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...

Friday, 27 May 2022

Travelling Light

I've written before about how I have few personal possessions. I recently moved to Singapore, and my luggage was within the airline's 30 kg limit.

The small suitcase (top right) is carry-on baggage; it fits all the clothes I brought with me. The big suitcase has my photography equipment: several cameras, film rolls, developing tanks and trays, and even my enlarger (a device for making darkroom prints). The rucksack has books, art supplies and miscellaneous stuff.

Some disclosures:
In reality my luggage wasn't so neatly segregated; I rearranged it a bit for the photo. For example, I originally packed some cameras (which are expensive and fragile) in my carry-on, and while the big suitcase mainly had photography stuff, it also had some clothes to serve as padding.
I bought some clothes (a few shorts and t-shirts) and household items here in Singapore. But my wardrobe is still quite minimal.
It helps that I don't have an immediate need for warm clothing (Singapore rarely gets colder than 24°C) or formals. Some of my clothes, e.g. jumpers, winter jacket and formal suit, are in Kolkata or Copenhagen. I will need to have some of these shipped (or brought) to me, for when I travel to colder climes or attend conferences.
Most of my books are also in Kolkata or Copenhagen. I bought a couple of books here, but otherwise I am relying heavily on Kindle and libraries.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022


My friend told me she was reading her 3-year-old niece a bedtime story involving a flamingo, and the niece – and I quote – "assumed the flangamingo was a girl. I told her that there are boy flamingos too. She didn't believe me because they are pink."

Cute but also a bit sad; stereotypes catch us early and catch us hard.

Flangamingo was a typo in my friend's text message. Flamingo is already a great word, but flangamingo is even better.

In March my friend (different friend) and I went to the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary in Mumbai. These migratory birds breed in Great Rann of Kutch, a salt marsh in Gujarat, but their feeding grounds are the wetlands of Mumbai. This year the Thane Sanctuary is playing host to a record number of flamingos – apparently some 54,000 greater flamingos and 65,000 lesser flamingos. A river of pink amidst the blue waters of the creek.

This was an impromptu trip; had I known, I would have brought my DSLR which I generally use for bird photography. In the event, I only had a little underwater digicam whose zoom lens tops out at 120mm (35mm equivalent). All this to say: I don't have a good photo of these magnificent birds in flight; this is the best I could do:

But oh my, it was just glorious to see them in real life. The photo doesn't really capture their vivid colours, nor their gangly grace as they run through the water and take flight.

If you're in Mumbai between November and March, go see the flangamingos.

Sunday, 20 March 2022

Shunbun no Hi: Stereo Kingfisher

Stereo kingfisher is not a species (this is in fact a white-throated kingfisher, which has appeared before on this blog). The image above is a stereo pair – two photos shot from slightly different perspectives, mimicking the binocular vision of the human eye. When viewed through a stereoscope, the pair merges into a single, three-dimensional image.

The same trick – merging into 3D – can also be done with the naked eye. Or at least, some people can do it. The technique is called free-viewing. If you'd like to try and learn, I wrote an article about it for Stereoscopy Blog.

There are special stereo cameras which take two instantaneous photos from different angles. I don't have one, so I use a normal camera. This means I'm limited to 'sequential stereo' – take a photo, move the camera a bit to one side, take another photo. If there is movement between frames, you get a stereo glitch (this post has nice examples; do a text search for 'goth').

Kingfisher with crab is a terrible subject for sequential stereo. The bird was repeatedly bashing the crab against the metal rail (I also took a video, which I will share if I can edit it to my satisfaction). I took at least 20 photos before I got a pair where there was no movement between frames. But what is life without challenges.

Happy equinox, everyone!

Friday, 17 December 2021

People on the Corner

Snow story from my friend who lives in the Midwestern United States (via text messages):

My other roommate went out and shoveled for a few minutes, but she is working today so couldn't do a lot. I told her I was going to go out and shovel some. I went out and saw that two of my neighbors had started. Sally, the nice old lady across the street, and Dirk, her neighbor who likes to take care of her.

Sally owns a snowblower, and Dirk likes to use it. So I went out and met both of them and started shoveling while talking with Sally (and Dirk was running the snowblower). She is a sweetheart. She said "People on the corner have to take care of each other" 😭❤️ 

Sunday, 5 December 2021


I'm sure this is a not uncommon experience, but I've noticed over the years that I seem to have a sort of tipping point for hobbies. Usually, when I get into something, I tend to get really into it – spend a lot of time on the hobby, acquire equipment if necessary, join clubs or classes, borrow or buy books, pore over online resources.

After that initial honeymoon phase, some hobbies don't last. Either my interest wanes (which happened with knitting, tree identification, learning Sanskrit...) or I lose access to the conditions which made it easy for me to pursue the hobby (e.g. scuba-diving when I left Japan, beekeeping when I left LSE where we had a rooftop apiary).

But there appears to be a kind of undefined tipping-point beyond which a hobby or interest tends to become a lasting one – learning Japanese, film developing and darkroom printing, drawing, reading (the last two have been hobbies for as long as I can remember). Of course, there are phases when I pursue some hobbies more energetically while others are on the backburner (blogging, yikes). But for what it's worth, I think if a hobby has passed the tipping-point – which blogging certainly has – I am unlikely to give it up altogether.

Last year I started learning Spanish on Duolingo. The app shows you your "streak" – how many successive days you practised. Initially I had a streak of about 40 days, which seemed like a good start. Then I stopped for whatever reason and didn't pick it up again for months. I thought I had quit before my tipping point.

But to my own surprise, I somehow started again, and as of today I have a 210-day streak. It's not like I practice for very long – around 10 minutes to half an hour per day – but it all adds up. I'll go out on a limb and say it: I think I'm out of the woods now.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Horntail Snail

This is fast becoming Sroyon's Backyard Fauna Blog (in-joke), but fear not, I have a non-faunal post in the works. (By "in the works" I mean I had an idea for a post about a month ago which should, by rights, take me about 15 minutes to write, but I still have not done it. I am slow.)

Speaking of slow, I saw some snails last night, crawling around after the rains. Ran inside, grabbed my camera, macro lens and flash (off-camera, for more dramatic light) and fired off a few shots.

Mike Johnston says that in a dog photo, the nose should be in focus (though I tend to focus on the eyes – sorry Mike!) But what about a snail, specifically, one that's crawling away from the camera: shell or antennae? Even at f/16, I couldn't get its entire body in focus. But snails are patient subjects, so I tried both. Which do you prefer?