Sunday, March 29, 2009

Science Fiction Writing Workshop At IIT Kanpur

(JUNE 15 – JULY 3, 2009)

Download announcement.
Download application form.


We invite applications from interested people, both students and non-students, who would like to participate in a 3-week Science Fiction (SF) writing workshop at IIT Kanpur. The workshop offers an intense, immersive, content-rich experience that is a good first-step in training the next generation of Indian SF writers.

Goal & Plan: The workshop will help new Indian authors develop their skills and encourage SF with a south-Asian focus. Specifically, the students will read and critique some of the best SF writing in the field, both classic and modern. Second, the daily writing exercises and group-critiques of the weekly story submissions will reveal individual strengths and weaknesses. Finally, we will attempt to show how the subcontinent offers unparalleled story-telling possibilities, especially for SF.

Instructors: The workshop will be conducted primarily by two US-based Indian SF writers – Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, and one IIT Kanpur-based literary scholar in the field of SF – Suchitra Mathur. (short bios of the three instructors are included below for your information). In addition, there will be guest lectures by other Indian SF writers as well as some IIT Kanpur faculty who will share with us the brave new worlds opened up by cutting-edge innovations in science and their relationship with the world we live in.

Application Process: This pioneering 3-week Science Fiction writing workshop is being offered at the cost of Rs. 3000 (Three Thousand Rupees) per head, which includes boarding and lodging for 3 weeks in IIT Kanpur, as well as the costs of all instructional hand-outs given to you during the workshop.

To apply for this workshop, please send us the following documents latest by April 30, 2009:

1) A sample of your creative writing, NOT exceeding 5000 words (this does not necessarily have to be in the genre of Science Fiction, though that would be preferable)
2) A filled out copy of the enclosed application form

The documents may be sent to us electronically via email to: or

Or you can mail hard copies to: Suchitra Mathur
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
IIT Kanpur
Kanpur – 208016
Phone no.: 0512-259-7836/8234

Applications received after April 30, 2009 will NOT be considered. You will be informed by May 15, 2009 about your selection for this workshop. To confirm your attendance of this workshop, you will need to send us a demand draft for Rs. 3000 at the above address within a week of receiving our acceptance notification (latest by May 22, 2009).

Soft copies of the Application Form for this 3-week SF writing workshop may also be downloaded from

The Instructors

Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D in the US, worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. In his stories, he has been a kid who finds everything funny ("Standard Deviation"), an island chain ("Archipelago"), and discovered new physics ("A Sky Full Of Constants"). His stories have been published in magazines such as InterZone, New Genre, Strange Horizons, etc. “Standard Deviation" won an Honorable Mention in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (2005) and "Archipelago" was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize. His novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Zubaan) is scheduled to appear in 2009.

As a kid, a chance encounter with Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" led Anil to other great stories in Science Fiction. However, it soon became clear that western SF was based on an unwritten assumption, namely, that all the really cool adventures-- inventing crazy devices, meeting aliens, time-traveling, saving the world from comets, etc. -- were mostly reserved for Caucasians. The future is assumed not to be of ‘our’ making. This workshop will challenge this assumption by training a new generation of Indian writers to rethink and re-imagine speculative fiction.

Vandana Singh is an Indian writer living in the U.S., where she also teaches physics at a small college. Some of her science fiction and fantasy stories have been shortlisted for awards and have appeared in Year's Best anthologies. A number of them are collected in her recent book, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, which came out from Zubaan and Penguin India in 2008. She is also the author of the Younguncle series of children's books. Her most recent publications include two novellas, Of Love and Other Monsters and Distances, both from Aqueduct Press, Seattle. While both are journeys of self-discovery for the protagonists, the first is set on Earth and explores the life of a young man who has lost all memory of his past and is on the run from a shadowy figure most like himself. Distances, on the other hand, is set on a far-future planet in another part of the galaxy, and is a story of science, mathematics, art and deception. Vandana enjoys reading and writing fiction that pays attention to language and character as much as to ideas. Her stories attempt to examine the human condition against the backdrop of an infinitely engaging, mysterious and sometimes terrifying physical universe.

Suchitra Mathur comes to SF as a reader and literary critic. Trained in the respectable ‘English Literature’ canon throughout her formal student career, she wasted no time in shrugging of this hoary mantle as soon as she gained the power that comes from occupying the other side of the classroom. As a teacher of literature at IIT Kanpur for the past ten years, she has joyfully plunged into the world of SF, attempting to understand her students’, and the modern world’s, obsession with Science through an exploration of the marvelous speculative worlds created in fiction and film. SF, of course, is not new to her; she grew up as an ardent Star Trek fan, with a healthy diet of Asimov and Clarke to sustain her verbal cravings. These early encounters have now transformed into active voyages to discover strange new possibilities of science, what it means, and how it relates to the worlds we inhabit and envision. She has shared her discoveries with others through courses taught to IITK students on Science Fiction, and articles published on Indian science fiction.

The Power of Facebook

To all those who crib about Facebook and how it is leading to interaction that is largely meaningless, hear this. Three of my friends, who in an internet-less world would have never ever talked to each other, are having a very lively discussion on a post that I made on Facebook. I find it absolutely amazing.

So be reminded -- technology is a just a tool. If you use it in a meaningless fashion, it remains meaninless. But if you use it properly, it helps us boldly go where no one has gone before!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Borrowing Vocabulary?

During the whole reservation debate a little while ago, we found the entire nation suddenly using the words 'affirmative action' -- words which, at least to my knowledge, are not the official words that the Indian government uses.

And today, I came across this blog post which calls the constituent assembly as the 'founding fathers'.

Frankly, I find this borrowing of vocabulary from the US, somewhat disturbing.

Update - April 2, 2009: Shanth points out similar trends in fashion.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Rage in Placid Lake

The Rage in Placid Lake is a delightful comedy. It inverts a lots of mores of traditional comedy and thus manages to stand apart.

Placid Lake has been brought up by hippy, non-conformist parents. On his first day of school he’s sent wearing a girl’s dress so that he can “challenge the internalized notions of sexuality” in his classmates. Needless to say, it doesn’t bode too well for him. But he turns out all right.

He is taught to see the positive side in all things. So as a high-schooler he manages to do the hottest girl in the class by confounding her with feminist jargon and making her feel good about her inadequate self. And despite getting regular beatings from the class bullies, he never lets them feel that they’ve gotten better of him.

But things take a one-eighty-degrees turn when, in an attempt to escape a beating from these bullies, he jumps off the roof and breaks every single bone in his body. He undergoes a long period of introspection during his time in the hospital and decides that he would live a “normal” life from now on.

He gets out, gets a job with an insurance company and starts to doing his office colleague. And for the first time in his life, completely freaks his parents out. He also freaks out his high-school friend, Gemma. In a series comic adventures, Placid realizes that conformism isn’t really for him, but neither is the textbook non-conformism which only becomes conformism of a different kind.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Lost Coast

When you are young, every day is a new day. You haven’t seen most things in life and thus, no matter what you see, you see it new. But then you grow up someday. Life becomes routine and mundane and the bestest novelty you can encounter is merely an improvisation on an already existing theme.

And occasionally, you chance upon something that is truly and genuinely new. Something that you’d never heard, never thought, never even dreamed about.

The Lost Coast was one such movie for me.

The two main characters of the movie – Jasper and Mark – are high school buddies. Mark is straight, Jasper is gay. When they were in high school, they went to the Lost Coast on a camping trip. On that trip, they had a sexual stint. In the present time, they’re celebrating Halloween with two more of their friends. As they roam through the night is search of a good party and ecstasy, Mark and Jasper have to deal with their feelings and sexualities once more.

The movie made me think of something that I’d never thought of before. If two straight men are friends, they’re friends. If two gay men are friends, they might have a romantic relationship. But if one straight man and one gay man are friends, what do they do? What do they do when one of them wants a romantic relationship and the other one cares about his feelings but can’t really give it to him.

The movie is suffused with the sense of loss. Jasper, who is straight, has lost a friend. Mark, who is gay, has lost a lover. No matter how hard they try, they are not able to reconcile their lost.

Something must also be said about the cinematography of the movie. It is just beautiful. You have long, silent shots in overcast lighting. You are allowed to hear the natural sounds of the sea, the wind and the grass and woods. You are allowed to feel all alone out there, with nothing but yourself and your feelings to keep company. And in the end, you feel the loss for both Jasper and Mark.

Do watch the trailer on the movie website.

Friday, March 13, 2009

My Problem with Swades

Let us, for now, forget Delhi 6 and talk only about Swades. The NRI, Mohan Bhargav, comes to India. At first, he is more or less in the tourist mode, living in a trailer, drinking bottled water, avoiding eating local things. He gets to know the people in the village. Gets to know their problems. Decides that he has to solve them. He decides to build a power plant. He buys all the equipment for making the power plant out of his own pocket. He does not have the support of most people in the village and does it with only a few people on his side.

Compare this with the actual Bilgaon Hydel Power project on which the film is based. The project was initiated by the people of the village themselves. Some of them were members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and sought their help carrying it out. A village committee was formed, a resolution was passed in the relevant gram panchayat. The system was designed by young engineers from the National School of Energy. More than 2000 man days of shramdan was given by the villagers themselves. AID gave about 12 lacks rupees towards the funding of the project. While the project was operational the villagers paid for their own electricity. There were other agencies involved but in short it was a HUGE collaborative effort.

Mohan Bhargav’s solution is a top down solution. He sat down and decided what to do for the people. The Bilgaon Project is a bottom up solution. The people decided they had to help themselves and sought help from relevant agencies. Mohan Bhargav’s solution is not sustainable. If he leaves, who is going to keep the project running? How is he going to keep it running despite opposition from much of the village? Fortunately he has the changes of heart towards the climax to help him out. Bilgaon Project was self sustaining. The villagers pay for the operation of the plant. They help operate it.

Mohan Bhargav’s aim is not wrong. The way he goes about achieving the aim – single handedly, without public participation, in a top down manner – is wrong.

Swades assumes that a) People are not willing to help themselves and, b) Help should be forced upon them because that’s what’s good for them.

This holier than thou attitude is my problem with Swades.

Getting back to Delhi 6, I’m not saying that it gets it right either. But just the fact that it is Gobar who comes up with the solution to the problem rather than Roshan, makes it a little bit more likable to me.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Delhi 6

Just watched Delhi 6. Actually liked the movie. It’s a regular Bollywood fare, so I’m not going to rave about it in any way. But yes, it was watchable, good even.

What I liked about the movie was that it uses a different technique to tell the same old story. Communal harmony is a story that has been told in Indian so many times and in so many ways. Mehra also tells the same story but uses a different technique – that of allegory and metaphor. I’m sure that’s why a lot of people didn’t like it. People like their stories to be flat and straightforward.

I like the way Mehra treats the character of Roshan. There is comparatively lesser sense of eroticisation in the movie compared to, say, Swades. There is a sense of acceptance. “Achhai hai, to hamari hai, burai hai to bhi hamari hai.” This is who we are and Mehra is unapologetic about it.

Gowarikar’s NRI (in Swades) fixes India’s problems and becomes Indian in the process. Mehra’s NRI becomes Indian and then fixes Indias problems. This is the part that I liked best.

I still don’t get why characters in Indian movies are so flat. And I’ve been noticing that it is the lead character that’s mostly flat. The rest of them seem to be okay. Let’s take the characters from this movie. Roshan’s uncles are both have their peculiarities. One (Om Puri) is authoritarian. The other one is doing well in business, considers himself a smart aleck and likes to show off. Bittu is a typical chandni chowk girl who transforms into a typical college girl as soon as she steps out of chandini chowk. She wants to be in Indian idol and has a secret thing going with the gali’s photographer. Mamdoo takes pride in his jalebis, gobar is the fool.

In short, all of these characters have something that defines them. They have characteristics, goals, aspirations. They have a life. But look at Roshan. What does he do? Is he a student? Does he work? What does he want to do in life? Any typical habit? Anything that he loves to eat? A quirk perhaps? No nothing. Roshan has no characteristics, no goals, no aspirations. He doesn’t have a life.

Why are lead characters in Indian movies so shallow and flat?

Rahman's Road to Oscar

An amazing article from the Rolling Stone.

Friday, March 06, 2009

American Humor

While I do not like to stereotype things, I’m forced to admit that I like British humor better than American humor. I like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Monty Python, Coupling and Doctor Who. On the other hand, I can’t name anything off the top of my head that’s American and funny. This has troubled me for a few years now and I have kept thinking about why that is. Now that I’m in the US and am watching a lot more American TV than is good for my health, I might venture to make a few guesses.

I think there are three broad things that are funny to American writers:

1. Insults: if you insult someone, it’s somehow funny. Things I can think of – Southpark, Family Guy, The Daily Show and Russell Peters. Lots of scenes there of insulting people which are supposed to be funny. I don’t know if people actually laugh at them. At least I don’t.

2. Irritation: if you do something irritating it’s funny. Make silly faces, imitate irritating people, scratch your nails on the black board. Things I can think of – Saturday Night Live. They do a lot of sketches in which irritating things or people are depicted. Family Guy – some scenes in which the same irritating thing is repeated over and over again.

3. Dirtiness: if you mention anything related to farting or pooping, it again, is somehow funny. Add ejaculation and sexual fluids to that too. Yuck.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is a near future dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury. It narrates the tale of Guy Montag, a fireman, whose job in a totalitarian state is not to put out fire but to burn books.

Honestly, I couldn’t get to the end of the book. It was a very tedious and boring read and I finally decided that I was better off reading something else. I picked up the book only because it is so critically acclaimed. I could see why it is critically acclaimed and yet the book failed to appeal to me. Not my type of literature, I guess.

The basic problem I had with the novel was style. It is self indulgent. The author is writing long explanatory paragraphs and long winded poetic imagery which slows down the pace of story telling. What happened to show and tell? Do you absolutely have to lay down every objection and argument you have against censorship in such neat and precise manner. A little thing will happen, then a cryptic abstract paragraph will follow, followed by a long explanatory one.

Second, the book is largely an angry rant about censorship. Censorship is bad and we should burn anyone who is doing it. There is very little analysis of why censorship happens and what the reasonable ways to prevent it can be.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Song and Dance Sequences in Bollywood Movies

The recent success of Slumdog Millionaire has introduced, albeit in a roundabout, convoluted way, western audience to Bollywood movies. Or rather, the Bollywood movie style. One thing that fascinates them most are the song and dance sequences. I have been asked, more than once, what the deal with them is? Why are 'Indians' fond of song and dance sequences?

The only think I can say is that song and dance sequences are part of the Bollywood movie format. Why does opera have singers driving their voices to inhuman pitches? Why do broadway musicals have, well, music in them? Why do pop songs have a scale change towards the end of the song? That's just the format that these artforms have. And this format has most likely evolved though the complex process that defines convention.

So in a similar manner, song and dance is just a format that Bollywood movies use. Sometimes it's used powerfully, sometimes it's just silly. But it's there, it's just a format. We make movies in the more 'realistic' Hollywood format too. Just that they are far more uncommon.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Usability Lessons Linux DE's Can Learn from Windows

I use both Windows and Gnome and KDE on Linux. Here are three usability lessons Linux DE's can learn from Windows. All three lesson's have to do with animations/effects in GUIs.

1. Make the taskbar opaque with maximized windows: I love transparencies. I really do. When we were still playing around with XP, I installed WindowBlinds and got a transparent panel for myself. You can see the wallpaper behind the windows and also through the transparent panel and it highlights the illusion of the windows being 'above' the wallpaper. It looks nice.

However, when you maximize windows, the wallpaper disappears, except for the transparent bit behind the panel. The illusion is lost and the transparency just looks inconsistent. I think that's why Vista makes the title bar and panel opaque when one or more windows and maximized.

2. Show minimize animations behind the next focussed window: When you minimize windown kwin4 or compiz, the minimize animation is shown above the window that gains focus next. Now, the user has minimized a window most likely to gain access to another window. It is not a good idea to make the user wait for the minimize animation to play out before he gets to see the window behind it.

Vista does it in a clever way. It shows the minimize animation behind the window that gets focus next. It's clever and more usable.

3. Blur behind transparency: Transparency is good but makes identifiying the foreground object difficult. An easy way out of it is to blur the backgrounds. Most notably, it makes the text easier to read on the foreground. I know that compiz, kwin4 etc support blurring, but it's not turned on by default. It should be.


RGV speaks about ARR.

One other trait I noticed about the difference between A.R and other music directors is that where the others pretty much dictate to the musicians and the singers about what they want, A.R interacts with them; in a manner of making each and every one of his solo musicians and singers feel as if it is their song and not his, thereby placing the onus on them to feel from within to get the best out of them. This I have never ever seen remotely practiced by any other music director.