The Grieg concert hall should be your landmark in ‘downtown’ Bergen if you get airdropped by culturally boorish aliens in the middle of Norway. Edvard Grieg is both a local and international legend, famous for ‘The Hall of the Mountain King’, a very evocative piece (listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrIYT-MrVaI) which reminds you of ancient green lands, royalty, and a magnificent Court.

 


Bergen downtown itself  is a 20 min busride from the airport. a straight road with lovely multi-level wood houses on either side. Downtown itself is a dozen blocks this way or that, but impresses nonetheless, with the architecture (sans bluster) that the Scandinavians are famous for.

Met my old friend from back in Minnesota, Christoffer Baldersheim (a freshly minted Psychologist from the University of Bergen) after almost 8 years, and took a nippy walk to his apartment quite next to Grieg concert hall.  After quaffing the remaining graduation wine Chris introduced me to a unique Scandinavian concept - SNUS!

SNUS is an intense blast of tobacco stored in a mini teabag of sorts, super popular in Sweden and Norway, nearly banned in the rest of Europe. The tobacco is potent, and saltily so, and goes best with a drink or coffee, if you aren’t used to it.

SNUS


Bergen is ultimately a university town, a gateway to the fjords, a heritage site, and a quintessential European small town, with enough globe trotting Norwegians, and enough globe trotting tourists passing through it (noticed enough Japanese, Turks, East Europeans, Japanese and Chinese, other than the usual mainland Europeans).

The Architecture of Bergen is classic Norwegian, lots of individuality, lots of lovely woodwork and stonework, and a relief from the steel and glass that often grates my eyes in Bangalore.



The touristy ‘center’ of Bergen is the Bryggen area (Norwegian for Wharf), a World Cultural Heritage site, and the kind of place that sells miniature trolls and ‘I love Norway’ t-shirts, and supposedly fresh produce (which the locals assure me, is only for ‘fresh’ tourists). The Bryggen area also has a Hollywood connection. I’m told that some of the Narnia scenes were shot here, in the middle of the patchwork wooden buildings, which have been built and rebuilt (Bergen has experienced an oddly large number of fires in its history) since the Middle Ages.


Right next to Bryggen is the city center, a nice little agora with a view of lovely mountains on one side, and a church spire on the other. The center usually has bands playing everyday through summer, and i managed to catch a Navy band, in full glory. Its a great place to see people see other people, grab a snack and coffee, and bask in Bergen’s rare sunny days.



If you keep walking around Bryggen you are assured to see a lot of ships headed towards the fjords, or ships just docked and hanging out by the water, and families having drinks and dinner on their little or giant boats. For land lubbers like me, it was heart warming to see the variety of boats and the outdoors lifestyle on the water.


lubbers

Bergen has a lovely mountain top, which Chris and I finally managed to get to after a long leisurely walk through the city. The walk is a great way to know the city from the inside, and see the less touristy residential areas, and get a deeper feel for how the Norwegians live.


The walk cuts through long winding roads, a bit of forest, and residential neighborhoods, and you see odd sights like the Monkey Howling tree, a pretty looking and dangerous embrace of thorns.


The views from the top is definitely worth a walk. A quick look from the top tells you exactly why Bergen is Norway’s second biggest city. This is a small town with not more than a quarter million people, but an industrious and occupied small town, with enough business, education, and tourism to keep it humming.


There’s a touristy tram which you can always take up the mountain trail and back, but the walk up is rewarding in a way that makes you tired and satisfied at the same time!



Bergen also has interesting museums including the Industry Kunst musem (Kunst = Art), a great collection of silver jewellery designs, furniture, and apparel. Enough to whet your appetite for the larger and more famous museums in Scandinavia.




Bergen is also certainly the MOST expensive country in the world. $7 for a half litre bottle of water. $6 for 3 buns at the local 7/11. $5 for a black coffee. Never mind the rates of alcohol and cigarettes. $75 for two regular pizzas and a bottle of coke. I’ve joked with people that coming from India, i’ve had to convert from Norwegian Krones to US dollars to make things seem less expensive!

Ultimately, Bergen is a great destination if you want a relaxed tourist experience and introduction to Scandinavia. It has stunning landscapes, beautiful people who know how to work hard, stay fit, and have a good time. Great views, lovely to walk through, and a far cry from the hustle bustle of other major European capitals.

Helsinki is different. An amalgam of technology, art, culture with the texture of Europe and the taste of a future-Earth. I started my Helsinki journey in late June with the perfect companion - a lovely new hard science fiction novel called The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi, probably now Finland’s most famous sci-fi writer.




In a way, Helsinki has a cognitive link to Japan - in terms of street fashion, and technology, and gaming. I felt i was likely to see a TRON inspired outfit here rather than elsewhere in Scandinavia. The fashion seemed strongly inspired as much by the high priests of Paris as by death metal and Gothic influences - strong bold expressions of the Finnish passion for being on the cutting edge.
You can see it in their DNA to produce giants like Nokia (however fledgling now) and more recently, Angry Birds Games, and the various electronic and board games that are very much a part of Finnish culture.



Helsinki’s architecture was the first thing that stuck me en route from the airport to city center. I felt like I was in Russia, with standard block apartment buildings in yellow and gray. And I got closer to the city center though, the landscape changed again, to more classic buildings, high rises, and quirky architectural expressions. Helsinki seemed to have one architectural link with Russia and one with the rest of Scandinavia.


Kamppi Mall is sort of the magnetic center of Helsinki, where trains, metros, Finns, and tourists of all forms converge. Kampii connects you to the three different parts of Finland: Helsinki, Espoo, and Vaanta (Helsinki airport is technically located in Vaanta) conveniently till late night. (point to note especially for party folks living further away from downtown). I didnt find much of interest in the mall itself, but did like the coffee at Wayne’s Coffee and the selections at the Ben & Jerrys.


Kampii has interesting sculptures outside and a wall for artists to come and paint on, i managed to see an artist working on a section as I walked by. A quick walk from Kampii leads you to the main shopping district, where the Forum and Stockmann malls gently guide tourist flow.

A splendid landmark is the old and classical building of the Central Railway Station station. I could imagine it proudly standing during the Second World War, and many harsh winters. The major bus connections including to the Airport are accessible from right outside the station, which is a welcome relief for geographically challenged tourists like me!



The 3 Helsinki museums i managed to check out were the Ateneum, The Kiasma, and the Design Museum. All of them are highly recommended for students and dilatanttes of Art, Design, Architecture, and the creative fields!


The Ateneum Museum, just across the station is the largest collection of Classical Art in Helsinki. At the Ateneum, i spent a good afternoon at the special exhibition on film and photography work by Heikki Aho and Björn Soldan, two legendary constructors of Finland’s modern image (their film ‘Finland Calling’ is a mesmerizing black & white piece). I also saw the Magic of Lapland, an exhibition on the portrayal of Lapland (the inner indigenous part of Finland) since the 1800s (with funky art on bark and 3D models of swamp creatures).


The museum additionally had a photo and audio installation ‘All that Speak the Language Minus 30’, on the rare Inari Sámi language, which only has approx. 300 native speakers in Finland - arranged in a beautiful photo montage with background audio. The museum also features an extensive permanent collection of European and international art, and Japanese woodcut, including works by Gaughin and Van Gogh, and famous pieces like Hugo Simberg’s Wounded Angel.


The Kiasma Museum, with Commander-in-Chief Mannerheim’s statue welcoming you is however, the grand museum in Helsinki, and a must-visit. The highlight of Kiasma during summer has been ARS 11, a series of pieces of contemporary art from Africa. The themes cover the genocide in Rwanda, the evolution of Nigeria, vignettes of crossings and immigrations through Africa’s deadly borders into Europe, urban and environmental conflicts. Around 300 works by 30 artists have covered Africa across 5 levels in the museum, bringing forth different lenses of history and collective memory and subversive takes on Africa.

ARS 11 starts with a floor to ceiling near-garment by El Anatsui, constructed with bottle caps and metal waste. Sammy Baloji’s video Memoire (here on Vimeo) is an abstract dance in the Katanga Mining Area, once the heart of Congo’s industrial renaissance, now a concrete heap.

We Wish To Inform You That We didn’t Know is a powerful video and photo installation by Alfredo Jaar about the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, with survivor interviews interspersed with politicians’ words, especially Clinton feigning ignorance about the massacre. Moments of Beauty by J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere chronicles 60 years of culture, architecture, and fashion from Nigeria


Another powerful piece is Silent Symphony by Mary Sibande, where a black woman wears royal Victorian dresses and turning rules of segregation upside down. I found it quite evocative.


Below are glimpses from other exhibits. You can read more on the ARS11 site.


The Design Museum is tucked away in the Design District of Helsinki,  a collection of shops and areas that showcase Helsinki’s design sensibilities. (Helsinki is the World Design Capital, 2012). The Museum had an extensive exhibition on the work of iconic Finnish design Kaj Franck and his students over the decades. I loved the samples on display, which were collections of Franck’s defining work with the companies Arabia and Nuutajarvi, now part of the iconic firm Iittala. In particular, i found his use of different colors in glassware fascinating.


Helsinki is a great city to explore on foot. I headed out everyday in different directions and found that each turn takes you to someplace vintage, someplace touristy, someplace hidden. The Cathedral is worth a visit, a beautiful building with a large public space around it. The walk to the top of the Cathedral was worth the view. I walked around the Cathedral and harbor area - here you can see some of the other famous structures including Parliament house, and old churches which almost seem like they could have been from Bavaria or Russia.

Night time brings out an entirely different creature in Helsinki, a creature which loves to be outdoors at midnight and party on in an infinite summer night. There is a huge number of nightclubs within the radius of city center and enough food places to keep revellers sustained in the wee hours of the morning. It is common to see solo performers and musicians as with the rest of Europe, but Helsinki is more likely to also have ad hoc groups simply hanging out with a few bottles of beer and playing good electronica.


The harbor area of Helsinki is quite charming, a nice long walkway leading towards the water.
Soumenlinna is a maritime fortress with historical significance for the Finns, a quick boat ride away. More than the fort itself, the island is quite a charming walk, like a deserted yet amiable ghost town, perfect for lazy afternoon beers and conversations and walks through Hobbit homes.


A quick bus ride away from city center is the city (almost suburb) of Otaniemi in Espoo, home of the world famous Design Factory at Aalto University (named after the famous architect Alvar Aalto). The Design Factory is a passionate place for multi-disciplinary collaboration between designers, engineers and business folks. The University itself is located in a lovely green belt, and if you’re up for a good walk, check out the Laajalahati bird sanctuary at the edge of campus.
The Design Factory is also home to the Summer of Startups, sort of a YCombinator to encourage entrepreneurship in Finland. This year’s 10 selected teams included one from Russia and IN Mobile Labs from India, a testimony to the Finns’ global embrace in the search for the next big idea.

I crashed dorm-style with my two good friends Ankit Kumar and Ashish Agarwal, both recent grads from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur whose startup was selected for the Summer of Startups. Ankit and Ashish are gracious hosts, excellent guides, and super cool intellectual ninjas who know how to party - I had a fantastic time in Helsinki courtesy these two gentlemen.


I also managed to attend a high energy pitching session for the startups by Aape Pohjavirta, entrepreneur and Founder of Ympyra, a radical education startup.


As much as I loved all cities i visited, I would love to go back to Helsinki and explore the many hidden layers and facets of this futuristic and charming and very special city.


It recently struck me that part of the problem in digital User Experience Design is the paltry vocabularies often used to describe the end state of a design.

Consider the following conversation between a digital designer and his or her CEO:

Designer: Ok, here are the 3 best options i could come up with over the weekend

CEO: Nice, nice, very nice. But dont you think they’re missing something, a little something

Designer: How do you mean? Are the designs not solving the problem well? I’ve used a very different navigation model in all the designs. Plus i think the purple-gray and red-black color options have a lot of potential.

CEO: Oh, of course. This is great effort. I’m just saying that it could have a little more, you know, like pizzaz, a little more oomph, a little more flash & sizzle, some more spice.

Designer: Ok, how about if i do a little more 3D, and maybe more drop shadows everywhere?

CEO: Yeah, Maybe. But u know what i mean. Like a little more futuristic, a sleek smooth experience.

Designer: You’re saying you want something that sizzles, has spice, and looks like its from the future.

CEO: Yeah, and makes you want to BUY our product online, like, RIGHT NOW

Designer: Oh well.

I think the problem is with the VOCABULARY here.

User Experience Design has started employing words like desire, delight, and awesomeness to describe a certain state of user happiness, but each of these words is a 100 layers deep in terms of what it means and what it can mean.

Think about delight. How do you define delight. Can you capture delight simply through buttons, colors, and layouts, or is delight a function of the underlying value proposition of a product? Can an interface delight the way an ice cream does? Or is delight simply not specific enough as a word to describe the end state of a User Experience.
Or consider “path-breaking”. What path? Breaking what? What does that even mean?

I think Design Processes need better frameworks to define rich vocabularies. I’ll cover this in Part II


Last week I went to see “I Hate Luv Storys”, a movie taking inspiration from superhits like Love Aaj Kal and touting itself to be the latest offering in the different-from-past-century-love-stories genre. IHLS and their ilk are trying to differentiate themselves from run of the mill love stories through some specific tactics and plot devices. These include taking potshots at contemporary Bollywood, reminding the audience of Bollywood love story cliches, singing songs that deride traditional love stories, and actors and actresses whose online and offline persona is oh-so-2010, detached from their Bollywood past, attempting to stand tall in the global landscape of modern Bollywood movies.

Well, I HATED the movie. Sure it has eye candy value, pretty stars and reasonable acting, fantastic locales and dresses, and the odd joke or two about lesbians and gays, about contemporary Bollywood, the occasional humor by first time side actors (Jai’s best friend is as plain speaking as Pratik Babbar’s character in Imran’s first movie), but the essential question kept bugging me as the movie plodded through: Where’s the bloody plot? Where? Under Imran’s chocolatey-goofy looks? Inside Sameer Soni’s strange expressions? Simply put, there is NO plot to speak of in this movie. Its almost as if the entire movie is targeted towards some kind of context-less, robotic, teenage and youth audience whose goals in life include making fun of everything contemporary and past, and living life in the moment with branded entertainment and clothes.

Even then, the movie would have made sense if it didn’t fall step by step, in the second half, into the very cliches, the very platitudes, the very hackneyedness that it tries to criticize and question in the first half. In the second half the director simply ran out of things to do, and forced a strange New Zealand angle, making Sameer Dattani look even more forced and pathetic than in the first half, making Imran and Sonam stare at each other inscrutably and making the audience almost heave a sigh of relief when he finally proclaims his love in the end, in the most cliched manner possible.

I would go so far as to say that I felt my heart yearning for the very classic contemporary Bollywood movies this movie tries to spoof/criticize/whatever else it does. The first few scenes of the movie are a montage from DDLJ, Hum Tum, and various other Khan classics, and I daresay, you realize how golden those movies are, when IHLS finishes. IHLS is so dull it makes Rajneeti, with all its hamming and cliches stand head and shoulders above it.

Now i need a good tightly scripted, gripping movie to cleanse my palette of all this pink bubblegum BS

Restarting this blog after 9 months….watch this space

I feel sad writing this post. After a rather interesting World Usability Day event last Saturday where we heard several claims and lists of features by the BIAL COO and future-CEO, I experienced first hand today several breakdowns and several experience nightmares at BIAL. Let me list a few here.

First, once I reached the boarding area, I neither found a complaint register nor anyone who knew where the complaint register was. Courtesy Mr. Amar Nair of the Duty Free shopping area, who was professional enough to escort me around to find the complaint register, we managed to get an official from the ground area. It turns out there is a complaint register that you can fill BEFORE you embark on customs and immigration. It also turns out that if you need foreign exchange and medical assistance, you should sort out all those existential issues out BEFORE you reach customs.The inside story is that the duty free shop boys end up helping out distraught passengers by running downstairs and getting medicines when any emergency help is needed. I fail to understand how the airport could have overlooked such fundamental issues.

Its 1:35 am and after several discussions with BIAL officials here and shop owners, I am convinced that the government and the official authorities of BIAL, despite tall claims about  the services being offered here, have not fully tried to understand what constitutes a superior user experience. THey have 1 hour free Wifi but they fail to advertise how one can access it. They have a Crossword and sell magazines, but you can receive change only in Dollars and Euros (sorry you poor Indian consumers with your depreciated rupee). They have shops selling all sorts of fancy jewellery and gear but not enough water coolers.

That’s it for now. I hope to blog more once I reach Hong Kong or LA, my next destinations on this short trip.

We’ve been working hard towards organizing an interesting, relevant, and high impact Bangalore World Usability Day this year. I’m happy that BIAL put up a big ass 10 by 2 metres banner at the Bangalore Airport to announce the event.

The BIAL COO (and projected CEO) Mr. Marcel Hungerbuehler is speaking at the event and I’m looking forward to hearing their stories - as much as those of the Reva electric car, bus rapid transport systems in India and technology interventions in transportation.

Hope to see you there!

Via Bloomberg, some news that should cheer up job seekers: http://www.bloomberg.com/avp/avp.asxx?clip=mms://media2.bloomberg.com/cache/vqBhv_DWum98.asf&vCat=/ceo&RND=024451517

I just hope we use the economic opportunities this downturn provides and emerge stronger by 2010, especially on the infrastructure side.

Via Sequoia Capital’s presentation to CEOs, a blunt and analytic take on the current economic and financial downturn and its implications. The lessons pretty much apply to everybody in the business of business…

Disclaimer :"The views expressed on this weblog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer." .