Walking in Howth

Jutting off the edge of the mainland, Howth is a wondrous coastal town a few minutes off Dublin. A working harbour, panoramic-Irish Sea views, drop-by at W.B. Yeats (coastal?) home and an exhilarating and nerve-wrecking Cliff Walk along the raw terrain outlining the coast, makes it a worthy visit.

In early November when I did the walk, midst the misty rain, criss-crossing the multiple “Dangerous Cliffs” signs, I wobbled between moments of excitement on seeing exhilarating natural heathland views and, minutes of anxiety treading down the moss-covered slippery terrain often giddily close to steep edges and dangerously abrupt heights. Lack of proper guideposts or safety railings and no sight of people added to the excitement (or was it fear?), I continued on and I am glad I did because walking past abandoned cottages through weedy shrubs and purple bluebells, with the symphony of waves crashing on the raw rough sea crags I saw what perhaps would have led H.G. Wells to describe the view of the Howth Head as “one of the most beautiful views of the world.” The sun did not show up for the rest of the trip and I walked through the middle of the town to finish my walk, ecstatic and satisfied as I angled for a seat in the Fish and Chips stop outside the DART station.



Saying No

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer at IDEO:

Creative people thrive on serendipity, spontaneous interactions, moments of ribald humor, intense debate or just simple eye contact, and I felt as if I was losing myself. I decided that it was time to act. So I tried an experiment. I just stopped saying yes and started saying no to things.

Lovely read from NYT.

Blue is the warmest colour

London loves history. It does not take you long to figure out that once you are here. It all began with this interesting story about the place I am living in. So you see, the baroque mask is something that the UCL New Hall could not have gotten rid of as it was ‘listed’ as a result of which the new building had to come up around the old facade. The older the building, the more likely it is to be listed.

And this way of preserving heritage in the form of listing buildings extends to commemorating places where famous people lived by erecting a blue plaque in their memory. Blue plaques seem to be everywhere in London, and with about 900 blue plaques floating around it’s no surprise. The London Blue Plaques are sort of like The Hollywood Walk of Fame-except they are a tad more prestigious.

Blue plaques are placed on buildings – occasionally grand, often ordinary – where famous people lived and worked. Sigmund Freud lived and worked in fashionable Hampstead; Charles Darwin in UCL’s campus; Isaac Newton in Soho; Charles Dickens in private street of Camden; Mozart composed his first symphony in the elegant neighbourhood of Chelsea. As with all fame, of course, many of the Blue Plaques of London commemorate people the average person don’t know.

Such memorials provide a chance to stop and think about something because we’ve stumbled across a relevant point in space, in the same way a google doodle invites us to think of someone or something just because of a particular point in time.

You can find a list of all blue plaques in London here or can make a fun blue plaque for yourself here.

To pause, to ponder, to tweet or to move on

Sherry Turkle:

A 14-year-old girl tells me how she gets her device-smitten father to engage with her during dinner: “Dad, stop Googling. I don’t care about the right answer. I want to talk to you.” A 14-year-old boy reflects: “Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it is wonderful. You can think. People don’t know that.”

John Dickerson:

When you pause to write about something—even if it’s for Twitter or Facebook—you are engaging with it. Something within you is inspired and, at the very least, you’ve got to pick the words and context to convey meaning for your private recollection or, if you make it public, for the larger world.

Sounds & Notes from London

It may just sound weird but I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the woman who sells The Big Issue outside the Waterstones on Gower Street. Not that I am unsympathetic towards the cause of The Big Issue but there is something eerily scary about her voice. I even avoid going to that part of the Waterstones but still every visit to Waterstones is full of reminiscences of that sound. This gets me to think if there is a hierarchy of senses in a way that we end up remembering more visual experiences or associate sounds with visuals and then in a similar order may be taste or smell or touch. In most cases it is the visual experience that one recalls most often or if there is a visual associated with a sound or a smell or a taste or touch it becomes easier to remember. Is this the reason we take more pictures than we record sounds or has the medium somehow adopted itself to a hierarchy of senses which perches vision right at the top? Is this the reason we have more apps or platforms that make it easier for us to take pictures, record our visual experiences and share with others?

I think about sound as a photographer. I’m not a “good photographer” but I do it enough that when I’m out in the world I see things in terms of what I would like to see again or that I would like someone else to see from a particular perspective. That’s my guiding principle with pictures. I wonder why exactly we have such a different relationship with sound as compared to how we relate to images. We have music, of course, but that’s not like photography at all. Music is the brush of a paint on canvas or a sculpture or graceful curve of an atrium. But music is not photograph of sounds.

I found this group on Soundcloud, Sound Art, that advertises itself as interested in ambient recordings, but in practice it looks more like another place for people to post their sick jams. What I want is a place to hear things that people record in the spaces around them. This seems reasonable to me: An app with just one button to record and another to share. I’d have fewer “friends” than on Instagram, in the realm of sound, but there would surely be some. And some who use the app would be pushed to find better and more interesting sounds, and to appreciate those sounds in new and different ways.

It’s worth discussing why this audio-sharing network would be so much smaller than the visual ones and why there would be less interest. For starters, vision is the dominant sense. All I really need to prove this is to ask which sense you would rather lose, but it’s still important to look a bit closer than that. Research has shown that up to 85 percent of our perception, learning, and cognition is mediated through vision. Just think of absolutely anything you enjoy: “running,” “chocolates,” “plants,” or “cats.” If you’re an average person, you saw those things in your imagination. (Possible exceptions, like “sex,” are an interesting digression, however.)

On Instagram people share subjects. In my experience, they don’t share very much ambience. There is very little to be found in the sense of a place on photo sharing sites. Rarely do I get a chance to “like” a photo of a room or some field. This is a shame. I’d like to be better able to share environments and ambience in general. We’ve reached a particular point in evolution and technological advancement that we don’t need to dote on vision anymore to survive or at least not as much as we used to. We have a vision-based internet and given that the internet itself doesn’t exist as an actual space, in the sense of needing to be spatially navigated, perhaps sound just needs a better advocate than websites that autoplay horrible music.

So: a sharing network for sounds. Someone build that. I’ll be your first member.



Flickr image via

So I moved to London to study Digital Anthropology

It does not happen too often that you walk a few feet around a place and you see a house which was once home to Charles Dickens and another one whose inhabitants included George Bernard Shaw and Virgina Woolf. And then you see someone ‘almost flipping pages’ of supposedly, a book on their Kindle, as they sit by the sides of these historic but still functional precincts.

This is the leafy Bloomsbury in London. How good are the chances that one of them is reading a Great Expectations or a Pygamalion on those reading devices? It makes me wonder if they already had one of those books in paper and downloaded an e-copy so that they can read one as they move around. Or what else can be the reason that they decided to ‘consume’ (which has a lot of deeper meaning than what we usually associate it with) or read the book on their e-devices? And once they finish reading the book will they recommend the book to someone in their different social circles – friends, family and workspace colleagues? And if they do recommend how will they do, on Facebook or WhatsApp or walk up to a friend and talk about it? Will they Instagram the cover of the book because they liked the cover art and share it on their digital social networks?

What I realise quite as much is aspects of consumption of new media have been growing beyond physical media into bits and stream and clouds of data, and beyond the largely one-way conventional distribution channels to a more social experience. And this is why I find myself in London spending the next year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). The programme is (arguably) the only one of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, “locating the field of digital communication and digital media on a global context using field-based methods” is important. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you talk to people, contact your family, look for information, conduct business, and (special to Instagram) take pictures with a hint of nostalgia. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organisation. We need to derive new methods to study how our behaviour and relationship with entities around us is changing because of technology.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, society, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. As we experience wearable devices and smart watches around us, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about. And then I wanted to steer my experience in digital marketing and business of over the last six years into something more grounded in inter-disciplinary social sciences theory and critical analyses so that it gives me new perspectives to think or evaluate business problems once I go back to work after the course.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard to go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online group, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.

Tailpiece: It is highly unlikely that you come across a statue of Mahatama Gandhi in close proximity with a statue of Rabindranath Tagore anywhere in India. I feel extremely chuffed almost every morning, walking past their statues in Bloomsbury, both of whom studied in UCL.

Which Book?

No, this is not a quiz question. This is actually pretty embarrassing, but I am kind of in need of some pop culture help here.

I watched this very interesting play a few days back – A Man for all Seasons. The play, slightly dull talked about the Henry the Eight, no-heir-second-marriage episode and the creation of Protestant Church by moving away from Pope’s Roman Catholic. The whole story was told from the perspective of Sir Thomas More, staunch Catholic, and the trials and tribulations he goes through by not swearing allegiance to the new Church.I found the play to be just okay.

Now the embarrassing part – there is this book I’ve recommended to other people before, which tell the same story from another character’s perspective and when I was trying to recollect the name recently, my mind went completely, totally blank. I knew the name of that book, but no, now the name eludes me. It drove me completely nuts last week. And the worst thing is, forgetting the name of this book is only a small fragment in the grand scheme of things. I have this sneaking suspicion that I am really growing old, albiet gradually. Like my neurons are beginning to realize that they cannot spark and retrieve information when I need them to. It shows in the oddest of instances – when you cannot recall the name of that newspaper editor ia quiz or the name of that actor when you’re talking to a friend about another movie. It’s like as if you know it just before that particular flash of second when you needed to know it the most.

There are three conclusions I draw from this:

I am getting old. My brain cells realize this and are slowly committing harakiri. I like that mental image, actually. Billions and billions of microscopic katana in my head slicing through axons (axii?) in I-am-too-old-for-this-shit bursts.
I think I am all set to become an unreliable narrator. I have a valid excuse.
This space intentionally left blank. I forgot what I had to say. (See? SEE?)

Post-script: Somewhere in the middle of writing this post, the name of the book just popped in my head. And it was the audible, life-affirming sort of pop, like when you suddenly swallow and the buzzing in your ear goes away and everything sounds so much clearer. It does not do anything about my feeling of losing-it-all, but whew. I know what the name is. Yes, that defeats the whole purpose of this post, but hey, what’s a nice redundant post between friends, huh?

As you were, folks. Keep calm and carry on.

Post post-script: The name of the book, for those of you interested, is Wolf Hall. It’s written by Hilary Mantel who won a Booker for this a couple of years back. And she has just come out with a sequel to this book – Bring up the Bodies.