Suggestions: Conferences and festivals

I recently attended FOSSMeet 2016 at NIT Calicut. The organizers did a fantastic job of setting up the venue, making travel convenient, and putting visitors up in hostels and guest houses. I realize most of the work involved in setting up a successful conference goes on behind the scenes, so it's a testament to their efforts that it went off so smoothly. The gang asked me for feedback multiple times toward the end of the conference. Verbal feedback is always difficult to remember and digest, so I figured the old #openletter format made sense here.


If everything that goes into a good conference happens invisibly, it's hard to know how to run a conference of your own. In the free/open-source spirit, I hope the folks from FOSSMeet (and other conferences) start documenting their procedures, contact points, processes, and materials.

How did you find speakers? Who did you reach out to for content and sponsorship? How did you make the website? How did you coordinate organization? How did you arrange the conference with faculty? What were some of the pitfalls the next organizers should watch out for?

Even if this "document" is little more than a blog post with an appropriate title, it could really help someone in the future. Preferably, organizers could publish a living document under a free/open license so other people can iterate on it. I've had multiple conversation with the HasGeek folks about documenting and publishing their procedures.

Zero Waste

I always ask people why they are FOSS proponents and what their desired outcomes are. Answers vary wildly, but building a community (or maintaining one) is often high on everyone's list. Every Indian metropolis is facing a garbage crisis at the moment and events organized and attended by educated, privileged individuals should be setting the standard for city living. I was pleased to see chai served in paper cups at FOSSMeet but disappointed to see food served with styrofoam plates and plastic spoons.

Students at NIT Calicut (and other respected universities) may not even be aware that their privilege puts them in the spotlight. When they move to a city like Bangalore or Mumbai, they are the instantly the new educated middle-class of that city. Their behaviour influences others in profound ways and their preferences shape the economy. Demonstrating and advocating for Zero Waste in public spaces like University-hosted conferences is a fantastic way to raise awareness.

Zero Waste events are entirely possible and the resources exist to learn how to run one. Check out, write to them with questions at, and download their Zero Waste Event resources.

It's not necessary to go completely paperless -- I was happy to have my paper schedule crumpled in my pocket as I jumped from one workshop to the next talk. But a single A4 printed schedule is probably plenty.

Beautiful Things
"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." -William Morris
I would take this suggestion from Morris one step further: having nothing that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. Dr. Sasi Kumar mentioned this in his opening keynote: why give a bouquet of flowers? Why not a single flower? Why not a book?

At FOSSMeet, we received plaques thanking us for our time and participation. This is a wonderful gesture and I do feel the plaque falls into the "beautiful" category. However, now that I'm back in Bangalore, it will do little but engage its own beauty on the bookshelf of the nilenso library. If I had been given a book, I would have ample opportunity to think back to my weekend at FOSSMeet and to share that with others. I can hardly imagine a gift I would rather receive than a book, for any occasion.

Reach Out to Reach Out

Most of FOSSMeet was orchestrated through the NIT Calicut alumni network, which I think is fantastic. This approach could be taken one step further: Have the network reach out to their networks, as much as possible. A conference on Free and Open Source Software is bound to have a wide appeal, since there is likely to be little or no marketing for joining such-and-such company or buying into such-and-such product.

Free and Open Source Software (as far as this conference was concerned, at least) is in use in every corporation, in every office, and in almost every role. Often the network of FOSS, open data, open networks, and free documentation is non-obvious. This means that a conference focused on FOSS is likely to succeed by reaching out to more companies, non-profits, and user groups. At worst, you'll be ignored. But it's very likely you will find a whole new branch of free and open society you didn't even know existed.

The networks in the post-university world are vast... but surprisingly tight. Make a point of using social media to engage with potential speakers and attendees months in advance. Not everyone will make it to FOSSMeet 2017 but hopefully we will all know about it.

Centralize Communication

For FOSSMeet, it would have been nice to see heavier use of the @fossmeet twitter handle. Usually events like this have photos and quotes coming out of such a handle left-right-and-centre. That Twitter account can also be a triage for other communication, as it's easy for people to reach out with a quick tweet before they are pointed toward the correct IRC channel, mailing list, email address, or phone number. The 8 contact points at the bottom of the website are a bit daunting. If I weren't sure how to travel to NIT Calicut (or any other university) or what my residential arrangements would be, my first preference would be to tweet or email a central contact point.

These are all minor feedback points, but I hope that everyone running conferences at least takes a serious look at the first three (Document, Zero Waste, and Beautiful Things) as these could quickly create a feedback loop fostering increasingly positive events, year on year.
Original post by Steven Deobald - check out Hungry, horny, sleepy, curious.

HOWTO: Bicycle Commute in Bangalore

Riding a bicycle in Bangalore is surprisingly easy. Bicycles are nimble and the traffic is slow. The roads are... good enough. The weather is perfect. The pollution is an issue but not riding a bicycle only exacerbates that situation. Here are my recommendations for making riding a bike in Bangalore something between tolerable and enjoyable.

Required #1: Good Brakes

Traffic in Bangalore isn't just slow -- it's choppy. Millions of people driving cars on roads that can't support them mean traffic is as stop-and-go as a choked suburban freeway parking lot in America. Be prepared to brake. A lot. At best it will waste a lot of energy but at worst, you can get into a serious accident because sometimes you will need to stop quickly at the bottom of a hill.

Get two brakes, even if you ride a fixie. Keep the rubber fresh and keep the cables tight.

Required #2: Helmet

Surprisingly, a helmet comes in at #2. It will save you if you ever have a crash but brakes ensure you won't crash. Traffic in Bangalore is shockingly attentive. In 3 years of riding here I have never once felt at risk of a collision that wasn't my fault (because I had cheap brakes). This obviously isn't universally true, but make sure you're not hitting the ground before you worry about what will happen if you do.

Keep a beanie or hat under your helmet so you can wash it. You will sweat sometimes, especially in the summer.

Required #3: Lights

Believe it or not, we are still in non-negotiable territory. Lights are for your own safety and the safety of pedestrians. Even if you don't plan to ride at night, you will. Someone will convince you to stay for just one more chai and the next thing you know, it's dark out.

Only buy USB-rechargeable lights.
Only buy ridiculously bright lights.
Only buy rubber lights.

Invest money here. The USB recharging means you're never stuck running out for batteries and you can charge them with your phone at home/work. Many streets in Bangalore are poorly-lit; a bright front light will save you from crashing in potholes. I've had lights stolen... even by children who just think they're neat. Rubber lights mean you can take them off at every stop. You probably need to order from Amazon (local bike shops still don't carry decent lights for some reason) but it's worth it.

Pictured are the Serfas Thunderbolt USB Taillight (Rs. 2200) and the Light and Motion Urban 800FC Headlight (Rs. 8400). I couldn't be happier with either of these. The Light and Motion Urban 500 (Rs. 4800) would also work at about half the price, but 500 lumens is about as low as I'd recommend.

Required #4: Noise Pollution Cancellation

About 25% of drivers have no idea what the hell they are doing and just honk their way through the entire street. If you've spent much time commuting by motorcycle, you might be accustomed to this. I am not. My road noise interpretation was baked into my brain growing up in Southwest Saskatchewan. A loud-ass "HOOOONNNNKKKK!!!!" still means "Danger! Risk of Death!" so I impulsively turn my head to see. Any experience two-wheel rider knows that jerking your head around means jerking your vehicle around. At high speeds, this isn't safe.

So, in the interest of safety (oddly enough), I always ride with headphones. I never turn them all the way up -- a minimal amount of road noise is valuable, since some honks (from large trucks and buses, in particular) actually do mean "Danger! Risk of Death!" and not just "Get the fuck out of my way, bicycle man." Sometimes I even just ride with them in and no music on; they dampen the noise pollution and provide a believable excuse for not responding to angry motorists obnoxious horn usage.

Every time I ignore a horn, I like to believe I've contributed one input worth of behavioural training toward a single Bangalore motorist that their horn is utterly ineffective toward cyclists. Like puppies learning not to shit in the house, enough bicycles on the road might eventually train them all that horns are completely unnecessary outside of emergencies.

Handy #1: Gas Mask

This is a more recent addition to my kit, but I'm increasingly convinced it's worth it. This one isn't about immediate safety so much as it's about long-term health. It's uncomfortable, but it beats breathing a lungful of carcinogenic smoke from a garbage fire. Segregate your garbage, Bangalore. It's (finally) the law.

I like to imagine that every time someone sees me wearing a gas mask they feel instant shame for not segregating their garbage. I know this isn't true at all but it's a little more encouragement to keep this weird wetsuit rubber thing smooshed onto my face.

Handy #2:  Portable Lock

This isn't about your safety at all. Even if you think you'll never park your bike anywhere but your house or your workplace, always keep a good lock with you. We had a bicycle stolen outside a popular brunch place -- busy streets don't deter thieves. Whatever lock you buy, make sure you can always carry it with you. It should fit in your bag, around your waist, or on the bicycle frame.

Handy #3: Kevlar Tires

Bangalore's roads aren't the worst I've ridden. Some streets in Chicago were actually much worse, where the city had decided to rip up a full mile of asphalt in anticipation of repairing it... eventually. They're bad enough that you will suffer flats, though. Unless! Unless you get kevlar.

The best option are kevlar-lined tires like Continental Gatorskins or  Specialized Armadillos. I rode one one of each for all of 2015 with zero flats. High-quality tires also endure higher pressure, which helps prevent pinch flats for those times you do hit a pothole or a sharp speed breaker.

If you can't find pre-lined tires, most shops in the city now carry tire liners. If you want to be truly paranoid, you can even line kevlar tires with... more kevlar. 

Handy #4: Full Fenders

Monsoon shouldn't be an excuse for switching back to commuting in a car but drainage in Bangalore isn't ideal, so you'll need to protect yourself. Install the closest-fitting permanent fenders you can get for your bike.

Handy #5: Fixies

Fixed-gear bicycles are usually the choice of trendy kids who are looking for a difficult ride. Truthfully, if you plan on going fast, they might not be your best option. Particularly going downhill they can be quite dangerous. That said, Bangalore traffic is slow. as. hell. You will be the fastest thing on the road 90% of the time because you will rarely (if ever) reach top speed. A fixie affords you some really nice control at traffic signals and unplanned traffic jams when some doofus decides his Volkswagen's U-turn is more important than the flow of traffic for dozens of vehicles.

I still can't track stand properly but a fixie still lets me control the bicycle at very low speeds with a lot of precision. As often as I'm left waiting for lumbering cars and SUVs to waddle around each other, I'll never commute on anything else.

Do not rely on your ability to pedal brake. "Required #1: Good Brakes" still applies to fixies. Get good brakes. Two of them. Even if you're an expert fixie rider, you never know who might end up borrowing your bike.

Bonus: A Badass Office

Your office should support your cycling habit. Harass your boss. Better yet, work at an employee-owned company like nilenso to make your own rules.

Small, growing companies in Bangalore (such as Uncommon and HasGeek) are often already pro-bicycle since they have the good sense to listen to their employees even if they aren't employee-owned.

Your office should have:
  • parking
  • pump (presta and schrader)
  • showers
  • bicycle tools
  • spare tubes
  • lube

...and maybe a bicycle work mount and bicycle trainers... if they're extra-friendly. Forgive the bubblegum pink garage... we're not sure how that happened.

I hope this helps someone get on the road. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to shout at me on twitter (@deobald) or leave a comment.


Original post by Steven Deobald - check out Hungry, horny, sleepy, curious.

How do Vipassana centres in India differ?

A friend of mine recently asked for some advice on which Vipassana centre I would recommend for his first course, if he tries it during a visit to India. My explanations ended up being rather verbose, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to publicize them. If you are considering taking a Vipassana course in India, I hope this information is helpful to you!

My response:

Crazytown! Ha ha! That's awesome. Here's the rundown of the places I've tried so far:

Bangalore (Dhamma Paphulla): I did a 3-day course here, and it was okay. The 3-day course is available to anyone who has taken the 10-day introductory course. It was much less intense but I found it really valuable since my first 10-day kind of freaked me out. :P They don't have a pagoda (no meditation cells so you're always in the main hall). At the time they didn't have individual residences so you couldn't meditate there, either. They have a few now. It's directly adjacent to a village so there is sometimes more noise than one would like. There aren't a lot of trees and there aren't really any animals (cute animals provide welcome distraction on the hardest days). The paths are dirt... and sometimes mud. With all of that said, I think I find the teacher at the Bangalore centre (he lives nearby) to be one of the more approachable. The fellow who donated the farmland to create the centre is also a wonderful human being; he helped repair a flat on my mountain bike after the 3-day course then invited me to his house for tea. The centre is, of course, pretty convenient. It's about a Rs.500 Uber ride to get there and if you can't get an Uber/Ola on the way back, there's always rickshaws and buses. The metro almost reaches the village but isn't operational at the major junction points yet.

Dharamkot/Dharamshala (Dhamma Sikhara): I did my first 10-day course here. Dharamkot is a little village above McLeod Ganj, which is above Dharamshala. The space is wonderful. Weirdly, the centre is built right in the middle of a pine forest the British planted, so the whole place smells like the Canadian Rockies. The village doesn't add much noise -- the monkeys running across the tin roofs are the only intrusive sound. The centre is small and can't grow (despite receiving quite a lot of money in donations, I imagine, due to all the foreign tourists who take courses here) because there is a Tibetan meditation centre to the west and the village to the east. Hence, it has no pagoda and never will, but it does have individual residences for most meditators (shared bathrooms / showers, though) that you can meditate in when the teacher gives you the option. It was nice and cold, which meant no sweaty meditations and no mosquitoes. There are stone paths everywhere. Most of the course was attended by foreigners, which I'm guessing is generally the case because of the centre's proximity to the touristy land of McLeod Ganj. The teacher was some professor (or something) from Delhi. Sometimes he was really helpful and sometimes he felt almost dismissive but I don't think I would have made it through the course without my daily conversations with him.

Jaipur (Dhamma Thali):  I did my second 10-day here over last Christmas / New Years. This space is beautiful, if somewhat plain (it's in the desert, after all). There were langurs and peacocks and huge flocks of smaller birds. It was cool but not uncomfortably cold, which meant I avoided mosquitoes for one more year. ;) The centre is older and has stone footpaths between the residences, pagoda, and meditation hall(s) -- avoiding dust and mud made a surprising difference in my overall comfort, as I found out this year. It's a huge centre, which means the experience is more intense and the course grounds are busier. There wasn't much space to walk without seeing other dudes (or at least their feet, which meant adjusting my walking path mid-stream... this is surprisingly disrupting). The meditation hall is almost entirely underground, so it's quiet, huge, cold, and dark. That made the meditation more intense but also made the whole experience a lot creepier. The pagoda has very little light entering it so the meditations in the cells were even *more* intense. The courses in Jaipur are primarily conducted in Hindi -- there were only a handful of foreigners and the teacher was much more comfortable in Hindi than English, so I'm very glad this wasn't my first course. Despite its size, the Jaipur centre is kind of run down. The meditation hall, pagoda, mini-halls, and cafeteria are well taken care of but the residences leave something to be desired. However, most of the residences here are individual: you might have your own toilet and shower. Because this is a larger centre, some of the volunteers are Very Serious Meditators(TM), which means they can come off as kind of culty or creepy. FWIW, none of the 5 teachers I've met have given me this vibe.

Nagarjuna Sagar Dam (Dhamma Nagajjuna): I did my third 10-day course here this year and I would say this was my least-favourite centre. The government has allotted some 250 acres to Buddhist ...stuff... and the centre is on a 35 acre portion of this land. It's huge and kind of barren. The paths are dirt, which means you'll spend a lot of time knocking dust and sand out of your feet before entering the pagoda and meditation hall. The meditation hall is quite small and they fill it to capacity. So for tall people like you and I the knees-near-neighbours situation is rather uncomfortable. There is a pagoda, which is good. New students are allotted cells on the 6th day, I believe. However, the pagoda isn't shaded and the meditation cells can be surprisingly bright inside which sometimes makes meditation difficult. I was under regular assault from mosquitoes. Given a meditation technique that's all about "remaining equanimous with whatever bodily sensation is happening in the present moment", I don't think my beginner-grade equanimity is ready for 2 full meditation periods (dawn and dusk) of constant mosquito bites just yet. The meditation instructions on the 10-day course are already quite verbose and in Telangana (Andhra Pradesh) the instructions come in English, Hindi, and Telugu. The meditation centre is far removed from any city or village so it's extremely quiet save for some distant highway noise. It's right beside Nagarjuna Sagar, and there was apparently a beautiful spot where everyone would go to watch the sunset over the lake. I met a fellow on the 10th day who exclaimed, "I saw you weren't coming to see the sunsets! I wanted to tell you so badly to come and watch them... but I couldn't talk!" Quite cute. It's possible a better view of the lake might have made the course experience a bit more enjoyable so I might be underselling the centre in this blurb. The buildings are very pretty and the architecture has a lot more character than other centres -- you can see some photos on their website. Oddly, the cafeteria has allotted seating and utensils. Most of the cafeteria seating is on the ground... just in case 10 hours a day of cross-legged sitting wasn't enough. Despite having both a meditation hall(s) and a pagoda, the centre can only host about 40 men and 40 women. There was a lot of construction under way, though. The teacher seemed very approachable and though I didn't speak to him much, a Dutch girl we met after the course said he was very helpful. She spoke to the male teacher because this course had no female teacher, for some reason. Prior to this, I wasn't even aware that was allowed. After the course, we stayed in a nearly-empty hotel near the Dam... but the entire area feels like some sort of abandoned moon colony and I don't recommend sticking around for long. Most of the students on the course came from Hyderabad, which is a 2 or 3 hour drive. My one biggest issue with the centre was the administration's insistence on the "sacred" nature of the cushions. Leaving aside the introduction of religious or near-religious concepts into an otherwise largely secular practice, one of the administrators actually ruffled my cushion and told me to take my feet off of it because he didn't like the position I was sitting in. This sounds trivial, but this happened on the fourth day after a particularly painful and difficult meditation so the attention was particularly unwelcome. Between the sunlit meditation cells, the mosquitoes, and being spoken to by a staff member, this was the least intense 10-day course of the 3 I've attended. It felt like I was constantly distracted by something.

I'm not sure if that helps you pick or not. :) The most interesting / intense / terrifying / valuable course I've taken so far was definitely in Jaipur, but it's hard to say how much of that was due to the environment and how much was due to my mental state. If I had my first course to do all over again, I would probably still do it in Himachal Pradesh.

The Himachal centre is closed from December to March (it gets quite cold) so that won't be an option this Feburary. No matter which centre you pick, you should pick and apply sooner than later. Sometimes it takes them a couple weeks to respond to an application, which can make travel planning difficult.

Good luck!
Original post by Steven Deobald - check out Hungry, horny, sleepy, curious.