Friday, November 12, 2004

My Nephew's Martian Retreat

A.H. Cemendtaur

My nephew is a child of the electronic age. He knows how to work with the latest gizmos and his fingers move lightning fast on the keyboard. This precocious young man often dazzles me with his mature ideas on things. So it came to me as a surprise when his mother--i.e. my sister--complained to me about him. She told me her son didn't seem to have his heart in the studies, and was instead wasting a lot of time on the Internet. I decided to talk to my nephew about his mother's concerns. A couple of days ago I went to their home and found some private time to have a serious conversation with my nephew. As it turned out, what started as my intended sermon on the virtues of education quickly turned into an account of a young man's ideas on space exploration. I am producing that conversation here.

Uncle: Your mother says that you hardly ever touch your books, and instead glue yourself to the Internet. What's going on?

Nephew, with a hint of indignation: Ask your sister to give me some space.
And then, after a few moments of silence: It is just that when I get fed up with the ongoing farcical war on terror, I become a Mars recluse. Thanks to NASA for providing me precious a respite that helps me retain my sanity. Two rovers, hundreds of people working towards one goal; every operation depending on the previous one for its success, and yet everything working out as planned, in a neat sequence. The space vehicle took off, it traveled the whole 300 million miles, it entered the Mars orbit, the rover cocoon was dropped in the Martian atmosphere, the parachute opened, the speed reducing rocket was fired at the right moment, the air bags were deployed, the rover cocoon bounced on the cushion of those air bags, it came to rest without breaking its arms and legs, the lander (cocoon) opened its petals, the rover erected itself, the photovoltaic cells were charged with the solar energy, the rover moved out of its protective shell, and now two rovers are roaming the Martian surface, with all their scientific exploration instruments working just fine. If this is not the ultimate triumph of man’s genius, what is? I tell you, the world's scientific community has high regard for the NASA team. Can you see the contrast? One group of pugnacious Americans opening new war fronts and infuriating the whole world; the other group making you see the possibilities and humbling you with the grand prospects of space exploration.

Uncle: Do you agree with President Bush that we should first go to moon and should go to Mars from there?

Nephew: Whereas I may agree with the concept of having human colonies at various distances from here to Mars, I don’t see any reason to have one on the Moon. You must understand that my space vision is very different than Mr. Bush’s.

Uncle: What exactly is your space vision?

Nephew: My space vision relies heavily on robotics. I want us humans to polish our robot-making skills first. We should make robots that can carry the most complex operation: specialized robots that can do a variety of different things. These robots should be our precursors in space. I don't believe the time is ripe for humans to go anywhere outside this world. I wish to see more and more robots of greater and greater sophistication taking off from the Earth.

Uncle: What do you mean? What kind of robots? Kindly explain to me in layman’s terms.

Nephew: Well, If you ask me to build you a nice house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, would you expect me to take the building material from here, and then carry out the construction there? No. You would want me to go there with my construction skills and use the material available there to build you a house. That’s the concept we should be working on. We should make robots that can go to our destinations in space and utilize the natural resources there to make things for us. That’s the concept we should be working on. We should have metallurgist robots, machine-making robots, foundry-erecting robots, and other such kinds of robots. These robots should be the only things going into space at this time. They should go there and build habitable places for us. We should follow the robots only when they have set up livable structures with the right temperature, humidity, pressure, air composition, and only when these robots have started growing food for us at those places. We should go there when there is plenty of air for us to breathe, plenty of food to eat, and many vehicles for us to roam that new world. We should not go to new space frontiers with trepidation. We should go there with the assurance of taking possession of the extraterrestrial palaces built by the forerunner robots. And at each one of these places there should not be just one habitat, but many. If we don't like one we may move to another. You realize that we can get slave work out of our robots?

Uncle: Dear Nephew, you are getting a little carried away. It is not too intelligent to think that the robots we send from here can construct palaces for us. On Earth we work with a number of different metals and materials. Do you really believe all this working material is available to us everywhere we wish to go?

Nephew: Of course not. Hydrocarbon based materials e.g., polymers and plastics would be hard to find anywhere except on Earth because these materials are associated with life. But the building blocks for complex materials are the same throughout the universe. Specially designed robots can make complex material using the building blocks found in space. That’s why we first need to send the metallurgist robots. Once the metallurgist robots have thoroughly surveyed all the objects in our solar system, we devise a strategy to exploit the natural resources present out there. For example when we wish to make a base on Mars we may use our robots to fly materials from nearby places, from the moons of Jupiter and Mars, or from various asteroids.

Uncle: I am not sure what to think of your farfetched ideas. We are way behind in developing good robots, but very eager to go to new places.

Nephew: I would advise my fellow humans to exercise patience. To the best of our knowledge the planet Earth is the only place that can sustain life. We should be developing the best robots right here in the comfort of our home. Yes, making robots that perform complex tasks is not going to be easy. But it is definitely a lot cheaper and an efficient way to pave way for space exploration than to spend billions of dollars in sending humans to inhospitable places, places that we only take a giant step to and back.

Uncle: Your last statement is quite interesting. Why do you think we want to explore space?
Nephew: Well, yes, there is this quest for exploration, for the sake of exploration. But I believe a few selfish motives are present underneath. We would like to inhabit other planets to ensure the continuance of our race--if something happens on Earth and the whole human race is wiped out here, then we would like to make sure that the evolutionary marvels that developed here in billions of years are preserved elsewhere. And the space exploration is being carried to gain knowledge too: to know about our beginnings, about the end, about the changing characteristics of atmospheric bubbles around the heavenly bodies--and in seeking all this knowledge we would be making things that would make our life easier on Earth.

Uncle: So how should this process start?
Nephew: Well, first develop better and better robots right here on earth. We should do extensive testing on the robots we develop. Take them to the deserts, mountains, and other difficult terrain and watch them work on their own. Then start sending these robots to the various planets, moons, and asteroids and make them work there. And this robotics technology that we would be developing for space will benefit us greatly, here on Earth as well. Take for example the tedious task of picking fruits from trees. What a dull and utterly boring way to spend your eight hours of work! We should make dexterous robots with spiraling arms to do this job for us. Imagine robots digging up ores, melting metals, and constructing structures on other planets.

Uncle: You are not leaving any room for humans to achieve lustrous milestones in near future. When we go to Mars there is a date when we reach there. That's a landmark we celebrate later. God knows how long will it take us to make robots that would go out there and make habitable places for us, as your vision demands.

Nephew: I don't think this is a particularly a powerful argument. We can have our deadlines and milestones for the robots. We can set up a deadline when a robot we make will go to the deadliest volcano on our planet and build things there.

Uncle: You want your robots to collect building materials from various places. How are your robots flying from one celestial object to another?

Nephew: Now I got you thinking. Developing technology to harness potent energy outside Earth requires a lot of work. But we know there are options available out there. Getting energy for everyday operations is not that hard. Solar energy is available everywhere. We know about active volcanoes on other planets. Heck, there are such strong winds on Mars we can have windmills installed there. The greatest challenge is to harness energy that can be used to propel space shuttles. The good news is that the gravity of most of the heavenly objects is too weak. It is not that hard to break away from that pull. I see the challenge in finding appropriate 'rocket fuels' that can be gathered outside the planet Earth, but I believe we are fully capable of taking up this challenge.

Uncle: What kind of a station you see being built for the humans on Mars?
Nephew: I see us living in caves on Mars. I see each one of these stations having a greenhouse. This enclosed greenhouse would be connected via a duct to the mouth of the cave. Oxygen from the greenhouse would be pumped in the cave. Out in the Martian atmosphere there is plenty of Carbon Dioxide to feed the plants. And these various Martian stations will be connected to each other through pressurized glass corridors.

Uncle: What are your views on the International Space Station?

Nephew: I would like to see the International Space Station stay operational. But I want robots and not humans to keep it alive. Later, I would like to see the International Space Station moved closer to Mars. I would either park it at a Lagrangian point near Mars, or make it a Martian satellite. Then it would become our home away from home.

Uncle: And what about the Hubble? Is it OK to abandon that telescope?
Nephew: The Hubble telescope must be kept operational too. The world will go blind if we let that eye of ours go dark.

Uncle, with a chuckle: Any concluding remarks.
Nephew: Don’t forget what the grand purpose is behind our space enterprise. Exploration titillates the mind like nothing else does. One day, the whole world would catch on the excitement of space exploration. We will all forget our squabbles and instead focus on space and on farther and farther travel. At that time we would realize we have too few people on Earth to survey all that real estate present out there.

Uncle: Oh, this reminds me of something else. When are you getting married? I want grandchildren, soon.

Nephew: I won’t get married till there is a sustainable human colony on Mars. I want my future wife to give birth to the first child born outside Earth.

Uncle: Good luck, young man. I believe I just heard a vow of celibacy.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Little things to talk about

Having traveled overland through Central America I have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish. But when it comes to conveying elaborate ideas to D, we rely on written text. H has a Hispanic friend in college; she--R--translates into Spanish whatever H writes in English and wishes to be communicated to D. So, a couple of days ago when H noticed that two of her foot-cream tubes were missing, and one day Amman caught D curiously inspecting H's lipsticks, H decided to convey a stern warning to D. A short message was duly translated into Spanish, and yesterday afternoon Amman delivered H's translated message to D. D opened up the envelope, read the note and started bawling. Amman comforted her. D then sat down to write down her rejoinder. She wrote one paragraph and then got busy in her work; later she started crying again, and then wrote down one more paragraph. All that writing has gone with H to her college, to be translated into English.

I normally have brief encounters with D, in the morning--I'm about to leave for work when D shows up in the morning. This morning D brought up the issue with me. I decided to be political with it. I told her that there seems to be some misunderstanding between her and H, and that I don't consider the whole thing to be such a big deal.

All in all, I believe all of this happened for the best. D will not dare touch any of H's stuff anymore. D and us badly need each other: it won't be easy for D to find such a comfortable job, and we will have a hard time finding such a dedicated worker, in case she decides to leave.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Our ephemeral existence

There is so much to write and so little time to do all this writing. I found out about Major Z's ailment—there is something wrong with his system that makes the red blood cells. I called him to find out how he was feeling. He told me he felt enervated; he hardly has any energy to do anything. Our biological systems are so complex it isn’t very hard for something to go wrong. You can be OK one day and next day be down with a debilitating medical condition. Such thoughts are dreadful. I wonder if I’ll get time to bring out all the books that are wound up in my brain.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A thought

They say why do the Palestinians throw stones. Well for one because the West is giving guns only to the Israelis.

Monday, November 08, 2004


A.H. Cemendtaur

I looked at the clock. It was a little after eleven that Saturday night. I was at a party at a friend's place. We had been eating, drinking, and making merry since early in the evening. I decided to take leave. It was a beautiful Bay Area summer night, with its vintage chilly feel, and I loved coming out of the stuffy indoors. My car was parked on the street, some distance away from my friend's home. I started towards the car and, a few yards down the dimly lit sidewalk, noticed a man coming towards me. He wore baggy clothes and was walking his bicycle. His garb, combined with his disheveled long hair, identified him as a homeless person looking for a warm place to spend the night. As he walked past me, he said something; I replied with a genial hello.

When I reached the car and was about to open the door I sensed someone behind me. I turned to look back. It was the same homeless person.

"What did you call me?" he asked, with some fury.

What did I call him? I didn't call him anything. I just said hello. But I didn't want to reply to this obviously enraged dullard; didn't want to argue with him; didn't want to assure him that I didn't utter a word besides "hello"; that I didn't mean any harm to him; that I wasn't the reason he was homeless; that I hadn't taken away his job (if he ever had one); that I didn't make him insane and cause him to lose the things he grew up with, if he was indeed deranged. No, none of that. I could tell he wanted to pick a fight with me. I could see 'trouble' spray-painted in the air all around me, and I wanted to get the hell out of there.

I opened the car door, slipped in, and closed the door behind me. It was my first victory. I had successfully fortified myself. But fortification had its own perils--I was now constrained. He had come up behind me and was now standing where I was standing seconds earlier. Sitting low in the car with a glass window between me and a stooping, threatening man I was very vulnerable, may be even more than when I was out there in the open, standing on my own two feet—-out of the car I could run away from him. I thought about locking the door, but then decided on saving time. I was driving my wife's car, and the slight unfamiliarity with the machine was not working in my favor. My right hand fumbled to fit the key in the ignition while I kept looking at my tormentor, gauging his next move. The engine cranked up---another victory. My harasser also sensed the importance of my latest triumph. I was ready to escape and he didn't want to let go of me. He made his move, I made mine---for a split second I turned my head, looked at the gear stick, put the gear in drive, looked back at him and gunned the engine. I was quick, I didn't give him enough time to open the car door. All he could do was to throw his bicycle at my car while I managed to diagonally come out of the parking spot avoiding hitting the car parked in front of me. The handle of his bicycle hit the left rear of the car with a loud thump. But that was it. I was out--the final victory of the night. My heart was pumping really fast---all primordial responses raving my body; no fight that night, it was all about fleeing.

The next morning I surveyed the damage. As I looked at the dent the bicycle handle had impacted and the scratches rubbing metal had produced on the car, many what-ifs surfaced. What if I had talked to him? But then should I have talked to him before sitting in the car, or should I have rolled down the window after getting behind the wheel? Had he noticed a trace of fear on my face, and had that encouraged him to come after me? What if I had not been able to escape and he had attacked me? Was I ready to put up a fight? What if I had grabbed the Crook Lock and fought him? Had his encounter with me emboldened him and had he attacked someone else later that night? Did he later assault a lone woman coming out of the party I had attended?

Living in a civilized society I have let my guard down. I wasn't that way in Karachi. You can't afford to be that way in Karachi. You have to be alert. And this is how all of us were centuries ago: alert all the time, wary, distrustful of each other, doubtful of others' moves, animals. We could not expect benevolence from strangers. They all were there to harm us, to take advantage of us. And further back in history we were cannibals--food for each other; the weak were the meals for the strong. But all that changed with time. Progressively we learned to benefit from each other, we became respectful of our fellow human beings. We realized we could work with people and get something grand out of this cooperation; we made laws to protect the weak.

Still, at times our animal instincts surface. We take advantage of the weak. And it is terrible to feel weak--it sucks. I have felt for the weak caught in exploitive situations. And threatening situations there have been and are quite a few: being a Jew in the Nazi Germany, being a Muslim in Modi's Gujarat, being a Hindu/Christian/Qadyani/Shia in Pakistan, being a Caucasian farmer in present day Zimbabwe, being a South Asian in Idi Amin's Uganda, being wife and children of an Englishman during the war of 1857. I wonder if under the threat of rape, all the women feel a similar exploitation--weak and vulnerable in a world of beastly men.

Sunday was a slower day. Later in the evening I went to grocery shopping. As I parked the car I saw an old woman putting her shopping in her car trunk. A woman even older than her was sitting inside--must have been the mother. Older folks invoke a strange charity in me. I thought about asking the woman loading her grocery if she needed help, but I couldn't make up my mind about how to do it. I just kept looking in that direction. Then I noted that the woman in the car had taken notice of me. She was studying me with caution. Why was I looking at her daughter, she must have thought. Did she wonder if I was going to snatch her daughter's purse and run?

"Ma'am, I can take that cart. I need one." I said when the woman was done putting the groceries in the car. I wanted to save her the trip to the cart corral. She smiled and pushed the cart in my direction.

"It is crooked. It has a tendency to go sideways." She gave me a helpful hint.

"I'll take care of it." I told her and felt sorry for the brief moment of anxiety I caused the older woman sitting in the car.