Comet Chasing in Argentina

(Written for the Buenos Aires Herald in May, 1997.

During the course of this month, the comet Hale-Bopp will become visible to people in Argentina as its orbit carries it away from the sun. For some months now, those living in the northern hemisphere have been treated to the beautiful sight of this comet when it was closest to the sun. One of the brightest objects currently in the sky, it can even be seen from within the smog and glare of a major city.

Comets have been a feature of life on Earth for thousands of years, the most famous being Halley’s Comet. It is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, a commemoration of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, and even appears in Chinese writings from 240 BC. Unfortunately, when it reappeared in 1986, it was of more interest to scientists than the general public, as it was practically invisible without a telescope. Other recent comets of note for the general public have been Schoemaker-Levy 9, parts of which impacted with the planet Jupiter, and the comet Hyakutake, which was visible early in 1996 as a faint smudge in the sky.

Comets are believed to be the remains from the formation of the solar system and are generally a mixture of ice and dust. As they approach the sun, the increasing heat turns the ice into gas, allowing it to escape the comet, along with the previously trapped dust. This creates a tail, millions of kilometres long, which points away from the sun and is the most prominent part of the comet for the general public. Additionally, a second tail may be seen which is formed by interactions between the comet’s materials and the “solar wind,” a stream of charged particles coming from the sun. This second tail is much fainter and generally has a blue colour.

Comets often have a strange effect on the people who see them, aside from the excitement that is generally found in scientists and amateur astronomers. In the past, comets were believed to be the messengers of doom, appearing in the skies as a symbol to warn of a impending disaster. Earlier this year, a group of people determined that there was a space vessel hidden in the tail of the comet, waiting to take them to a better life. Their method of transiting to this UFO was rather drastic, however, as it involved suicide. It may not come as a surprise for some that there are so many comets arriving as the end of the millennia approaches. Currently there are over 30 comets that can be seen via telescopes, but few of them are likely to reach the brightness of Hale-Bopp.

Hale-Bopp was first discovered in July of 1995 by Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp in the USA. They were working separately and announced their discovery to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams within minutes of each other. After analysing the orbit, it was determined that the last visit from this comet was some 4,210 years ago and that it will not be back for another 2,380 years. Following observations from many sources, including the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have been able to gather large amounts of information that is changing their concepts about comet formation and life cycles.

If you have the chance, it is highly recommended that you try to view this comet, as it is certainly one of the most spectacular, it even has its own page on the World Wide Web. Starting during May, people in Argentina can look towards the north west horizon in the early evening, a few hours after sunset. Those away from city lights and pollution should get the first and best views, as it will be quite low in the sky. Having tried to view the comet during the first week of May, both here in Buenos Aires and near General Pico, La Pampa, I must admit to not having much success. Hopefully this was due to pollution in Buenos Aires and dust near the horizon in La Pampa, rather than general reluctance on the part of the comet.

Over time, the comet will be found higher and higher in the sky each night, its light gradually fading as it moves away from the sun. It is expected that it should be quite visible to the general public for a number of months. Those people with telescopes should be able to follow it for the next couple of years as it slowly moves out in its orbit, never to return until about 4377 AD.

A Guide to Safer Driving in Buenos Aires

(This article was written for the Buenos Aires Herald on May 17th, 1997)

While not yet having had the pleasure of being in Rome, where I am told the drivers are quite “interesting”, I have been lucky enough to experience many different cities around the world, both as a pedestrian and as a driver. In Auckland, the drivers are rather peaceful and there aren’t a lot of them as the city only has about 1 million people. In Sydney, they’re generally law abiding with the odd reckless maniac, which is to be expected with a population of about 4 million. In Boston, another city with about 4 million inhabitants, they’re generally “Driving While Clueless” and in San Francisco, they’re often trying to avoid their hallucinations. In Manhattan, they’re driving with intent to be somewhere else, know where they’re going and are doing their damnedest to get there as soon as possible. Both Paris and London have lots of traffic but they still manage to provide the air of ordered chaos that is common with driving in a large city, provided we ignore Hyde Park corner and the Arc de Triumph.

Of course, all this fades into insignificance when compared with driving here in Buenos Aires. Statistically speaking, driving in this city should be similar to driving in a city like Manhattan: lots of traffic with a bit of excitement but no real problems if you keep on top of things. This naive concept was forcefully driven from my mind on the first day I arrived as I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel in the center of the city, arriving at about 5pm on a Monday. Over the past fourteen months that I’ve been living here, I have been reminded on a daily basis just how dangerous it is to be in any way involved with roads here in Buenos Aires, either as a driver or as a pedestrian.

The “Lonely Planet Guide To Buenos Aires” book states that more people in Buenos Aires would die from lung cancer if it weren’t for the number of people killed by traffic. I would tend to believe this as I have spoken to many locals and the majority of them have had friends, friends of friends or family killed or maimed in automobile accidents.

To say that drivers here have a death wish is probably in the extreme, but they certainly drive as if they are invincible. I’m not sure where this “invincibility” comes from, whether it comes from religion, ego or reading automobile advertising brochures which make big issues of the “safety factors” built into their products. Regardless of its source, the results can certainly be stressful, if not terrifying, for the non-native driver.

In an effort to assist those trying to survive their walk or drive in Buenos Aires, I have the following advice:

  • If walking, avoid all pedestrian crossings as they are the ultimate tourist traps in Buenos Aires. They are the watering holes of the jungle, the buses are the lions, the taxis are the hyenas and you are the zebras. Don’t assume that cars will stop, even if there is a little light with a cute picture showing a human walking. This is just to further lull the tourists into thinking that Buenos Aires is like their home town where the cars will stop for them.
  • When driving, think and act like an asshole. No-one is more important than you and your needs are above all others, thus making it legitimate for you to make that six lane turn across 9 de Julio at rush hour when you realise that the street you wanted was just back there.
  • Ignore those stupid lines in the middle of the road as they’re obviously only there for decoration. I’m sure you can get at least two taxis and a bus side by side where those lines say there is space for only one vehicle. To paraphrase a U2 song, Buenos Aires is the city “Where the Streets have no Lanes.”
  • Traffic lights are guides for the weak. Why wait for the amber “get ready to go” signal when you know that the other side is about to get their amber or nothing is coming? Another option is to use the fact that traffic is stopped and nothing is coming towards you so you can race up the outside of all the other cars and beat them all across, changing back to the correct side of the road when the lights do change.
  • When arriving at an intersection, be tough and keep going, the other guy probably doesn’t have insurance either. If you want to practice your mathematics, balance the size of your ego and desire for adventure against factors such as the size of the opposing vehicle, whether it is a bus or a taxi and how old it looks. The latter is important as drivers of newer cars have more to lose and will probably stop sooner.
  • If the lights are green, drive into the intersection, regardless of the three blocks of stopped traffic in front of you. Eventually you’ll get across and besides, while you’re stuck in the middle as the lights change, you can turn up your stereo and ignore all those annoying noises from the cars who are now trying to move from the other direction.
  • If you’re a bus driver, yes, you are Fangio and your enormous, stinking, noisy pile of rust will handle exactly like a Ferrari. Drive as fast as you can and don’t worry about stopping in the middle of the road to pick people up, you can always blame it on the empty taxis crawling along by the sidewalk that made it impossible to pull over.
  • The speed you travel at is determined by you, not the traffic conditions or official limits. If you think you can do 200kph down the highway in the pouring rain, dodging around the slower traffic like a downhill skier, go for it. On the other hand, why not drive at 40kph in the fast lane? It will certainly give the speed freaks another obstacle to practice with.
  • Don’t bother watching the road as there’s nothing to see except other lunatics. Look around you at the sights, the people and the accidents.
  • Turn indicators are obviously something from a previous age that evolution never took any further and hasn’t bothered to remove, much like a human’s appendix. Their main use is to get in the way when trying to turn the wheel or to be left on continuously. Don’t worry about it, because no one else will believe you if use them.
  • Headlights let others know you’re coming so don’t use them. Surprise attacks are always the most successful.
  • Don’t be afraid to drive while under the influence of various mind altering substances. In this city, no one will notice the difference.

Having said all this, I must admit that I quite enjoy driving in Buenos Aires as it lets me do all those things that I can’t do in other cities without getting thrown in jail. My friends here say that I have become a real Portenyo as I’ve mastered the art of flinging colourful epithets at other drivers without stopping my conversation or interfering with my driving ability. I guess it was all those Mad Max RoadWarrior movies I watched as a kid.

In summary, I think that the only way to drive safely in Buenos Aires is by driving an Abrahms tank, as used by the US military with devastating effect in the Gulf War. If such a vehicle is beyond your means, just make do with what you have, follow the above guidelines and make sure your medical and life insurance are fully paid up.

Fashionably in Touch

(This article was co-written with Victoria Greenhalgh on April 19th, 1997 for publication in Mobile Latino America magazine, a UK magazine covering mobile phones in South America.)

It is readily apparent that cellular communications have become much more than a convenience to those who have them. Beyond the ability to remain “in touch” at any time of the day, anywhere you are ( within the limits of the cellular coverage areas, of course ), there lies the world of fashion and status. More and more we can see that mobile communication devices are seen as a status symbol. Owning a pager, cellular telephone or a personal digital assistant with communications features is a way to separate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” It has now reached the level where, whether in business or in the world of the fashionably hip, not having a cellular phone is akin to not existing at all.

This is particularly so in those areas where mobile phones are a recent addition to society. In Indonesia, ladies out shopping have their maids call them every fifteen minutes, thus making them look important in the eyes of those around them as they hunt for bargains. Latin America is certainly not immune to the image boosting effect that posession of cellular phones can provide. During a recent police campaign in Chile against people using cellular phones while driving, over one third of those pulled over were using fake plastic phones to appear “important.” With increasing frequency, tables in cafes and night clubs are littered with mobile phones, the owners of which hardly speak to each other as they eagerly await the next call. How they can hear them ringing or even talk when they are in a loud, thumping night club is beyond the point. Simply having the devices on display is enough.

As a recent adopter of cellular communications, the Latin American market has seen its share of pagers and phones that, in the USA, Europe or Australia, would be seen as hopelessly out of date. The late entry of cellular communications in this area has allowed manufacturers to unload their old analogue systems that were no longer selling in other markets. While cellular phone companies in the United States were, towards the end of the analogue reign, giving away Motorola TAC II’s to all people who signed on, this has only recently started happening in Latin America. This is an indication that a transition is beginning here. Merely having a cellular telephone is no longer enough in the fashionable scene. When anyone on the street has the chance to get a mobile phone bundled with their account, those who want to differentiate themselves from the crowd have to go to the next level. Naturally, many start to ask themselves what comes next after mere possession?

Beyond having a cellular phone comes the two part thrust of style and technology. When everyone has a cellular phone ( well, everyone worth knowing, at least ), status is defined by those who have the most recent model, the best looking or most limited production unit or, in a direct challenge to the sexual environment, the smallest. In France, the leading fashion designers were creating limited edition mobile phones proudly displaying their names. While these were only intended for the Paris metropolitan area, similar concepts are certainly occuring here in Latin America. It is not uncommon for people to be able to purchase devices in many colours, allowing the sartorially concious to ensure that their entire outfit is co-ordinated, right down to the piece of technology continuously on their ear. Furthermore, customised accessories such as carry cases can be obtained to enhance the visual aspects of the humble phone.

For those who are not concerned with the fashion aspect, each year brings new products that offer more features, better reliability, longer battery lives and more compact cases. Having the latest digital phone that, in addition to simply letting you talk, can store your faxes, receive your pager messages and (maybe one day) help program your VCR, all while fitting comfortably inside your shirt pocket, can only help one’s status in the business world.

In some Latin American countries there is a definite drive towards modernism and keeping up with the cutting edge as defined by the USA and Europe. This is dramatically driving the fashion and status aspects of mobile communications ever upward. No longer is it just a nice house and good car that indicate when you’ve “made it” here, it is ensuring that in addition to having the latest, highest-tech and sexiest unit, so too do the rest of your family. In most other countries where cellular phone useage is taken for granted, people are considerate enough to turn their equipment off during concerts, recitals and speaches. In Latin America, the status symbol feeling is still quite active and to be demonstrated to everyone around whenever possible. At a recent poetry session in Buenos Aires, the dramatic recital of a pained monologue on the solitude of modern life was interrupted by the shrill cries of a mobile phone, demanding the attention not only of its owner, but of everyone present. It would appear that while the transition from mere possession to having the best available is occurring here, it may be some time before it is completed.

Wrong metaphors can lead you astray

(This article was first published in the Buenos Aires Herald on April 3rd, 1997. Also printed in the Personal Computer Club of Torronto‘s “” publication (September 1997).

The phrase “Information Super Highway” is currently used to describe the Internet of the future. Some would try to say it represents the Internet of today. They are usually government officials, sales people and those who haven’t tried to use it recently.

As any person who has used the Internet for more than 30 seconds could tell you, this description simply is not valid, particularly if the user is not located in the United States. Those of us here in Argentina attempting to obtain information and programs from the USA can readily agree with the concept of “The World Wide Wait.”

Today, the Internet is more of an “Information Dirt Road,” complete with bumps, potholes and roadkill. To continue with the metaphor of a road, today’s Internet is well described by a joke that has been circulating for some time:

“The Internet is a highway hundreds of lanes wide with each intersection containing many on ramps but no signs. If you want to find your way, you have to yell out the window at a passing truck and ask for directions. Bridges and overpasses are privately owned and the laws are vague and always changing. There is no highway patrol or other law enforcement operations, just some “rent-a-cops” on bicycles with broken whistles. Vigilante groups with 500 members and nuclear weapons enforce their own concept of what is right. Users of some lanes are allowed to vote on the creation of laws while other lanes are left as anarchic wastes where users shoot first and ask questions later. Some vehicles have lawnmower engines and are only capable of crawling while others burn high-octane fuels and pass by at twice the speed of sound with the engine only idling. There are no license plates and vehicles are painted like World War II bombers with huge teeth or vampire eagles. Bumper mounted machine guns and anti-aircraft missile batteries are standard equipment for defense from abuse, but what constitutes abuse is up to the person holding the trigger.”

While this makes for amusing reading and reminds many people of their Internet experiences, it is still linked to an incorrect metaphor. Consider any transport structure based around a Super Highway. To start with, you cannot walk, ride a bicycle or drive a tractor on a Super Highway. You must follow certain laws about the direction travelled, the speed you move at, the signals you must give before changing lanes, etc. You often must pay tolls and, of course, you pay many taxes for the vehicle you use, the fuel that keeps it going and so on. You cannot build a road yourself, you must rely on the government to create it. This implies that the government determines where the road goes and where it lets you get on and off. Any town or city not serviced by a set of on and off ramps is bypassed, ignored by the travellers as they whiz by. Users must rely on the government to determine what is safe and what is dangerous, protecting them with laws and then providing the resources to enforce them.

If the metaphor of the Internet as a Super Highway continues, it will be only natural that taxes will be imposed, the types of devices that can be used on it regulated plus laws and limits established with enforcers to ensure they are followed. Additionally, the government will determine where the Internet goes and what places it can access. They will determine for the “protection” of the users what is safe and what is dangerous. Is this truly what we require from a source of information, education, entertainment and communication?

A more accurate metaphor for the Internet would be “The Information Game Reserve.” In this picture of the Internet, all information and users are “out there.” You can walk, ride, drive or fly to where you want go. Information is all around you and, if you sit still, you can watch the animals passing by. Guide services are available to point the way and assist the people who are making their first expeditions. There are lions hunting zebras and occasionally poachers hunting everything. Eventually, the zebras learn to avoid the lions and game wardens deter the poachers. Occasionally, the lions deter the poachers as well.

In this view of the Internet, information is not selected, filtered and then fed to users at high speeds like a new form of television. Destinations are not imposed by ruling bodies but are allowed to establish themselves in their own space and be found by those who are interested in them. Information is made available for users to find as they require, without censorship or control. This means the good is mixed with the bad and it is up to the user to determine what is true and what is false, not a government working like a nanny for “the greater good.”

Perhaps if more people describe the Internet with this metaphor, users will realise that the Internet is not just some grand expansion of television, but rather a place where you actively participate. Users can learn to think for themselves and ask questions without relying on the government to “protect” them. Maybe this is why the government prefers the “Super Highway” metaphor where information is controlled and piped to the passive masses rather than the “Game Reserve” where users seek answers to their questions and learn to determine what is wrong and what is right for themselves.