Sunday, April 08, 2007

A very bearable lightness of being

When I went to California for the christmas break, we went on a glider plane ride. I had never done anything similar.
Basically, a glider is a plane without an engine :-) It is towed to a few thousand feet (3000 in this case). Then, it is up to the pilot to soar. The pilots try to catch a thermal (columns of air rising from the ground), and stay soaring for as long as possible). Just like the eagles. In theory, at least.

As we waited our turns, we watched other gliders land and take off. A glider (or a light plane that towed them) would land every so often. Against the backdrop of the mountain, the landing was a beautiful sight. The gliders especially, seem to hang in the air forever and touch down ever so gently.
Finally, it was my turn to go. Being towed by a plane was definitely a novel experience. When the tow cable was released, the pilot banked right and there was that feeling in the stomach as we dropped a couple of hundred feet. Then, he decided that he would find a thermal at a nearby cliff (the air blows on the hill and rises up vertically along the side). Now, he did a couple of turns, which in retrospect probably were not really that steep, but made me really nervous :-) I had my camera on the plane, so took a few shots which calmed me down somewhat.


Then, the pilot got the brilliant idea that maybe we could pop the canopy and I would get better shots. Rriight. The plane was flying at about 50 mph, and the outside temps were about 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. I was so cold, I was barely functional. A blast of wind at that speed and temperature is not really conducive to coherent thought, speech or photography :-)

Once we levelled out, he let me fly the plane for a little bit. The controls of the glider are pretty basic. A stick and 2 pedals. The stick controls which way the plane spins or pitches. The pedals controls the left/right rudder. That's it. When you turn the plane, you don't just use the rudder, you also want to use the ailerons to bank the plane. It makes it more stable (similar to how banking the road for a turn makes it easier). I had to find out, so I tried turning without banking the plane. Yes folks, it is true. you do need to bank the plane :). I tried a couple of turns very gingerly since I seem to suffer from this notion that banking the plane will somehow make it fall out of the sky :-)

Then, just as I was getting comfortable with the whole thing, it was time to land.

I decided that this concept needed more exploration. When I got back, I looked around for gliding clubs and found one. Since I expressed interest in joining the club, the instructor agreed to take me up a couple of times. And so, on a very wintry april weekend, I went to the Morgantown airport.

I rather enjoyed the two rides that I took. It was a good day with strong updrafts and a strong wind. The instructor/pilot was very good about explaining what he was doing (like shallower turns when turning into the wind, steeper turns when turning with the wind behind us). He let me have the controls for a bit. It was definitely a more interesting ride since I was being instructed on what I was doing. He kept me quite alert by asking me orient myself constantly. I guess it is more important in a crowded suburban area rather than over a bit of california desert. It's not like you can afford to get lost because there would be absolutely nowhere to land :-)

Gliding is definitely an enjoyable experience. Except for a small sound of the wind coming in through a little ventilation port (and the instructor's voice of course), there is absolute silence. Just the lonely impulse of delight etc etc.
Once I relaxed, and stopped bracing my legs against the glider walls, I enjoyed myself quite a bit. So, I guess I have one more thing to do and learn :-)

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Expert Mind

A very interesting article here on what goes into making an expert.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Here's to the Thespians

300 has raised quite a few hackles, with many people complaining that the story is historically incorrect. That is quite true. It has also caught a lot of flak for its portayal of Persians. For some reason, Darius looks hispanic, most of his generals look african, his immortals all look like mutants of some sort. Now, portraying the enemy as a monster has a long history and it works within the context of the comic and the picture. But people who claim that the Iranian outrage at the portrayal are is somehow misplaced are making a pretty disingenous argument. Artistic expression is sacred and must be protected, but it is also an indicator of opinions and feelings of said artist.

Anyway, this post is not about the portrayal of persians. It's about the greeks themselves.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Greeks and the Spartans should know that the Spartans were hardly the way the movie portrayed them. As a small sidenote, a few decades after the battle at thermopylae, the spartans would crush the greeks with help from the Persians.

The spartan society was a fascist one with a small group of 'full spartans' lording it over the other strata. At the bottom were the helots who were nothing more than serfs. The bits in the movie about killing the substandard babies and the brutal training of children are all true. They had a brutal secret service that would kill any of the lower strata that acted up.

The rest of the Greek states had citizen-soldiers who fought when called upon. The Spartans were soldiers full-time. The state was about the army. The state was the army. The spartan phalanx was feared and rightly so. Thanks to iron discipline and tough training, they were unbreakable. The Spartan phalanx, if you ignore the kind of society that went into making it, was just way too cool. I suppose I am extremely ambivalent about them. I really admire their discipline, training and courage. But I am not too hot on their society.

When the decision was made to stop the Persians at pass of Thermopylae, the Spartans, 300 of them led the army, made up of volunteers from different Greek states, numbering 4000. There is no doubt that the other greeks were heartened to have the spartans with them, and the spartans must have led by example.

Then, when the greeks were betrayed (by a local goatherd, incidentally, not a former spartan) the spartans chose to stay, for one of the most celebrated last stands in history and it is for this that they are rightly famous. But, what everyone seems to ignore is that the spartans were not the only greeks to stand there to the end. The Thespians also stayed. They were citizen soldiers from the city of Thespiae , worshippers of Eros and the Muses. These must have been just normal guys, not professional soldiers like the spartans. What made them stay? Courage? Desperation? Inspiration? Awareness that they were participants in a momentous occasion?

The Spartans exchanged cloaks and shields with them, as they all prepared for the final battle. They clearly thought of the Thespians as one of them. This, to me, is the real inspiring story.