Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Monsoon scale of privilege

The Monsoons are here in Mumbai and how happy you are about that seems to be directly proportional to how wealthy you are.

If you're in the Upper Middle Class and above, it's a great time. The weather is cooler, there's a refreshing breeze and finally there's some relief from the unrelenting humidity and heat of summer. A perfect time to visit Lunavala, Mahabalashwar or some other hill station or just to relax in front of a window with a hot cup of cocoa.

If you're a part of the teeming Middle and Lower Middle Classes, your emotions are more mixed. On the one hand, your home and work environment are now much cooler, but you also face terrible problems in your commute, dripping walls at home, flooded compounds and a higher incidence of disease. You're still glad of the rains, but only for a while. Then it's back to struggling to ensure that you survive another deluge. No trips to the green ghats for you!

If you're a part of the multitudinous Poor, you're in deep, deep trouble. You're probably going to enjoy the season for all of one day, before your shack starts to float off. If you're lucky enough to have a shack. If you're living on the streets (and a very large percentage of Mumbai's population does just that), you're going to be reduced to holding off the rain with a plastic sheet drawn over yourself, while you soak from below. You're in for several months of misery, as you're forced to live in several feet of fetid gutter water, struggling to find something clean to drink. But hey, at least the demolitions of your homes is on pause! :-(

Enjoy the 'soons!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Why Science Fiction is like Diabetes

I like Science Fiction (Sci-Fi). I like it a lot. While in the shower a couple of days ago, I got to thinking about it in a lot more detail than I usually do.

What is science fiction all about? What's at the core of it? How do you classify it? Why do we have a genre of fiction called science fiction at all? Is science fiction about space aliens and laser blasters and space fighters impossibly going 'whoosh' though the vacuum of space? (Well no, that's what crap sci-fi is about, but I'm getting ahead of myself...)

Or is it more?

It's more.

Allow me to broadly classify science fiction into two wide categories. I'll name them in the style of diabetes; Type 1 and Type 2 Sci-Fi. As I discuss this taxonomical system of mine, I hope it'll bring out what I believe is at the core of science fiction.

Type 1 Sci-Fi: Asking the right questions

Good science fiction, like good science, is all about asking interesting questions.

What if...?

What if there was no more scarcity and everyone could have whatever they wanted in whatever quantity they wanted? What if it were possible to indefinitely delay death? What if we faced an immediate, external existential threat? How would human society or a set of human being react to these situations?

You take human society and/or a human protagonist and place them in a new situation and you see what happens.

Individual episodes of Star Trek, for example, when they're not talking about 'reversing the polarity' of some gizmo or another, are usually of this type. So are BattleStar Galactica's episodes (the 're-imagined' series). For example, in the episode "Flesh and Bone" a very interesting issue that was dealt with, was that of torture. It's unethical to torture and summarily execute a human being, but is it ethical to torture an artificial but sapient creature? This raises other interesting questions. If it's ethical to prefer the safety of a human being over that of an animal's because of sentience, then shouldn't we prefer the safety of a machine over that of a human being if it's smarter?

If you start thinking of Sci-Fi in these terms, then many books which you might not have ever thought of as Sci-Fi, can actually be classified under it. A good example would be Orwell's 1984. Not too many people would call it 'science fiction', but it is a very good example of the genre in my opinion. The movie THX 1138 (Lucas' first proper movie) is basically an adaptation of 1984 and it's considered pucca Sci-Fi.

Good Sci-Fi is not about machines or robots or technology, it's about people and society.

Type 2 Sci-Fi: Space Opera

Space Opera is all about splashing about and painting on a broader canvas. Things like Star Wars, Firefly, Lost in Space etc. all fall under this category. Let's take Star Wars for example, since it's the most familiar. The entire story could just as easily have been set in a more contemporary time and 'galaxy', instead of being set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away". Replace light sabers with steel swords, X-Wings and TIE fighters with horses and the space ships with galleons and you don't really lose too much. At its heart, it's a take of adventure, war and magic and would fit right into the 14th century.

Having the story play out across an entire galaxy however, increases the sense of grandeur and 'space', if you will. Why have Vader destroy a village when you can have him blow up an entire planet? Why give him tuberculosis when you can have him breath like an asthmatic horse by putting him in a ventilator suit?

Type 2 Sci-Fi is not as deep as Type 1 Sci-Fi, but it can be a whole load of fun! :-)

Science Fiction: The thinking man's time-pass

Type 1 Sci-Fi is what I really love, though I don't mind Type 2 when I'm in the mood. I find Type 1 Sci-Fi, like the works of Banks or Baxter extremely enjoyable and I can say that some works have significantly broadened my mind. For example, it was one of Baxter's short stories that really helped me understand the concept of Space-Time! :-) My brother thinks it's a waste of time, but I can think of worse ways to relax.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

BarCamp Mumbai May-2006

It was the best of camps, it was the worst of camps...

So I went to the Mumbai BarCamp held appropriately on the 13th of May at IIT Mumbai; and was thoroughly disappointed by the quality of the vast majority of the speakers as well as the venue.

What went wrong? Where to begin!

1. It must have been 33-35 deg Celsius out, with very high humidity and all the slightly interesting talks were held in an unventilated, non air-conditioned room. I was sweating like a pig in sauna and my God, I stank! It just wasn't possible to concentrate in such circumstances.

2. This is supposed to be a BarCamp, not a conference. Sandeep was the one who really pointed this out. We were supposed to be discussing these topics interactively, not sitting in chairs listening to droning speakers...

3. ...and the speakers! Where did they find this bunch?! The first talk was on 'SMS Applications'. At the end of it, I knew nothing significant about this technology, but had learned that it may in fact be physically possible to be bored to death. I was really looking forward to a planned talk on OpenLaszlo and Flex, however, both turned out to be completely empty of content. The only bright spot was a talk by some guy from Pinstorm about the mechanics of optimising Google AdWords campaigns. That was interesting, however, the heat and humidity had sucked all the life out of me by then.

4. Let's not leave the audience out of this however! What a bunch of morons! In just about every talk I was in there were a couple of idiots (different ones every time!) who would bore everyone with endless, inane questions with very little relevance to the topic at hand. You're supposed to ask 'questions' in order to learn retards! Not to try and push your own agenda, you imbeciles! It's a good thing things weren't as interactive as BarCamps should be. I shudder to think of the quality of the discussion.

The only redeeming quality of the entire circus was that I got to meet Vinay and Chandrasing. We really clicked and ended up spending pretty much our entire free time holding spirited debates on everything from LISP to PHP, OOP to Procedural programming. After the fiasco that was BarCamp Mumbai finally ended, we went out to the Hirandani Complex where we held out own mini-BarCamp (FooCamp? / BazCamp?). I learnt a hell of a lot more in those few hours than I did in the entire day before it.

The plan's now to meet every month or so for our own, more exclusive and as yet un-named, gathering (FooCamp!) and discuss matters of importance to us. Code a bit too. Get our hands dirty.

Let's see how things work out! Even if all we end up doing is meeting up in the swamps and flinging poo at each other (PooCamp!), it'll be better than a BarCamp!

A fork() in the road

So I fired my employers last Friday; and boy do I feel great! :-D

Hmmm, that makes things sound more adversarial than they actually were. I'd actually given my notice some 3 months ago and the parting was as amicable as these things usually are. Lots of good-lucks and fare-thee-wells and such. No fireworks or artillery or bridges set ablaze, thank God. That stuff can be quite unpleasant.

Anyway. I've decided to head out on my own as an independent consultant/ contractor/ freelancer/ what have you. I tried to tread down this path some 2 years ago as well, but things didn't turn out too well then. I'm better prepared now, or at least, I hope I am :-)

So why the big change? Well, de jure, there's been no change at all! For the last year and a half, partly for tax reasons, I've been a 'consultant' anyway. So my official designation hasn't changed at all. Of course, de facto, there's all kinds of good stuff now. I've managed to shed one of the most irritating aspects of working in Mumbai; the commute. I used to spend around 1:30 hours each way, every day just to get to and from the office. That's out now and I have an extra 3 hours everyday to myself now, even if I continue to spend the normal 9 hours at work as I used to. And there's the other difference. I have a slightly unique style of working when I'm programming. I work in bursts of intense activity, with long breaks in the middle. The average work-place can't really accommodate such a style, preferring employees to work at a steady pace through out the day. So I used to end up frustratingly trapped in the office for several unproductive hours everyday. No more of that now! :-)

I like change too, so working on a myriad of different projects for different people seems very exciting... and once things get going, I'm hoping it'll be a lot more lucrative than being a wage-slave.

So I'm going to give it 2-3 months. Let's see how things work out in that time. Here's wishing me some much needed luck! :-D