Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Silent People

The first verse of Casey's Last Ride, a song by Kris Kristofferson, describes silent crowds walking down subway stairs. I see this as a metaphor for a life without love or purpose – minding the arrows and trudging inexorably towards the clicking of the turnstiles.

I've always thought the song would be a good candidate for a bleak graphic-novel-style interpretation, so when I got my hands on a graphics tablet (a gift from Anasua), I gave it a shot (which is to say, I drew the first panel; I would have drawn the whole song if I had the requisite patience, which I clearly don't).

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Seasons 3: Isle of Dogs, London

Move your cursor over the image below, and it should change to another image of the same scene in a different season. (If it doesn't work, check that your browser has JavaScript enabled.)

Base photo:30 May 2014
Mouseover photo:3 December 2014
Approx. coordinates:51.49°N, 0.01°W

The boundary fence of our housing development is fringed with what I suspect is meadowsweet. The flowers are fluffy white in summer, but now that it's winter, they are dry and black.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The American Pound

An American professor teaches my Philosophy of Economics course. An incident from Monday's class:
Professor: On the y-axis we have pound benefit to farmers. [tries to draw a pound symbol, fails, tries again, draws an even worse one]
Class: [laughter]
Professor: I... I don't know how to draw a pound.
Class: [more laughter]
Professor: I'll practise, I'll practise.

Below is a photo of his effort.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

No Nazis, No Racists

A poster I saw in my East London neighbourhood:

I wonder if the London Antifascists have given up on posher areas!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


From The Regulation of International Trade by Trebilcock, Howse and Eliason:

What?! No!

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Shop Called Sroyon

My first name – a Bengali word meaning 'shelter' – is pretty uncommon; I have never met anyone who shares it. Saha likes to tell a story (see e.g. the third comment here) about staff in my school naming their kids after me, but this, like most of Saha's stories, is a lie.

But it turns out that for twenty years now, there has been a shop in Bhowanipore, Calcutta which shares my name. My father sent me a photo of the shop and its owner.

The coincidence is all the more surprising because, due to the complexities of Bangla Romanisation, this is only one of several possible ways of spelling শ্রয়ণ in English, and not necessarily the most obvious one. Other possibilities include Srayan, Shrayan and Shroyon – the second being the most orthographically accurate.

* * *

In other news, it appears that my feathered friend from last winter was not unique; if The Telegraph is to be believed, sunbirds are known for window-tapping.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Terms of Use

My CQA page (linked in the sidebar) answers most queries which readers may have about this blog (and several others besides), but it has hitherto been silent about terms of use. I don't make any money from this blog, so I'm not too fussed about asserting copyright over the content as long as people behave with common decency.

On a few occasions, people have been kind enough to email me asking if they can link to a post or use an image. Most recently, someone from tokyobike NYC – a bike company – emailed me to ask permission to use one of my photos (this is where they shared the image, and here is the post where it originally appeared).

So, to save such people the time and effort of having to contact me to ask permission, I hereby introduce The World According to Sroyon terms of use.

I toyed with the idea of adopting Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0, but in the end I settled for something that's even more flexible and non-legalistic (or, to use a Creative Commons phrase, "human-readable").

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Cat-and-Mouse Theory Against the Existence of God

In a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:
But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
The other day I saw a cat catch a mouse at Mudchute Farm. But perhaps unnerved by my presence, it did not play with its prey. Instead it retreated post-haste under a nearby wagon to finish its lunch, occasionally stealing mistrustful glances in my direction.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Illa de Monteagudo, 9:14 pm

This photo was taken on 30 August, two minutes after sunset. As of today, sunset at Illa de Monteagudo (a tiny island in north-western Spain) has moved forward by about 43 minutes. Yesterday was the autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Easily Alarmed

This week London hosted the Tall Ships Festival, which transformed the stretch of river that runs past my flat, making ordinary photos (like the one below) look like Canaletto paintings.

It also prompted the Head of Facilities Management at my law firm to send this email to everyone in the London office:
At 11:30 hrs today a cannon will be fired by one of the ships docking at Wood Wharf as part of the Tall Ships Festival taking place there over the weekend. Please do not be concerned should you hear this.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Piranhas and the Ultra Left Dream

We got cable TV in 1998 when I was thirteen; until then I grew up watching two channels: DD1 and DD2.

I remember the first time I heard the Pink Floyd song Nobody Home, which had the line:
I got thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from
I was amazed that anyone had thirteen channels (shit or otherwise) to choose from. It seemed like some kind of paradise.

Every Saturday night, DD1, if my memory serves me right, used to broadcast an English movie. In pre-cable times, these movies, along with the VHS tapes my parents rented for us to watch during school vacations, were my only exposure to western cinema.

I have vivid memories of many of the DD1 English movies, but some left more of an impression than others. The Adventures of Robin Hood was screened in 1993, a few days before my brother Sujaan, who was three years old at the time, was due to start school. When the movie ended, he flatly announced that he would go to school without a fuss, but only if he was kitted out entirely in Lincoln green. After some bargaining our mother got him a green bag, and this was enough to keep him happy.

The night Robin Hood was to be telecast, we tuned in early to make sure we did not miss a single minute. The movie was announced by an on-screen message: Coming up: The Advantage of Robin Hood. I remember my father laughing at Doordarshan's typo.

I had a friend who also used to watch the DD1 English movies. In school on Monday we would discuss the movies in detail, and repeat lines which had made an impression on us. One such movie, The Phantom of Hollywood, had the line (in a threatening note slipped to a studio-chief) "To destroy the backlot is to destroy yourself."

We thought this had to be the greatest single line in cinematic history.

* * *

Last night I was reading some of Nabarun Bhattacharya's short stories. His (devastatingly good) short story ফ্যাতাড়ু (Fyataru) – about "an anarchic underclass fond of sabotage" who can fly with the aid of a secret mantra – has the following conversation:
—শনিবার টিভি-তে ইংরিজি সিনেমাটা দেখেছিলে?
—না তো।
—তা ভালো জিনিস দেখতে যাবে কেন? বইটা ছিল হেভি ভয়ের। এক পাল উড়ুক্কু মাছ! উড়ে উড়ে লোক ধরছে আর গলা কামড়ে মেরে ফেলছে।
—না, না। ভ্যামপায়ার তো হলো গিয়ে বাদুড়। এ হলো মাছ। একটা ডোবা জাহাজের খোলের মধ্যে থাকে। মাঝে মাঝে দল বেঁধে লোক মারতে বেরোয়ে।
Translation (with help from Sujaan):
—Did you catch the English movie on TV on Saturday?
—Of course, why would you watch the quality stuff? The movie was real scary. There was this swarm of fish which could fly. Flying at people, biting at their throats and killing them.
— No, no. Vampires are what you call bats. These were fish. They lived in the hull of a sunken ship. From time to time they would emerge in hordes to kill humans.
The characters in the story are clearly referring to Piranha II: Flying Killers, a movie which I remember watching on DD1. ফ্যাতাড়ু was published in 1995, so it was almost certainly the very same telecast that I watched. On a Saturday night in the mid-nineties, in different parts of Calcutta, an excitable 10-year-old kid and a 47-year-old revolutionary writer at the peak of his powers were probably both watching the same corny American horror flick.

On a side note, director James Cameron jokingly described Piranha II as "the finest flying killer fish movie ever made" – a description which reminds me of a certain Durga Puja advertisement.

* * *

From the Times of India article about Nabarun Bhattacharya's demise, a line written without a trace of irony:
He sympathized with the ultra left dream of a society where "people will get enough to eat, their health will be looked after, and children educated."
On days when I think about my own (small) contribution to capitalist exploitation, it is good to know that in my own way, I too entertain ultra left dreams.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fun Things and Thieves

It's no secret that I really like making lists.

When I was in school I used to have a whiteboard hung on my bedroom wall. It was called Cartoon Network Things To Do.

These days I no longer have a whiteboard, and my lists have other names. Until yesterday, my grocery list was a handwritten page tacked to the kitchen cupboard; I would take a photo of it before going shopping. My Fun Things List (for projects I want to work on, movies to see, places to visit, and things like that) was another handwritten sheet, tacked to my clothes cupboard. My to-do list was a Google Doc.

But last week I bought a smartphone, and after trying out a number of unsatisfactory list-making apps, yesterday I found an app called Wunderlist, which is so perfectly suited to my very specific list-needs that it has revolutionised the way I make lists. Here's a photo of some of the lists on my phone.

For some time now my to-do list has been called Thieves, which is a play on words: 'chore' and চোর (Bangla for 'thief') are false friends – words in two different languages that sound the same but have different meanings. I like lists but I hate chores, and I suspect my long-running efforts to come up with amusing names for to-do lists are really only a way to make them less intimidating and more fun.

I like my Thieves list to be shorter than my Fun things list; the relative lengths of the two lists could almost be seen as a rough measure of how my life is going. Tonight, it's too close to call.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Moon and Saturn

The night after I took the photo of the Milky Way, I photographed Saturn and the first quarter Moon through Tommy's home-made Newtonian telescope.

That night the Moon and Saturn were in different parts of the sky (here is a hi-res photo of the Moon on its own). For a sense of (apparent) scale, I used image-editing software to merge two photos taken at the same magnification, thus bringing the Moon and Saturn together in a single frame. The result is similar to what you might see during an occultation.

In the photo you can see some of the craters, mountains and "seas" of the Moon, which are cool enough in their own right. But of all the objects that can be seen in the night sky with an amateur telescope, there are few, if any, which are cooler than the rings of Saturn.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Milky Way over Lone Pine

In my blog CQA I wrote that one of the reasons I continue to blog is because through blogging, I've come to know some people I would not know otherwise. This summer I visited one such person in his desert lair at Lone Pine, California.

On the first night of our stay, the moon set early behind the Sierra Nevada. The skies were clear, and the remote desert location meant that there was minimal light pollution. When I ventured outside at around 2 am, I was treated to one of the most beautiful night skies I have ever seen.

The photograph I took captures only a small section of the vista that stretched out above us, but it has a number of interesting objects. The dominant feature is, of course, the Milky Way. You can also see (parts of) eight constellations, binary stars, a red supergiant whose diameter is nearly 900 times that of the Sun, and a number of deep-sky objects (star clusters, and nebulae – interstellar clouds of dust and gas hundreds of light years wide, where new stars are being born). The deep-sky objects have exotic names like the Wild Duck Cluster and the Eagle Nebula (and sometimes non-exotic names like NGC 6441). You can also see a star cluster 87,400 light years away in another galaxy, and a dark nebula in the shape of a black horse galloping through the heavens.

Perhaps coolest of all, the photo includes the galactic centre – the theorised location of a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* whose mass is over 4 million times that of the Sun. Sagittarius A* cannot be seen in the photo – or even through astronomical instruments from Earth, at least not at visible wavelengths – because of interstellar extinction by dust and gas. We know its location because it is detectable as a source of strong radio waves.

You want to know where all these cool objects are, don't you? Click on the photo for an interactive guide.

I would have unveiled this photo long ago, but Anasua coaxed me into making the guide, which took weeks of research and coding. "Reach for the stars," she said.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Survival of the Fittest Onion

Onions are biennial plants. This is how they work:

Life Cycle of an Onion Plant
Year 1, Spring:Seeds germinate and start to grow.
Year 1, Summer:First the leaves sprout, then the bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell.
Year 1, Autumn:The bulb, where the plant stores food reserves for the winter, reaches maturity, but the foliage dries up and dies. This is when the onion bulb is usually harvested.
Year 1, Winter:If left undisturbed, the bulb lies dormant all through the cold months.
Year 2, Spring:Answering the call of the springtime sun, the bulb sends forth a shoot which initially feeds on the food stored in the bulb, then sprouts leaves which aid in photosynthesis.
Year 2, Summer:The stem "bolts" (begins to elongate rapidly) and produces a bud. The bud blooms into a flower, which eventually "goes to seed".
Year 2, Autumn:The plant dies, but next spring the seeds can grow into new plants.

Last spring I bought some onions from the supermarket and stored them in my kitchen cupboard. The cupboard is a dark, airless place, but even in such harsh conditions, life prevails. A few days later I discovered that one of the onions had begun to sprout.

Impressed by its will to live, I decided not to chop it up, and instead planted it in a pot.

The plant was undemanding – I just watered it every other day and fertilised it with coffee grounds. Still it grew steadily, putting forth leaves and in May, a pair of buds. But its tribulations were not yet over.

While I was on holiday in the USA, the pot was blown over by the wind. The plant lay ignominiously on its side, but undeterred by this misfortune, it bent upwards at a right angle and continued to grow. When I righted it, the stems – always reaching for the light – again bent upwards at a slightly higher point, giving the plant an interesting shape, a bit like a modernist sculpture. Here are some photos of the flowers in various stages of development.

At the time of writing, the flower petals are drying up. If the flowers have successfully self-pollinated, they may soon produce seeds. I think it's pretty cool that an onion bulb can flourish and reproduce even after being uprooted, sold in a supermarket and lying neglected in a kitchen cupboard.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lone Fox Dancing

I have previously posted about foxes in winter and foxes at night. In the interests of more well-rounded fox coverage, I now present a photo of a fox in summer, and in the daytime.

I took the photo inside our housing development, where red foxes have burrowed into the earth to make a den whose entrance is concealed by bushes.

The titles of my first two fox posts referenced a song (Fox in the Snow) and a book (The Foxes Come at Night). Last week at an outdoor café in London I saw a notice which would have gone really well with the second post:

In case you were wondering, the title of the post you are reading now references a poem: a reader suggestion.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Flagging Demand

England car flags being sold for a discount at a supermarket in London, after England's first-round exit from the Football World Cup.

If I had any sense I would buy the lot, and sell them before Euro 2016 at a 700% profit.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Seasons 2: Island Gardens, London

Move your cursor over the image below, and it should change to another image of the same scene in a different season. (If it doesn't work, check that your browser has JavaScript enabled.)

Base photo:31 May 2014
Mouseover photo:13 November 2011
Approx. coordinates:51.487°N, 0.008°W

One day in the autumn of 2011, I mentioned to my cousin that lots of people walk their dogs in my neighbourhood park. She likes dogs, so she asked for photos. The mouseover photo in this post is one of the few photos I took that day which does not have a dog in it. Summer is my favourite season in London, but there's no denying that the sugar maple trees in the park are at their best in autumn.

The base photo was taken last month, but I thought summer solstice is as good a day as any for a Seasons post.

Happy solstice, everyone!

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Roti Algorithm

Rotis (by which I mean the thin, circular rotis cooked without oil, called ruti in Bangla) are made by rolling atta (unleavened wholegrain wheat) dough into thin circular disks, which are then cooked over a dry tawa.

Cooking one roti at a time is inefficient because firstly, you waste time placing each roti on the tawa and then taking it off, and secondly, by the time the last roti is cooked, the first one is no longer warm. It is possible to cook several rotis on the tawa simultaneously, but to be properly cooked, each side of each roti must be in contact with the tawa for roughly the same period of time. Like most experienced roti-makers, my mother achieves this by flipping the rotis in a complex sequence. But when I asked her, she could not tell me what exact sequence she follows, because the technique, born of long experience, comes naturally to her.

So I gave some thought to the problem, and came up with an algorithm for cooking any number of rotis on the tawa at the same time, thus bringing advanced techniques within the grasp of even the most hapless roti-noob.

The algorithm is best illustrated by a flowchart:

A couple of definitions which are used in the flowchart or later in this post:
"Lowest Side" means the lower side of the bottom roti in the stack (i.e. the side in contact with the tawa).
"T" means the time taken to cook the Lowest Side, and is counted from the instant of completion of the most recent flip of all the rotis in the stack.

Some notes on the algorithm:
As it is inconvenient to flip or remove rotis which are in the middle or bottom of the stack, I designed the algorithm so that (a) the flip operation only involves flipping either the top roti or the whole stack, and (b) once a roti cooked on both sides, the next action always brings it to the top of the stack whence it can easily be removed.
On high heat, the Lowest Side gets cooked before it can conduct much heat to the roti above it. So while the Lowest Side is being cooked, the states of any rotis above the bottom roti are not significantly affected.
To make multiple rotis at once, the dough has to be fairly dry so that the rotis in the stack do not stick to each other. If they're still sticky, it helps to spread a thin film of dry atta on each roti.
It is rarely necessary and never practical to cook more than 5-6 rotis at a time, because the time thereby saved is offset by the difficulty of flipping several rotis at once. But the algorithm works for any number of rotis.

The algorithm is actually easier to master than the flowchart might suggest. Once you get the hang of it, the next step is obvious even without referring to the flowchart.

To give you an idea of how the algorithm works, I made a short animated video (0:36) for 6 rotis. Each side of each roti is represented by a black rectangle, which turns red when it is cooked. T in the video is 1.5 seconds, which is shorter than the actual time it takes to cook one side of a roti in real life.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Atheism and the En Dash

There was an odd article in the Guardian today which argued that "there are no atheist babies". Specifically, the author took issue with a Richard Dawkins quote: "When you say X is the fastest growing religion, all you mean is that X people have babies at the fastest rate. But babies have no religion."

'Atheism' can mean either a rejection of the existence of deities (explicit atheism) or, more inclusively, an absence of belief in the existence of deities (implicit atheism). The article is odd because it argues that babies are not explicitly atheist, while Dawkins was only saying that babies are implicitly atheist.

But my main quibble with the article is the paragraph below:

Not one but two consecutive lines begin with an en dash. I really think that a self-respecting newspaper should precede a parenthetical en dash with a non-breaking space so that a line can end – but never begin – with an en dash. In HTML, it is coded as  – followed by an ordinary space.

In some of my old posts you might come across a spaced en dash not preceded by a non-breaking space, but there is an explanation for that. Anyway, I must not get complacent; I learn new things all the time. In a recent post I wanted to use double quotes followed by a left parenthesis, and I realised that some browsers might insert a soft return between the two punctuation marks. In case the information is of use to anyone, I got around it by coding the text thus: <nobr>"(S)he</nobr> did it!"

Edit: I have just learnt from Tommy that <nobr> has been deemed a non-standard element, but the same effect can be achieved with CSS:
<span style="white-space:nowrap;">"(S)he</span> did it!"
Like I said, I learn new things all the time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bellingham, 12:53 pm

On the drive down from Mount Baker, I saw a good example of a 22º halo, an optical phenomenon caused by the refraction of sunlight by hexagonal ice crystals in a layer of cirrostratus nebulosus cloud. The inner edge of the halo is red and the outer edge bluish, though this could be seen more clearly with the naked eye than in the photo.

The 22º halo is actually a fairly common phenomenon, occurring up to 100 days a year in temperate latitudes. If you haven't seen it, it's probably because you are wise enough not to stare at the sun.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Seasons 1: Parade Gardens, Bath

Move your cursor over the image below, and it should change to another image of the same scene in a different season. (If it doesn't work, check that your browser has JavaScript enabled.)

Base photo:20 January 2013
Mouseover photo:26 May 2014
Approx. coordinates:51.382°N, 2.357°W

I am hoping to make Seasons an occasional series, so keep a weather eye on this blog.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Six Days in Kyoto

A friend of mine who was travelling to continental Europe for the first time recently asked me for advice on how to plan her trip, specifically, whether to cover lots of cities, or visit fewer cities but spend more time in each. As someone who likes to travel but is perenially constrained by holiday and budget limitations, this is a problem to which I have devoted much thought. And my musings have led me to come up with the Urban Travel Enjoyment Curve (UTEC).

The exact shape of the curve depends on a number of factors including personal preferences, the city in question, and the expense of travelling to and living in the city, but the form of the curve (for me, and – I believe – for most people) is something like this:

If, for instance, I misguidedly planned a trip to Paris where I would only get to spend 30 minutes in the city, my enjoyment would actually be negative. The time, money and effort expended in travelling to Paris and back would outweigh any enjoyment I might derive from my 30-minute visit. So for small values of t, UTEC lies below the t axis, i.e. enjoyment is negative.

At a slightly higher value of t, perhaps around 30 hours, UTEC intersects the t axis. This is the point where I would be indifferent between going and not going for the trip.

Initially, each unit of time spent in the city produces increased enjoyment, and the rate of increase is positive (i.e. UTEC is convex downward). Then it reaches an inflection point, after which enjoyment still increases but the rate of increase is negative (i.e. UTEC is concave downward). Finally, after I have had my fill of the city, my enjoyment peaks and then goes downhill because of mounting hotel costs, foregone opportunities to visit other places, and so on.

If only we had a formula for each city's UTEC, trip-planning would be reduced to a simple optimisation problem. Since we don't, we have to rely on guesswork, which means UTEC – like most things on this blog – is mildly interesting but ultimately useless.

One trip where I got my planning absolutely spot-on was in the summer of 2011, when I was living and working in Tokyo.

For the six-day Golden Week holiday, I toyed with the idea of visiting several cities, but eventually I decided to spend all six days in Kyoto. Kyoto has dozens of wonderful things to see and neighbourhoods to explore. Besides, it would be ironic to do a whirlwind tour of, of all things, Zen temples and rock gardens built for contemplation.

With the luxury of six full days at my disposal, I took in the sights at a leisurely pace, spoke to many people I met, and slept in parks when I tired of walking. Some of my nicest memories are of places I would probably have left out of a tighter itinerary. Here are three such stories.

A Chance Encounter

For reasons not entirely clear to me, Japanese visitors to Kyoto sometimes like to dress up as geishas and stroll around Minami Higashiyama.

Many photos of "geishas" taken by foreign tourists are in fact of tourists in costume; real geisha are elusive and few.

But late one evening in Gion, returning to my hostel after dinner, I unexpectedly saw a real geisha. We crossed each other in a narrow alley; I hadn't noticed her until she was five feet away. It seemed disrespectful to take a photo, and in any case, I was too awestruck to do anything.

Friends have asked me how I knew she was a real geisha. There was something about her walk, her poise and the way she wore her clothes; I saw her and Knew.

Philosophy and Tortoises

My favourite walk in Kyoto is Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher's Path), a pedestrian path along a cherry-tree-lined canal. The path goes past temples, shrines and back-gardens, and is named after a Zen philosopher who used it for daily meditation.

It was a pleasant walk, but more than that, it was fun because I found myself ascribing philosophical implications to the most mundane things I saw or heard: the overheard conversations of other walkers, a spider ensnaring a butterfly, a swimming tortoise.

Actually I might have missed the tortoise, if not for the two Japanese guys who were observing it with interest.

The tortoise was trying to swim across the canal but the current impeded it, and though it had nearly made it to the other bank, the little guy was evidently at the end of its strength. One time it clamped its jaws onto a reed, but the reed broke off and was swept away with the current. Finally, after a supreme effort, the tortoise safely reached the bank. The Japanese guys looked at me delightedly and said, "Yokatta!" Which means something like "(S)he did it!"

The Cutest Thing I Ever Saw

Shimogamo Jinja is not as spectacular or historically significant as some other shrines in Kyoto, but I wanted to visit it because behind the shrine lies a sacred grove known as Tadasu no Mori (the Forest Where Lies Cannot Be Concealed). Not surprisingly, it is a popular spot for settling disputes and for first dates.

But I had an unexpected treat in store. There was some kind of competition going on, and the courtyard in front of the shrine was filled with young kendo trainees.

Scores of toddlers wearing balloons on their helmets and bashing each other over the head with sticks – if there is a cuter sight than that, I am yet to see it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Legal Jargon

The Gherkin in London was recently put into receivership, and predictably, newspapers had a field day with headline puns (financial pickle, salad days over, etc.)

Last week the High Court delivered a judgment on the interpretation of the loan facility agreement used to finance the purchase of the Gherkin. Justice Flaux mercifully steered clear of gherkin puns, but slipped in a sentence which brings some hope to me and others in my line of work who have, late at night, sweated over a seemingly incomprehensible clause in a facility agreement:
In lengthy commercial contracts of this kind there will often be words or phrases which are surplusage or which have no obvious meaning. [emphasis supplied]
To give credit where it's due, the law firm where I work discourages the use of jargon in drafting. When I was a trainee, we were told, "The only excuse for using Latin in a memo to a client is if your client is an ancient Roman."

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ryanair Humour

Nearly everyone hates Ryanair.

I have flown with them several times, and if you think that means I am an exception, you couldn't be more wrong: it means I dislike them even more – not just because of all the times I have been subjected to their frustrating booking process and annoying recorded in-flight promos, but because choosing Ryanair is a peculiar form of self-abasement – a reminder that purely because of their low prices, I sometimes fly with an unpleasant company which is synonymous with obsessive cost-cutting, hidden charges, appalling customer service and an obnoxious CEO.

Ryanair are completely unabashed about their business model and public image, and in a perverse way, I can't help appreciate how they sometimes poke fun at themselves. On a Ryanair flight I took this month, the in-flight menu advertised, among other things:
• "Free printed receipt with every purchase!"
• "Sweet snacks (great for sharingscoffing if you've been separated from your friend!)" (a reference to their no-allocated-seating policy)
• "Soft drinks & juices (because the toilets are still free!)" (a reference to the proposed pay-per-pee fee)

In 2012, flying back to London with Ryanair, I fell asleep when the landing cards were being handed out. When I woke up, I asked a flight attendant if I could have a landing card. "That will be one pound," she said.

It is a mark of Ryanair's reputation (and her perfect poker face) that before I caught on to the joke, I actually believed her for a second.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Oslo, 5:38 am

Norway is a great place for camping, not just because of all the hiking trails and dramatic scenery, but because of allemansretten (literally, every man's right) – the legal right to roam on foot or skis anywhere in open country, to swim or row in rivers, to sleep in a tent or under the stars, and to pick berries, mushrooms or flowers.

On our second day of camping, we pitched our tent on the shores of Sognsvann, a lake in the Nordmarka (north forest). Sognsvann is easily reachable from Oslo, so in the daytime it attracts joggers and picnickers. But after sunset, we had the lake all to ourselves.

It was a cold, clear night. When I awoke, hoarfrost covered our tent and the grass around it, and as I stood shivering in my boots and wishing I had remained cocooned in my sleeping-bag, I was reminded why wild camping is special to me: the stillness, the frisson of adventure, the vastness of the sky, and the waning gibbous moon setting over the spruce trees.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sheep, Crows and Certainty

Overheard at Mudchute Farm – a boy (about four years old) thoughtfully surveying the sheepfold:
I am ninety-nine percent sure I like sheep.
My childhood views about sheep are not recorded, but today my mother discovered, in the pages of an old diary, this unambiguous statement scrawled when I was two or three years old:

It says (in Bangla) We do not love crows. 'Crow' is misspelt and the letterforms are far from perfect, but as you can see from this example, I was a kid who was seldom < 100% sure about things.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Ex-God

This post is the second in a short series about religion and my grandmother(s).

When my brother and I were kids, if our mother scolded us, our grandmother (our mother's mother) would tell her to go easy because – so our grandmother said – children younger than five were like gods, in the sense that they could not (knowingly) do any wrong.

Here is an old photo of my brother on his fifth birthday.

He is crying because he is no longer a god, and he is worried that his sins will now catch up with him.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

2 + 2 = 5

When I was in first year of college, a senior who was preparing for a competitive exam asked me to help him with his maths. For each hour of tuition he would treat me to biryani, which I considered an excellent deal.

In our second lesson, I explained how to solve quadratic equations by factoring by inspection.

Then I derived for him the general solution for ax2 + bx + c = 0, the quadratic formula which in Indian textbooks is often called Sridhar Acharya's formula after the 9th century Indian mathematician who described a general method for solving quadratic equations:

I advised my friend that if a and c are integers with relatively few factors, factoring by inspection is quicker, so he should try it first before using the quadratic formula. He rejected this suggestion with an argument of such staggering irrationality and misplaced patriotic pride, that I could think of nothing to say in reply: "When there is a perfectly good method discovered by an Indian, why should I use another method?"

The incident came to mind because I noticed an amusing photo on the Guardian (online edition) front page today:
The teacher(?) is factoring a quadratic polynomial 2x2 + 5x + 2, but the expression in the second line is incorrect: (2x + 2)(x + 1) actually equals 2x2 + 4x + 2. The second line should read (2x + 1)(x + 2).

And yeah, there also should be a full-stop after 'charts'.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shunbun no Hi: Llamas

Elsewhere on this blog I have extolled the virtues of the Isle of Dogs. But that list had one glaring omission: it made no mention of the llamas of Mudchute Farm. For this must surely be one of the top reasons for wanting to live in the area: when you're on the Isle of Dogs, no matter how bad things are, you can always take comfort from the fact that you are never more than 2 km from a llama.

* * *

The polite way of saying in the showring that a llama is overweight or fat.
Overconditioned! I am so going to use that about humans.

* * *

Last year I wrote:
If, as is not unlikely, Web 3.0 is created to allow people to share pictures of llamas, my llama photo will get its place in the sun.
Web 3.0 is still in the works, but while we wait, here is a llama photo taken by Sujaan at Mudchute Farm:

Monday, March 17, 2014


My first attempt at a timelapse video of natural phenomena: clouds over my patio on Saturday morning. Click on the photo below for the video (0:18).

The video is composed of stills taken at 15-second intervals played at 15 fps, for an effective speed of 225×. Next time, I'll pick a shorter interval (and hopefully, more interesting clouds and scenery).

Several aircraft appear in the video, some only for the space of a single frame (less than 67 milliseconds). Still you can spot them if you look real carefully, e.g. near the end there are two specks in the 1st quadrant and a white streak in the 3rd quadrant.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Earthquake Memories

Tuesday, 8 March 2011, was the first day of my six-month secondment to my law firm's office in Tokyo. Upon arrival, I got a health-and-safety briefing which, among other things, introduced me to the earthquake pack under my desk. It had a hard hat, fire-blanket, rope, torch, whistle, bottled water, tinned food and biscuits. The biscuits interested me particularly. They were not very tasty, but when I ate a few and then drank some water, I felt as full as if I had eaten a big meal.

On Wednesday morning, there was a 7.2-magnitude quake off the coast of Japan, and the high-rise building I was in swayed noticeably. I was thrilled to be in my first real earthquake, but after that I left the biscuits alone.

Later that day I had a Japanese lesson. Among the first words my teacher taught me were emergency words, "just in case": 地震 (jishin: earthquake), 火 (hi: fire) and 火山 (kazan: volcano). "And of course, tsunami is already a word in English," she said.

On Friday afternoon there was a 9.0: the fifth most powerful earthquake in recorded history.

The alerts began to sound seconds before the tremors began. The recorded announcements were in Japanese, followed by English. My supervisor translated the Japanese announcements as they sounded, giving me a few seconds' advantage. The first one told us to put on our hard hats. The second one told us to get under our desks. It was not yet necessary to evacuate; we were actually safer in the earthquake-resistant building than in the street outside, where we might be endangered by falling objects.

When the tremors subsided, we were told to keep our hard hats on because there might be aftershocks. The Japanese people seemed composed; they went around switching off the air-conditioners because they said after an earthquake that size, some power stations had probably switched off. Some of the expats were freaking out, but I remember feeling excited rather than fearful or panicky (news from Fukushima was yet to filter through, so we had not realised the scale of the disaster). Rather than adding to the uproar, I went back to work. My supervisor was so amused that she took a photo on her phone.

Out of the whole episode, what impressed me most was Japan's disaster preparedness and recovery (at least so far as the earthquake is concerned; the Japan government's reaction to the Fukushima meltdown has perhaps not been beyond reproach). The earthquake registered an upper five in Tokyo, but there was little damage to property because the buildings, like in the parable of the Oak and the Reed, are designed to sway with the tremors rather than stiffly resist. In my flat, picture frames were askew and a few books fell off the shelves. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen resumed limited service late in the day, and the next day it was back to its normal schedule. By next week, my hotel was issuing notices about bicycle parking.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Waxing Crescent

Six-day-old moon over London, photographed through a 300mm lens
(click on the image to see names of some lunar features)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Billingsgate Humour

I try to carry my own bags when I go shopping, to avoid consuming plastic bags. But traders at Billingsgate Market have no truck with such fripperies. I had a brief but amusing exchange with one of these merry gents, just as he was about to put my purchase – a box of prawns – into a plastic bag.
me: Thanks, I've got a bag.
trader:(going right ahead) Well, now you've got another one.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Claret Jug

Eighty-year-old claret jug
picked up for £8
from a vintage flea market.
On a microwave turntable
lit from below
with a table lamp.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Religion and my Grandmother

My parents weren't as religious as my grandmother (my father's mother) would like. Perhaps she thought that if she started early, she could prevent me from falling into their godless ways. One day when I was about four, she said, "Your father says he doesn't believe in god, but in fact he does. If I ask him to kick an idol, will he do it?" This seemed like a convincing argument at the time, but later I decided that the conclusion didn't follow. Respect for a symbol and its cultural associations is not the same as belief.

Around the same time, just to see how I would react, she asked me, "তুমি কি মুসলমান?" ("Are you a Muslim?") I wasn't sure what a Muslim was, or whether I was one, but I hated confessing ignorance. Besides, I had heard adults using the terms "Hindu" and "Muslim", and had formed the vague impression that we were in the former camp. So I responded somewhat emphatically, "না, আমি হিন্দু!" ("No, I'm a Hindu!") This became a popular party piece, and my grandmother took to asking me the question in front of visitors. And because it seemed to amuse them, I would always give the same answer.

This game stopped after a few months, but until I was sixteen or so, when filling up forms which asked my religion, I continued to give essentially the same answer. Even though I didn't believe in reincarnation, the divinity of the Vedas or the existence of a Supreme Being and I didn't observe any Hindu rituals in daily life, on forms I would automatically select "Hindu". I would do so because this was what I had always done, and because my parents were Hindu. When you think about it, this line of reasoning was hardly more sophisticated than that which led me to proclaim to my grandmother all those years ago, "No, I'm a Hindu!"

Monday, February 3, 2014

Disproportionate Force

In The Valley of Fear, Sherlock Holmes' arch-enemy Moriarty brings to bear the full might of his vast criminal network for the murder of one man. Holmes describes it as "crushing the nut with the triphammer – an absurd extravagance of energy – but the nut is very effectually crushed all the same."

We wanted to bore holes in a milk-bottle lid in order to make a watering-can. The lid is made of thin plastic, so even a sharp fork would have done the job. But because we like power tools, we used a Clarke Metalworker CDP101B.

"Absurd extravagance of energy" is a cool phrase.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Philosophy as an Alternative to Pepper-Spray

A friend of mine has successfully fended off the attentions of miscreants by asking the question "Why?" Based on a small sample size (n=2), it seems like an effective strategy. (I should say at this point that my friend is one of the least threatening-looking people I know, so the threat of physical resistance is unlikely to have been a big factor.)

Incident 1
My friend was walking alone down a dark alley in London when she was accosted by two muggers.
Mugger 1: Give me your phone.
friend: No.
Mugger 1:
(thrusting his hand into a jacket pocket and pretending to reach for a gun) Give me your phone or I'll fucking kill you.
friend: Why will I give you my phone?
At this, Mugger 1 grew confused, and Mugger 2, perhaps sensing that all was not going to plan, told him to leave her alone. Both muggers disappeared into the night.

Incident 2
My friend sat next to a creepy guy in an auto rickshaw in Calcutta.
Creepy Guy: Are you going to tuition?
friend: No.
Creepy Guy: Is that a camera bag?
friend: No, it's my handbag.
Creepy Guy: What is your good name please?
friend: Why?
Creepy Guy: Umm, err... just like that.
Creepy Guy kept to himself after that and meekly got off at the next stop.

It is worth noting that the "why" questions in the two incidents were slightly different. The first asked for a reason in the normative sense, i.e. why she ought to do a certain thing. Interestingly, Mugger 1 had already answered this question: "or I'll fucking kill you," a statement which offered my friend an extrinsic motivation to hand over her phone, in the form of a threat of bodily injury, if not death, in the event of non-compliance. I believe it was in fact my friend's implied second-order question, "Why is handing over my phone preferable to the possibility of death?" that stymied the mugger. Assuming the mugger's threat was credible, my friend, by refusing to hand over her phone, would effectively be committing suicide. But the mugger could not, on the spot, come up with a convincing argument why she should not. As Albert Camus said, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."

The "why" question in the second incident is more ambiguous (and perhaps therefore doubly effective). It could be interpreted as asking for a reason in the normative sense ("Why should I tell you my name?") or in the explanatory sense ("Why are you asking me my name?") Note that Creepy Guy's response, "Just like that," could potentially be an answer to both questions (and indeed to most of the fundamental questions in philosophy). But perhaps he felt that a more specific answer was owed, and in this he came up short.

Possible answers could be, "Because exchanging names is a preliminary step in social interactions between strangers," or "So that we can get to know each other better," but these are susceptible to second-order "why" questions: "Why do names matter?" or "Why would I wish to know you better, or indeed, at all?"

The "why" question is so powerful because it resonates through many levels; an answer to a "why" question can always be interrogated with another "why" question until the would-be miscreants are confronting – perhaps for the first time in their lives – their most fundamental beliefs and assumptions.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Changes at the Gay Hussar

Much to the dismay of its loyal clientele, the Gay Hussar, a 60-year old Hungarian restaurant on Greek Street in London, is up for sale. In a last-ditch effort to save it, Gay Hussar faithfuls formed a consortium – the Goulash Co-operative – to buy the restaurant, but they lost the bid last month.

I had dinner at the Gay Hussar once after I got a raise, and though it is more expensive than the restaurants I usually eat at, it was worth it just for the atmosphere. The interior is elegant but cosy, the service is courteous, and the shelves of political biographies and the framed political cartoons on the dark-wood walls bear testimony to the restaurant's place in 20th-century British political history. The restaurant's quirky charm is perhaps a legacy of its founder Victor Sassie, who was quite a colourful character.

The Gay Hussar is your quintessential relic, a London speciality. In the 60 years of its existence, 'gay' has taken on other connotations, and culinary tastes and diets have undergone many changes. But at the Gay Hussar there was never any question of a name change, and the menu and recipes remain faithful to the original, so much so that the food tastes unfamiliar to some Hungarians; the recipes have changed in Hungary but the Gay Hussar is in a time warp. "The menu has changed," insists Edwin Passus, 92, who has dined at the Gay Hussar for half a century. "They changed the typeface once."

I happened to be walking around Soho this week, and took the opportunity to photograph a section of the aforementioned menu.

The fonts appear to be Monotype Corsiva for the Hungarian text and Cambria for the English, neither of which, to my eye, is consonant with the Gay Hussar's character. Most people go with the easy alternative of using fonts distributed free with Microsoft Office, but it would have been cool if the menu used, say, Janson which was actually designed by a Hungarian (and which I like more than either Monotype Corsiva or Cambria).

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Karma Chameleon

My father found this beautiful fellow basking on our window grill, in the cool green shade of our bittermelon vine.

I wasn't sure if I could see desert loving in its eyes, but then I'm a man without conviction. I would have liked to see it in breeding season when it turns crimson and black, and its colours are like my dream. Eventually I came too close and it scurried off into the undergrowth, which was hardly surprising, for it is wont to come and go, come and go. I did not bother looking for it. I know that when it's gone, it's gone forever.

Before someone calls me out, the references in the foregoing paragraph are not wholly accurate; it was an oriental garden lizard, not a chameleon. But true chameleons are rare in Calcutta, and the opportunity was too good to resist.

Friday, January 3, 2014


Every morning while I have been in Calcutta, I have woken up to the sound of a purple sunbird pecking at my bedroom window.

Like their American cousins the hummingbirds, sunbirds feed on nectar and have the ability to hover. Our feathered visitor spends hours hovering outside my window, pecking at the pane. Maybe it sees its reflection and thinks it is in the presence of another bird; sunbirds have not been documented to pass the mirror test. This seems unlikely because our panes are only slightly reflective, but I can think of no other explanation.

Judging by its eclipse plumage, our visitor is a non-breeding male. When its breeding season begins before the monsoons, maybe it will have other things to occupy its time. I have gotten used to its pecking; the next time I am in Calcutta, I will be a bit sad if the bird is no longer coming to the window.

I have clearer photos of the bird, but my favourite is one I took through the windowpane.