Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Seeing and Forgetting

I was just reading a book by the sociologist Howard Becker where, in a passage about the problem of categorisation, I came across the following quote:
Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing we are looking at.
The origin of the saying is not clear. Becker attributes it to Robert Morris, while other sources cite Paul Valéry. Be that as it may, I like it a lot. (This is one of the things I like about being in academics: I seem to encounter at least one brilliant idea every week – or maybe I'm just easily impressed.)

It seems to me that the insight can also apply in reverse. Ten years ago, in Bombay, a friend and I went to Marine Drive, my favourite place in the city. Neither of us had been there before. My friend saw the piles of tetrapods on the waterfront and said, "Wow, what are those?"

"Tetrapods," I said. (I knew about them from Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.)

"I see." His curiosity seemingly satisfied, he turned his attention elsewhere. He still did not know what they were for or why they were so oddly-shaped. He had received literally no additional information than he had before the conversation, other than what they are called.*

It seemed that knowing the name of the thing we were looking at had stopped him from seeing.

*OK, if you want to be pedantic, now he also knew that I knew what they are called.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Shulbrede Priory

On a country walk this week in the woods of Surrey, I passed Shulbrede Priory (pictured below).

What Wikipedia currently does not say – but my guidebook did – is that the priory was dissolved in 1536, with the King's Commissioner alleging that 26 whores were found living there.

I did not actually see a sign saying Shulbrede Priory, but it was so marked on the map and I assumed that was right. This was an a priory assumption.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


If I want to attend an event which is publicised on Facebook, I sometimes mark myself "Interested" so that I get a reminder notification on the day of the event. At least that's what I like to think, though the conversation below illustrates that I'm perhaps sensitive to the accusation that I do it partly to show off.

A conversation I had with Aditi this week:

Aditi: I saw you posted on Facebook that you're going to a talk about death.
me: Oh. Yeah. It was just to remind myself.
Aditi: Of death?

Facebook sometimes sends me "positive" messages like Thanks for being here, or Enjoy Facebook today! I wonder if someday I might get a notification saying, Remember: our time here is limited. Given that the first reaction of most users, on seeing such a message, will be to log the hell out of Facebook, I think the likelihood is remote.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Shunbun no Hi: Traffic signs

My Shunbun no Hi post for this year celebrates nature and living things – not in the wild, but on traffic signage.

Earlier this month, we moved back to London from the village of Histon and Impington in Cambridgeshire. Here are two examples of signs the likes of which you don't often see in London. The first one, which Anasua pointed out to me when we were out cycling, is a Pegasus crossing; the second, displayed near the village green, is road traffic diagram 551.2 (wild fowl likely to be in road ahead).

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Sujaan is currently in Chicago for a conference – his first visit to the US. Yesterday we had a phone conversation about Simon and Garfunkel's America, and what a great song it is.

I particularly like the first line of the song's final verse: "Kathy, I'm lost", I said, though I knew she was sleeping. Saha, who has endured many long journeys with me, once said that given the quality of my conversation, if I were in Paul Simon's place, it would more likely be a case of "...though I knew she was pretending."

Another song about America which I like a lot is Sailing to Philadelphia by Mark Knopfler. I have only been to the US once. Flying from London to New York, I remember the moment when I got my first glimpse of the east coast. The passenger in the seat beside me was filling in his landing card. I sneakily looked over his shoulder, desperately hoping his name would be Mason so I could say, "Now hold your head up Mason, see America lies there."