Thursday, 4 June 2020

Shunbun no Hi: Kingfisher

My blogging has been intermittent of late (to put it mildly!) and one of the more regrettable outcomes has been that I missed my annual Shunbun no Hi (spring equinox) post for the first time in 9 years – missed it so spectacularly that we are now closer to solstice than to equinox.

Anyhow, better late than never! Say hello to our backyard visitor: a white-throated kingfisher, incidentally, the state bird of West Bengal. Gotta love a bird whose binomial name includes the word halcyon.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Further Research

A recent xkcd:1

In the preface of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein wrote that he had he had "solved all the problems of philosophy".2 Consequently he gave up philosophy, gave away his part of the family fortune and became a schoolteacher. (Disappointingly, he later recanted.)

1Used by kind permission.
2A C Grayling, Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, presumably referring to the Preface of the Tractatus where Wittgenstein wrote, "the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved." (translated from German by C K Ogden)

Friday, 10 January 2020

Time Alone

Today I was filling in an Ilford survey for people who shoot film, and I just want to say that I love the fourth option from the top.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Protip: Translated Recipes

Finding authentic recipes online is not always easy, especially for dishes originating outside of Western Europe and North America. If you do a Google search for, say, <hummus recipe> or <chimichurri recipe>, chances are that the first few recipes will be by (a) a celebrity chef, or (b) a lifestyle blogger who encountered this dish on their travels, came back to their flat in London or Brooklyn and recreated the recipe but with added kale.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is not to make cynical comments on culinary appropriation and search engine optimisation. Rather, I am here to present a simple and, if I may say so myself, elegant solution to the aforementioned problem – a solution which exploits the fact that Google Translate is now advanced enough that, with a bit of common sense (or cross-checking against other recipes if needed), most recipes can be followed in translation.

Here's an example. I read somewhere about Vietnamese egg coffee, and wanted to try it at home. Now rather than search for <Vietnamese egg coffee recipe>, what I did was:
  • Go to Google Translate.
  • Translate "egg coffee recipe" to Vietnamese, which gives me công thức cà phê trứng.
  • Do a Google Search for <công thức cà phê trứng>.
  • Click on a search result.
  • Right click the page (in Chrome) and translate to English.

And here's the egg coffee Anasua and I made, using this recipe. It was delicious.

Friday, 19 April 2019


I used to really like maths in high school, but for various reasons I didn't pursue it afterwards. Maths is still sufficiently a part of my life to be a blogpost category, but there were things – trigonometric identities, ways of solving differential equations – which I once had at my fingertips, but now have to painstakingly work out from first principles (if I can at all).

When I lived in Japan, I became halfway fluent in Japanese. After I left, I never made a sustained effort to keep in touch with the language, and now it makes me feel in equal parts sad, frustrated and stupid when I have to slowly parse a simple sentence to understand its meaning.

Sometime back Tommy wrote me an email which involved no maths, but where he used the phrase "Without prejudice or loss of generality". It took me straight back to combinatorics proofs (which I loved), and the wave of nostalgia hit me with surprising intensity, almost like a physical wave. More recently I had the same feeling at a European airport where all the announcements were in English, but suddenly and unexpectedly there was one in Japanese, asking Kanada-san to report to Gate No. ---. (I am not hiding the gate number; by the time I had translated the first part of the announcement in my head, I had missed it.)

Snatches of languages which I'm slowly forgetting seem to trigger a linguistic equivalent of the Proust effect.

* * *

The Brazilian footballer Philippe Coutinho scores a lot of goals with a trademark right-footed curling shot from just outside the penalty area. Last year he moved from Liverpool to Barcelona, and this week he scored just such a goal for his new team. A Liverpool supporter on Reddit wrote an unusually poignant comment: "it's like suddenly remembering that funny thing your ex used to do".

* * *

There are plenty of Japanese words which are said to have no equivalent in English (I have been guilty of invoking some of them myself). It amuses me therefore that the Japanese word for nostalgia, the title of this post, is simply a phonetic rendering of the English word: nosutarujia.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Shunbun no Hi: Swan Lake

This year's Shunbun no Hi post is over a week late which is terribly remiss of me, especially since, just the day before equinox, I was literally stopped in my tracks by a scene of extraordinary natural beauty.

Cycling home from university, I took a different route than usual – one which took me by the lakes (the same lakes where I photographed cormorants). It was a cold, cloudless night. The light from the buildings on the other shore were reflected in the dark water, as was the near-full moon, shining brightly above the buildings. Close to the near shore, three swans slept, gently drifting with their heads tucked under their wings.

I got off my bike and drank in the scene. I also took a photo, but it doesn't come close to capturing what I saw. The moon was too high to fit in the frame (its reflection is barely visible below the nearest swan), two of the swans had woken up, and I was carrying a film camera which, as much as I love it, cannot compete with my DSLR when it comes to low-light photography. Nevertheless...

Monday, 18 March 2019

Two Boys with Rabbit

Photo-story from my visit to Calcutta this winter.

One afternoon I had some time to kill, in between meeting someone in the morning and lunch with friends. I was wandering around Ballygunge when I came across two boys playing frisbee in a back-street. As I walked by, the frisbee landed near me, and I threw it back.

A little later I walked back along the same road and passed them again. I waved in recognition, and the following conversation abruptly ensued.

older boy: তুমি ইংলিশ জানো? (Do you know English?)
me: হ্যাঁ। (Yes.)
older boy: ইংলিশে কিছু বলো? (Say something in English?)
me: What is your name?
older boy: T---
younger boy: P---
me: My name is Sroyon. Good afternoon.
younger boy: কি বললো রে? (What did he say?)
older boy: বললো ভালো দিন। (He said it's a good day.)

Meanwhile their frisbee game had stopped, so I motioned to the older boy to throw me the frisbee. I threw it to the younger boy, and the conversation continued while the frisbee went round in a triangle.

younger boy: Are you Englishman?
me: No. I'm from Calcutta.
younger boy: তাহলে তুমি ইংলিশ জানো কি করে? (Then how do you know English?)
me: তুই কি করে ইংলিশ জানিস? (How do you know English?)
younger boy: আমরা স্কুলে শিখি। (We learn in school.)
me: তাহলে? (There you go then.)

After a while the younger boy's mother called him, and he had to go. A third boy, about the same age, appeared in his place, eating nuts from a paper bag.

me (to older boy): তোর বন্ধু কোথায় গেলো? (Where did your friend go?)
third boy: আমিও ওর বন্ধু! (I'm also his friend!)
me: খেলবি? (Want to play?)
third boy: খাচ্ছি তো! (I'm eating!)

So he snacked on nuts while the two of us played on. Eventually lunchtime rolled around, and I said I have go. The older boy said, আমার খরগোশ দেখবে? (Do you want to see my rabbit?) I said sure, and he brought out his rabbit for me to admire.

I just had to get a photo, as a reminder of this odd – and oddly pleasant – afternoon.

Sunday, 17 March 2019


Ultimately, entropy will prevail, but meanwhile we delight in small, fortuitous victories which buck the trend. Or to put it another way, you will eventually lose at Tetris, but until the stack grows too high, sometimes you get the satisfaction of just the right piece for just the right space.

Our food processor is from India, so it came with a Type D plug, and in the UK we had to use it with an adapter. At some point the plug broke. I decided to swap out the Type D plug for a UK Type G, thereby obviating the need for an adapter. Before I could buy a plug, we bought some darkroom equipment off eBay. It came with various odds and ends, including an old, solidly-constructed "Made in England" plug. I quickly united this unattached plug with our plugless food processor, and I am pleased to report that the two are now working in perfect harmony.

We also had a saucepan lid whose knob broke off. Nevertheless, I continued to use it for nearly a year. Lifting the knobless lid off the saucepan involved a complex manoeuvre: sliding a fork between the pan and the lid to lift up the lid slightly, then grabbing its raised rim with oven gloves to take it off. Many is the time I contemplated buying a new pan, but I disliked the idea of buying a pan-plus-lid when I really only needed a lid.

My flatmate recently got a pan for free with something else she bought. The first time she cooked in it, some of the teflon(?) coating peeled off, so she decided to discard the pan. This pan too had a lid, but of a different size. But when I took off the knob on its lid and tried it on the old lid, voila! It fit perfectly. Ah, the simple pleasure of being able to lift a saucepan lid at a moment's notice and with a minimum of effort.

I get more joy than I should, out of these types of incidents.

* * *

While writing this post, I got curious about whether a fast-enough player can theoretically play an infinite game of Tetris. I found out that in 1992, John Brzustowski set out to answer this very question in a Masters thesis in applied mathematics. He also conducted a survey where he asked Tetris players to give one piece of gameplay advice. The responses, like go proverbs, read like profound pieces of life advice:
Stay calm.
Don't wait for that perfect piece.
Pretend you are having sex.