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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Things about London

Soveniur Shop in LondonHaving visited London last month for two weeks, and having only USA and India to compare it against, here are my first impressions. Caveat is that my time frame and very limited experience may have resulted in wrong impression.
  1. London is a very historical city in its architecture and layout. Every building can be counted as monument in itself. I’ve seen similar architectural palaces and forts in princely states in India but those are usually surrounded by simple house of common men, which I didn’t find in London. It is difficult to believe that everybody in historic London lived in stately mansions. Perhaps I’ve not visited part of London not sprawled with ornate dwellings.
  2. London has all signs of developed world but it is much less rule driven than States. Jaywalking is all too common and pedestrians hardly follow traffic signals. Cars do follow but aren’t as steadfast as they are in US. Punctuality is not strictly adhered to and up to half and hour delays are acceptable.
  3. London is very expensive and common mode of travel is public transport. Therefore, it is very usual to see people walking on the footpath, something I am very happy to note. Despite congestion charging, or perhaps because of it, I didn’t find traffic jam on street anytime.
  4. Despite being developed city of the world, ‘mall culture’ is less in-your-face than in US. Whereas in America, one would only see huge warehouses at the end of side road originating from main road which housed big shopping malls and giant retailers, London has fewer large malls and those are less threatening and imposing. I also didn’t see any large malls like in India.
  5. There are numerous small shops alongside the road for everything including repairs, electronics, laundry, grocery, stationery and so on. They give London a personal touch and much familiar Indian local shop feeling.
  6. People in London love to eat out as there are way too many restaurants on every street. Drinking tea or coffee at the end of meal is customary.
  7. Finding vegetarian food is marginally more difficult in London than it is in US. High end restaurants keep worst kind of vegetarian menu.
  8. My impression also suggests that Europeans drink a lot too. Every restaurant serves alcohol with food and I’ve seen my colleagues going to bar at the end of dinner after having gulped few bottles of beer/lager pre-dinner and few glasses of wines and cocktails at dinner.
  9. London English is very fast and hence difficult to understand. Four years ago I would not have been able to differentiate between British and American accent, but now the difference is stark.
  10. British people are very direct in speaking just like those in US, but they can often come out as rude to people from different culture.
  11. I now know exact items in English breakfast. Among vegetarians once are fruits, fruit juices, muffins, croissants, toast, corn flakes, tea/coffee, hash brownies, grilled tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, pan cakes, etc. Non-vegetarian items include various meat pieces, sausage and omelette.
  12. British national lunch consists of sandwiches. They have full-fledged sandwich shops. Compared to Indian masala sandwiches, they all are horrible.
  13. Greater proportion of women appeared in mini-skirts compared to US controlling for ambient temperature. Public display of affection, though, was relatively less. Few public telephone booths had very visible advertising by “escort services”.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why do we like Music?

I am surprised at myself that it took me so long to ask this question. While attending a instrumental performance the other day, it occurred to me that I don’t know what makes people like music? Turns out, as it should be, I am not alone in asking the question. No one, though, knows the answer.

Primitive human must have heard music in his environment in form of songs of birds, fall of waterfall, running of horses, and so on. A rhythmic repetitive sound is considered music. Early human must have liked it and sometime would have started making his own music using stones and woods. Some speculate that rhythmic heartbeat of mother’s heart initiates association of pleasure with music. Here is a very detailed speculative argument for it, which, in essence, says that faster heartbeat during rage and excitement and smoother heart beat during rest and peace are beginning of our association of music with those kinds of emotions. Modern science has proven that listening music affects our emotions and moods though release of various hormones. Could that be the reason for our love of music, that we want to feel emotional? Perhaps we intentionally prefer a music which psychologically alters our physiological state of mind.

You can find enough research on why brain likes music: it does because it makes brain feel good. None of it answers the fundamental question that why music makes brain feel good. Why do pleasurable hormones secrete when listening to favourite melody? Why did we became such that we like music? Whales and Dolphins are known to sing but do they really sing or their communication is interpreted as singing by humans? There is some evidence that other animals and even plants enjoy music. Plants are thought to grow faster when exposed to pleasing music everyday. Is definition of music universal in that do animal consider music what humans consider music? Clearly there are cultural differences among humans themselves in their preferences, but question is not whether one likes a music but whether one understands a series of sounds as music. Or perhaps it is mere perfunctory to classify some sounds as music and all sound is music some of which we, as humans, like and some we don’t. Was there evolutionary advantage to type of human who could appreciate and enjoy music, or is it mere side effect of some other evolutionary useful trait?

Some sounds are considered pleasing while others are not. Origin of some is perhaps related to environment around us. Screeching of crows in irritating while singing of cuckoo is soothing, and hence our music grew to incorporate later. But not all tunes can be traced back to nature, so what makes one set of sounds pleasing than others? Here is another blogger asking the very question and his thoughts parallel mine very much (recommended read). I leave you with this paper which goes a little deep but still fails to answer the basic question. Natural extension of this question is why do we like art (picture, dance, painting…) in general?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Once again I must ask you to be lucky, Harry

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Anachronic blog posts are expected a raise an eye brow. You would ask, naturally, why write about Harry Potter now when there isn’t any new book or movie coming out soon. Only excuse I have is that I saw the pamphlet for HP6 movie in my hotel’s on-demand list today and learned that sixth movie was out last July. It might as well be time to tell you what I think about the protagonist of this fantasy fiction.

I am as much Harry Potter fan as any sane person can be. I read the books as soon as they came out and adored them. I try to watch movies as and when but clearly you’ll note I am not really following them any good. In list of things to do before I die, I plan to include re-reading all seven books once more. I didn’t, however, stand outside the bookstore overnight dressed as wizard to buy a book nor did I buy Harry merchandize to decorate my room. In sensible fan boyish fashion, I’ve also mentioned Harry Potter briefly in two past posts on this blog. All in all, I like the books but don’t live the books, except that, every so often, I feel jealous of J. K. Rowling. God awful money she made by just writing one fantasy fiction story.

That I am fan of Harry Potter series of books doesn’t mean that I am fan of the man himself. In fact, among repertoire of characters in the drama, limiting myself to those within Harry’s generation, Harry stands far behind in queue after Hermione, Ron, Fred, George, Neville and so on. In fact, he appears just silly boy to me all throughout the story. Silly but an incredibly lucky boy who had everybody else convinced, despite his intentions otherwise, that he was something amazing.

Harry had neck for entering into dangerous business without having any means, skills or plans to get out of it. All the time, he was saved by someone other than himself, except one (of countless) time when he managed a perfect patronus of silver stag. In early years, it would be Hermione or Ron, in later years some elder teachers or his team, but never really Harry did anything worth emulating. Not only he was prankster of kind which got him and his friends into serious trouble on numerous counts, he also comes out as obtuse, obstinate and stupid — unable to learn, obey or follow. If jumping in fire without knowing how to get out is your idea of courage, he’d be the the most courageous person ever. His failure to obey even the simplest order when Dumbledore went to destroy the locket horcrux in Half-Blood Prince shows limits of his brain power. His path to glory in Goblet of Fire was filled with external help (he didn't solve even one of three puzzles himself) apart from unbelievable luck. Last book (Deathly Hallows) is particularly full of all the windfall Harry had in finding and destroying the Voldemart where situations and people conspired to serve everything in platter for him.

Last straw in my respect for the only person to have survived the Voldemart was fact that — and note that this is coming after seven books and over three thousand pages of story about archenemies — Harry couldn’t even kill the bad guy. Voldemart died of own curse rebounding off, thus making Harry completely irrelevant to the main story. What else does one need to do to prove Harry was just one snobbish lucky .

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tourist-ing your way up

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If you have choice, which you probably wouldn’t in most cases, you should tourist your way up rather than down or in random order. So when next time you are looking for a place to visit for pleasure, try one which is incrementally ‘better’ than all the places you’ve seen so far. When I see ‘better’, I mean better in sense of novelty in things to see or do which are likely to bring you joy.

Idea is based on simple reason that pleasure we obtain from marginal novelty will sustain itself only if novelty sustains. Visiting a place which is drastically ‘better’ once will kill all the fun you might have had in future from visiting a place which is only marginally ‘better’. For instance, if you are coming from small village and first city you visit is New Delhi or Bombay then you will surely be ecstatic during your visit but will find visiting small towns or cities dull and uninviting for rest of your life, which are the cities you will probably end up visiting more often. On the contrary, if your first visit is to a small town, your visit will be exciting from the novelty. If your next visit is to a city, you will find something more new. When you visit New Delhi then again you may find something to please you.

This experience has been shared by many and I too have been victim of having to tourist my way down. Having enjoyed thrilling rides of Six Flags in United States, small scale rides in Indian cities don’t interest me anymore, even when I used to be overjoyed earlier. Universal Studio Hollywood killed my pleasure from Ramoji Film City Hyderabad, which, by the way, is an excellent theme park. Experience of New York itself reduced my interest in London manifold. Having seen Port Blair, no other beach pleases my parents anymore. Visit to hill stations fail to invite a family friend having been to greenery of Shimla. Baha’i and Akshardham Temples in New Delhi have muffled any excitement to see any other monument. You can easily recount many examples yourself.

And if you have choice, which you probably would in most cases, try finding a partner for your trip. My fun from travelling alone is one-tenth of travelling with any companion. Of course, there are backpackers and lone travellers who like to travel alone, so it’s personal call.
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