Friday, 23 December 2016

Talking to Yourself

One of the many things I like about learning a new language is the unexpected social and cultural insights. Japanese for example has different levels of politeness: verbs and even nouns change their form depending on whether you're speaking to, say, your friend, a stranger or your boss.

A conversation from my intermediate Japanese class:
Japanese teacher:
If you're talking to yourself, it's better to use the polite form.
Fellow student:
What! Why??
Japanese teacher:
Because a senior person may overhear.

Monday, 21 November 2016

D7 Bus Stops

The names of bus stops on the D7 route in London are straight out of an Enid Blyton book.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Slightly-Larger-than-Average Moon

The term 'supermoon' may be mostly hype, but it's as good an excuse as any to go out and look up.

Of late my posting has been even more irregular than usual. I have however been writing about bees on the LSE Bees blog, and book reviews for the LSE Review of Books. On the off chance that either of those interest you, go take a look!

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Law and Morality

I was in Lyon last weekend, and wandering around the Croix-Rousse district, we noticed this piece of graffiti:

Anasua: I think they mean "what".
Me: Ah. "Was" must be a misprint.
Philipp: ...because they don't know what is right.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Me Time

Like most UK universities, LSE has a system of 'office hours' – weekly slots when students can book one-to-one meetings with academics. This term I'm teaching undergraduate classes, but I'm also a PhD student. This puts me in the interesting position of being able to book an appointment with myself.

Thursday, 22 September 2016


Happy equinox, everyone! Here are some tomatoes from our balcony garden.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Patterns in Coffee

What do you think this is?

Unless you scrutinised the photo very carefully, you probably answered "Cream". But despite the "Double" in large type and the strawberry graphic, there is tiny type at the bottom which says "alternative to cream". In fact, Elmlea is a "blend of buttermilk and vegetable oils" whose only advantage, as far as I can see, is that it "keeps up to 5 days opened in the fridge, compared to 3 days for double cream."

I've never knowingly bought Elmlea – my dislike for dairy substitutes is well-documented – but this week I thought I'd try it out because the shop didn't have real cream. As an experiment I put some into my morning coffee. The coffee was inedible (I discovered that Elmlea, unlike cream, does not mix with coffee), but at least it made a cool pattern.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

London vs Cambridgeshire

This week the Widescreen Centre, the last surviving telescope shop in Central London, announced that they are relocating to Cambridgeshire. The reasons they cited for the move are "[t]he current economic climate, changing retail patterns, and critically a major rent review due imminently".

I only visited their shop once, to buy a solar filter to observe the transit of Mercury. The Widescreen Centre folk graciously answered some questions I had about telescopes, although I'd made it clear that I wasn't looking to buy one. They are also among the core members of my astronomy club (their announcement says they will continue to come for our monthly meets in London).

Rent is not the only thing that makes Cambridgeshire more conducive to astronomy than London. I took this photo last month when my friend Rohini and I went stargazing in Hampstead Heath in London. If you hover over the image, you can see the names of major constellations as well as two Messier objects: the Pleiades Star Cluster and the Andromeda Galaxy.

Try as we might, we could not see the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye (the photo above was a 15-second exposure, so the camera captured about twice as many stars as our eyes could see).

For me, the most striking thing about the photo is the light pollution. Long after sunset on a clear night, the light from thousands of buildings and streetlamps gives the London sky an unsightly orange cast. Compare this with a photo I posted earlier this year of the International Space Station over Cambridgeshire (hover to see constellation labels):

Relatedly, the photographer Nicholas Buer has a wonderful video simulation of what London would look like if there were no light pollution.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Mission Statement

From a Guardian article about six scientists who have just completed a year-long simulation of a Mars mission:
They managed limited resources while conducting research and working to avoid personal conflicts.
This strikes me as a worthy goal for humanity in general.

Friday, 19 August 2016

The Third Sex

Sign at an upmarket store in Copenhagen:

men, women, furs next door

Friday, 12 August 2016

The Little Mermaid

One of my happiest memories of my time in Copenhagen is of going to see the mermaid at dawn.

The first time I saw her was on a sunny afternoon. The waterfront was teeming with tourists, some of whom were clambering up to pose and take selfies with the statue. I kept my distance and resolved to come back at a quieter time.

Towards the end of my stay, I woke up one morning at 4 am. Unable to go back to sleep and having nothing better to do, I cycled across the city to the waterfront. On the way, I stopped on Dronning Louise's Bro (which some Copenhageners call hipsterbroen or 'the hipster bridge') to watch the dawn breaking over Sortedam Lake.

Some tourists were passing by. 'It looks like my asshole!' one of them shouted at me, for no apparent reason. 'Yours is redder,' I shouted back, and his friends went 'Ooooo.' I'm usually not good at spur-of-the-moment comebacks, so I was pleased with myself.

I reached the statue just before sunrise. There were only two other people there, and they – like me – quietly sat on a bench overlooking the statue and the sea.

Many visitors find the Little Mermaid underwhelming or kitschy, but I've grown quite fond of the statue (in any case, I have a soft spot for disappointing monuments). Even with crowds of tourists swarming around her, she seems dignified and aloof, her gazed fixed on some distant point on the shore; of course in the original fairy-tale, unlike in the Disney movie, the Little Mermaid suffers unbearable torments but does not get her man.

The two other people on the scene were 18-year-old guys from Belgium, returning home after a walking holiday in Sweden. Their ferry arrived the night before and their train was in the morning, so they spent the night on the beach. At one point, they said, it got really cold.

It struck me – not as a cause for regret, just as a fact – that this is the kind of thing I once used to do, but these days I'd be more likely to book a cheap hotel (except perhaps in the company of Bunty, with whom all bets are off).

I turned 30 last year, and it feels like a more significant threshold than turning 18. Lather was 30 years old when they took away all of his toys; his mother sent newspaper clippings to him about his old friends who'd stopped being boys. And the poet Brian Howard said, 'Anybody over the age of 30 seen in a bus has been a failure in life.' I cheerfully take buses and, like Lather, draw pictures of mountains that look like bumps, but I may be less likely to sleep under the stars in northern latitudes.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Copenhagen, 11:50 pm

Since I wrote about long summer days in Copenhagen, the days have grown ever-so-slightly shorter, but even so, twilight lasts from sunset to sunrise. This photo was taken just before midnight. The streaks of light are from an S-train speeding south through Frederiksberg.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Day Length and Decision Theory

I am in currently Copenhagen where, 15 days after the solstice, there is no such thing as night. Daytime gives way to civil twilight, then nautical twilight – and that is the darkest it gets.

Growing up in Calcutta, I experienced relatively little seasonal variation in day-length. As far as I remember, it affected my life in only one respect: I was allowed to play in the streets in the afternoon on condition that I'd be back before dark, which meant I could stay out a little later in summer.

The longest day of the year in Calcutta is less than 3 hours longer than the shortest day. In London, where I now live, the difference is almost 9 hours. I sometimes wonder: if I had to choose between Calcutta and London based on day-length alone, which would I pick?

Graph made using data from

Other things being equal, I prefer longer days. By moving to London, I gained about 350 daylight hours in summer, but gave up the same amount in winter.1 The question is, does the loss offset the gain?

Most people are thought to be loss averse: the pain we experience if we lose £100 is more than the pleasure of winning £100, and in general, bad things have more impact than good things. The psychologist Paul Rozin illustrated this beautifully: "a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches."2

But when it comes to day length, I am not quite sure what I prefer. Sometimes I lean towards more variation, sometimes towards less. Perhaps this means I am indifferent!

A question for the reader: How much variation seems optimal to you? No variation (12-hour days all year, like at the equator), extreme variation (6 months of darkness and 6 months of light, like at the poles), or somewhere in between?

1.In reality the gain is not exactly equal to the loss, but let's pretend it is, for the sake of simplicity.
2.As quoted in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Four Postures

I took this photo five years ago at the International Manga Museum in Kyoto.

I posted it online with the caption The four postures for reading manga, and since then, a couple of people have independently told me they liked the caption.

The photo below was taken by Anasua's dad in a village in North Bengal (and is posted here with his permission). It is perhaps presumptuous to caption someone else's photo, but it would be a travesty to call this anything other than The four postures for playing carrom.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Subjective Well-Being

When I was in high school, on a visit to my uncle's, I came across a book called Tennis Confidential which he had borrowed from a library. It had a passage which I found interesting enough to copy down in my notebook:
Chris Evert was dubbed "The Ice Maiden" for her stoical on-court demeanor, but behind that facade swirled powerful emotions. On Evonne Goolagong, her immensely popular 1970s rival, Evert once revealed: "I never resented the fact that the crowds were for Evonne. But I was envious and wanted to shout, 'Don't you know I'm feeling something inside?'"
Presumably Goolagong reacted more vehemently than Evert did when she missed a volley. But perhaps Goolagong really did feel the disappointment more keenly – who can say?

Psychologists confront this problem in trying to measure subjective well-being. Most measurement methods rely on self-reporting, but as the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being put it:
[t]he nature of subjective measures means that we can never really know whether one respondent's 8 out of 10 corresponds to the exact same mental state as another respondent's 8 out of 10.
But not all questionnaires involve numbered scales. Goodwin Watson's 1930 study asked respondents to choose the best-fitting description from a series of options. My favourite among these is, "Life often seems so worthless that there is little to keep one going. Nothing matters very much, there has been so much of hurt that laughter would be empty mockery."

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Seeing and Forgetting

I was just reading a book by the sociologist Howard Becker where, in a passage about the problem of categorisation, I came across the following quote:
Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing we are looking at.
The origin of the saying is not clear. Becker attributes it to Robert Morris, while other sources cite Paul Valéry. Be that as it may, I like it a lot. (This is one of the things I like about being in academics: I seem to encounter at least one brilliant idea every week – or maybe I'm just easily impressed.)

It seems to me that the insight can also apply in reverse. Ten years ago, in Bombay, a friend and I went to Marine Drive, my favourite place in the city. Neither of us had been there before. My friend saw the piles of tetrapods on the waterfront and said, "Wow, what are those?"

"Tetrapods," I said. (I knew about them from Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.)

"I see." His curiosity seemingly satisfied, he turned his attention elsewhere. He still did not know what they were for or why they were so oddly-shaped. He had received literally no additional information than he had before the conversation, other than what they are called.*

It seemed that knowing the name of the thing we were looking at had stopped him from seeing.

*OK, if you want to be pedantic, now he also knew that I knew what they are called.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Shulbrede Priory

On a country walk this week in the woods of Surrey, I passed Shulbrede Priory (pictured below).

What Wikipedia currently does not say – but my guidebook did – is that the priory was dissolved in 1536, with the King's Commissioner alleging that 26 whores were found living there.

I did not actually see a sign saying Shulbrede Priory, but it was so marked on the map and I assumed that was right. This was an a priory assumption.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016


If I want to attend an event which is publicised on Facebook, I sometimes mark myself "Interested" so that I get a reminder notification on the day of the event. At least that's what I like to think, though the conversation below illustrates that I'm perhaps sensitive to the accusation that I do it partly to show off.

A conversation I had with Aditi this week:

Aditi: I saw you posted on Facebook that you're going to a talk about death.
me: Oh. Yeah. It was just to remind myself.
Aditi: Of death?

Facebook sometimes sends me "positive" messages like Thanks for being here, or Enjoy Facebook today! I wonder if someday I might get a notification saying, Remember: our time here is limited. Given that the first reaction of most users, on seeing such a message, will be to log the hell out of Facebook, I think the likelihood is remote.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Shunbun no Hi: Traffic signs

My Shunbun no Hi post for this year celebrates nature and living things – not in the wild, but on traffic signage.

Earlier this month, we moved back to London from the village of Histon and Impington in Cambridgeshire. Here are two examples of signs the likes of which you don't often see in London. The first one, which Anasua pointed out to me when we were out cycling, is a Pegasus crossing; the second, displayed near the village green, is road traffic diagram 551.2 (wild fowl likely to be in road ahead).

Thursday, 3 March 2016


Sujaan is currently in Chicago for a conference – his first visit to the US. Yesterday we had a phone conversation about Simon and Garfunkel's America, and what a great song it is.

I particularly like the first line of the song's final verse: "Kathy, I'm lost", I said, though I knew she was sleeping. Saha, who has endured many long journeys with me, once said that given the quality of my conversation, if I were in Paul Simon's place, it would more likely be a case of "...though I knew she was pretending."

Another song about America which I like a lot is Sailing to Philadelphia by Mark Knopfler. I have only been to the US once. Flying from London to New York, I remember the moment when I got my first glimpse of the east coast. The passenger in the seat beside me was filling in his landing card. I sneakily looked over his shoulder, desperately hoping his name would be Mason so I could say, "Now hold your head up Mason, see America lies there."

Friday, 12 February 2016

ISS in ♋️

This evening I photographed the International Space Station streaking through the constellation of Cancer (my zodiacal sign, as it happens). The two lighter streaks to the left are airplanes.

The sighting lasted only about 3 minutes: look how much it moved during a 15-second exposure! But for those few minutes, with the sunlight glinting off its solar arrays, it was the brightest "star" in the sky.

This was my first attempt at photographing the ISS. Next time I want to try and capture a longer streak (with a longer exposure), and maybe have some interesting object in the foreground – not just a Cambridgeshire meadow.

If you're interested in spotting the ISS, NASA has a helpful page. Spotting – and especially photographing – the ISS requires a bit of planning, but it's fun. And of course, standing around in the cold setting up the shot helps build character.

Monday, 25 January 2016


Given how many days have elapsed since my last post, it may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I have posted at all. That, however, is not the reason for the title of this post.

While reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – a book, by the way, which I thoroughly recommend – I came across the following passage:
A capacity for surprise is an essential aspect of our mental life, and surprise itself is the most sensitive indication of how we understand our world and what we expect from it.
...which has certain parallels with the quote in my sidebar:
The only appropriate state of the mind is surprise.
Speaking of surprises, I was in North Bengal recently, attending a friend's wedding. My friend had kindly arranged for a car to ferry us between the wedding venue and the guest house where we were staying, some 30 km away. The road connecting the two towns ran through the Buxa Tiger Reserve.

The driver who was taking us back to our guest house on the first night was very enthusiastic about showing us some wildlife. He took the more forested road even though, at that time of night, he was not really supposed to. When we were passing a river, he stopped the car and made us get out and listen for the sound of the 'topke shaap' (a snake which I had never heard of before). As it happens, the topke snakes were quiet that night.

As we drove on, he was saying it was too bad we weren't staying in the area much longer. If we travelled this road regularly for a couple of weeks, he said, there was a good chance we would see a wild elephant. Suddenly, he stopped mid-sentence and brought the car to a halt. We wondered if we had again entered topke snake territory, but no. Not even 30 metres away, our headlights picked out an elephant quietly crossing the road and disappearing into the jungle.