Saturday, February 18, 2012

Curb Your Ambition

A year back, I ventured into unchartered territories and made some bold predictions on how world events would be playing out in 2011. The seminal piece was completely ignored by the elitist western media which seemed to prefer ‘experts’ with a penchant for esoteric and speculative musings. Extremely disappointed with this rejection and appalled to see how PhDs and actual knowledge is being passed off as basis for expertise, I refrained from writing any more authoritative treatise on how the Arab Spring would play out. It turns out that was a very wise decision as I got most of my predictions wrong.

Last time when I commented on the Middle East, the Arab Spring had just been underway. Tunisia’s Ben Ali had flown the coop with all the gold he could lay his hand on and Egypt’s Mubarak was flirting with the idea of protesting the protests by unleashing deadly camels on the unsuspecting folks at Tahrir Square. It was business as usual in the rest of the region. Gaddafi was trolling Facebook looking for more pictures of Condoleeza Rice. The only promise Abdullah Saleh of Yemen was making was to his family that the next vacation would definitely not be in Socotra again. The only tanks Syria’s Assad was ordering were while playing Risk with his brother Maher. I had predicted that the Egyptian army would ease Mubarak out and control the country through a puppet president. As the consequent events proved, I was way off. In a stunning nod to the environmental lobby, the Egyptian army decided to take control on their own eliminating all the paperwork usually associated with installing puppet regimes. I had conjectured that Mubarak would be exiled. That almost happened except that it didn’t and he was jailed and made to stand trial while lying on a bed. I have to apologize for not having seen this coming. I come from a country where misuse of power usually makes you eligible to be the president of BCCI or the Congress Party or even the Indian Republic.

It’s a miracle I didn’t bet my money on Gadaffi’s survival. Given the opportunity, I surely would have. But apparently Libyans don’t share my enthusiasm for dictators with great bed-sheets which double up as commanding outfits for state visits. Tyranny and brutal repression is but a small price to pay if your dear leader has great taste in east European nurses. I think the UN played it beautifully by lulling Gadaffi into a false sense of security by being a mute observer to world events for 66 years and just when Brother Leader thought he could remodel Benghazi, down came the gavel on Resolution 1970 . A mandate so generous in its wording that NATO could use it to even block Bieber videos on YouTube saying it would save valuable Libyan lives. That was not the only bad decision he made in 2011. His recruitment policy of hiring half-emaciated mercenaries from Mali and Niger by telling them that all they had to do was gentle target practice on civilians back-fired when the new employees rose in protest pointing out that their contract didn’t include facing bunker busters which the NATO jets had started raining down on them. But all these tactical missteps could have been overlooked if only he had gracefully exited the stage at the appropriate time and spent the rest of his life in the care of his nurses and body-guards in any of the myriad tin pot African states whose dictators were willing to play host. The Greeks would have diverted the world’s attention like they always do every two months and the great dictator could have passed the rest of his days watching Seinfeld re-runs. Instead he chose fame in the viral videos circuit and decided to run into a sewer. Even in the best of times, experts have unanimously concluded that running into sewage has its disadvantages. However Gadaffi’s surprised look after being caught indicated that he perhaps didn’t account for any of them in his plans.

What Gaddafi lacked in luck and expediency, Saleh of Yemen made up for it in more ways than one. Every time it seemed that the game was up for Saleh, he managed to put up an elaborate show on how he would immediately leave only if the over eager mob gave him at least time to pack his essentials. And as soon as everything cooled down, he usually attempted to get back to business as usual as if the whole revolution business was just about a few people venting their disapproval about his dietary habits. Needless to say this incessant flip-flopping only made the population rebel with greater ferocity each time. Even when a bomb went off next to him in his palace and left him recuperating in Saudi Arabia for a few months, he managed to return to Sana’a undeterred and reclaimed power, also winning the Alec Baldwin 2011 Brass Balls Award in the process. However in spite of his swagger and aggressive posturing he knew if he didn’t let go, he too would meet his sewer maker. In politics, timing is everything and Saleh bid Yemen good bye when the state of affairs was just one straw away from inconveniencing the proverbial camel’s back.

That brings us to Syria, previously famous for inspiring the names for movies about fictitious Arab countries. Events in this country have finally answered the age old question, how much damage can someone who looks like a ventriloquist’s doll actually cause? A pertinent question which unfortunately President Assad has answered with vigor usually associated with Bond villains. He made his disdain for peaceful protests known by unleashing his tanks making Tiananmen Square look like Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The doyens of the global liberal movement have written numerous editorials severely critiquing the double standards of the West for not being as proactive about stopping the Syrian government’s atrocities. Some have gone even so far as to pin down the reason on the fact that Libya received the special attention of Patriot missiles and Euro fighters just because of the abundance of some obscure commodity experts are calling crude oil. And as Syria doesn’t have much to offer to the world market apart from hummus and falafel, the West has allowed the Arab League to try and resolve the morally and ethically complex issue of one megalomaniac trying to hold on to power by killing a lot of people. When I first heard of an organization of Arab countries dedicated to regional peace, I mistakenly assumed it to be about some little known Monty Python sketch and spent a lot of futile hours on YouTube looking for it. But apparently it’s as real as the erstwhile League of Nations and reportedly almost as effective. Unfortunately in spite the League’s best efforts, the crises in Syria continued to take a heavy toll in terms of lives and property. Who knew that battering the Syrian landscape with laser-guided requests for restraint wouldn’t have much effect on the Assad regime. Even when the West tried to scare Assad with a deadly condemnation letter from the Security Council, they got cockblocked by the poster boys of democracy, the Chinese and the Russians. The obviously well-intentioned Chinese & Russians are convinced that Assad is just a misunderstood leader and as soon as he coaxes the disgruntled citizens into death, all will be fine.

Assad has given numerous indications that he has more of Gaddafi’s delusional streak in him rather than Saleh’s pragmatism. In all probability there is a sewer somewhere in Damascus receiving a fresh coat of paint and getting readied to welcome an esteemed guest. I guess it will start in the usual way where some of the influential behind-the-scene players will switch sides and before you know it, the great erstwhile dictator will be scrambling to keep his vital organs in place. This whole Arab spring has brought out a few important lessons for all those people despairing about what they want to do in life. Appearances may suggest that a career in tyranny and despotism is great. The hours are good and the perks usually involve a decent access to the better restaurants in town. But it’s better to aspire for the middle and near-the-top ranks in the regime rather than be a part of the inner circle of the dear leader or be the dear leader himself. Relinquishing the glamorous positions will afford you the opportunity to induce a moral epiphany at an ideal point in any future rebellion and help you choose the winning side before it is too late. If you don’t believe in this train of thought, just ask the poor souls in Egypt and Libya. They are still trying to understand how a post-tyrant life is so eerily more of the same, how the faces have changed but the diktats remain the same and how terribly fickle the attention span of the world is. So all aspiring tyrants who also want a secure career, curb your ambition. Just a little bit.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Houston, We have a problem.

There are just too many things going on around these days. Most of them wouldn’t be called pleasant. Berlusconi stopped getting invitations to his own Bunga Bunga parties. Gadaffi made a terrible error in judgement when he chose as a hiding place a sewer pipe over any where else in the world. Sharad Pawar discovered that walking briskly is always a good idea. But in the midst of all this I read this. It talks about a group of IIT Bombay students who have been working for the last 4 years on a satellite which should soon be ready for launch. Now that I am a bit more qualified to appreciate the complexities associated with such multi-disciplinary endeavours, I can only hope that the project ends successfully and spurs similar groups into action across the country.

However the aim of this post is not to indulge my pontificating self and pen a thunderous denunciation of all those engineering undergraduates who are not building satellites in their free time (that would be the entire day in most cases). The aim of this post is to indulge my exaggerating self and recall how I almost started building a satellite myself.

In circa 2008, a year defined by the brave manner in which my beloved alma mater was coming to terms with my tyrannical regime as the enforcer of all things co-curricular, a bizarre incident took place which few individuals in the institute were privy to. Now that the self imposed statute of limitations has expired, I shall spill the beans before Assange beats me to it. It all began when our director casually mentioned in an internal meeting that its time the students think about building a small satellite. The professors around the table concurred, agreed that it was completely feasible while mentioning that functional support could be obtained from their pals at ISRO. And then they looked at us students with the expression that they would be terribly disappointed if we didn’t have the satellite ready by the next meeting. Confronted by this unexpected directive, my team and I conferred and decided its best that this idea is thrown open to the students to find someone competent enough to pick it up and lead the project. So Shampoo, our head of events, declared in the coordinators meeting that a plan to build a satellite is on the table and all interested individuals should contact him. That’s where the matter rested till two weeks later when a phone call woke me up one late morning.

I answered the call, still very sleepy and blurry. A lady with a very polite tone said she is calling from the Bank (name withheld) She mentioned that she read about the satellite we are planning to build in the morning papers and her organization is very keen on sponsoring the project. She also talked about how inspiring this idea was and how excited her colleagues are about it. But I had lost her at ‘read in the morning papers’. In spite of my muddled state, I could sense something was seriously amiss. I asked in my best apologetic tone, usually reserved for my department faculty members, whether I could call her back as I was in the middle of a very important engagement.

I rushed out of my room and tried to get hold of all the different city papers I could find. Hindu, TOI, DC, all three of them.I started with TOI, the pallbearer of sensationalism but surprisingly found zilch. A rapid browse through the Hindu didn’t yield anything either. Finally the first page of the education supplement of DC revealed the entire extent of the crises. The title story with an overtly generous font size screamed, IIT Madras building a satellite, or something to that effect. I don’t recall the exact wording. It referred to my events head by name and how he had proudly announced in true JFK fashion that students at IITM would be putting a small satellite in space with assistance from ISRO. Though the obligatory references to beating the Russians and doing it within the decade were left out, the emotions were eerily similar. The only other person who would have been as perplexed about this whole affair as I was would have been the charge de affaires of the department of student satellite collaborations in ISRO. I am assuming that being a government sponsored organization, the resulting bureaucratic set-up in ISRO would allow the existence of such departments.

But now was not the time to fret over ISRO’s bureaucratic set-up. I had to immediately launch a three-pronged strategy to diffuse the situation. Firstly investigate how this leak took place. Secondly try to calm the excitement at the Bank. And thirdly build a satellite. It looked a bit daunting when put that way. The first part met an early end. All I could do was to call up my events head. I refrained from launching into my version of ‘Et tu Brute’ right at the beginning and asked him if he had spoken to the media.He replied in the negative and his tone betrayed his own bewilderment.Obviously it was going to be an impossible task. There were close to 100 people in the campus who had been aware of this and it could be any of them. So it was time to engage the Bank.

I called up the polite lady and we arranged a meeting at the campus CCD that evening. So I had a couple of hours to prepare for it. Back in those days, I hadn’t yet fully developed the skill of elaborating eloquently and confidently about work which hadn’t been done yet. Hence I was a bit apprehensive on how this meeting would progress. The primary aim was to avoid yet another headline announcing that IITM was shelving their satellite plans as they were not aware they were in the midst of building one. I decided to take no chances and called in the closest thing I had at my disposal which resembled Seal Team 6. The time was to have people at your side who were much better at pretending to know what they were talking about. A few discreet calls were made, the sensitive situation explained and assistance sought. The concerned individuals promised to be present at the meeting.

In spite of the preparations, the start to the meeting wasn’t a very smooth affair. The visible enthusiasm in our counterparts was disconcerting. It seemed the only thing more difficult than raising capital was refusing it. The phrases payload, geo-stationary, thermal control sub-systems and orbital stability were generously deployed to warm the audience. Once technical salvos effectively obfuscated the fact that this was the first meeting ever on the subject, we slowly slid into project planning jargon. We sighed that scheduling was a nightmare as it had to be balanced against competing priorities of the numerous stakeholders, to speak nothing of the endless red tape associated with any procurement of sensitive equipment from the US. Finally we moved in for the kill stating that while we are extremely grateful that the Bank was interested in our project, we were not ready with our cost estimations yet. We were still considering various vendors from both sides of the Atlantic and would of course have to have our final assessments reviewed by competent authorities. We couldn’t of course allow a situation where we are forced to keep revising our capital expenditure estimates midway through the project. That wouldn’t be professional at all. Hence it would be a prudent idea if we could get back to the Bank once we had progressed further and had a well-defined scope and execution plan in place. With that, we closed out the meeting. It had begun on an unsure footing but we had managed find our way in the middle and ended it confidently.When things go well, there is always a tendency to get carried away and it was to our credit that we kept our explanations restrained and realistic. Otherwise we could as well have ended up with yet another headline the next day, “IITian promises to land on Mars by next Diwali”. The day which begun so depressingly was finally looking up.This wasn’t a situation of our making and it was a relief to come out of it without ruffling feathers at the Bank or having a full- fledged PR disaster. All our statements and assertion in that meeting would have been eventual truths once the project actually got off. Procurement would indeed have been a drag and scheduling would undeniably have been a hostage to more conventional concerns during a semester, like classes and labs.

So finally as per my to-do list, there was only one thing that remained. Build the satellite. I was convinced that now that it was published on the news, we will have to go ahead and build this as soon as possible. There was no time to look for the right people. I would have to get it done myself. A fortunate by-product of the make-up-as-you-go meeting was that I had an overview of how we should progress from here on. Any observer of the events till now would have decided that now was the opportunity to intervene politely and mention that my intentions, though noble, were flirting dangerously with the realms of feasibility. The only thing I had built in my life was a cylinder out of bamboo sticks as a part of my ID110 course. That too was so poorly designed that it buckled under the slightest of loads. A jump from that to conceptualizing the shooting of an object into space would be pushing the definition of ambition. However I have never been known for ruminating on issues for too long. And I always wanted to have a positive answer to that frequently asked question “Who do you think you are? A rocket scientist?” So I set up a meeting with the dean to get the necessary administrative approvals.

One of the few good things about a bad idea is one usually realizes how bad it is within the first few seconds of the onset of the execution. As I passed the door of the dean’s office and took the few steps towards his desk, I began realizing at substantial speed the absurdity of what I was about to say. I couldn’t possibly be proposing that a hastily cobbled up scheme to build a satellite be approved immediately just because a reporter penned yet another ill-conceived article on IIT. I checked myself in time and just mentioned the unsolicited news article to him and how the Bank was very eager to sponsor the project. His response was short and crisp. Dismissing any possible implications of the news article, he asked me not to worry about the Bank’s overtures. Apparently the Bank had been trying to get permission to open an ATM inside the campus for years and this was yet another attempt by them to ingratiate themselves with the campus community. As far as the satellite plans went, I was advised to follow the initial approach of scouting for interested and capable people and have a structured plan in place. I left the room as my dashed rocket scientist career plans became a footnote in the annals of space exploration.

PS: Helpful souls have updated me that our humble beginnings in 2008 have matured into a full-fledged project. Details are here. We may actually beat IITB to this.