers to drop their pants.

9. The dimples on her bottom also suggest that she will grow up to be rich and successful.
Speaking of dropping pants, here’s a new way to scout talent early.

11. When the child pees, it's very auspicious and healthful to put some of it on her head.
This falls under the aforementioned ‘befuddling’ category.

12. On no account should the pee land on the mother, since that will make the child unwell.
Presumably because the mother will smack the child.

10. If she's teething, put a warm (not hot) roti on her head.
That makes sense. A hot roti would burn the tender skin of the scalp.

By the way, the two skills I do have are: one, I can do one of those really piercing whistles with two fingers in my mouth; and two, I can… well, okay, just the one skill, then.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Put in place

One evening in boarding school at Rishi Valley, in the south of India, I walked past the open-walled auditorium where people were skipping and curtseying and dos-i-dosing their way through the weekly session of Folk Dance, which at Rishi Valley was as licentious a time as we ever had, unless you agree that cooking Maggi noodles over candle flames after 10pm is pretty edgy. I was feeling like the master of the universe, when the universe turned around and put me in my place.

RV is an enormous oasis of trees in an arid, boulder-strewn landscape. The sunset, refracted through gritty red dust, had turned the sky a primeval red; the crickets and birds had set up a howling that echoed through the valley; the trees loomed like unfriendly aliens. Then a convoy of gigantic bats with the wingspan of pterodactyls came sailing across the sky, silent as murderers. As I watched, the faint glow from the auditorium suddenly seemed embryotic and helpless against the natural world; the music sounded tinny and forlorn, and even the flirtiest dancers looked like matchstick figures jerking about on strings. The world had gone all primal. I had a sudden keen desire to find a nice safe cave, keep the fire going, and watch for predators. All at once, banding together in society seemed like a very good idea.

When you live, as I do, in a metropolis, growling about traffic and heat and overmuch noise and too little water, it’s possible to become so used to the domesticated universe that you forget how wild and unforgiving the planet can be—and I mean that as a compliment to the planet.

The earth won’t hesitate to remind you, though. Certain places in the world give me the most extraordinary geographical willies: to be there is to be kicked in the solar plexus with the full and intense sense of where exactly one is standing on the globe. Places like the Zanskar Valley, cripplingly and exhilaratingly remote, do this. Oceans and seas do it also; I get quite choked up when I dip my toes in a new one. I most recently stood eyeball to eyeball with geography on Kangaroo Island, which is a twenty-minute turboprop plane ride away from Adelaide, off the South Australia coast.

Kangaroo Island is a nature preserve; on the northern coast is a place called Seal Bay, where you can walk on the beach among some hundreds of the rarest Australian seals, and watch them play in the surf, snooze on the sand, and do ‘seal yoga’, which is to say, prop themselves up on their flippers and crane their necks to stretch their muscles. The crashing waves, wheeling gulls and sleek barking seals make for a friendly, pretty wilderness.

On the south coast, however, at a small promontory called Admiral’s Arch after the water-sculpted rocks, things turn rather more serious. As I stood at the edge of the cliff looking out over the water, the guide said, “There’s nothing but four thousand kilometres of water between your feet and the next bit of land—Antarctica.” That explained the serrated wind that was cutting through my clothes, flesh and bones, and also the chill in my spine as I watched the Southern Ocean hurl itself against the shore, throwing freezing spray a hundred feet into the air.

You don’t often get a chance to stand on the rim of the world. When you do, look at it very carefully; it makes you appreciate the simple joy of sitting in a comfortable chair with a hot cup of tea in your hands.