Monday, August 29, 2016

Mission Statement

From a Guardian article about six scientists who have just completed a year-long simulation of a Mars mission:
They managed limited resources while conducting research and working to avoid personal conflicts.
This strikes me as a worthy goal for humanity in general.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Third Sex

Sign at an upmarket store in Copenhagen:

men, women, furs next door

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Little Mermaid

One of my happiest memories of my time in Copenhagen is of going to see the mermaid at dawn.

The first time I saw her was on a sunny afternoon. The waterfront was teeming with tourists, some of whom were clambering up to pose and take selfies with the statue. I kept my distance and resolved to come back at a quieter time.

Towards the end of my stay, I woke up one morning at 4 am. Unable to go back to sleep and having nothing better to do, I cycled across the city to the waterfront. On the way, I stopped on Dronning Louise's Bro (which some Copenhageners call hipsterbroen or 'the hipster bridge') to watch the dawn breaking over Sortedam Lake.

Some tourists were passing by. 'It looks like my asshole!' one of them shouted at me, for no apparent reason. 'Yours is redder,' I shouted back, and his friends went 'Ooooo.' I'm usually not good at spur-of-the-moment comebacks, so I was pleased with myself.

I reached the statue just before sunrise. There were only two other people there, and they – like me – quietly sat on a bench overlooking the statue and the sea.

Many visitors find the Little Mermaid underwhelming or kitschy, but I've grown quite fond of the statue (in any case, I have a soft spot for disappointing monuments). Even with crowds of tourists swarming around her, she seems dignified and aloof, her gazed fixed on some distant point on the shore; of course in the original fairy-tale, unlike in the Disney movie, the Little Mermaid suffers unbearable torments but does not get her man.

The two other people on the scene were 18-year-old guys from Belgium, returning home after a walking holiday in Sweden. Their ferry arrived the night before and their train was in the morning, so they spent the night on the beach. At one point, they said, it got really cold.

It struck me – not as a cause for regret, just as a fact – that this is the kind of thing I once used to do, but these days I'd be more likely to book a cheap hotel (except perhaps in the company of Bunty, with whom all bets are off).

I turned 30 last year, and it feels like a more significant threshold than turning 18. Lather was 30 years old when they took away all of his toys; his mother sent newspaper clippings to him about his old friends who'd stopped being boys. And the poet Brian Howard said, 'Anybody over the age of 30 seen in a bus has been a failure in life.' I cheerfully take buses and, like Lather, draw pictures of mountains that look like bumps, but I may be less likely to sleep under the stars in northern latitudes.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Copenhagen, 11:50 pm

Since I wrote about long summer days in Copenhagen, the days have grown ever-so-slightly shorter, but even so, twilight lasts from sunset to sunrise. This photo was taken just before midnight. The streaks of light are from an S-train speeding south through Frederiksberg.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Day Length and Decision Theory

I am in currently Copenhagen where, 15 days after the solstice, there is no such thing as night. Daytime gives way to civil twilight, then nautical twilight – and that is the darkest it gets.

Growing up in Calcutta, I experienced relatively little seasonal variation in day-length. As far as I remember, it affected my life in only one respect: I was allowed to play in the streets in the afternoon on condition that I'd be back before dark, which meant I could stay out a little later in summer.

The longest day of the year in Calcutta is less than 3 hours longer than the shortest day. In London, where I now live, the difference is almost 9 hours. I sometimes wonder: if I had to choose between Calcutta and London based on day-length alone, which would I pick?

Graph made using data from

Other things being equal, I prefer longer days. By moving to London, I gained about 350 daylight hours in summer, but gave up the same amount in winter.1 The question is, does the loss offset the gain?

Most people are thought to be loss averse: the pain we experience if we lose £100 is more than the pleasure of winning £100, and in general, bad things have more impact than good things. The psychologist Paul Rozin illustrated this beautifully: "a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches."2

But when it comes to day length, I am not quite sure what I prefer. Sometimes I lean towards more variation, sometimes towards less. Perhaps this means I am indifferent!

A question for the reader: How much variation seems optimal to you? No variation (12-hour days all year, like at the equator), extreme variation (6 months of darkness and 6 months of light, like at the poles), or somewhere in between?

1.In reality the gain is not exactly equal to the loss, but let's pretend it is, for the sake of simplicity.
2.As quoted in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.