Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Shunbun no Hi: Bird Poop and Golden Orb

Slightly belated Shunbun no Hi (spring equinox) post this year – two spiders spotted in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Exhibit A: a giant golden orb weaver (hat tip to my friend Tomoe, who spotted it and alerted me).

Exhibit B: a type of crab spider, namely a bird dung spider – so called because when it curls up, it looks like bird poop. Here, however, it is displaying its cute little pincer-like front legs.

Monday, 20 March 2023

The Seven Precepts for Drinking Tea

Sen no Rikyū was a Japanese poet, philosopher and ikebana artist. He is most famous, however, as a tea master – perhaps the most influential figure in the history of chanoyu, the Japanese way of tea.

Recently, in a book about Zen Buddhism, I came across his seven precepts for drinking tea:

Make a satisfying bowl of tea.
Lay the charcoal so that the water boils efficiently.
Evoke a sense of coolness in the summer and warmth in the winter.
Arrange the flowers as though they were in the field.
Be ready ahead of time.
Be prepared in case it should rain.
Act with utmost consideration toward your guests.

I like the sentiments, and of course the economy of expression. "Be prepared in case it should rain," for example, is not just about rain, but unexpected events in general.

A tea ceremony I attended at Hama-Rikyū Gardens in Tokyo

Rikyū is associated with wabi-cha, a school of chanoyu which emphasises simplicity. Evidently, he walked the talk. In Kyoto, he designed one of the smallest tea rooms ever built – a mere 2  (3.6 square metres) in size. The unit is based on the area of a tatami mat – one for the host, and one for the guest.

Rikyū also said, "All you need to know about chanoyu is this: boil the water, make the tea and drink it."

* * *

Speaking of small architecture, last week I met a Japanese environmental law professor. When I heard that she's from Sapporo, I brought up the clock tower, specifically, its status as one of Japan's sandai gakkari (top 3 disappointments). This was news to her. "Why?" she asked, "Because it's small?"

I said yes, apparently that's one major reason.

She said "Nooooo. It's pretty because it's small."

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Book Recommendation

One of the things I liked most about London is the libraries. I was a regular visitor (and borrower) at the Barbican Library and the amazing Idea Stores chain, both of which, as a resident, I could use for free. Then there were the libraries at LSE and other academic institutions, but these I used mainly for work.

Idea Stores – at least my local branch at Canary Wharf – had a shelf of reader-recommended books. Anyone could – hopefully still can – recommend a book. You had to send them a little blurb, which they would print on a card and place on a shelf, along with the book in question.

I recommended a book once, A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr – one of my favourite books of all time. I found the blurb in my old emails today, so it can have a second debut on my blog:

Summer 1920. Tom Birkin, back from the trenches, ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke,’ arrives in Oxgodby, hired to uncover a 14th-century painting on the wall of the village church. Thus unfolds a story about friendship, love, missed opportunities, a way of life, and the awareness and acceptance of the transience of all things – a perfect novel which, like that perfect summer, is over all too soon. ‘We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever.’

I was also introduced to the book via a recommendation (sort of) – in an interview with British novelist Sarah Perry. And I borrowed it from Idea Store, though I eventually bought a copy for myself.

There's a city-wide network of Idea Stores, and you could – hopefully still can – request a book from another branch for free. My friend Rohini also frequented the same library. Sometimes on the Requests Shelf I'd see her name on a label, and text her to let her know her book arrived. It was like running into a friend, but without meeting her in person, just the book she was reading.

Singapore has an excellent network of public libraries too. Unlike the London libraries, membership is not free, but SGD 42.80 per year is a small price to pay for what I get out of it.

Aren't libraries the best?

Sunday, 26 February 2023

Reptilian Encounters

An oriental whip snake, spotted in Pasir Ris Park, Singapore. It was hanging motionless among the bushes, waiting for a lizard to venture within striking distance.

Its camouflage is excellent. I would probably have missed it, had it not been for another photographer who was already stalking it when I arrived on the scene. Sadly we did not see it hunt; it retreated into denser vegetation soon afterwards.

The common Bengali name for vine snakes is লাউডগা (laudoga, meaning "bottle-gourd vine"), and indeed, it looks very similar. The genus name, Ahaetulla, comes from Sinhalese, and means "eye-plucker". According to the Wikipedia article, one of its alternative names is "judgmental shoelace", which appears to stem from this meme.

And now for some Asian water monitor anatomy. I encountered this fine fellow in the Botanic Gardens.

Exhibit A: tongue.

Exhibit B: nictitating membrane.

Friday, 18 November 2022

Truck on Pegu Road, Singapore

Imagine a micropile – highly ambitious and motivated, but alas, stuck in a dull, dead-end job.

As a blogpost category, Deliberate grammatical misinterpretations of signs painted on trucks is about as niche as it gets. Nevertheless, after posts in 2011 and 2012, here we are again in 2022.

Monday, 17 October 2022


This blog used to have a subscription option; I used Feedburner, a free service owned by Google. I currently have 16 subscribers, and if you're among them, you've probably been getting an email every time I publish a new post (which, unfortunately, is not as often as I would like).

As of 2022, Google no longer supports new email subscriptions via Feedburner. Ordinarily, existing subscribers would continue to receive emails, but I'm planning to deactivate my Feedburner altogether. So this is the last post for which you'll get the usual email notification (though I do of course plan to carry on blogging).

If you like, you can use Feedly or any other RSS reader of your choice to keep up with new posts (most readers also have an option whereby you get a weekly email round-up). Or just check back from time to time, in the old-school way. But if you forget, that's okay too :)

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you around.

Thursday, 28 July 2022

First Lines

I read an article yesterday about first sentences in books: How to be an Incipit by Paul Vacca. It's a bit annoying in places – quoting Camus in the original French (not so much as an English translation in brackets, as if we're all expected to know), and drawing, as far as I can tell, only on European and American authors as examples.

But it has a nice description of what makes certain first sentences special: "a particular vibration ... [a]s if they were uttered in an unconditionally confident voice, wholly sure of their facts: the quiet strength of the incipit."

Some music albums have that too. I'm thinking of David Bowie's Space Oddity (1969). "Ground control to major Tom." It has that air of quiet confidence; like he just knows he's writing a cult classic. But apparently his backing band later said Bowie was vague and gave little direction throughout the recording sessions; they found him "kind of nervous and unsure of himself." Oh well.

Vacca's article also talks about certain opening lines being like a "trap door", having "an inner force" that sucks us in, "a tipping effect".

For me, the mother of all tipping effects – although not referenced in Vacca's article – is found in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Or in the original Spanish:

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.

This article by Claire Adam has a nice discussion of its peculiar magic: García Márquez bending the rules of fiction, and of time itself, to conjure one of the greatest opening lines in literature.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Huntsman Spider

I saw this spider on our bathroom windowpane in Kolkata last year. He (or she, I don't know) allowed me to take several photos from close range. In the first pic, the spider is backlit by window light. It's cool how the legs are kind of translucent.

In the second photo, I used flash to show more detail.

I believe this is a huntsman spider, but I don't know for sure. Growing up, we often saw them indoors; I always assumed they're harmless. More recently, i.e. after taking these photos, I looked them up. If it is indeed a huntsman, apparently it's not so harmless after all. Wikipedia says, "They have been known to inflict serious defensive bites on humans." Perhaps I shouldn't have gotten quite so close...