Saturday, 21 December 2013

Porthgain, 9:06 am

Porthgain is a coastal village in Wales. This photo of a ruined cottage was taken near our campsite, a short way from the village.

Being from Calcutta (22.57° N, 88.37° E), it took me some time to get used to the fact that in London, the sun is never directly overhead. The closest it gets is a solar elevation angle (the angle between the horizon and the centre of the sun's disc) of about 62° (where 90° is directly overhead).

Yesterday I was speaking to a friend (also from India) who has just moved into a new flat. She said, "My flat faces west, but it doesn't get direct sunlight in the afternoon. And we observed that even at noon, the sun is not overhead. Do you know why?"

At this latitude, this is just about the worst time of the year for someone who likes the sun directly overhead. The solar elevation angle in London at noon today will be just over 15°.

Happy solstice, everyone.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Balkan Portrait 6: The Weaver

Plovdiv in Bulgaria is one of the oldest cities in the world, where 7000-year old Thracian settelements rub shoulders with a 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre and gorgeous 19th-century national revivalist architecture.

Wandering the cobbled streets of the Old Town, I looked in through a window and spied a weaver working at the loom. I asked if I could take a closer look at the loom and maybe a few photos, and she graciously allowed me into the workshop. She even thanked me for asking her permission, saying, "Most tourists just take photos through the window. We don't like that, we feel like animals at the zoo."

This is the final post in the Balkan Portraits series. Regular posting (or what passes for regular posting on this blog) shall resume from tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Balkan Portrait 5: The Potter

Outside Bachkovo Monastery in Bulgaria, potters display the colourful ceramic wares for which the region is famous. From this lady we bought a custard-yellow sugar-pot which may one day feature in the Household Objects series.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Balkan Portrait 4: The Signalman

The overnight sleeper train from Cluj-Napoca to Brașov was one of the highlights of my Balkans trip. It was a beautiful old train, straight out of a Hercule Poirot story – dark wood panelling, brass fittings and spotless linen sheets. They gave us our own coupé, even though we'd bought a cheap second-class ticket. All night the train rattled through Transylvanian forests and mysterious Romanian stations, and at daybreak the sun rose over the Eastern Carpathians.

We pulled into Brașov early in the morning. After the signalman had flagged our train off, I asked to take his photo. I like railways, and by extension railway employees. My grandmother's brother was an engine-driver, and I regret not having asked him lots of questions about life on the railroad when I had the chance.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Balkan Portrait 3: The Cyclist

Piaţa Muzeului in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca is a popular haunt for university students, so fashionable bikes are no rare sight. Even so, this one stood out. The owner said he got it second-hand at a great price.

When I asked if I could take his photo, he not only assented, but put his foot on the bench, deliberately took out a cigarette from his satchel and lit up. I took several photos, of which this one is my favourite.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Balkan Portrait 2: The Watermelon-Sellers

This family was selling watermelons by the side of a highway in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. I think they are Romanies, but I didn't ask.

They offered to sell us watermelons, but that was almost by way of a lead-up to their real request: would I take their photograph? Of course I was more than happy to oblige.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Balkan Portrait 1: The Dancers

This is the first in a series of six photos of people I encountered on my travels in Romania and Bulgaria.

On the fringes of the supposedly haunted Hoia-Baciu forest in northern Transylvania, we chanced upon a Hungarian festival. People of all ages were dancing to Hungarian folk tunes, whirling in a hand-clapping, tap-dancing frenzy. Between performances, I asked three of the oldest dancers for permission to take a photo, with the grand-daughter of one of the dancers acting as interpreter.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Seal! Seal!

When there is a cold autumn wind blowing in from the North Atlantic and the ground is wet from last night's rain, there are few things which can make me scamper out of my tent first thing in the morning, barefoot and without a jumper, but Saha shouting "Seal! Seal!" is certainly one of them.

Spotting a family of grey seals was the highlight of our hike in Pembrokeshire, Wales. They were basking on a pebble beach below the cliff where we had pitched camp, and seemed unconcerned by our presence.

Monday, 30 September 2013

An Introduction to Scrabble Terminology

This post will introduce two oft-used Scrabble terms: "phoneys" and "bingos". For readers who thirst for more, Word Buff has an entertaining Scrabble glossary.

A phoney is a non-valid word, i.e. a word which does not exist in the dictionary being used for a given Scrabble game.

Lately I have been playing more Scrabble online than on a physical board. The online games are set up so that every word is checked against a dictionary, making it impossible to play phoneys.

In general this setting suits us best, but I miss the fun that would often ensue in a physical game when someone played a phoney and tried to convince the rest of us that it was a valid word. This was especially fun with Priyanka, who made up sentences to make her phoneys seem more convincing. Two examples from a game last year:
Agraze. As in, the hills are agraze with cows.
"Zanshir" is a middle eastern beverage. You know Omar Khayyam's famous lines: "I sat beneath the olive bough / Zanshir in my hand."
Efforts as good as these probably deserve more points than real words.

A bingo is a word which uses up all seven letters on the rack and earns 50 bonus points.

The two people I play most often are both slightly better than me. They know all the two-letter words and most of the threes, rarely waste a blank for a play of less than 50 points, and structure their game strategy around the formation of bingos. When playing against them, it is rare to have a game with less than two bingos.

But games like the one which finished today are rarer still: my opponent and I made four bingos in five consecutive plays ‒ an occurrence sufficiently unusual and satisfying (at least for my level) that I deemed it worth posting about.

The bingos were RECOuRSE (77 points), DOUBLiNG (72 points), RESIGNER (72 points) and EMENDATE (86 points).

Friday, 20 September 2013


Some things are obvious to nerds, but less obvious to the rest of us. From two recent coversations:

me: Some guy did a 24-minute loop of Manhattan in a BMW Z4. But he got arrested because he made a dashboard camera recording of the ride and uploaded it to YouTube.
Anasua: It is no longer necessary to say the words "to YouTube".
Surya: Obviously I am acquainted with the Scandinavian genre of crime of fiction...
Saha: Surya, there should be no "obviously" before that sentence.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The 1/27720 Sheppey Asparagus

It is said that Jiro Ono, perhaps the finest sushi chef in the world and a fanatical perfectionist, always uses his own palm to measure the quantity of rice for each piece of sushi, because an assistant's palm would introduce inconsistency.

My approach to cooking is far less exact. Onlookers are often alarmed to note that I don't bother to measure out spices and condiments, preferring instead to pour apparently arbitrary quantities from the containers directly into the cooking pot.

However, following the introduction of a new cutting board in our kitchen (a standard Sainsbury's cutting board, which Anasua engraved with a laser from her lab), guests can be sure that their food will have evenly-chopped ingredients.

This asparagus tip, for example, is 1/27720 of a Sheppey. As Douglas Adams fans may know, a Sheppey is a unit of length, defined as the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque.

Below left is a photo of sheep grazing on snow on a Himalayan hillside, taken at ~1 Sheppey. Below right is a sheep seen on a day walk in Kent at a distance of much less than a Sheppey.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Not Bloody Margarine

Detractors of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!® say that the product is so obviously inferior to real butter that no one in their right mind would actually say, "I can't believe it's not butter." This is not strictly true. I personally know of at least two instances when this phrase was used, though perhaps not in the way the manufacturers intended.

First instance: A few months back, having gone to the supermarket to buy butter, I bought a tub of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!® by mistake. When I got home, I realised my folly and exclaimed, "I can't believe it's not butter!"

Second instance: Anasua looked in the fridge and said, "What is this crap you've got? I can't believe it's not butter!"

Anyhow, owing to our extreme reluctance to throw food away, we bit the bullet and finished it (mostly by consuming it as a substitute when we ran out of real butter). But as is my wont, I retained the tub for storing real butter.

The problem was that in the course of our epic struggle to finish I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!®, we had grown to loathe the sight of the tub itself. It seemed that anything stored in that tub, even real butter, would seem unappetising. So I have covered the repulsive packaging (see top left photo) with a home-drawn replacement that leaves the beholder in no doubt about the contents of the tub.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013


When I first moved to London, people would ask me what I miss about Calcutta. Mostly, I missed the Arsalan Mutton Biryani. Family was a distant second.

Then one day I heard someone in the street dragging along a large, thick plastic sheet. It made a crackling sound exactly like the hammering of rain on a tin roof, and in the split second between hearing the sound and identifying its source, I had thought, against all logic, that it had started to rain really hard. And suddenly, I missed the monsoon.

Londoners complain about rain all the time, but that is because they've never seen what I like to think of as real rain. The sky turning black at noon, the temperature dropping several degrees in minutes, the ominous stillness in the air before the fury of the storm, the clap of thunder, coconut trees buckling in the teeth of the gale, thoroughfares knee-deep in water. In our neighbourhood, many women still blow conch-shells when there is a really good thunderstorm.

Yesterday, by all accounts, there was a corker. My friend Takai took these photos at mid-afternoon. I like the geometric lines, the sombre tones and the graphic novel-style layout (for which, too, credit goes to Takai).

Friday, 16 August 2013

Dashy Writing

My work notebook is quite organised (once I left it in a partner's office and she returned it to me, saying she guessed it was mine because of all the tables and numbered lists). But sometimes I retrospectively clutter the pages with doodles or recreational maths. Here is a page where I worked on a practical problem of geometrical optics.

Unfortunately, my handwriting in my work notebook tends to be slipshod. I suspect it is not quite at the stage where, as suggested in the early 20th century Lessons in Dashy Writing, it can be a promising ladder by which I rise in the world.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Bulgarian Plain Speak

Restaurants in Bulgaria serve good coffee. If you want something cheaper, instant coffee is also on the menu, but they have the grace to not pretend that it's coffee; just...

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Asking for Directions in the Cinque Terre

At the Cinque Terre we stayed in a room rented out by an idiosyncratic Sardinian, Pierpaolo Paradisi, in a tiny hamlet called Prevo which has only a handful of inhabitants.

Prevo is not reachable by public transport, so we planned to go there by hiking along the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) from Vernazza. But Pierpaolo's house has no number, so I asked him how we would find it. These were his directions:
Our house is right on the blue trail between Vernazza and Corniglia.
The house is located in a hamlet called Prevo, in half way.
When you reach a small tunnel you walk in, our house is on the left when you exit the tunnel.
The door is green, generally is open, with a small bamboo gate, and you listen to opera music.
Addresses are conciser, but directions are nicer.

Long-time readers may recall another much older post with a title of the form Asking for Directions in [Place], and there is at least one other post which involves me asking for directions. Maybe one day there will be enough posts in the series to justify a new label.

Sunday, 2 June 2013


"There is only one Original. Since 1832."

So declares the pamphlet at Vienna's Café Sacher, purveyors of "Original" sachertorte. The rest of the pamphlet gives you the history of the sachertorte, tells you how the secret recipe with its "exact sequence of the 36 individual steps" is jealously guarded by the café, and instructs you in the 6 ways to identify "Original" sachertorte.

Between 1954 and 1963, Café Sacher and the nearby Demel bakery were involved in a complex legal dispute over the use of the "Original" label. Having finally won the right to use the label, it is as if Café Sacher will let no opportunity slip to remind their customers that theirs is the one and only "Original" sachertorte. If I am biased against Café Sacher, it is because of this tedious insistence on originality doled out without a trace of humour (surely I am not the only person who finds it amusing that a nine-year legal battle was waged over "the dessert's specific characteristics, including the [...] second layer of jam in the middle of the cake"), and the fact that I thought sachertorte itself is hugely overrated.

Nor does their branding stop at sachertorte. Nearly every item on the Café Sacher menu, from truffle ham to ice-cream cake, is prefaced by "Original Sacher", or some variant thereof. The trend degenerates into farce when, in the "Viennese Classics" section, they appear to serve portions of their founding father's anatomy.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Fontspotting in Vienna

Walking around old Vienna, I spotted an unusually high number of tasteful store signs, using fonts and styles I don't commonly see in the UK.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Manarola, 5:46 pm

A [Village], [Time] label would have been more appropriate for this one. Manarola is a small fishing town on the Ligurian coast in Italy. With only 450 inhabitants, it is the smallest of the five villages of the Cinque Terre.

Hiking trails zigzag down to the beach and up into the mountains, taking you through vineyards and past medieval monasteries. The local wine, Sciacchetrà, is sweetly potent, and the olives on the pizzas and the lemons for the limoncino come from the surrounding orchards. Not surprisingly, seafood features prominently in Ligurian cuisine, but the Ligurians also invented focaccia and pesto. The Cinque Terre National Park being a UNESCO World Heritage site, no cars are allowed in the villages; they are connected by train, ferry and walking paths. Almost all the shops and restaurants are small mom-and-pop outfits.

If all this seems too cloyingly idyllic, here is something I am more equivocal about: the "Ligurian pastel" colors of Manarola's houses are regulated by a Commissioner of Good Taste in the regional government.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Birth of a Ghost

I had never really dabbled in computer animation before, but I recently discovered Synfig, a free, open source animation program. It's a lot of fun to play with.

The first animation I created on Synfig was a very simple 8-second animation of a ball dropping on the floor and morphing into a ghost. I spent the better part of a rainy Saturday morning learning how to make Synfig do my bidding, and the remainder of the morning watching Birth of a Ghost on loop (yes, I am easily amused).

My introduction to animation was by way of flipbooks. In 1996, when the cricket World Cup was held in the Indian subcontinent, you could exchange Coke bottle-caps for cricket merchandise. My friends were into collecting trading-cards. I was by no means indifferent to trading-cards, but I saved my bottle-caps till I had enough for a flipbook, which had Saeed Anwar majestically lifting some hapless spinner over long-on.

I knew in theory how TVs worked, and I had seen a zoetrope at BITM, but until I beheld a flipbook, I don't think I had truly comprehended how a rapid display of still images can create an illusion of movement. I also realised – and this was even more interesting – that I could make my own flipbooks. But after a few months of doodling in the corner of notebook pages, I thought I had gotten over my flipbook phase.

Except I hadn't, really. My Synfig experiments got me thinking about flipbooks again, and one day during my lunch-break, I seized on a wad of post-it notes which was on my desk and re-created Birth of a Ghost on flipbook.

Here are both videos, for comparison:

If you want a hand-drawn flipbook, send me an email. I can make one and post it to you.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Isle of Dogs Cat

As Ethan Zuckerman said in a 2008 lecture: "Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers. Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats."

Photos on this blog of Isle of Dogs fauna have featured foxes and of course, dogs, but so far ‒ no cats. This is about to be remedied. Here is a cat, spotted on Saturday en route to the supermarket.

Shortly after spotting the cat, I discovered that Mudchute Farm, which is also on my way to the supermarket, has three llamas. This made my day.

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.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Last Frame

It's an odd skill to boast of, but I'm fairly good at loading film into a camera. I can load film quickly and efficiently, while standing in a crowded train, or in the middle of other distractions. But most importantly, by pulling very little film ‒ the bare minimum ‒ out of the cassette, I can get the film leader to engage in the take-up spool.

This may not sound like much, but if you pull less film out of the cassette, you can often get 38 or even 39 exposures out of a 36-exposure roll. I like this, because it feels like getting more than my money's worth, like squeezing the last smidgen of toothpaste out of a tube.

After the 36th shot, I expect the film to run out. When it doesn't, it's always a pleasant surprise, and though I'm generally quite economical when shooting film, for the last frame I feel like I can fire off a shot without worrying too much about the end result, because it's free.

Often, the last frame is the best.

This photo was taken in Greenwich Park in London. I like the patterns made by the snow and the branches, and the woman playing with her dog on the hillside. It was the last exposure on the roll, and the last of the dying light. I thought it was the last snow of the season too, but it snowed again this weekend, proving that my spring post was premature.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Kitchen Gifts

Two recent additions to our kitchen from my last trip to India ‒ both gifts from my grandparents.

The pickle is home-made by my grandmother. She makes various kinds, and stores them in Horlicks jars lined up on windowsills. The stuffed chilli pickle (in picture) is my favourite, though it's not for the faint of heart.

My grandfather bought me the mortar and pestle; he went to the store with a magnet in his pocket so that he wouldn't be cheated. We used to grind spices with the underside of an empty coffee jar, so the mortar and pestle is a definite step up. Some day we may go so far as to get an electronic food processor.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Let Your Soul Delight Itself in Fatness

Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? ... hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.
"Let your soul delight in fatness" is excellent advice which I have, knowingly or unknowingly, been following since early childhood. But of late I have rarely been spending money for that which is bread, because we discovered that baking bread at home is immensely rewarding, and the ingredients required ‒ flour, commercial yeast, salt and lukewarm water ‒ are virtually costless.

We've baked only twice so far, but I love the whole process ‒ the precise measurements, the kneading, gluten on my fingers, the yeast frenziedly feeding on sugar molecules, the physics, chemistry and biology, the miracle of the first rise, the punch down, the second rise, shaping the loaf, scoring the dough, oven spring, the hollow-sound doneness test, the smell of freshly-baked bread from the oven.

Here is a photo of a Sunday brunch with home-baked bread, but also some other things. For it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but also by cheese (preferably of more than one variety) and tomato soup.

The knife in the photo is the Serrated Knife ‒ one of two knives in our kitchen. The other knife is the smooth-edged Champion Knife, so called because it's sharper and therefore used a lot more. But it turns out that serrated knives ‒ even not-so-sharp ones ‒ work really well on bread. I was thrilled to discover that the Serrated Knife has its uses after all. "The best thing before sliced bread," Anasua called it.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Calcutta, 6:38 am

Our apartment building in Calcutta has a chilchhad, a word which for I don't think there is an English equivalent. It refers to a supra-roof – a raised section higher than the main roof, e.g. the top of a rooftop room.

There are no stairs to our chilchhad; it is accessible only by clambering up a wall. As far as I am aware, no one else goes up to the chilchhad, and once on it, you are higher than the neighbouring windows and rooftops. It has always been my favourite feature of the building.

Among other things, it is good for taking photos of the sunrise.

In a complete volte-face from my earlier stance, The World According to Sroyon will henceforth use straight quotes and not curly quotes (unusually keen-eyed readers may have remarked on the straight-quote don't in the first sentence). I have been thinking about this for a while now, and I have concluded that the curly quotes in Verdana, currently my default font, are just too unsightly. Curly-quote lovers who wish to complain to the management are kindly directed to the comments section.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Dream Tricycle

I got to work early this morning, so once I had finished filing yesterday’s emails and making my to-do list for the day, it was doodle-time.

2 months and 13 days ago, I had a (very pleasant) dream involving a curious vehicle – an old-fashioned penny-farthing, but with two rear wheels. Passengers could stand on the rear axle, but had to backpedal constantly, as one does on a rolling log, to avoid falling off.

My work notebook is filled with sketches of this contraption drawn from various angles, some more detailed than others. Here is a sample.

The black cat did not feature in the dream, and is in the drawing only to show scale.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Guessing the Light

Last weekend I was in Bath, taking photos of snow with a manual camera.

My light meter, like all in-camera light meters, measures reflected light (as opposed to incident light). It is calibrated to assume that all objects are midtone grey, i.e. reflect about 18% of incident light. This works fine in most situations, but when it meters an object that is unusually reflective (such as snow), it is fooled into thinking that there is a great deal more incident light than there actually is. Following the meter reading would therefore result in an underexposed image – grey snow. Taking photos of snow, or other scenes with unusually light or dark tones, thus involves an element of guesswork.

Saha and I often shoot with film, and because film is less forgiving and not all things are midtone grey, it helps not to be wholly reliant on the light meter. To develop a better sense of light (and also for fun), we sometimes play a game. One of us will point at, say, a wall, and call out a film speed and an aperture. For instance, “ISO 200 at f/8.” Then we both guess the shutter speed, and we check it against the light meter.

This photo is from the day Saha and I test-rode tokyobikes in Shoreditch: I over-exposed by one stop to get the right exposure for the light tones.

The label Sports has now been changed to Sports/Games.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Oncethmus and Other Oddities

Some recent articles in the British press, about a government-backed drive to encourage children to learn poetry by heart, reminded me of my schooldays. For each English or Bengali exam, we had to memorise at least five poems, many of which were quite long, or hundreds of years old. On top of that, our teachers insisted – and this strikes me as somewhat unreasonable when I think about it now – that in the exam we reproduce the poem with original punctuation (marks would be deducted for, say, using a dash where the poet had put a semi-colon). It did not help that most poems had seemingly random punctuation, almost as if the poet first wrote up the whole poem, and then thought “Right, what mark of punctuation shall I put at the end of this line?”

Many of us therefore preferred to memorise the punctuation separately, almost like a different, parallel poem. The first verse of The Solitary Reaper, for instance, is the charmingly mellifluous “comma, exclamation, semi-colon, exclamation, comma, semi-colon, nothing, stop.” And who is to say that this is any less poetic than Behold her, single in the field etc.?


When I was a child, from reading books I derived certain stereotypical ideas of how people from different countries spoke. The English spoke like Psmith; Americans spoke like the Lone Ranger. Russians were always hatching intrigues in smoky train stations and wrestling with terrible moral dilemmas.

Most of these stereotypes I have now let go of, but when they are conformed to, there is still a moment when I am secretly pleased and I think, “Ah, this is how it should be.” The Dombai zorb ball incident, an otherwise tragic mishap, had such a moment. The Guardian describes it thus:
[The zorb ball] then hurtles leftwards down a ravine. Onlookers watch in horror, one asking: "What's down there?" A voice replies: "Nothing. Catastrophe."
“Nothing. Catastrophe.” Tolstoy would have been proud of that.


The other day we were playing Balderdash, and one of the words picked was oncethmus, which means ‘braying’. Later we were discussing possible uses of the word, and Nirmalya’s suggestion was the most popular: “Maybe in the title of a sequel to Silence of the Lambs.”

The same evening, shortly after an intense game of Snatch, the Quaker walked over to the sofa and his eyes alighted on an open page of our vintage cookbook. “Check this out guys, a cooking game!” he exclaimed, only to realise that the chapter in question was about cooking game.

I am thankful, especially in winter, that I know several people in London who like to play board games.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Child Borrowing

Some of the tips on consumer finance website can be a bit extreme:
[The Family & Friends Railcard] can be used on all tickets when one adult and a minimum of one under-16 travel together (borrowing a child for a day could save you money).
There is also a Disabled Persons Railcard which allows a disabled person and their adult companion to save 1/3 of the ticket price, but I was relieved to note that MoneySavingExpert have not gone so far as to recommend that you borrow a disabled person for a day.