Monday, 23 July 2018

Cabbage White

Our rocket plant has been looking a little poorly of late. I had assumed it was just feeling the effects of the hot dry weather, though I have been watering it diligently. Today, on closer inspection, I realised it is playing reluctant host to a small army of cabbage white caterpillars, the so-called "bane of allotment holders all over the British Isles".

I let them be, in the hope that they will pupate soon and the rocket plant will recover from its ordeal. I would also like to see the chrysalides, and maybe even the emergence of butterflies.

Cabbage whites have cool-looking eyes; here is one I photographed earlier.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Three Views of the Milky Way

Three views of the Milky Way, shot over two nights in the Mojave Desert, California.

1. Still photo

Move your cursor over the image (or touch on mobile) to see labels: constellations are in blue and planets are in pink. Click on the image for a high-res version, where you can make out some of the amazing deep-sky objects in Sagittarius, including star clusters and nebulae (interstellar clouds of dust and gas hundreds of light years wide, where new stars are being born). Though it cannot be seen in the photo, the frame also includes the galactic centre – the theorised location of a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*.

2. Star trails

These star trails were shot over 65 minutes. I like how it really brings out the variation in star colours. The stars moved from left to right, and the brightest streak is Jupiter.

3. Timelapse

The video above opens in a new window (I recommend setting the quality to 1080p as YouTube sometimes picks a lower resolution). 2.5 hours of diurnal motion are compressed into 20 seconds: an effective speed of 450x. The "star" rising around 0:08 is Mars. The sky lighting up at the end of the video is not daybreak, but the Moon rising in the east.

+ Show tech info

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Seasons 8: San Francisco Bay Area

I was in the Bay Area for two months, which might seem like too little time for the kind of dramatic variation that makes for a good Seasons post. 'Precocious' plants, which flower before leaves appear, offer a way out.

I often used to sit and work under this wisteria. Sometimes I would go inside to make myself a cup of coffee, and when I came back there would be wisteria petals on my laptop. Move your cursor over the image (or touch on mobile) to see how it changed in little over a month.

Base photo:27 April 2018
Mouseover photo:31 May 2018
Approx. coordinates:37.90°N, 122.29°W

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Thursday, 17 May 2018


Anna's hummingbird ♀ on fuchsia
motion blur at 1/1000 sec

Sunday, 13 May 2018


My new hobby is nature-journalling, inspired by an online course I'm taking (free) and a book I bought this week (rather expensive). At present my kit contains only an HB pencil and an eraser, so the sketches are pretty bare-bones. But on the plus side, they only take a few minutes to complete.

Oliver Sacks offers three reasons to like horsetails: "their simplicity, their antiquity, and their mathematical elegance." It is said that the decreasing size of the segments inspired John Napier to invent logarithms.

Speaking of simplicity, the notebook pictured here – A6 recycled-paper from Muji – is an absolute joy to use.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Thieving Carpenter

The cottage where I'm staying in California has Mexican bush sage in the garden. Like all salvias, the flowers have a 'staminal lever mechanism'. To get at the nectar, pollinators have to push against one arm of the stamen. This activates a lever mechanism; the other arm swings down and deposits pollen on the pollinator's body.*

But some animals cheat. Instead of entering through the front door, they bite a hole at the base of the flower and steal the nectar. Today I caught a carpenter bee in flagrante delicto.

And here is the hole, with my thumb for scale:

*To really appreciate this marvel, see Fig. 1 of Stöbbe et al and Fig. 2 of Claßen-Bockhoff et al.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Owl Haiku

Yesterday was Rabindranath Tagore's 157th birth anniversary. Of his 18 (!) volumes of collected works, the one I have read most often is probably volume 3 which contains কণিকা (Konika), a collection of proverbs, aphorisms and philosophical musings in verse.

Tagore visited Japan three times; he was fascinated by haiku and translated a few into Bengali. When I was a teenager, I tried translating some of his Konika couplets into English, in haiku form. There is only one for which I still know both the original and the translation by heart: Konika 65, titled শত্রুতাগৌরব (Feud-Pride):

পেঁচা রাষ্ট্র করি দেয় পেলে কোনো ছুতা,
জান না আমার সাথে সূর্যের শত্রুতা!
The Owl announces
Every chance he gets, "I have
A feud with the Sun."

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Unity, Equality, Love & Bicycles

My (borrowed) bike on the Ohlone Greenway, California

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Thanks for Nothing

I booked a place on a birdwatching walk at the Berkeley Botanical Gardens. Tickets are $20, but free for me as a visiting researcher. Upon registration I got the following message:

I am not sure if this is a coding oversight or sarcasm.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Ten Years

My friend Surya posed an interesting question recently: do you spend more time thinking about the past or the future? (Another of his questions: do women prefer warm lighting or guitarists? Make of this what you will.)

Saha and I said we think more about the future – and it seemed self-evident to us that most people would be the same. Surya said he thinks more about the past: marking changes and trends, comparing, taking stock. And indeed I remembered a long-ago camping trip at the end of which Saha and I were trying to simultaneously pack gear, plan our route and calculate how many hours of daylight we had left. Meanwhile Surya said, "Hang on, let's take a moment to say bye-bye to the campsite." (To be clear, there was no one else there; he was saying goodbye to the inanimate campsite itself.)

Anyhow, I am not much of a one for looking back, nor, for that matter, for birthdays, but Tommy recently reminded me that this month, The World According to Sroyon turned ten years old.

My first ever post was called Three Reasons for not Having a Blog. Reason 2 was:
There is a distinct possibility that I will lose interest in the blog and abandon it a few months down the line.
Whatever your position may be on the validity of Reasons 1 and 3, ten years on it is safe to say that Reason 2, at least, has not come to pass.

When I started blogging, there were already a few personal blogs which I regularly read and commented on – thoughtful, interesting, funny blogs written by friends, or people who later became friends through blogging. Of all those people – Saha, Priyanka, Darshana, Visa, Anasua (I can still reel off their names, though some of the URLs give me pause) – only Kroswami 'kontinues the krap'. Like Sam and Frodo, we march on. The fellowship has been dissolved: not because the Ring is an existential threat, but because it is merely unfashionable.

The other blogs I mentioned have all been abandoned, made private or deleted. I'm still friends with the people who wrote those blogs, but I miss their writing. Some days, even though their blogs have been private for a while, I'll go for a haircut and think of Priyanka's memorable comic on that subject, or see a starry sky and remember Saha's post about a misheard Dylan lyric.

But more than that, because we were friends, the blogs formed a mini-universe: an ecosystem connected by comments, blogrolls and inside-jokes, greater than the sum of its parts. Without that ecosystem, blogs like mine are in a kind of no man's land: too personal to be of any great interest to an unknown reader (and in an age of relentless search-engine optimisation, how would they find it anyway?), and in the wrong corner of the social media world to get traffic from friends and acquaintances (I have thought about sharing blogpost links on Facebook, if only as a one-off experiment, but so far I have abstained).

Nevertheless, for reasons enumerated elsewhere, I plod on. And I hope to continue – for another ten years or more.

Oh look, I'm thinking about the future again.

Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, 20 March 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, 10 March 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, 13 February 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, 28 January 2018


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

Tuesday, 16 January 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, 1 January 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.