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Food For Thought

“Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World”

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.”
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…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”).
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“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 now).

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Food For Thought

The Broken News Reading Experience

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. (Do you have any idea how many scrolls it takes to finish a respectable-length longform article?) Hit back button. Scroll scroll scroll.

Take Pulse Reader, the current gold standard for aggregation apps which in its iPad avatar was praised by Steve Jobs himself in a keynote presentation. Beautifully designed app. Seems great when you play with it for a while. Where it all breaks apart for me is that it expects me to add news sources, and then scan stories myself to see what interests me. If I add both Techcrunch and Ars Technica, or Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, I then have to weed out duplicate stories myself. This isn’t a shortcoming of just Pulse Reader as much as it is an Achilles heel for a majority of aggregation apps. The illusion of ‘beautiful aggregation’ also falls apart when every now and then Pulse’s parser messes up in correctly determining article bylines too.

News Republic adopts a different approach. This app lets you select topics you want to follow and displays relevant news stories. This approach takes care of the duplication issue…except News Republic only shows items from wire services such as Associated Press and PR Newswire. Not the cream-of-the-crop sources, so only good for a quick summary of trending news stories.

I quote these two apps as examples as they cover the two main aggregation models being pursued currently. What I really want is a Google News style mashup of the two: let me choose my favourite sources from a list, and then display the ‘best’ article for a particular news story from one of them. To be fair, Google News does this already…but without a thoroughly compelling user experience on mobile platforms beyond ‘a list of blue links’. Google News is the closest thing I’ve found to what I desire, except when its algorithm makes a boo-boo like filing ‘Passengers stuck on a plane for eight as Gatwick Airport’ under ‘Entertainment’. Amusing it may be for our robot overlords, but such glitches leave a sour taste in my mouth – wishing there was human editorial oversight, or a smarter algorithm. I wonder why no startup has taken a crack at this idea. Even if such an app does exist or is developed in the future, that still doesn’t solve the repetitive tap-scroll-back-rinse-repeat user experience most content apps tend to have.

I’m starting to see measurable benefits in going back to reading news on cut-down trees. There’s a small hiccup though: subscribing to a newspaper, compared to the free lunch of web content that I’ve become habituated to, seems prohibitively expensive! A yearly subscription of The Guardian will cost me 372 per year

…or, The Independent will cost me upwards of £600 a year!

That’s almost as much I would budget to visit 2-3 countries (which is the only metric I resort to off late as a benchmark for expensive purchases). I’m not surprised because good content does cost money to produce. You still have to concede this seems expensive! I wonder whether showing ads for Samsung Galaxy Tab or something else equally banal on The Guardian‘s Android app earns them as much money as subscriptions.

I’d love to meet midway – perhaps with a weekly magazine subscription which often costs not more than £100 a year…except that there are practically no weeklies in the UK. Unlike in the US, where there are so many choices like Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Slate, et al. The only (half-hearted) attempt is Guardian Weekly, which doesn’t appeal to me as due to its lifestyle-focussed content. I would take well-written, analytical long form articles (Longreads.org is currently one of my top news sources) any day over linkbait crap that the news industry loves so much these days. Please, I don’t want to read Huffington Post rehashes typed out by monkeys on thousands of keyboards around the world.

I am going to try an experiment starting this week: to pick up a newspaper each day and see if I can fit daily reading into my schedule. What do you folks feel? Do you find yourself equally out of touch with current happenings, or your reading habits altered by a never-ending stream of (free) web content?

***

When I was a kid, Hindustan Times used to have a weekly supplement called HT Next. It used to be all of four pages and pure awesome. I still remember how one of its very first editions carried a review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone long before the series became cool. It used to have exclusive sneak peaks on upcoming shows on Cartoon Network’s ‘Toonami’ (back when it was good). The last page was dedicated to an eclectic range of trivia: origins of weird idioms, odd bits of India to visit, ‘cool’ scientific discoveries out of the pages of Popular Science. I think that’s how I fell in love with trivia quizzing.

There used to be weekly quiz on the last page from current affairs and trivia. Boy, did I love that. Prizes were usually Tekson’s Bookshop vouchers and I spent every one of those blank cheques building my Tintin and Calvin & Hobbes collection. :D Later on, Teksons withdrew its sponsorship and was replaced by Orient Longman (publishers). Orient Longman, cheapskates that they were, used it as a channel to clear off their stock. Over time I accumulated books on: an analysis of the mathematical constant e (yes, a whole fucking book on it), history of Indian cuisine, a field guide to butterflies and moths of south-west India, innumerable short story and poem anthologies. Also, every single time with this random crap I also got The Orient Longman Learners’ Dictionary. Every. Single. Time. This got to the point that I when I met friends at school I used to go “Ay! You’re my bro! Here, take a free dictionary.” (Nobody seemed to mind because a notice had been issued asking all students to buy a dictionary.)

Still, I looked forward to every trip with my dad to Hindustan Times‘ headquarters at Kasturba Gandhi Marg to collect my prize. I remember how thrilled I was as a kid the first couple of times I visited to get issued a visitors’ pass and OH MY GOD I’M INSIDE THE HEADQUARTERS OF A NATIONAL NEWSPAPER! Oh, and as I progressed further along in school, approaching high school, I also noticed how drop-dead cute the woman who was in-charge at HT Next for meeting us quizzers was.

HT Next in its first avatar was so delightfully quirky! (I think I was a hipster even when I was twelve-years-old.) I collected every single edition and did in fact have them around for many years until we moved houses. Its next avatar – one which exists to this day – was as a stripped-down and slightly customised version of the main Hindustan Times edition. I read that in school, and come back home to read Times of India. Later, when our school switched loyalties to give us Times of India subscriptions instead, I read that in school and came back home to read Hindustan Times and The Hindu. (The Hindu carried the best crosswords out of any Indian newspapers in those days.)

I collected interesting articles I came across in these newspapers by filing away news clippings in folders. I had a pretty extensive collection running into hundreds of articles spanning many folders over the years. Yet, when you think of it now it’s so hard to file away a news story for long-term archiving! You only have to visit a Wikipedia article linking back to news articles from 90s to encounter broken links. Articles lost from easy discovery, perhaps forever, due to inevitable switches of content management systems at news sites. Archival and discovery of good news content is fundamentally broken in today’s web-centric distribution model.

I know I don’t have as much free time these days to read multiple newspapers or to start a news clipping collection, but at some level my present desire to read printed form newspapers is to capture that magic from my childhood againof being able to read good content in an easy-to-digest form whenever, wherever.

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Food For Thought

Analog souvenirs in a digital world

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 building.

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Food For Thought

The joy in ‘writing’

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 – want to carry a typewriter around in your knapsack. You didn’t have a choice. Regardless of how legible your handwriting was, hand-writing was the quicker and more convenient option. Is that true now, though? I realise the first part of this blog post might have been tedious to read through but I did it for a reason: I wanted to illustrate how it was possible – though certainly not by all – to live divorced from paper.

Herein lies the conundrum: given the choice of different writing mediums, do people with better handwriting prefer pen and paper, even though they may be touch-typists with high typing speeds? Aditya is but one example who conforms to this hypothesis; I have other friends who do too. What I have never seen, at least within my circle of friends and acquaintances who write a lot, is someone who has bad handwriting and still prefers paper. I am restricting this to people who like writing, because people who don’t need to record considerable lengths of text will probably use whatever medium they feel more comfortable with.

(Not related but another thing I’ve noticed: most of the people I know who match this hypothesis prefer to use a pencil or an old-school fountain ink pen – rather than a ballpoint pen – almost always ‘out of personal preference’ rather than any practical considerations. I think this is because they enjoy the stimuli these instruments provide – the distinct scratching noises, the physical feedback – that is often missing when using a ballpoint. Maybe it has something to do with ‘charm’, as ballpoints could be seen as ‘practical’ instruments whereas pencils / ink pens are for ‘pleasure’; the same way book-lovers keep on harping about that goddamned ‘smell’ as a charm factor.)

Anyone willing to prove or disprove the hypothesis, with facts or examples you know of?

Addendum: By ‘good’ handwriting I mean really good handwriting. People with average handwriting swing both ways. ‘Bad’ means really bad – I usually write about 100 words on an A4-size sheet of paper; it’s that messed up.

****

I am in Cambodia now, and over the next two weeks I plan to also visit Thailand (and Laos, if I can fit it in). Unlike my previous trips to other countries which usually were weekend getaways, this is a trip where my itinerary has a significant amount of ‘unplanned’ time, making it all the more important for my own satisfaction that I record what happens during my journey. When I’m travelling I do not always have access to power sockets (or enough of them) to charge up my cellphone-netbook-camera triad; this is okay for shorter trips as I can keep at least two of three of my devices charged to record my experiences. This time, however, I do not have the same luxuries, and not just out of necessity but other reasons that I will talk about later, I wanted to keep a notebook with me.

I have had Moleskine cravings earlier but not until now did I follow through on it and seriously went looking to buy one. I did find a rack of Moleskines at the bookstore, but I balked at the price. At about S$30, the Moleskines are half the price of a plane ticket that could fly my to some other part of Asia – and about three times the price of similar offerings. I eventually bought a ZeniTouch journal – sounds like a Korean smartphone but the packaging assures me that it is a highly regarded Swiss journal brand. Whatever. Clearly, in a Mac vs PC ad I’d play the PC guy.

I have written ten pages in the journal, with a lot of oh-boy-what-do-write-here-now doodles, but I think I’m getting the hang of this, and actually enjoying it. I don’t think this will improve my handwriting or that I will ever seriously switch to paper, but as a ‘staging’ medium where I make quick notes on the move and them flesh them out on a computer I think this is going to work out great.

If it doesn’t work out, I can always use it as a prop to appear pensive and pretentious at cafes.

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Food For Thought

You say ____, I say _____

(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 Chinese (and sometimes Korean or Japanese) – basically, anyone with ‘Oriental-looking’ features. Other Asian continent ethnicities such as Indians are referred to specifically. This makes for hilarious misunderstandings as we both have to make a mental pit-stop every time the word is used to check whether the intent has been communicated properly.

Accent, on the other hand, is something you will naturally pick up if you spend time long enough with a group of people, just like my scouse friend who started saying ‘ah-rays’. Accents are contagious. There is no such thing, however, as ‘an English accent’. England – and in the broader sense, the UK – has a wonderfully colourful range of accents from town-to-town. What most people think is an English accent, from Hollywood movies or from American TV shows, is a close variation of Received Pronunciation. Basically, the idea of an ‘English accent’ is just like thinking all people from Russia / former Soviet Union speak the same way. :p (The only commonality, really, is they all drink vodka.)

As an Indian, you would call something an ‘accent’ if it differed from your style of speaking, but for an American there is no such thing as an ‘American accent’ because it’s all the same to them. I’ve heard people say that the Indian ‘accent’ is a lack of an accent; the example quoted was Indians pronounce ‘pi’ as ‘pie’, most Western speakers pronounce it as ‘phye’. But there’s a reason why ‘p’ is accompanied by an expelling of air in many accents, and it is to distinguish the sound from ‘b’. (Similarly, ‘t’ and ‘d’ are distinguished by aspiration when pronouncing the former.) Even when learning Mandarin, the ‘p’ / ‘b’ and ‘t’ / ‘d’ sounds are distinguished by making one aspirated. Conversing with British and American speakers you’ll quickly realise that the Indian quirk of not doing so will confuse them between, with ‘peer’ and ‘beer’, if context is missing. With the most of Western accents and the Chinese ganging up, Indians better fucking toe the line, so to speak. ;)

This is why over time people tend to unconsciously start mimicking the speech tones and styles of the country they live in. What sounds like a trivial issue is actually a major concern when due to those little quirks, someone at a sandwich shop or (especially) people on the telephone (customer service? Often based out of Ireland, Wales, or Scotland for UK companies. Fricking nightmare talking to them!) cannot follow a simple conversation.

Everyone has their own accent quirks, so how rapidly you pick up an accent, my experience suggests, is how comfortable people around you are in being able to understand what you say. That’s the strongest catalyst in bringing about accent shifts; anything else is incidental. Although for people who use ‘fake’ accents (call centre employees) the reason is not just to make oneself understood, but also to shed the stereotypes associated with an accent. L ike someone with an Indian accent is probably called Rajeev, eats curry for lunch, lives in Bangalore,  et al. (This tactic doesn’t work as companies shift call centre operations in droves to Philippines instead of staying in India.)

My accent has been whacked all over the place. People you converse with regularly influence this, and when I was in the UK this meant I unconsciously picked up bits and bobs from a range of accents – thus resulting in something that approaches close to a ‘generic’ English accent. Then, I come to Singapore and I’ve to live with two Scots for months – probably picked up a bit of a Scottish accent then. (And lost it, by now. But when you’re around a Scot, it’s hard not to speak like them – it’s so contagious!) Current roommate is Canadian, who works often in New York – so a bit of that. And then come all the Singaporeans, Indians in Singapore, other exchange students say from Germany / France / Finland / Australia, Chinese-origin students who have went to Cambridge board schools…well, let’s just say my accent is a clusterfuck right now. On the bright side, I must be close to approaching a generic global accent (albeit with an underlying hint of an Indian one).

I’m fascinated by this now as performance of speech recognition engines against various accents is one of the aspects I will be researching over the summer. Here’s my question, guys: when you talk to someone with a different accent, truthfully, how much of it do you get straight away and how much do you have to fill in through context? Do you find it ‘Western’ TV shows / films hard to follow? Specifically talking about the Kevin Bridges video embedded earlier in the post – could you understand it, and to what extent? Leave your response as a comment below. It’ll be a big help getting preliminary feedback on key problems on my research topic field.