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“Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World”

By on Dec 24, 2011 in Food For Thought | 0 comments

From Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World, a profile in The New York Times of Justin Canha, a high school student who suffers from autism that was written over a period of one year: “Hello, everybody,” he announced, loud enough to be heard behind the company president’s door. “This is going to be my new job, and you are going to be my new friends.” . . . …the transition program at Montclair High served as a kind of boot camp in community integration that might also be, for Justin, a last chance. Few such services are available after high school. And Justin was entitled to public education programs, by federal law, until only age 21. Ms. Stanton-Paule had vowed to secure him a paid job before he left school — the best gauge, experts say, of whether a special needs student will maintain some autonomy later in life. She also hoped to help him forge the relationships, at work and beyond it, that form the basis of a full life. But more prosaic lessons arose at every turn: when he should present money at the pizza place (not until after he ordered), how close to stand to the person using the weight machine he wanted at the gym (not so close), what to say when he saw a co-worker drinking a Coke (probably not “Coca-Cola is bad for your bones”). . . . “There’s a prevailing philosophy that certain people can never function in the community,” Ms. Stanton-Paule told skeptics. “I just don’t think that’s true.” I had tears in my eyes by the time I finished reading this article. It’s just so heartwarming to know that there are educators out there who go to such lengths, to have the courage and the will to fight against the system and give kids the support they deserve. Yet it’s also saddening that in the end it boils down to economics and a budding animator has had to give up his dream (for...

The Broken News Reading Experience

By on Oct 18, 2011 in Food For Thought | 32 comments

There used to be a time when I could claim that I was thoroughly acquainted with current affairs. Pick up a topic for conversation from a newspaper within the past few weeks and chances were that I’d read about it and had an opinion or two. (That pretty much was my job when I did a gig at Youthpad as content writer/editor.) I read newspaper(s) from cover-to-cover; it was a ritual for me – an activity I used to set aside time for in my daily schedule. I was proud of the fact that I wasn’t one of the ignorant, unwashed punters who have no clue when a news reporter asks them for a sound bite. Whatever happened to that me? I no longer read newspapers and I’m barely aware of what’s going on in the world! I’m not acting differently from many others when I say I read most news online these days. How do I discover the content I read? Mainly, through Twitter / Facebook shares, Reddit links, and blogs I follow. Yet, I’m starting to think this might be a fundamentally flawed model for news discovery. That Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist? Yeah. His 5000-word magnum opus carries as much weight in my Google Reader list as that funny picture of a cat speaking in misspelled English reblogged on Tumblr. I’m subject to whatever catches the fancy of masses. The range of people I follow ensures practically any article that ‘goes viral’ in topics I may be interested shows up in my timeline yet it feels like living in a bubble of opinions. Every other full moon, I get fed up of this ‘more of the same’. I resolve to set aside half-an-hour daily to read all sections of an aggregator like Yahoo! News or a newspaper’s website (usually The Guardian or The New York Times, because I’m a liberal hipster like that). I could probably spend that much time daily anyway, can’t I? I could stop being at the mercy of what everyone else thinks is cool and discover things myself! This love affair seldom lasts long. Say I start off with ‘Top Stories’ or ‘Most Popular’, I read an article about the latest iDevice from Apple. Cool. I click through to ‘Technology’. Same article again, but to be fair it is a technology-related news item so I let it slide. Click through to ‘Business’…and the same article is there again, just with a lower importance now because it’s only tangentially related. The more I try to scan through sections, the more I find an incestuous spiderweb of hyperlinked sameness. Hey, it’s great if you only read a select few sections knowing that you’ve lesser risk of missing out news that affects you but if you do read multiple sections, it’s easy to become bored quickly. Last weekend, I was about to catch a train and wanted to keep myself occupied for the hour-long journey ahead of me, so I bought a real printed newspaper. I didn’t want to read articles on my phone as I was heading for a night out and I needed my battery to last. And thus it was on that train journey reading my copy of i by The Independent that I realised why I years ago I enjoyed reading newspapers I could hold in my hands. There is an editorial voice doing the heavy-lifting of deciding which news stories get importance, how many words to go with it, the adequate amount of text inserts to explain jargon. It is just so simple scan a physical printed page. Guess what? Stories aren’t repeated either! I can flip from Page 3 to Technology to Business without needed to read an the article that’s related to all them categories thrice. Fancy an article? You can just read it. Your eyes just glide along the page. No tapping. No pinch-to-zoom. I know how I sound right now. What I’m trying to communicate is how much less hassle it was easily being able to read an article about rugby or a reality TV show fluff article if it caught my fancy when I skim-reading on paper, whereas on a website I may have never visit those sections. I don’t know about you, but paradoxically I find that when I visit news websites on consecutive days, I’m more likely to find the same articles on digging even slightly deeper than the highlighted articles. This is when a printed newspaper is consistently different each day! Whether this is a calculated move to position the latter as a ‘premium’ product or not, you would expect websites to be more volatile. Yet, much like that baby in the video above playing with an iPad, I too felt annoyed. When I read something interesting, I found it frustrating that I couldn’t look up previous or related news stories. I wanted to poke my newspaper with a stick. Why didn’t it move? Why can’t I switch to a YouTube video of an adorable baby in the middle of reading a dispatch from Tripoli? Entertain me! ENTERTAIN ME! In the digital world, everything is ‘content’. E-papers. Blogs. Webcomics. Pulitzer Prize-winning journal articles. Reddit. This ‘content’ is not to be analysed and digested, but to be ‘consumed’. You can make it look pretty by swapping out Google Reader with Pulse Reader or Flipboard but the user experience feels like a repetitive chore. Tap. Scroll scroll scroll....

Analog souvenirs in a digital world

By on May 30, 2011 in Food For Thought | 11 comments

I never really understood the style-statement girls like her try to make. What, really, is the point of wearing thick-rimmed D&G glasses without lenses, in daily usage? I have seen people doing it for high school themed club parties, which sort-of makes sense. And yet as she walked in behind me – both of us boarding the A320 mere minutes before flight departure – she looked spectacularly gorgeous in them. Although, at the time, I was busy feeling embarrassed about the angry glares I was getting from the other passengers at our tardiness. The front section of the flight from Hong Kong to Singapore was packed. Seated in the last couple of rows though, both she and I had a whole row to ourselves. I was glad for the extra legroom, even though ours was a short four-hour journey. Flying out of Hong Kong International Airport at night presents a breathtaking sight: as you take off, you can see Hong Kong’s harbours beneath you, with all ships and maritime vessels glowing bright from their on-deck lights. Like tiny little toys in a bathtub, they stretch out for miles; Hong Kong still remains one of the world’s busiest ports. Bees dancing a slow, complicated dance as they receded further below. The seat belt sign was switched off…and I got down to my usual routine of transferring photos from my digital camera and processing them. (I colour-correct all pictures that I *cough* eventually *cough* upload, so I might as well get started.) Maybe I’d get time between this and a short nap to start my journal entry about this trip. It was about then that I noticed her in the row beside me, fiddling with a handful of photographs. They were Polaroid photos; vintage Polaroid when back in the day it actual meant instant film, rather than the whoreing out of the name to whatever cheap digital camera line the new owners of the company fancy. And it was at that moment – seeing a physical manifestation of memories – that my digital vault of pictures felt worthless in comparison. To not have to think twice before taking a picture is a concept that I found difficult to wrap my head around. She had the actual Polaroid camera laid out on her tray table too. We started chatting about the camera (it’s such a thing of beauty!), photography interests, Hong Kong, horror films, Greek philosophers and whatnot. The flight felt too short for that conversation…but it continued beyond that. I wrote earlier how the goalposts for social conversations had shifted; the act of sharing is what now defines a ‘Kodak moment’, and I have faith in the idea of a digital scrapbook, but she made me realise how much more powerful a physical artefact can be. A Twitpic isn’t a Polaroid taken aboard TR 2967. A note scribbled on a napkin at a restaurant serves much better as a memory than a hastily punched in note on a Foursquare check-in. It has taken me long to realise this. I think I’m going to hold on closely to the notebook journal I’m...

The joy in ‘writing’

By on May 27, 2011 in Food For Thought | 36 comments

Exam period in university is a time when I have to write a lot, and it feels awkward for me. Not the exams themselves per se – that‘s a story in itself – but the physical act of writing with pen and paper. Seldom, if ever, do I resort to writing on physical material. I mostly type on my netbook, or if have to make a quick note then I bash it out as a draft text message on my cellphone. I never was the type to jot down appointments in a notebook; I meticulously log upcoming and regular events on an online calendar instead so that I can access it anywhere. Unlike other students, especially at NTU Singapore, I never print out lecture notes. Instead, I prefer to annotate PDFs using comments, drawing tools et al that PDF readers have. This, to me, is less hassle than having to print out stacks of printing notes, remembering which ones to carry on which day to which lecture, marking key points using a highlighter…only to find mere weeks before an exam that I can’t find a particular set of notes. (This is why I love my netbook. It is light – just about one kilogram, excellent for carrying around – and it gives me 8 hours of battery life without using wifi, 5-6 hours if I do; that’s enough to last me a ‘working day’. Running Ubuntu it can boot-up in 30 seconds, but even with Windows 7 performance is not that bad except for the longer start-up time. It’s perfect for the way I live.) For tutorial sessions I click pictures of solutions put up on the projection screen with my cellphone or digital camera and tag them by subject when I import them in to my photo manager software; this gives me an archive of tutorial sessions that I can browse through by both subject and time. I am the type of student whom e-learning departments in universities use as model students when pitching for funding for their e-learning projects. So when I say I feel odd writing during exams, it feels odd. Since exams come, say, once in every six months you can imagine how long I go before lifting a pen. When I have to sign receipts for card transactions, I find it a struggle to sign my own name properly. This atrophy of ‘writing’ muscles (fair to call it that?) is so bad that I need to start writing on paper at least two weeks before exams to get myself habituated. The first 2-3 days are the worst; it’s like learning to write for the first time. Here’s the thing: I love ‘writing’, in its meaning of ‘creating text’, and I do lots of it. Obviously, not as much these days on this blog, but I’m constantly ‘write-typing’ for my private blog and for personal fiction-writing projects. I have tried to do both of these activities on paper – maintaining a (physical) diary or writing short stories / scripts on paper – and every time I have walked away frustrated. Because I don’t write a lot, I am slow at it. When I write on paper, I constantly find myself lagging behind what I’m thinking I want to write now, and this irks me. I don’t face the same issue on a text editor because I can touch type comfortably at a fast rate. (I’m not going to go into a discussion on how it’s easier to edit on a computer etc because those are self-evident.) What I am curious about, though, is whether I have developed a preference for typing because my handwriting is bad, and, whether there is any correlation between people who have ‘good’ handwriting and prefer to write on paper as opposed to people who don’t and thus gravitate towards typing. Now, not writing for long periods affects my handwriting negatively as I have seen, but it is only making a bad thing worse. Ever since middle school my teachers have been railing at me to improve it; one particular teacher even made me do cursive writing workbooks used by primary school kids because she got fed up of trying to decipher my assignment submissions. This is just a hunch, so to get some sort of preliminary validation I asked Aditya whether he: a) owned a Moleskine b) had a good handwriting. I asked the first because I vaguely remember him mentioning it once on Twitter. Someone who owns a Moleskine surely has to be big on wanting to write on paper, and probably does so frequently as the ‘features’ of the ‘Moleskine form-factor’ – hardbound or sturdy softbound cover, elastic band to retain loose page leaves, stitched binding for durability, etc – are designed for rough or ‘mobile’ usage rather than sitting on a desk. He replied yes to both, but as a counter-argument mentioned that Ernest Hemingway had bad handwriting even though he wrote a lot. (Hemingway was also known to be a Moleskine user.) In my opinion, this example doesn’t disprove my hypothesis – and may actually strengthen it. In Hemingway’s time, writing on paper was the only realistic option if you wanted to record thoughts on the move. Typewriters were an instrument where you sat down at a desk to type out drafts or final versions, not to record everyday musings. You certainly couldn’t – rather, wouldn’t...

You say ____, I say _____

By on Apr 4, 2011 in Food For Thought | 21 comments

(Request to my readers, especially my subscribers: There’s a question right at the end of this post which I’d appreciate if you could answer. Reading the post will help explain the context but perhaps not everyone among you has time, so I wanted to flag the question for your attention in the beginning.) Travelling around and living in different places makes you notice certain things about a place fairly quickly. One of the first things you notice is – this is no surprise – is the way people speak. However, it takes a few months to get the idiosyncrasies down pat. When I first went to the UK, many other Indian students hit the ground running with a ‘fake’ accent. (I, personally, have never been able to do that.) And you know what? The reason people do this, to an extent, is justified. What I have learnt through numerous interactions with British, American, Canadian – ‘Western’ friends, if you will – is that a fair number of them genuinely have a hard time understanding the Indian accent. Some tell me they may understand only three-quarters of what a person with an Indian accent, and then use context to fill in the rest. Bet it’s the same with a majority of Indians when they watch American movies / television shows. You’ll notice how theatrical releases of films in India almost never have subtitles as is standard in practically every other country where English is not a native language, but cinemas in India cater to an upmarket or an aspirational crowd. On satellite TV movie channels, on the other hand, captioning has been so popular that all channels quickly adopted it and saw a rise in viewership. I have friends with an impeccable command over written English, yet are completely lost without subtitles when listening. An explanation offered for this is that “Westerners speak too fast” but on the other side of the pond, er, ocean, they think the  exact opposite! This is probably just a case of ‘feeling’ that someone is speaking fast because you cannot catch what they are saying. Try learning a new language and you’ll always feel that native speakers speak ‘too fast’. It can get much worse than that. I encountered situations in the UK, try as hard as they might, people couldn’t understand what I was saying. This goes both ways. For a quick headcount, how many of you can understand what comedian Kevin Bridges is saying in this video from Live at the Apollo roadshow? (The Welsh and the Scottish accents are notoriously hard to understand, even among native English speakers from England. Shed a silent tear for me – my two roommates last semester were both Scots.) This reminds me of a funny anecdote from first year at university. We (my batchmates and I) used to work together in the computing labs on our software engineering assignments and ended up discussions possible solutions with each other. Now, the Indian way of pronouncing ‘arrays’ is ‘ah-rays’, while the British way of pronouncing it is ‘uh-rays’. By the end of the year, I was pronouncing it ‘uh-rays’ and my English friend – a legit scouse – was saying it the Indian way! I had an interesting debate with my current roommate (who’s from Canada) this semester. We were trying to solve a physics question when I used the trigonometrical abbreviation ‘cos’. He laughed and said the correct pronunciation is like in ‘cosine’ with the ‘-ine’ ending chopped off; I disagreed and said it’s like in the ending of ‘because’. We made a bet; the hard part came when trying to prove ourselves right. No matter how much we searched on YouTube for lectures on trigonometry (video channels such as MIT OpenCourseWare etc), none of the speakers used ‘cos’ as an abbreviation! That’s another thing I learnt that day – how pervasive the use of the full form ‘cosine’, ‘tangent’, ‘cosecant’ et al is in American English. I eventually posted the pronunciation of ‘cos’ question on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. Responses from the forum posters confirmed my suspicion that mine was the British English pronunciation while my roommate’s was the American / Canadian English pronunciation. As an aside, our pronunciation of hyperbolic functions is miles apart too – he pronounces ‘sinh’ similar to ‘cinch’ while I pronounce it as ‘shine’, and so on for the other functions. But enough of maths for now. No matter how well-read you are, and regardless of whether you are a native speaker of English language or not, there will always be words whose pronunciation trips you. One common scenario is when you read a word long before you learn the correct pronunciation through real-life usage – there’s an entirely fascinating thread on EL&U StackExchange (again) on words that are said entirely unlike how they are written. Go through those pages and I’m certain you’ll discover a clutch of words you have been speaking the wrong way all this while! Word choice is also a curiosity you notice when you meet other people on travels. For instance, in the UK when someone uses the term ‘Asian’, they usually mean someone of Indian / Pakistani / Bangladeshi origin; any other ethnic groups are specifically referred to, such as Chinese. In Canada and US on the other hand, as I often notice when talking to my (current) roommate, ‘Asian’ usually means...