Sunday, October 28, 2007

अंतराग्नी '०७ का कवि सम्मेलन
Kavi Sammelan at Antaragni '07, IIT Kanpur

अंतराग्नी 2007 में अगर किसी कार्यक्रम ने मुझे रोमांचित किया तो वो कवि सम्मेलन था. इतना अच्छा कवि सम्मेलन मैंने और अतुलने ना असल ज़िंदगी में देखा है ना ही TV या internet पर. कवि सम्मेलन में मौजूद हर कवि एक से बढ़कर एक था. सम्मेलन की जान था नवोदित कवि कुमार विश्वास. मैंने आज तक किसी कवि को नए ज़माने के लोगों की नब्ज़ इतनी अच्छी तरह पकड़े नही देखा है. कुमार विश्वास के कुछ विडीयो YouTube पर मौजूद हैं. ज़रा नज़र डालिए.




कवि सम्मेलन में मुख्यतः हास्य रस के कवि मौजूद थे. कानपुर शहर की एक शायर शबीना जी भी थीं. वीर रस के कवि विनीत चौहानभी थे. पर कार्यक्रम की सफलता का पूरा श्रेय हास्य कवियों को जाता है. ये युग हास्य रस के कवियों का ही है. क्योंकि कोई और कविता अब बिकती नही. और शायद अच्छा ही है की नही बिकती.

वीर रस के कवि विनीत चौहान को ही ले लें. उनकी कवितायेँ शायद उन्नीसवीं सदी में अच्छी लगती. उनके लिए वीर रस का अर्थ था हिंदुत्ववादीराष्ट्रवाद. उनकी कविताओं का एक ही सार था - पाकिस्तान पर हमला कर दो और उसे मिटा डालो. इक्कीसवी सदी में जहाँ लोग राष्ट्रवाद तक के पुरातन हो जाने की बातें करने लगे हैं, वहां इस तरह की बातें समय के विपरीत लगती हैं. विनीत जी, चीज़ें इतनी सरल नही होती. हम बस एक दिन सो कर उठते ही पाकिस्तान पर हमला नही कर सकते. जीवन बहुत क्लिष्ट होता है. समस्याओं के हल इतनी जल्दी नही पाए जा सकते.

लगभग सारे कवि ही मुझे हिंदुत्ववादी लगे जो एक दो वाक्यों में ही सही पर अपनी बात कह जरूर रहे थे. यह देखकर बहुत दुःख हुआकी आधुनिक चिंतन परम्परा, जिसमे libertarianism या consumerism-capitalism जैसी विचार परम्पराएं फैशन में हैं, से हिन्दी साहित्य एकदम अछूता है. मैं ये नही कह रहा की जो विचार परम्परा ये कवि फैला रहे हैं वो ग़लत है या सही है. बस ये देख कर दुःख हुआ की और कोई विचार परम्परा हिन्दी भाषा में उपलब्ध नही है. फिर कोई आश्चर्य की बात नही है की हमारी ज्यादातर आबादी अभी भी मन्दिर और मस्जिद के मसलों में फ़ंसी हुई है.

सम्मेलन के बाद मैं और अतुल कवियों से मिलने IIT Kanpur के अतिथि घर पहुँच गए. वहाँ कुमार विश्वास जी से कुछ बातें हुई. विश्वास जी हमारी ही पीढ़ी के कवि हैं. एक सेमेस्टर REC में पढने के बाद उन्होंने अभियांत्रिकी छोड़ दी. कहते हैं की बुरा इंजिनियरहोने से अच्छा कवि होना बेहतर है. खैर, ये जानकर आश्चर्य और हर्ष हुआ की अब कवि सम्मेलन भी बजारू होते जा रहे हैं. IIT Kharagpur के कुछ छात्रों ने एक कंपनी शुरू करी है जो कवि सम्मेलन आयोजित करती है. विश्वास जी उनके ही साथ काम करतेहैं. इस से कवि सम्मेलनों की पहुँच बढेगी. पर हर बजारू चीज़ की तरह कुछ बुरी बातें भी हैं. विश्वास जी को हम लोगों से ये शिकायतथी की हम लोगों ने स्टेज वगैरह ठीक से नही सजाया था. मतलब, कवि सम्मेलन है, भाई! कोई फ़िल्म स्टार का शो थोड़े ही है! इतनेअच्छे श्रोता और इतना अच्छा माहौल होने पर भी कवि लोग केवल स्टेज की साज सज्जा से नाराज थे ये बात मुझे कुछ अच्छी नही लगी.

विश्वास जी की कविताओं को ही लें. मुझे नही लगता की उनकी कविता में दम है. हाँ, बोलते अच्छा है जिसकी मैं तारीफ करता हूँ. पर उनका ध्यान कविता पाठ से ज्यादा मार्केटिंग में लगता है. खैर, ये उनके अपने विचार हैं. मेरे ख्याल से अगर बाजारुपन से अगर कविताके स्तर में सुधर हो तो बेहतर है. चमक धमक हम फिल्मों में भी बहुत देख लेते हैं.

खैर, ये अच्छी बात है की नई पीढ़ी के कवि कवि सम्मेलनों की इस परम्परा को जरी रखे हुए है. ये एक ऐसी चीज़ है जहाँ हम पश्चिम सेअभी भी बहुत आगे हैं. वहां कविता पाठ की कभी कोई सभ्यता नही रही. अपनी इस परम्परा को हम बचाए रखें, ये अच्छी बात है.

Antaragni Woes

Before I start this post, let me point you to this excerpt from his novel that Neil Gaiman shares and to this 30 second scary story that he did for radio. Do listen to the recording on the site. Right, to Antaragni now.

The way the tents and lights were all up even on Tuesday this week had made us all think that Antaragani '07 would start and end with a bang. A lot of things were amazing, the POTF show and the Kavi Sammelan being two of them, but overall Antaragni this time wasn't all that fun.

The biggest disappointment, I believe was Atif Aslam's show. As many people have pointed out, calling a singer for a live performance is always a bad idea. It is much better to call a band. But Atif was worse than anyone's worst expectations. When you pay some one money of the order of a million rupees, you expect nothing less that a scintillating performance. However, the performance turned out to be insipid at best and horrible at worst. Atif lacked the lustre to hold the crowd, his repertoire of songs was limited and if a male singer needs to resort to a remix of 'Babuji zara dheere chalo' in his show then not even God can save his career.

And all this after standing for hours in a long queue, being harrased by the security people over the strange rule of no-cameras-allowed inside the Audi grounds and then the entry itself having been stoped since there were just too many people wanting to go in. That's ten lakhs of Indian National Rupees down the drain.

Why were no camera's allowed? I'm still puzzing over this stupid rule that the Antaragni security team came up with this time. What could be the possible rationale? Is it possible that they wish to increase their sales of photographs from the official photography cell?

Even worse was the cutting down of prizes in various events. For example, prize for India Inspired essay writing was slashed down by more than 80% this time. I met a girl who was given two 'Classmate' registers as second prize of a Hindi Lit event. I mean, that is shameful! Even school events have better prizes than that! I've never known an Antaragni prize to be anything less than a thousand bucks. The look of disappointment on the participants' face was evident. We may not think much of Antaragni (ghar ki murgi daal barabar) but the participants who come in have been preparing for months for some of the events. We should learn to respect their efforts and talents. Giving away decent prizes is the least we can do.

I also noticed an overall lack of creativity in Antaragni this time. I distinctly remember events like Karaoke and decors like the ones put up by people from Shantiniketan over SAC crossing. This time, as someone aptly put it, there were a lot of people around but nothing was happening! Antaragni '07 was all gloss and little substance. None of the standards have really gone up except for the budget and the average height of skirts that the girls wore.

Related Posts:

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Poets of the Fall Perform at IIT Kanpur


Am just back from my first real rock concert. The Poets of the Fall, a Finnish band performed live for Synchronicity at Antaragni '07. And it was absolutely amazing!

I don't listed to much rock. Especially not hard-rock or metal etc. However, I do listen to soft or psychedelic rock like Pink Floyd. Thus, POTF should not have held much fascination for me. However, the thing about live rock concerts is not the 'music', really. It is the atmosphere. It is the crowd. And it is the stage presence of the performers.

In one word, the atmosphere today at Synchro was electrifying. The evening was kicked-off by the amateur performer/competitor rock bands who made it through yesterday's prelims. I listened to bands who call themselves Rampage and Five8. Rampage's vocalist was really good!

Next came the POTF themselves and the stage was immediately on fire. The setup was complete with fireworks, confetti, lights and smoke. The crowd was mad, crazy and out of control. We (my friends and I) did venture in once but then came out because I could not see much. This was one time that I genuinely regretted not being taller. I'm not the headbanging type but just standing there and feeling the energy levels in the crowd was something.

The performance lasted almost three hours during which neither the performers nor the crowd stopped making noise even for a second. POTF's stage presence was very energetic and they were able to pull the crowd along with them. Their compositions are good and varied.

I'm glad that I got to see such a wonderful performance at my last Antaragni on campus. Don't have any pics because for some strange (and possibly stupid) reason, camera's are not being allowed inside show's at this times Antaragni! But someone somewhere should have some photos. Will share as soon as they get to me.

Why OpenOffice is Better than MS Office

I have become bored with my Operating System (Windows this time) once more and have shifted to Ubuntu 7.10 'Gutsy Gibbon' a couple of days ago. Linux has come a long way since its command line days and today Ubuntu has made it work entirely on clicks and drags just like Microsoft's Windows. It is still far from usable for the Stupid User but at least it has reached a level where an educated, intelligent person with enough time and inclination can learn to use it and actually do use it for their day-to-day work.


The only thing that makes me stay on Windows is MS Office (apart from other software that runs only on windows). I think Office is Windows' killer-app.


MS Word


Why is MS Office Better?

What makes MS Office much better than any of it's Open Source counterparts? The Zeroth thing is that MS Office just came earlier. There were no decent Open Source couterparts for a long time.


The first thing, really, is the user interface. MS has always designed good user interfaces for office. Things are WYSIWYG which means that they can be easily learnt and used. Most office applications on other platforms have just copied Microsoft's interface ideas. OpenOffice 2.3, for example, very consciously tries to imitate MS Office 2003. This is contrary to desktop interfaces and applications for Gnome or KDE which have come up with their own ideas which are absolutely fabulous and are being copied by Microsoft. (Firefox is one example for web browsers. Internet Explorer 7.0 is a very shabby copy of Firefox.) However, Microsoft has once again done wonders with Offie 2007's 'ribbon' interface.


The second thing is inter-operability. I still remeber the time when I could not paste text from OpenOffice into the Blogger post editor in Firefox. In MS Office you can copy-paste and drag-drop anything from anywhere to anywhere. It just works. OpenOffice is not really all that great in this respect.


If Open Source wishes to win this office app war then it needs to come us with radical user interface designs just like they have in other areas. The traditional linux strategy has been to give the users every option possible which they can configure as they please. This does not work if you are targeting a user segment that does not really care much (or cannot be expected to care much) about how things function at the backend. Like the Gnome design guidelines say, things have to just work for such users.


OpenOffice Writer


Why MS Office Sucks

MS Office sucks because as against it's Linux counterparts, it is Closed Source. It has been seen time and again that the Microsoft Model of writing software does not work. What Microsoft does is that it shuts a lot of programmers up in their posh cabins. Then it feeds them with lots of corporate bullshit. They are then made to write lots of software which is shipped to users. The users themselves are seldom asked what they want. Neither is the programmer ever told what the user wants. They are told what the marketing people think the users want. And once the software gets written, there is no way to change it in any major way.


Just today I read about this bug in MS Excel 2007. Try doing the following multiplication in Excel 2007 – 850 * 77.1. Excel gives the answer 10000 instead of the correct answer 65535. A ten year old with paper-and-pencil could do better than that! Take another example. The new xlsx format is an XML based format. This means that everything is written out to a file in ASCII text that you can I can read. This means that any number that I enter in Excel should get written onto the disk just as I've entered it. But no! Excel actually converts it to binary first, then back to ASCII and then writes it in the file. Thus, numbers that don't have a perfect binary representations suffer from round-off errors. I mean, that's insane. Even a school kid would not program anything that way!!


This is shameful for a company that is the worlds biggest. It is shameful for a world that made the CEO of this company the richest man in the world. And it is shameful for those programmers who designed the $400 MS Office.


Open Source on the other hand does not work this way. Everything is open. It is tested by thousands of users. Bugs and feature requests get reported pronto. The developers actually get to hear what the people want and that is what they make. That is why Firefox is the most user friendly web browser ever. And it is not as if this model cannot be corporatized. Google has done it. They take constant feedback from users and make what the users want. Orkut, for example, is doling out feature after feature that we have always wished we'd had. Open Source softwares come up with update every week. As far as I know, Microsoft till date hasn't patched their Excel bug.


If it were up to me, I'd linuxify the entire world.


PS: This post was written using OpenOffice Writer and posted using Mozilla Firefox. :) Switch to both if you haven't already.

A Non-Post, Really

Antaragni is still going on. The Poets of the Fall perform today at Synchronicity. Am quite looking forward to it.

Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman has finally finished Odd and Frost Giants which will be published for the world book day to be celebrated in March this year. It is a childrens book, quite short and I will be looking forward to reading it. Meanwhile, I will try to find a copy of Necronomicon. I just heard Neil talk about it and about why he would like a personal copy signed by the author for himself and I cannot resist it anymore.


The Blogosphere seems to have really liked Anurag Kashyap's new movie No Smoking. Read a review here. Also, Anurag himself is writing about his movie and the reviews and criticisms that he is receiving here. I am most definitely going to watch No Smoking. The lead character is named K, which reminds me of Kafka's works. It should be interesting to see if there is any connection. It is also interesting to see that the director himself is writing about his movie. Welcome to web 2.0! I love the fact that I get to read Neil Gaiman's journal everyday and I don't have to rely on some stupid jounalist who has no idea what writing or Neil Gaiman are to tell me what he is upto. I hope this trend grows.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Antaragni is in the Air

This is just a journal like linkin-park post. Antaragni is about to kick off today. I'm going to miss the opening because my Prof is going to take us out to dinner. But better today than any other day over the weekend because fun is promised. Atul and I have started the Unofficial Antaragni Oh-Seven Blog. Do read.

Am reading Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors these days. Have barely read about fifty or so pages till now. Perhaps a more complete post about the book will follow later on. I find it difficult to write about anthologies specially ones such as Smoke and Mirrors which have the most diverse set of short stories possible ranging from realistic to fantasy to science fiction to erotica. But nevertheless, I shall write. Meanwhile, you can see Neil Gaiman receiving the Hell's Dildo at the Spike TV awards.



Also read this interesting blog about the South Asian Literary Recordings Project. Sounds very interesting. It is interesting how in world everything is becoming commercial, there is a definitive drive to make knowledge openly available. Good, good.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Artemis Fowl


Artemis Fowl is a ‘modern day scientific fairy tale’ from Eoin Colfer (pronounced Owen). It was after a very long time that I read a pot-boiler, page-turner and meant-for-entertainment only book. And I can’t say I was disappointed.


Artemis Fowl narrates the story of Artemis Fowl the Second, a twelve year old prodigious genius and criminal mastermind who is the only heir of a long line of criminal masterminds. The eponymous first book of the series narrates the story of how young Artemis discovers the existence of fairies, steals their Book to plunder their secrets and then plots a consummately crafted plot to end up with fairy gold.


However, the fairies do no turn out to be the way everyone imagines them to be. They live under the ground and there is an entire civilization thriving with is much, much more technologically advanced than humans. Not only can the fairies perform a ritual on full moon night to replenish their powers and heal instantly using their blue sparks of magic, they can also create a static-time field and use a bio-bomb to deal with any unfortunate humans stumbling across the truth of their existence.


So when Artemis and his burly family bodyguard Butler kidnap Captain Holly Short of LEPrecon (the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance wing) and demand a ton of fairy gold (24 karat) as ransom, it is up to the die-hard Commander Root, technological genius centaur Foaly and the-convicted-dwarf-with-uncanny-abilities Mulch Diggums to rescue her and save the gold as well. The plot twists and turns at tremendous pace and takes the reader on surprise every other page. You cannot put the book down until the story culminates in a mind-blowing climax everyone is granted a little bit of their desires.


If you’re just looking for some entertainment, Artemis Fowl is just the thing for you.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Begging for More

Warning: (Possibly) mature content.

She turns on the music and removes her hair-clip, letting her hair fall lose around her shoulders. A streak of grey begins at her forehead and ends at her ear. It’s like a viper, mesmerizing me with the fear of its power. She sways and her ear rings swing accentuating the pink line of her ears. Her feet rustle softly against the floor. She comes to me and she grins.


“Remove your shirt,” she says.

I obey.

She turns me around feeing my neck, my chest, the muscles on my back. She twists my arms behind my back and holds them tight. It hurts. She takes the cord and binds it around my wrists. She binds me tight. It hurts some more. Her nails are sharp and she uses them like knives running them up and down my back. I can feel the pain searing through my skin. I can feel her fingers burning against me.

She is humming to herself. She pushes me down.

“Kneel,” she says.

I kneel down. I obey. She is my mistress. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to obey her. To hang on to each and every word that she utters and see that her will is done.

I look up to see her face. She is unbuttoning her shirt. I can see her bra now, cupping her breasts, cradling them. She kneels down herself bringing her bosom close to my face. Dangerously close. I let out a warm breath onto them. I can see that she can feel and I can see that she is pleased but she slaps me. Hard. I know that her hand must be etched across my cheek now.

“I told you not to touch them,” she says, “in any way!”

She massages my nipples with her hands. Then she lowers her head and gives me a gentle flick with her tongue. Then she bites me. I cry out.

She holds my hair and jerks my head backwards. Her face is stern. I breathe heavily. It feels that she is almost about to pull my hair off. I try to nod.

“Yes … yes, mistress,” I say.

She chuckles with pleasure.

“Now,” she says and she goes down again and bites me on the other nipple. Tears roll down my cheeks. She gets up and licks my lips in a lavish kiss. Then, swinging to the rhythm of music, she walks away. She turns facing away from me and, hips swaying, she removes her bra and lets it fall to the ground. She walks up to me again. Her tits are perked – dark brown nuts on her soft white skin. She slaps me again, harder this time. I stagger and fall face-first to the floor, my hands straining against my binding in a futile attempt to catch balance. Blood trickles down my lips.

She hold me by my hair and picks me up then shoves me at her feet.

That is all I get today. I kiss her feet, kneeling in front of my mistress. I submit. And I beg for more.


Note: I think a little explanation is in order lest the readers begin inferring things about my sexual preferences from this piece. It was meant as a writing exercise. I'm watching Battlestar Galactica these days and I'm quite enamored with the way sexual encounters between Dr. Baltar and the cylon Number Six are done. Number Six is a classic female dom and I find her to be incredibly sexy. So I wanted to write a piece with a female dom and see how it comes out. Wasn't too difficult to do and I hope it hasn't some out as distasteful. It isn't meant to be that.

The writing exercise excuse didn't work, did it? Okay, go make inferences.

Fevicol Alien Advertisement

Saw this new Fevicol ad today. Now, as I don’t watch much TV, I don’t really know how ‘new’ the ad is. Nevertheless, I really liked this one for several reasons and therefore I link it here.


The first thing I liked about this ad was that it features aliens and yet it is set in an Indian (Rajasthani) village. The ad begins with a woman chiding her husband at not confronting the stupid aliens who broke her matkis. While the woman shouts and cusses at the aliens the men watch wide mouthed. After that the aliens speak in alien-speak for a moment then realize that they have to speak in Hindi. The alien speaks in Hindi next in a nice nod to Sholay’s legendary “Gaon walon …” dialog. It seemed to me a very funny take on the whole concept of aliens speaking English in most of the Hollywood movies.


Next, the aliens begin taking away the gravity of earth. So do the villagers scream and run and shout and create a pandemonium like they do in Hollywood movies? No! They just sit and enjoy the show. What else do you do with these pair of strange looking creatures doing all sorts of antics in your village?!


The aliens finish taking out gravity and everything begins flying into space. We see a shot of Earth from space. And we see India in prominence, larger than it actually is and occupying a central position. The villagers become a little alarmed at the loss of gravity. But is it a city dwelling urban-educated scientist who saves them? No! They don’t have to run to a city know-all to get their solutions! They just trust their own down to earth, practical rural intelligence. They pour Fevicol into a well and what can bind better than Fevicol? Gravity thus is back to normal.


Excellently crafted. Absolutely loved it.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Visual Language of Battlestar Galactica

The Battlestar Galactica (BSG) that I’m talking about here is the 2004 reimagining of the original Battlestar Galactica and its subsequent retellings in the ‘80s.



The first thing that will strike a viewer as they begin watching BSG is the starkly unfamiliar visual language. I looked up articles on the net and the special effects company Zoic Studios seem to be very proud of the fact. Indeed, BSG offers a visual treat to a viewer that is distinctly different from what SFF viewer will normally be used to.

Lights
The lights are switched on and the sets are lit up. The primary locations in BSG are the ships, the huge Battlestar Galactica and other ships of the rag-tag fleet that are the last home and refuge of humanity. We have seen a lot of spaceships. Ships in Star Trek or Stargate Atlantis or Andromeda or Star Wars are sleek. They are clean and posh. There are no jutting edges, no scattered equipment. The paint is not peeling off and, in the case of Star Trek, the corridors are actually carpeted!

On the other hand we have ships in films like the Matrix which are cramped and cluttered, having a very ‘submarine’ look to them. There is equipment scattered around everywhere, wires and conduits jutting out and the ship exteriors are not sleek or shiny.

BSG ships are somewhere in between. They are not glossy but they are spacious. They are not carpeted but the crew quarters have their share of decorations. They are cluttered but only like any real workplace. The ships exteriors are also in-between jobs. They are relatively sleek yet there is a certain crudeness about them.

The fighter planes (Mark II Vipers) are most interesting. They are planes that are old. Unlike Star Trek or Stargate SG1/SGA they are not made of some unidentified super-strong metal which don’t even scratch. These are made of metals that we very much know and see. There is rust on the surface, the paint is peeling off and the hull is dented from the last flight. Plus they don’t fly in the elegant, sweeping curves. They fly like real aircrafts and follow Newtonian mechanics in space. And the sounds that they (and other ships) make in space is muted out to make it appear that the action is actually taking place in vacuum.



On one hand, the paints and the designs used place the fighters clearly into the Star Wards tradition, emphasizing that there are going to be a lot of dog-fights and space opera action-adventure in the show. However, on the other hand the realistic leaning also place the fighters into a more contemporary universe where airplanes have become a chief weapon of war, especially the weapon of war on terrorism.

Camera
The most obvious visual element in BSG is the ‘shaky camera’. The shaky camera is the effect that you get when the camera is used without a tripod/stand. The resulting footage has shakes and jerks. Conventionally this kind of shot was considered to be sacrilege in the industry. Later, these shots were used to depict character point-of-views. For example, if a homicidal maniac is following a voluptuous damsel in distress then the shot will be filmed from the POV of the homicidal maniac with the camera shaking and jerking as he walks menacingly around the house.

Then recently this style was popularized by news channels especially by ‘embedded reporters’.

Thus in recent times, the shaky camera is quintessentially seen to depict ‘reality’. The technique was subsequently picked up by reality TV shows where, once again, the camera shake becomes the hallmark of realism.

BSG uses the shaky camera to the same effect. The camera not only jerks and shakes, it also goes in and out of focus, zooms erratically and changes points of view for no particular reason at all. In fact, a lot of this shaking is actually added at the special effects desktop.

The result – a footage that has been unanimously seen to be gritty realism.

Action
The BSG saga is unfolding several years into the future. In fact, we are so much into the future that Earth is not lost and no more known. However, the actors of BSG behave very contemporaneously. Their attire (except for the high-ranking military uniforms) are very contemporary with minimal or no change. The accessories that they use are also very contemporary. There is minimal or no dependence on computers in daily life despite the fact that a computer virus caused the initial defeat of humanity. People still used pen and paper. The communication equipment looks like wired telephones. There are hardly any ‘mobile’ comm units. The actors smoke cigars and drink whiskey. They dine and drink in cutlery that is routinely familiar. The military uses projectile weapons for offensive. No energy weapons. No shields. Nuclear warheads are the deadliest they (or the enemy has got). No fancy equipment is used by the crew. Everyone uses 20th century stuff.



All of this places BSG, despite its far-future apocalyptic premise, into contemporary reality. And this is very intentional. Because BSG, perhaps for the first time on television, is daring to discuss contemporary American political questions. They deal with issues like insurgency, mistreatment of prisoners of war, war on terrorism and war on Iraq with historical references to the Nazis and Vietnam war; and also domestic issues like abortion and civil-liberties. The whole realistic vocabulary gels in wonderfully with these themes.

Note: While I have merely analyzed how the special effects are functioning within the show, I cannot but appreciate how well the special effects have been done technically. The efforts of the entire SFX team have to be lauded. They make this who eminently watchable.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fairytales and Other Stories


The first thing that I read today morning, (even before I’d brushed), was Neil Gaiman’s delightful article on fairy tales in The Guardian. A wonderful beginning to a new day. And the question that it raised in my mind was –


Why do people find it so difficult to understand and accept that stories can be of different kinds?


There is, of course, what one calls the main-stream literature. It is often realistic many times starkly so and is meant to depict ‘reality’ in its various forms, sensitizing the readers to the problems of the contemporary society. These are the stories that critics often appreciate and these are therefore the stories that go on to win awards and honors. But if there ever was a duller race of people on this earth they would not have surpassed literary critics in their insipidness. If it were to me, I’d take all these socio-realistic novels (and most of them are quite thick and fat) and use them as bricks to build my house. Now that’s a good combination of literature and civil engineering!


Next comes the novel that is now called magic-realism. This one I like. I absolutely love Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude. As to why I like magic-realism, I have no idea. Perhaps I like it because it reeks of fantasy and I adore fantasy. But more than that, there is certain claustrophobia in magic realism that I like. Sorry, there is no better way to explain.


There are potboilers that get written by the dozen to entertain the masses. I have nothing against them but that they are mind-numbingly monotonous and repetitive.


Then there is genre fiction that is deliberately written to conform to a particular genre. Detective fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Gothic, Western, and others. I think genres are a very useful tool. Take SF for example. SF as a genre has established a particular vocabulary over the years. So when I now write an SF story I don’t have to go on explaining that my robot is perhaps an emotionless being. I can take for granted that the reader understands what it means and then go on to explore the aspects of this ‘emotionslessness’ that I wanted to explore. Saves me a lot of work as a writer!


There is politically inspired fiction where the writer has a very clear political agenda. Thus we have African American literature in the US and Dalit literature in India. We have feminist, communist and anarchist literature too. We might have some right-wing literature somewhere but I’ve never seen any.


We do have all of this and that is all well and good but as Neil points out we also have fairytales. And there is nothing better than his own words to describe what fairytales are.


Shortly after it was published, I wound up defending [Stardust] to a journalist who had loved my previous novel, Neverwhere, particularly its social allegories. He had turned Stardust upside down and shaken it, looking for social allegories, and found absolutely nothing of any good purpose.


"What's it for?" he had asked, which is not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.


"It's a fairytale," I told him. "It's like an ice cream. It's to make you feel happy when you finish it."


So – there are stories and there are stories and some of them are just ice cream … Why was it so difficult for this journalist to understand?

Badge Communities on Orkut

It is really nice to see that an open and free environment in software development leads to a better software design and greater user satisfaction. I was having a conversation about it just yesterday and today I see a good example of this on the Orkut Blog.

Orkut, like all other social networking sites, has communities – forums dedicated to a particular topic which people can join and use to discuss stuff related to that particular topic. So I, for example, am a member of the communities on ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Neil Gaiman’ and ‘Star Trek’.

However, not everyone uses a community to discuss stuff and meet people (online). Many (in fact, most) people join communities just so that they show up on their profile pages and act as indicators of their interests and hobbies. This behavior is so common now that whenever someone visits a user profile on Orkut, they certainly check out the common communities among other things.

I was very glad to see that Orkut developers are very much aware of the fact. And they’ve even invented a term for such communities – ‘badge communities’. And they recognize that such badge communities, often characterized by lack of moderators, do not really need to allow emails to all members. Because members of such communities have not joined them to talk to other people. Thus Orkut has now disallowed emails to all on such unmoderated communities.

Nice!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Where does India get its Knowledge From?

This post is inspired by Rahul’s post here. This is not a response, really. More of an aside. What it got me thinking on was where do we get our knowledge from, as a country?


As Indian children, we start getting our knowledge in schools. And what does school education comprise of? It comprises of reading a lot of books and assimilating them (often even verbatim). As children, we are never really taught to do anything on our own. Even in the case of science education where so much emphasis is laid on doing things, most students end up merely learning the three laws on Newton by rote and parroting them blindly in the exams.


As children we are never really taught to question. Things stated in books are stated as ‘facts’. There is no mention of evidence, proof, argument or ongoing debate. Books thus become authorities. Books become things that are to be respected and not questioned at all. And all knowledge is something that has already been created and codified and not much modification is possible with it.


Then we grow a little older and we are introduced to laboratories – the places where knowledge is supposed to be generated. But do we get to generate knowledge here? No, not at all. First of all, the syllabus is prescribed so that there really is no scope for children to ‘play’ with the instruments. An ‘experiment’ needs to be learnt and reproduced in the exam, the same way that books are learn and reproduced in elementary classes. Second, since the results of an experiment are ‘deterministic’ they have to turn out the way the books tell you. We do not care about the fact that there is always experimental error involved or that your equipment may be faulty leading to results that are not quite expected. Neither do we care about the fact that learning about such details are as much part of the experimental process as the experiment itself. So as students we learn to fudge our experimental readings to fit to the known ‘laws’. We also learn that it is more important to get the ‘right’ results than report what happened. There goes academic honestly out the window.


Then we start preparing for JEE. When we go out to the market to buy books, we find that all Indian books are merely copies of each other and two books don’t really offer anything different from each other. Moreover, to our utter horror, they tell us things like ‘body in circular motion is not accelerating’ which are refuted by our teachers using simple logic. Therefore our teachers tell us to turn to books that are foreign and mostly American. Not only do these books tell you how to look at things in a variety of ways, they are also a lot of fun to read. But the knowledge, unfortunately, remains utterly American.


But somehow we manage to learn a few things and get into IITs. And then we are introduced to this whole new system of doing ‘research’ and publishing papers and working in labs. But are we ever taught what these things mean and involve? Hardly. We just carry over what we learnt in school and modify and adapt it to our changing needs. And once again, we must look to the west for getting our papers published, and for recognition for our work. Most of our own work is built up on the shoulders of western giants. While the American scientists busy themselves with American Society of this and that, we sit in our labs and twiddle our thumbs.


And we twiddle our thumbs a little more.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Intuitive (?) Computer Interfaces

Like I have said before, my friend Aneesh has this uncanny habit of bringing up topics that are really very interesting to talk about. A couple of emails ago (we exchange emails almost every other day) he suggested that people should start thinking about ‘intuitive’ computer interfaces. This got me thinking and here is what I thought:


What is Intuition?

It is a commonly held notion that there is something that there are aspects to human behavior that are ‘natural’ and can be isolated from learned behavior. It is this part of human behavior that is termed as ‘intuitive’.


Human beings do seem to be born with certain intuitive abilities. For example, there is 3D navigation. The fact that the world is three dimensional is an understanding that we are just born with. So is an understanding of passage of time. And even as adults, or even as professionals (physicists) we are not really able to define what time or 3D space is.


Some research has shown that the representation of the 3D world inside a human mind is ego-centric. This means that when we think of things we don’t think about them in a global sense. We just think in terms of their relative distances and locations from our own locations.


On the other hand, lots of human behavior is acquired and internalized. For example, there is this notion that things which are piled together are somehow related to each other. Thus, we file papers together in a file, put related files together into folders and store related folders in the same cabinet.


But the problem with this kind of behavior is that this kind of intuition changes from groups of individual to groups of individuals. For example, it is almost intuitive for me that switches when flicked downward switch things on. But this intuition is not true in the US where things go the other way round.


Problems with Computer Interfaces

Computer interfaces can be intuitive or not depending on the way you look at them. For example, take scroll bars. Now the real life way of doing things in this – if I’m holding a paper that I’m reading then to read the lower portion of the paper I move my hand upwards. However, if I’m reading something on a computer, I have to move my hand downward to read the lower portion of a text. This is completely opposite of what I’d expect it to do if I’ve never used a computer.


However, the same situation can be looked at in another way. What if I look at the scroll bar as a handle to a ‘viewport’ through which I’m viewing my paper? In this case, the behavior of the scrollbar would make perfect sense.


So one observes that not only is intuition difficult to define, the same interface can be seen as intuitive or not intuitive based on how it is visualized.


In my opinion, there is no use devising an intuitive interface. This is because by conforming to the behavior patterns that humans already conform to one will have to forgo a variety of ‘artificial’ behavior patterns that computers allow for and which are more efficient in various manners. The learning curve, of course, will be steeper in the case of intuitive interfaces but there really is no reason to believe that simpler and easier to learn non-intuitive interfaces cannot be built.