Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Shunbun no Hi/Seasons 7: Mudchute Farm, London

This post combines the Shunbun no Hi series (named after the Japanese spring equinox holiday celebrating nature and living things) with the Seasons series (juxtaposed images of the same scene in different seasons).

Move your cursor over the image below (or touch on mobile), and it should change to another image of the same scene.

Base photo:17 March 2015
Mouseover photo:28 February 2018
Approx. coordinates:51.49°N, 0.01°W

Unusually for the Seasons series, the images above were taken around the same time of the year (only 17 days apart). The base photo doesn't look very vernal, but this has been a weird year; the mouseover photo from March 2015 is more representative. It snowed again yesterday, but today it feels like Spring is finally here.

Happy equinox, everyone.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ice and Snow

While Europe went through an unusually cold spell, I happened to be reading – coincidentally, not out of any desire to be in tune with the seasons – two books about ice and snow.

I had no special interest in the Ice Age until I started following Professor Jamie Woodward on Twitter, but soon I was sufficiently hooked to buy his short introduction to the subject. Before reading this book, I knew in a vague sort of way that once upon a time the world was more icy than it is today, but I've only now started to get my head around it. For example, over seven years ago, I posted about camping in a cirque (and was duly censured for failing to use the word cwm). If you asked me, I could have told you, from high-school geography lessons, that cirques – or cwms – were formed by glacial erosion. But think about what that means. There was a time, during the last ice age, when a glacier filled that valley. I feel like I always knew but did not know that, somehow. Perhaps I am not explaining myself very well.

Before that, I read Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. It's classic Nordic noir, but also a kind of Moby Dick of snow and ice. While Høeg never quite reaches Melvillean levels of digression – that chapter about rope! – or, for that matter, profundity, we do get meditations on glacial morphology, footprints in the snow, and the structure and properties of ice.

But what initially drew me to the book when I picked it up at the library is that it began with a map, and it was of a city I am now familiar with. The story begins in Copenhagen.
It is freezing, an extraordinary −18°C, and it's snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.
There is ice in the harbour, firm enough to walk on, at least for those who have "a good relationship with ice".

Some months ago, when Anasua moved to Copenhagen, I asked a Danish friend if the lakes freeze in winter. "It does happen," she said, "but I've only seen it three or four times in my life. So don't get your hopes up."

Sure enough, this year, the lakes froze over. And I can report that as of yesterday, there is ice in the harbour.

I consider myself lucky to have lived in cities where it snows. Going to a snowy place on holiday is not quite the same; to see the familiar transformed by snow can be quite an experience. Here is our balcony garden in London: in summer, and last week.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Summer 1998. I was 12 years old, we were reading about Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in History class, and in the upcoming Football World Cup, Ronaldo was expected to take the world by storm. There was only one thing to do: my friend Gabli1 and I founded a new religion whose god was Chonaldo, a synthesis of Chaitanya and Ronaldo.2

Our creed, so far I can remember, was to chant Chonaldo's name all day, speak in archaic Bengali and play as much football as possible. We tried to convert some of our classmates, but I don't believe we had much success. Ronaldo, too, fell at the last hurdle – under mysterious circumstances.

Last month, when I was at home in Calcutta, I was rummaging through old school books and found a portion of the Divine Scriptures. This I now present without further comment.

1.Gabli is a pet name; his real name was "Abhishek Ray number 1" (there were two Abhishek Rays in our class).
2.Thus anticipating Pirelli's ad campaign casting Ronaldo as Christ the Redeemer.

Sunday, January 28, 2018


Spotted on the streets of North Calcutta (Raja Dinendra Street, to be precise): a weird Ma Durga×Mother Teresa hybrid.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Calcutta, 5:52 pm

There was a supermoon on 2 January, though this post is so late it's almost new moon time. I was in Calcutta, and my mother and I went up to the roof terrace of our building to watch the Moon rise. For is it not written: "The term 'supermoon' may be mostly hype, but it's as good an excuse as any to go out and look up."

This photo was taken from the same chilchhad – and features the same coconut tree – as the photo of the sunrise taken nearly five years ago.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Leisure Deficit

“I seem to have banged on this year rather more than usual,” observes Alan Bennett in his latest collection of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On.
I came across this line in a book review I read last week and thought well, this is certainly not something I can say about myself. In 2017 I wrote fewer blogposts than any other year since this blog began.

Since I started my PhD in 2014, I have a little more free time than I did when I worked in a law firm. Funnily enough, this free time seems more 'crowded' than before. For some time I've been pondering why this is so, and I now have a theory which is as follows:

Let's say I have F hours of free time per day. Of that, I tend to spend some part (P) coming up with new projects (say P = F/8). The free time I would need to properly pursue all these projects (F*) is a function of P (say F* = 12P). F* − F is my leisure deficit: the gap between the free time I want and the free time I have. (At this point, you might pause to remark that I have a depressing habit of treating leisure like a resource to be exploited for maximum yield. You would be right.) Anyhow, for the (admittedly speculative and simplistic) values I used above, the leisure deficit turns out to be F/2. Which is to say, the more free time I have, the greater my leisure deficit.

Suppose as a finance lawyer, I had an average of 2 hours of free time on weekdays. Then F* (the free time needed) was 3 hours. Now I may have, say, 4 hours of free time, but F* is 6 hours, and the leisure deficit is 2 hours: twice as much as before. As with anything else, it's easier to see graphically:

I was thinking about a new year's resolution to spend more time working on my existing projects and less time coming up with new ones (my Japanese teacher once told me, in a periodic performance review, that one of my weaknesses is that I have too many hobbies). But I could also just make my peace with having some unfinished projects. In one of his essays, Montaigne, a kind of proto-blogger, wrote, "Let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him and still more to my unfinished garden." Though it is not clear from the quote if Montaigne, like me, was wont to leaving projects unfinished simply because he got distracted by a new project; death is a more watertight excuse.

What fate awaits these unfinished projects? Some bide their time in cupboards, like the papier-mâché fruit-bowl which I made but still haven't painted. Others have only an incorporeal existence in my bookmarks folder. These include my abandoned attempts to learn Russian (Languages folder) and meditate every day (Psychology and meditation folder).

In case you're wondering, the parent folder is called Fitness because it started life as a collection of webpages on workouts and fitness plans. Later I subsumed some other folders under Fitness to keep things organised, and on the basis that they too promote a kind of fitness – mental fitness, if you will. The original bookmarks now live in the folder called Actual fitness. Or perhaps I should have called it: Fitness fitness.

Thankfully, some of the projects in the folder are still very much alive, like Knitting, which I learnt to do last month. Others, like this blog, are active, but get less attention than they deserve.

Edit: Since writing this post, I found out that the Swedish economist Staffan Linder also used the phrase 'leisure deficit' though, I believe, in a slightly different context. I will read his book later this month and update this note.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Easter Egg Tree: 2

I will freely admit that back in June, when I wrote a blogpost about an urban-tree-related Easter egg, I expected it to be the only one I would ever write on this topic. However, here we are again.

The Greater London Authority has a marvellous, publicly-available dataset of the street trees of London. The downloadable spreadsheet contains location and species information for over 700,000 trees, representing more than 2,000 different species. And among those 700,000+ entries is the following gem, perhaps the handiwork of a bored intern tasked with cataloguing the trees of Southwark:

In the interests of full disclosure, this is not my own discovery: I heard about it from Paul Wood, who is an expert on the street trees of London. But Paul did not know what kind of tree it really is, so I thought I would go find out for myself.

With help from Tommy who was able to tell me what the coordinates mean (the spreadsheet uses Universal Transverse Mercator coordinates which I had never seen before), I pinpointed the location of the mystery tree: Canterbury Place, in the borough of Southwark. I also knew from the TreeTalk map – which lists the mystery tree as 'not yet identified' – that it stands between a mimosa and a Chonosuki crabapple (the map shows other interesting trees in the immediate vicinity: a medlar tree and Deodar cedars, which got me even more excited).

Anticlimactically, it turned out that the mystery tree does not exist. I found the mimosa and the crabapple, but between them, where the mystery tree should have stood, there was nothing.

This did not faze me too much: I am practically a connoisseur of disappointment and anticlimax. But when I set out to find the tree, for some reason it never struck me that our horticultural prankster might have created an imaginary tree: I assumed they had renamed an existing one. And naturally I wondered what kind of tree it would turn out to be: a bog-standard London plane, or something more rare and exotic. Or perhaps, unbeknownst to me, there was really was such a thing as a Willus youfindus var. bogus-taxus – the last of its kind, living out its days in a south London council estate.

Later, I thought maybe I should plant a tree there, so that Tree 417044 of Southwark gets a life of its own and is no longer just a fictitious entry in an Excel spreadsheet. And given the name bogus-taxus, I think I know exactly which tree I would choose.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Goat Cupboard

A coat cupboard at LSE has an amusing modification made with a ball-point pen.

I have a soft spot for this one because it reminds me of (a) a modification which inspired one of my favourite sites on the internet, and (b) one of my favourite maths puzzles.