Friday, 11 December 2015

Real Estate Taboo

Taboo (for those who have not played) is a party game where you have to communicate a random word to your teammates, but without using certain other 'taboo' words.

Last week I picked the word 'full', and as you might expect, 'empty' was one of the taboo words. The ensuing exchange illustrates the joys of playing Taboo with friends who are on the housing market:

me: The opposite of vacant.
teammate: Tenanted?

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Santa Claus

A conversation I overheard while standing in a Tesco checkout queue:

Father: Let's see what Santa Claus gets you.
Boy: There is no Santa Claus.
Father: Mummy spilled the beans, did she?
Boy: Yes.
Father: Well, as long as you don't tell your sister...
Boy: I won't.
Father: So. The magic has died for you. Well, it happens to everyone, in the end.

Shirley Temple apparently said, "I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph."

Friday, 20 November 2015

Crossing the Bosphorus

In The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, teenaged Ed Brubeck explains to his friend Holly Sykes about Interrail:
A train pass. You pay a hundred and thirty quid and then you can travel all over Europe, for a month, for free. Second-class, but still. From the tip of Portugal to the top of Norway. Eastern-bloc countries too, Yugoslavia and places. The Berlin Wall. Istanbul. In Istanbul, there's this bridge, right. One side's in Europe and the other's in Asia. I’m going to walk across it.
Like Ed, my friend Shekhar and I once hit upon the idea of crossing the Bosphorus on foot.

Accordingly we travelled to Istanbul (by air, not Interrail), and one afternoon we found ourselves on the Asian coast of the Bosphorus, not far from the bridge. A couple of times we asked people for directions, and they all suggested we take a taksi, presumably because it was a long way. Of course our whole idea was to walk from Asia to Europe, not take a taxi, but we were nevertheless touched by their solicitude.

The last group of people we asked for directions did not speak English, but were especially vehement in recommending a taxi. When we insisted that we wanted to walk, they pointed to a nearby police car, then mimed handcuffs. It was thus that we learnt that one does not simply walk across the Bosphorus: the bridge has apparently been closed to pedestrians since the late 1970s.

Ed Brubeck made the same discovery. A few chapters later, we read a postcard from Ed to Holly:
Today I crossed the Bosphorus Bridge! You're not allowed to walk across it so I hopped between continents on a bus with schoolkids and grannies. Now I can say I've been to Asia.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Spider Parable

Tintin readers may be familiar with Araneus diadematus: it was the spider which sat on Professor Phostle's telescope, leading him to think there was an enormous spider travelling through space.

This line made an impression on me when I read it as a kid, so although Araneus diadematus is not found in India, when I saw spiders in our house, I would often mutter to myself, "It's an Araneus diadematus! An enormous Araneus diadematus!"

Now that I am in Cambridgeshire, a beautiful specimen lives in our back garden.

She likes to spin her web across the garden gate, which unfortunately means that each time I take out my bicycle, I have no option but to tear the web down. For over a month now, I have been – reluctantly – destroying her web on an almost daily basis, but the next morning I find it has been rebuilt.

If I were Robert the Bruce, I might have drawn some sort of life lesson from this.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Dog Poo Fairy

Anti-dog-poo posters in Histon & Impington range from the cutesy to the downright draconian.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Awesome Macaques

Anasua showed me this news story about a 10-year-old who got lost in the woods while camping, and was only found after a nearly 29-hour search. The report says:
When asked what it was like to stay on the mountain overnight by himself, he replied: "It was awesome."
I like to think he used awesome not in the colloquial sense of "extremely good", but in the original sense of "extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring awe".

Speaking of awesome (extremely good) things, here is a video of Yakushima macaques we saw in the forests of Yakushima, Japan.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Astronomical Inaccuracy

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* * *
I was in London yesterday on some work, and I saw this poster on a tube station wall.

I was idly scrutinising the night sky in the poster, trying to see if I could recognise any constellations, when I noticed a curious thing. Not only is the depiction of the sky inaccurate (which alone would be bad enough, this being an advert for an observatory of all things!), it actually repeats horizontally.

You can see this clearly in the image below, where I have circled three of the asterisms* for easy identification (you have to make some allowances for the distortion caused by the camera lens and the curvature of the wall).

I think this is rather lazy design; contrast it with Randall Munroe's obsessive attention to astronomical detail.

Happy equinox, everyone!

*An asterism is a pattern of stars smaller than a constellation, like the Big Dipper which is part of the constellation Ursa Major. It is also the name for one of my favourite typographical symbols: . You may have known these facts already; I basically inserted the footnote because the temptation to put an asterisk next to asterisms was irresistible.

Friday, 18 September 2015

A Deer Parable

Last week when Aditi's family were visiting, I tagged along with them to Richmond Park.

Shortly after our picnic lunch, Aditi's parents declared they would spend the rest of the afternoon lazing under a tree. Disdainful of this sedentary attitude, Aditi, her sister and I decided to explore further, and try to track down some of the wild deer which roam free in the park.

We ranged far and wide, exploring as much of the park as time permitted. We trudged through woods, meadows and bracken, treading quietly, venturing into less frequented areas, trying to second-guess the deer. But the most exciting thing we found was a parrot-feather.

When we got back, Aditi's dad asked us whether we had managed to spot any deer. We admitted that we hadn't. Not without a hint of smugness, he tilted his head to indicate a spot to his left. There, hardly 15 metres from where they were lounging, three fallow deer were unconcernedly munching on grass. Apparently the deer arrived on the scene minutes after we strode off; at one point they came so close that Aditi's mum had to literally shoo them away.

I am sure there is a life lesson in there somewhere.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Village News

Three days ago I moved to Histon and Impington, a village (or more accurately, two intertwined villages) in Cambridgeshire, England. Next time someone asks me what village life is like, I will show them this photo I took yesterday on the High Street.

This incident, which took place in the neighbouring village of Girton, is the sort of thing which makes front-page news in these parts.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Seasons 6: Millwall Park, London

Move your cursor over the image below, and it should change to another image of the same scene in a different season. (If it doesn't work, check that your browser has JavaScript enabled.)

Base photo:3 December 2014
Mouseover photo:20 April 2015
Approx. coordinates:51.49°N, 0.01°W

August 2015 has not been a good month for this blog: it is the first time in its seven-year history that a whole month has gone by without a single post (unless you count August 2008 when I briefly deleted the blog).

One of the things which kept me busy last month was moving from London to Histon and Impington in Cambridgeshire. So before I start posting photos of village life, here's a photo I took in London: the disused railway viaduct at Millwall Park.

The viaduct was built in 1872 as part of the Millwall Extension Railway. The railway closed down in the 1920s, but six decades later, trains returned to the viaduct when it was reused for the Docklands Light Railway. In 1999 the DLR was rerouted, leaving its original line to duck underground at Millwall and pass underneath the Thames and on to Greenwich. So now the viaduct lies in disuse once again, festooned by ivies which grow green in summer and rust-red in autumn.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Dying Factory Owners

An Indian Supreme Court case involving water pollution caused by dyeing factories is often (mistakenly) cited in other judgments as "Tirupur Dying Factory Owners Association".

For me the typo always conjures up images of aged factory-owners, some on saline drips or life support systems, gathering weekly to talk about succession plans, business prospects, and their own approaching mortality.

Then I wonder, how close to death does a factory-owner need to be, in order to join this association? Which in turn reminds me of a scene from the movie Whatever Works:

Boris: I'm dying! I-I'm dying!
Jessica: Should I call an ambulance?
Boris: No, not now! No, not tonight, I mean eventually!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Millwall Fire Station (Then & Now)

Across the street from where I live, there is a restaurant called the Old Fire Station Bistro, where I have drunk many a cup of filter coffee.

The first photo you see below was taken today. The second photo is one I stumbled upon while exploring the archives of the Museum of London. It was taken sometime in the 1970s when the building was still a fire station, on a day when the firemen were on strike.

Among other changes, it appears that the signage at the top, which used to be relief lettering in an old-style serif typeface, has been replaced by painted lettering in a transitional serif typeface. As you might expect, I prefer the older version.

Image copyright: Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London
Used by kind permission of the Museum of London

Monday, 13 July 2015

Courgette-Flower Timelapse

Encouraged by the overwhelming response I received when I posted a photo of a courgette flower (0 comments), I now bring you a timelapse video (effective speed 720x) of courgette flowers blooming.

The video, like the photo, is of male flowers, but I'm pleased to note that our courgette plants are now also producing female flowers and, more excitingly, baby courgettes.

Full disclosure: The flowers open very early in the morning when the light is not very good, and close up during the day. So I actually photographed the flowers closing and played the video backwards, which to me looks more dramatic.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Jupiter–Venus Conjunction

Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest objects in the night sky (excluding of course the Moon), were very close tonight – just a third of a degree apart (for reference, the full Moon is about half a degree in diameter). We will not see a closer Jupiter–Venus conjunction until 2039.

I positioned myself at a spot whence, I calculated, I would see the two planets set over the Shard. But my trigonometric efforts were in vain; clouds obscured the view while the sky was still quite bright and the planets some distance above the horizon (at the upper left in the photo below). Oh well, I'll try again tomorrow.

Whenever I see Venus in the evening sky, I think of these lines from Terrapin Station by the Grateful Dead:
Counting stars by candlelight / All are dim but one is bright / The spiral light of Venus / Rising first and shining best...

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Courgette Flower

Lately I have been remiss about posting because of my exams (which end in four days), but I couldn't let summer solstice pass by without comment. So here is a photo of our courgette flower, opening up to the midsummer sun.

We only planted the seeds in late spring, but the plants are already producing male flowers. Hopefully we will soon have female flowers, with fruits to follow.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Hungry Leaf

Our Venus flytrap plant has been gorging itself this summer: here we see a single leaf which has trapped and digested no fewer than three insects, and is open again for business.

Speaking of insect-trapping, I recently read about the dementor wasp which, by injecting a cockroach with neurotoxin, "steals its prey's free will." Of course Spinoza might ask, Did the cockroach have free will to begin with?

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Impeccable Lettering

Sometime back Priyanka asked me to send her "something with impeccable lettering".

By rights, such a request coming from a professional illustrator, wont to taking artsy portraits and painting fancy murals, should have rendered me paralysed with performance anxiety. But I reminded myself that I know her since when she was doodling about high school exams, and her own artistic output was all too peccable.

Thus emboldened, I produced a series of 99 3"×3" cards which can be arranged to form words and phrases of your choice – or, if you prefer, simply laid out in alphabetical rows.

Friday, 8 May 2015

154 Parts

The kind of line which only a philosopher could come up with:
The book is long, and sometimes complicated. I have therefore separated my arguments into 154 parts, and given each part a descriptive title.
Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Sunflowers in Elephant Dung

A friend who has a talent for coming up with original gift ideas gave Anasua a box of elephant dung and some sunflower seeds. The seeds germinated this week.

I understand it's Earth Day, but if you think I need an excuse for posting a photo of sunflower saplings in elephant dung, you probably don't know me well enough.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Seasons 5: Isle of Dogs, London

Move your cursor over the image below, and it should change to another image of the same scene in a different season. (If it doesn't work, check that your browser has JavaScript enabled.)

Base photo:3 December 2014
Mouseover photo:20 April 2015
Approx. coordinates:51.49°N, 0.01°W

The cherry tree outside Saha's flat is decked out in Spring finery.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


Since my previous post was about an eclipse, I cannot resist following it up with a story from Hindu mythology about immortality, seduction and – you guessed it – eclipses.

The devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) had worked together to churn the Ocean of Milk, seeking the nectar of immortality. When the nectar finally emerged, the alliance broke down and the devas and the asuras began to fight over it. Vishnu, cunning as ever, assumed the form of Mohini (the enchantress) and persuaded the asuras to entrust her with the the nectar; she would distribute it among the devas first, and then among the asuras.

Beguiled by her beauty and her honeyed words, the asuras agreed to this obviously questionable plan. But Rahu, an asura, suspected foul play, so he disguised himself as a deva and took his place among them. Unfortunately for him, he was recognised by Surya (the Sun god) and Chandra (the Moon god). Surya and Chandra alerted Vishnu, who instantly cut off Rahu's head with his discus. And not a moment too soon, because the nectar had already reached Rahu's throat, making his head immortal.

The immortal head, so the story goes, has never forgiven the Sun and the Moon. It roams the heavens and periodically, it devours them in anger. But because the head is not attached to a body, the Sun and Moon slip out again, and the eclipse does not last forever.

Anasua's cat (pictured below) is called Tentul (tamarind), but this is his daak naam or nickname.

Tentul's formal name is Mohini, after the philosopher Mohini Chatterjee. After Anasua's family found Tentul as a kitten abandoned on their doorstep, the vet identified him as a female. It was only on the next visit that the same vet realised he was male. So in his sexual mimicry, Mohini the cat lived up to his mythological namesake in a way no one had quite foreseen.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Shunbun no Hi: Solar Eclipse

This year's Shunbun no Hi post is four days late, for which I apologise.

This year the equinox coincided with a solar eclipse, though the UK only experienced a partial eclipse. The weather forecast said (correctly, as it turned out) that there would be a thick cloud cover over London, so Anasua and I took an early morning coach to Oxford, which had clearer skies.

Here are two photos: the first taken shortly after the eclipse began, and the second just a few minutes after the maximum point, when about 85% of the Sun was occulted by the Moon.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Peanut Butter and Jelly

From Mankiw's Principles of Macroeconomics:

The bit about peanut butter and jelly may be true of the market as a whole, but personally I never use peanut butter and jelly together. I like peanut-butter-on-toast and jelly-on-toast, but I am immune to the appeal of a PB&J. If anything, I see peanut butter and jelly as weak substitutes.

This is not the first time that I've found a statement about spreads in an Economics textbook which runs counter to my own preferences.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Seasons 4: Canary Wharf, London

Move your cursor over the image below, and it should change to another image of the same scene in a different season. (If it doesn't work, check that your browser has JavaScript enabled.)

Base photo:23 July 2014
Mouseover photo:27 February 2015
Approx. coordinates:51.50°N, 0.02°W

The trees in the foreground are dawn redwoods in Jubilee Park – an island of greenery amidst the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. The dawn redwood is a fascinating tree. It was believed to be extinct and known only from ancient fossils, until a small stand was discovered in 1944 in the forests of Central China. (I allude, of course, to discovery by science; the tree was well-known to local villagers, without whose the help the botanists may never have discovered it.) The tree's morphology has not changed for 65 million years, which means that the trees in Jubilee Park are essentially identical to those in Cretaceous-period forests, when Tyrannosaurus roamed the earth.

The dawn redwood is also one of a very few conifers which shed their leaves in autumn. If it were evergreen, as most conifers are, the two photos above would have looked very similar.

The building in the background belongs to a law firm where I worked for four years.

Friday, 20 February 2015


For his book The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970), Richard Titmuss and his associates carried out a survey of over 3,800 blood donors in England. Some selected responses to question 5 ('Could you say why you first decided to become a blood donor?'):
You cant get blood from supermarkets and chaine stores. People them selves must come forword, sick people cant get out of bed to ask you for a pint to save thier life so I came forword in hope to help somebody who needs blood (married woman, 23, machine operator)
I thought it just a small way to help people—as a blind person other opportunities are limited (married man, 49, piano tuner)
I get my surgical shoes thro' the N.H.S. This is some slight return and I want to help people (married man, 53, insurance agent)
To try and repay in some small way some unknown person whose blood helped me recover from two operations and enable me to be with my family, thats why I bring them along also as they become old enough (married woman, 44, a farmer's wife)
Some unknown person gave blood to save my wifes life (married man, 43, self-employed window cleaner)
My husband aged 41, collapsed and died, without whom life is very lonely—so I thought my blood may help to save some-one the heart ache I've had (transfusion received by husband before he died) (widow, 47, school meals service cook)
My son was killed on the road, he was a Blood Donor and I knew they did their best to save him and because I know he would be pleased I am carrying on as long as I can to help someone I hope (married woman, 63, wife of a timber sawyer)
From being a boy I had suffered from constant nose bleeding and since I became a donor I have not had a single nose bleed (married man, 43, newsagent)
My conscience—having served 5 years on active service in the war (1939–45) helping to destroy life, and during this period my wife was receiving blood to save her life, it occurred to me, after demobilization, that I could at least ease my conscience (married man, 52, clerical officer civil service)
It was a good excuse for a good cup of tea and the afternoon off duty whilst serving in the Navy (married man, 42, maintenance engineer printing)
1941. War. Blood needed. I had some. Why not? (married man, 47, sales representative)
A pretty young nurse walked round the factory I was working in (married man, 41, development engineer)
Knowing I mite be saving somebody life (single woman, 40, power press operator)
No man is an island (married man, 36, foreman maintenance fitter)

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Venice, 10:44 am

The island of San Giorgio Maggiore seen through the morning mist.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Pick Your Economist

A notice at the Student Services desk at the London School of Economics:

Whom do you entrust your form to: Sen or Mundell? The sort of dilemma that can reduce an economics undergrad to a state of paralysed indecision.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Basic Essentials

From a store at Treviso airport:

Gosh, some people's idea of 'essentials' must be very different from mine!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

To See a Branch in a Drop of Dew

It was a cold, foggy morning in the Cotswolds on Sunday when I took this photo of dewdrops on a tree branch.

Later I noticed something cool: the dewdrop has formed a refracted image of the branch behind it. This can be seen more clearly in the enlarged image below.