March 26, 2010
ABC News’ Nightline recently sponsored a Faceoff debate with Deepak Chopra & Jean Houston on one side and Sam Harris & Michael Shermer on the other. The topic: Does God have a future? This is a bit like debating whether Bugs Bunny will continue to be fond of carrots. It’s not a meaningless question, but perhaps it’s one best left to future rabbit scholars who’ll be around to observe the matter first hand. Still, if God’s advocates these days are the likes of Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston, then I have to feel a little sorry for the Perfect One.
Deepak Chopra is a brother, so it was somewhat painful to watch the man’s passionate incoherence. He spoke in aggrieved fragments, choppy phrases circling the wagons of his non-argument. Chopra-bhai had it in for Shermer, which is understandable, since Shermer has made it a point to ridicule him as Dr. Woo-Woo. Sample exchange:
Chopra: For people like Michael– not you so much [Sam Harris]– for people like Michael, to take all of the inner experience, all of the rich inner experience and try to codify it in a graph with data is absurd.
Shermer: As opposed to what? Just calling it fuzzy words? How does that help us understand it?
Chopra: That’s such an OUT, Michael. That’s such an out.
Chopra: You use the word ‘fuzzy’. Use the word ‘woo-woo’ and you’re out of the argument.
Indeed. What was the argument again?
But it doesn’t really matter. The debate wasn’t a debate because the two sides were using words very differently. Harris & Shermer were using reason, that is, using language with its usual adult conventions of having to make sense. The other side seem to use words to evoke cosmic feeling. Dr. Houston writes things like: “That is you — the human being that is the microcosm or, if you will, the fractal of the Infinite self. The human Selfing game may be what Infinity does for fun.” It seems to me that such speech-acts have a certain ritualistic role. It’s not too far removed– in emotional affect anyway– from shamanic chants, motherese, and the nonsense rhymes of children.
Jean Houston seemed more aware than Chopra-bhai that the place and time weren’t suited for chanting. Or perhaps it was simply that she wasn’t allowed to speak. Every now and then she’d raise her hand to indicate she wanted to speak, but her attempts were ignored by the three men. Pretty brutal.
It’s easy to make fun of Chopra-bhai and Dr. Houston. But they make life more interesting, not less. So a little sympathy may not be out of order. We need them around, if only to remind us there’s no curing the imagination. Perhaps they truly believe the woo-woo they claim to believe. And what’s the harm? At best, it’s only the stuff of foma, wampeters and granfalloons. At worst, it only further delays a serious study of Bugs Bunny and his inexplicable passion for carrots.
October 19, 2009
In 1973, a time of pitchforks, flaming bras and napalm, the University of Berkeley received a total of 12,763 graduate program applications. 8,442 apps were from men, and the remaining 4,321 apps were from womenLet me forestall impertinent questions by quickly adding that before Al Gore invented the net, gender used to be a simple binary affair: you were either male or female; there were no in-between’s, no undecided’s, no none-of-the-above’s and no you-tell-me’s.†. Of this hopeful lot, Berkeley admitted 3,738 men and 1,494 women. In other words, about 44% of the men were admitted compared with 35% of the women. A nine-percent difference. A woman applying to Berkeley’s grad programs had a 9% less chance of being admitted than a male. That, as statisticians like to joke, smelled of Fisher.
Assuming that women candidates were as qualified as the male candidates, what could explain why the discrepancy in admission rates was so large? Sexism, of course. There was no use pointing out that Berkeley was in effing California, not Louisiana. No use pointing out that 1,494 women had been admitted. Token women didn’t count. Women twice as good as men didn’t count twofold. Men as gentle as temple cows didn’t count. What counted was the 9%.
Eugene Hammel, the male Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, had the bright idea of asking Peter Bickel, a male statistics prof who was on the board of the Grad Council at Berkeley, to analyze the admissions data. The result of that analysis by Bickel, Hammel and O’Connell is now a statistical classic. They showed that on a department by department basis, if there was a bias, it was a slight one in favor of admitting women over men.
How was this possible? How could it be that at a departmental level, women were as likely, if not slightly more likely, to be admitted, but the admission rates for women were 9% lower than that of men? Was it… Could it be… Could it really be just… ARITHMETIC!!!
Yes. While the odds of admission did favor women on a department-by-department basis, the admission standards of different departments were not all the same. Some departments, say, Physics, had notoriously high standards. Other departments, say, Sociology, had notoriously low ones. What Bickel and gang showed was that women were applying in greater proportion to the more difficult programs rather than the easy ones, and so were getting rejected at higher rates. Men, strategically unambitious as always, were much more spread across the departments, and hence their slight disadvantage in odds was offset by the fact that more of them had sent their sweet nothings to the floozy departments. It was a tale with a statistical villain.
The villain’s name is Simpson’s Paradox. It is a statistical paradox that often arises when we calculate averages over aggregates. It sometimes happens that a statement may be true of every mixed subgroup (“Compared with men, women have a slightly higher odds of getting admitted to engineering/humanities/sciences/architecture/…”), but when you aggregate over all the groups, the statement turns false (“women have a significantly lower odds of getting admitted”). Simpson’s Paradox– that is, the potential for the paradox– plagues mixtures, heterogeneity, population studies of all kinds. It is perhaps the closest thing there is to the problem of evil in statistics.
So how is all this relevant to science fiction? Well, say there’s this fantasy world with two groups (genders) of writers (candidates): West and Other. Both groups have more or less the same distribution of talent. There are fewer Other writers than Western ones, and some chaps belong to both groups, but never mind that. Writers send in their stories to SF&F outlets (departments). Each outlet’s acceptance (admission) procedure is decided by an Editor. Not all the outlets are equally easy. Even though most outlets are in the West, the Others have a slightly better chance on a per outlet basis (because editors in this world act to encourage new voices). However, it turns out that the Others mostly apply to the harder-to-get-into outlets. Why? Well, these are the well-known ones, and if you’re in Pune, India, why send a story to the Vampire Gnome Anthology, when for the same time and postal expense and much greater potential benefit, you could send it to the New Yorker? And so it happens that there are great differences between acceptance rates for Westerners as compared to the Others. In this speculative world– hypothetical liberal world– Simpson’s Paradox, not racism, is the villain.
That world may not be our world. In our world, we have editors like William Sanders. But it also has editors who were willing to take chances with my writing, some of it truly godawful. So it’s hard to be sure. I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt. Besides, I’d take doubt any day over the certainties of pitchforks, flaming bras and napalm.
Ashok Banker’s explosive mofu of an interview in the World SF blog has just gone viral, and anyone who’s detected air going out through his/her two nostrils should give it a dekko.
“In the US and UK publishing industries, particularly in the genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy, it’s like a coloured man trying to exercise his right to vote in an all-white Southern town in the 1950s. Sure, we have the right. But try getting past those guys in the white sheets and hoods holding the burning cross up high.”
Holy white-sheeted mooing cow!
Desi SF– and I know just how much Ashok-bhai hates being considered a part of it, but nonetheless– Desi SF has a Malcolm X. Let the games begin.
October 12, 2009
John Ottinger III’s For Those Who Cry Sexism or Racism in SF Anthologies, Shut Up is one of those blog pieces that its author thinks is absolutely necessary at 9:00 PM but turns into an effing mistake by 3:00 PM the next day. It’s a kind of blog-flu. At 9:00 PM, one’s index finger hovering over the “Publish” button, passages like these have a fine ring to them:
“I’ve had it with the constant allegations that this editor or that, when designing an anthology, did not include enough women or minorities or yellow flowered harpsichords.”
“And what about all those folks that don’t get enough exposure in SF that are not women or minorities? There are not enough Christians, Islamists, or transgendered writers represented in most anthologies either. Nor are there enough writers who own dogs.”
“I want great fiction, and if that means that the anthology is skewed toward men, than so be it.”
But it’s a different story in the morning, after the caffeine has had a chance to heal what the Buddhists call dukka and the Germans, grief-bacon. John Ottinger is in for a steaming heap of dukka.
This piece has all the earmarks of one of those flaming RaceFail in the making. It has a gent called Reasonable Point sitting on the stool of Unfortunate Flippancy milking the cow of Let Me Be Clear.
Let me be clear. I don’t think John Ottinger is saying that women and minorities should be recycled as Soylent Green. I think he’s saying that we should appreciate stories as aesthetic objects and not as historical, cultural or political statements. We prefer to eat food that is food, or at the least, passes itself off as food, and it’s reasonable that editors and readers should approach reading the same way.
It’s reasonable, but as several commentators have already pointed out, telling people to shut up is not a good way to get a conversation going. And furthermore, telling people to shut up also happens, unfortunately enough, to be the tool of choice of control-freaks everywhere.
Actually, allow me to disagree with myself. What John wants is not reasonable. It’s bloody misguided, that’s what it is. Tastes are not instinctive things; editors have as much a role in shaping tastes (think Gernsback and Campbell) as they have in catering to them. But that means taking chances, giving new things a try, and even risk succeeding. Shit happens. But change needs a little encouragement. Or as Isaac Newton, that great minority alchemist, put it:
“A body persists its state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force.”
Bet he didn’t write that at 9:00 pm.
August 4, 2009
"You will, I am sure, agree with me that … if page 534 finds us only in the second chapter, the length of the first one must have been really intolerable."
Sherlock Holmes in The Valley Of Fear (1888)
For those who came in sideways: this is a continuation of Part 1 (Getting There).
I’ll admit it. The prognosis is not good. If it took me 3,000 words to cover a distance of three days, then obviously, dear reader, you have clambered onto a slow horse. The only consolation I can offer is that you could have been on Tristram Shandy, who took two-and-half volumes to traverse one day of his life.
But this should be brief. I was all set to narrate the events of the three weeks at IIT-K, when the Brain reminded me that I’d issued some promissory notes at the workshop. One of them was that the workshop would be a safe place. A place where any kind of story could be written. Tears, exultation and civilized screaming were permitted, but there would be no fatwas, retaliations, arsenic or pistols at dawn. Most importantly, what happened in Kanpur would stay in Kanpur.
Which puts me in a bind. Whereof I wish to speak, thereof I cannot. Hereof, I’ll have to be sneaky.
A typical day ran from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM, with ninety minutes for lunch (1:00-2:30), and two fifteen minutes breaks. About three hours per day were spent on the critiques, which left about four hours at the instructor’s discretion.
Ah, the critique sessions. For me (and regrettably, for the students too), the critiques were the best part of the day. We tried to do three critiques per day. I preferred to do the critiques in the morning, whereas Vandana and Suchitra reserved them for the afternoons.
The participants were serious about the critiques. For me, it’s what made the workshop a success. Their writing changed. It got more ambitious. Experimental. One writer produced a story that was told in the form of schoolbook exercises. Another reached deep into himself and the myth of Holika, reached for the look in a witch’s eyes as she burns, poor helpless bitch, and produced a postmodern rendering: terrifying, unforgettable and unforgiving. There was a story in which guilt turns memory into music, there was a story about unstable threesomes, one about gigolo robots, there were Stories No One Got, stories with a new interpretation of Sita, clueless lesbians, kings with red horns, shoot-outs with centaurs, stories where old Indian myths were used as stirring spoons rather than spice… with three stories per writer, fifteen writers and three weeks, not to mention the daily reading assignments, we were soon awash in stories.
In the third week (Vandana’s week), two of the students proposed that the authors’ names be withheld from the stories. Naturally, the author had to offer a faux-critique of his/her work. I found the results fascinating. The participants were mostly unable to identify who had written which story. The routine gasps of “You wrote that?” undid a lot of smug categories. People simply wouldn’t stay put in their assigned slots: X-is-good-but. Y-writes-stories-that. Z-has-an-unfortunate-fondness-for.
How does critiquing work when it works? Not sure. The Brain has a quantum-mystical theory, accurate to several decimal points. But it’s a digression, and despite what my friend Tristram Shandy says about digressions (“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine—they are the life, the soul of reading!”), I must resist the impulse and plod on.
July 26, 2009
What a blast! I’ve been around the sun a few times (all right, many times), and there’s always something new and cool in every trip, but this particular chakkar is turning to be really special. A year of firsts for me. I’ll have my first novel out this year. And this is the year we were finally able to hold the first Indian SF Workshop. The first Great Indian SF Workshop That Still Has No Name. It’s exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do when I grew up– okay, that’s a lie; I wanted to be a famous theoretical physicist renowned for his humility– but bloody hell, I’m glad things have worked out the way they have.
I should have blogged about the workshop on a daily basis, but here’s the catch: if you’re blogging, you’re not doing other things, and those three weeks at IIT-Kanpur were filled with doing other things. Vandana Singh put up a couple of lovely pieces on her experiences at the workshop, and that finally shamed me into action. I've followed the historian's policy of making up what s/he cannot remember.
Saturday, June 13, 2009: I’ve parked my corpus at Tej’s Abode, a cool boutique hotel in GK-II’s S-block in Delhi. I’ve been told to say “GK-2” and “S-block.” My elder brother, who’s under the impression I was raised by courteous Swedish yodelers, gave me a lot of unsolicited advice on how to survive in Delhi, including the nugget that I should never, ever, ask to be taken to “Greater Kailash 2”:
“You might as well hand them your wallet.”
I did get ripped off, but it was well within class-warfare limits.
I told Kaushal, the efficient day-manager at Tej’s Abode, that I had a morning train to catch, and that it was a 6:15 AM train, yes, the Lucknow Shatabdi, and that I really had to catch it, because I really had to be in Kanpur for a workshop. So. 6:15. We chatted a bit about phones and hotel bills and wireless codes. I made sure to set the cell phone’s alarm for 4:15 AM. Actually, it’s unnecessary. Once I set an alarm, the Brain always wakes me a few minutes earlier, as if to demonstrate that it could also run a hotel or two. Pretty freaky, this human time-sense thing. Why should wetware have any clue about the number system we use to mark how many times one needle goes around another? Suppose I used a binary clock? Wake me up at 00100.01111, please. I suppose it’d probably piss off the Brain.
Sunday June 14, 2009: Missed the damn train! My bloody fault too. I had woken up at 4:15, was ready by 5:00, waited till 5:15, then headed downstairs. Mahesh, one of the guys who worked there, had been sleeping, but woke up, listened calmly to my panicked shrieks, explained that nobody had told him anything about getting any taxi, took charge of the situation and ran out to hail a cab or a rickshaw or a passing camel.
April 3, 2009
March 30, 2009
Vandana Singh, Suchitra Mathur and I are teaching a three-week speculative-fiction workshop at IIT-Kanpur in June/July this year. The application form is here, and the announcement is here. IIT-K doesn’t have a web link yet.
There have been other SF workshops in India of course, but they’ve been sporadic affairs designed to teach beginners. Our focus is a bit different. We’re aiming to help the semipro writer get to the next level. We also intend to make this an annual affair. The long-term goal is to create a network of desi spec-fic writers. Right now, there’s a lot of talent, but they mostly work in isolation. We hope to change that.The instructors may be different year to year, but the overall goals of the workshop will remain the same. Sustainability is important here, because it’s probably going to take a couple of decades of effort to make a real difference. But I try not to dwell on that part.
Suchitra Mathur at IITK had to do most of the hard work in setting up the workshop, and now we’ll reap the benefits of her hard work. I know. It is unfair. I know. But look yaar, I didn’t design the Matrix.
p>But this blog is not about the workshop. It’s about putting together a list of spec-fic stories for the workshop. One problem with writing workshops is that the participants are all working off different stories. It helps to have a common pool of stories for discussions about voice, point of view, dialog handling and so on. Making the list is a lot of fun, but it’s also turning out to be a lot harder than I thought. It reminds me of the scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack talks about the art of making a compilation tape:
“A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to hold the attention. Then you have to take it up a notch, but not blow your wad, so maybe cool it off a notch, and you can’t put the same artist twice on the tape, except if some subtle point or lesson or theme involved, and even then not the two of them in a row, and you can’t woo somebody with Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and then bash their head off with something like GBH’s “City Baby Attacked by Rats,” and… oh, there are a lot of rules…”
Exactly. So what would be the killer first story?
November 5, 2008
The Democrats are in deep disarray over the devastating success of their candidate Barack Obama. In cities, towns and college campuses across the country, the same refrain could be heard.
"We got complacent, dude," admitted PingMe32, a self-declared transhuman. "Just because we've failed for twenty odd years, we thought we could take the American people for granted. But they were hip to our game. We totally deserved to win."
But others vehemently disagreed:
"I don't know what else we could have done," mused a baffled Dr. Tom Fumblesworth, president of the Fruit Fly Anti-Defamation League. "We picked a guy named Hussein, a black guy, a Kenyan-American, an elitist from Harvard, a community rabble-rouser, a guy who likes to use complicated words like 'audacity.' That's at least four syllables. I guess the message is that we should have played it safe and picked an illegal immigrant as the nominee. Well, America, we hear you, loud and clear."
Perhaps this unidirectional finger-pointing itself explains why the party failed in its efforts to lose. The party, insiders confided, had moved far from its roots of inconsistency and incoherence. They had moved like an organism with six legs attached to one body instead of six bodies attached to one leg. The signs of success were on the wall, and while the democrats texted, facebooked, blogged and goosed them to each other, they'd forgotten the words of Jimmy Carter: "A little organization is a dangerous thing."
Anil Menon, maverick maverick and self-declared human, found comfort in liberal mathematics:
"A system built for failure cannot succeed at failing on a consistent basis. It's asking for perfect imperfection, and Godel only promised imperfect perfection. Failure is not always an option."
Leading democrats declared they would simply have to try harder. Many could be spotted fanning out to the libraries and book-meets to hammer out a new success-proof strategy.
"We need to read more, study more, think more and do less," sighed award-winning writer and feminazi, Mary Wollstonecraft. "We've managed not to come through before. The darkest night awaits the brightest dawn. We will endure. We. Will. Endure."
If only failure were so simple. Against talent, ambition, hopes and human will, what can mere negativity achieve? If a Barack Obama is possible, if such a possibility is possible, if probability itself has become a subset of the doable, then the Impossible may be, just maybe, the last citizen left its once vast and marmoreal imperium. Be kind: hug a democrat today.
October 22, 2008
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All right, let's all calm down. Mars is still a few weeks away and the center of the galaxy will take at least a month. Maybe even two.
Who cares!!!!! Chandrayaan I of 2,4,5, 10 Million buts and bolts is on its way to the moon. The moon! The moon. The goddamn moon! I'm so thrilled I could bark. I am, actually.
It seems the payload has to be under 1500 kg, which worried me. 1500 kgs means there's space for about 18 dancers (80 kgs/dancer), and with eight dancers for the hero and eight for the heroine, that leaves a total of just 80 kgs for the 11 scientific payloads. Tight. Very tight. Still, if the damn vehicle managed to crawl through the Indian bureaucracy, anything is feasible.
What a long, long wait it has been. The Sanskrit poets had been tempting us for centuries. Just listen to Sarva:
The moon that spreads its rays jasmine-white
as lovely as the breast of a Kashmiri girl
and its mark, as waterlily-dark,
is like the painting of her breast with musk.
I can't confirm the accuracy of the simile, alas, but the man sounds like he knows what he's talking about. At any rate, if that doesn't motivate an astronomer to fiddle with his astrolabe, I don't know what will.
"Chandrayaan," as the newspapers tell us, is "ancient" Sanskrit for "moon vehicle." Ancient Sanskrit is Vedic Sanskrit, and Chandrayaan is probably more like "post-vedic" Sanskrit usage, even though both pieces (Chandra and yaan) do appear in the Rig-ved. The word "Soma" is often used as a synonym for the moon (sometime visualized as the cup containing soma, the ambrosia of the Gods, namely, Heineken beer) so perhaps Chandrayaan could also be converse-translated as "beer-vehicle" in ancient English.
And Soma is what our ancients should be tippling at the moment. That Chandrayaan is making its way towards the vaulting arch of heaven is due in part to all those long centuries of slokas, sutras, shastras and smritis. Let a poet (Dharmakirti) have the last say:
The East has borne the Moon.
Love dances and the nymphs of the directions laugh,
while the wind scatters holi,
the pollen of waterlilies, through heaven's court.
Shubh yatra, Chandrayaan.