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.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Milky Way Over Teide National Park

If you were in one of the best stargazing locations in the world for just one night and could spend it either stargazing or doing astrophotography, which would you pick? Stargazing seems like the obvious choice, unless, like me, you've spent months dreaming up cool astrophotography projects, all the while stuck in a cloudy, light-polluted metropolis.

When Anasua and I went to the island of Tenerife last spring, we booked a parador (a government hotel halfway up Mount Teide, in the middle of the otherwise uninhabited Teide National Park) for not one but two nights, thereby avoiding this dilemma. Or so we thought.

We spent the first night stargazing. Orion set over the Roques de Garcia in a cloudless, moonless sky. At midnight, Jupiter, not long past opposition, shone like a miniature sun. A few straggling Lyrid meteors crisscrossed the heavens, like a curtain-raiser for the Milky Way which filled the southern sky before dawn.

The Milky Way, for my money, is by far the most dramatic naked-eye object in the night sky. But we were lucky enough to have the hotel's Dobsonian telescope all to ourselves, which gave us a closer look at Jupiter, Saturn and a couple of deep-sky objects.

The second night, which I had earmarked for astrophotography, turned out to be cloudy – something that's apparently uncommon in Tenerife, especially at high altitudes. I did not get a single good photo that night. But if I had to do it all over again, I think I would still spend the first night stargazing. Besides, just before we packed up and went to sleep at 6 am, I did sneakily take one single shot of the Milky Way.



Move your cursor over the image (or long-touch on mobile) to see labels: constellations are in blue; planets and deep-sky objects are in pink. Click for a high-res version.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Copenhagen Bicycle Culture – Part 1: People

My favourite thing about Copenhagen is its bicycle culture. This post is more about people: the plan is for this to be a three-part series, but given what a tardy blogger I've been of late, I wouldn't hold my breath.

I. The Cargobike Girl
The true emblem of Copenhagen is not the mermaid but the cargobike, a.k.a. the Copenhagen SUV. Most of these can carry over 100 kg (plus rider) and as such are a viable alternative to cars, at least over short distances. But some people take this to extreme lengths.

The girl in the photo is my friend's sister, on her way to the airport to pick up her parents. On the way back, the parents rode the two bicycles, while the cargobike doubled up as the luggage-van.

II. The Long John Dad
Cargobikes with two wheels, known as Long Johns, are also a common sight (in fact they were invented in Denmark). The most popular brand, the Bullitt, is put to all sorts of uses: Copenhagenize has a list which includes such oddities as the Summer-Wading-Pool Bullitt, the Power-Station Bullitt and the Sperm Bullitt. But they are most often used as a child-carrier.
This man was test-riding Long Johns trying to decide which one to buy, and the kid was loving every minute of it.

III. The Custom Cruisers
Roaming around Vesterbro on a weekend, we ran into an organised ride by a club for people with bizarre homemade bicycles: the Copenhagen Custom Cruisers. They are like a wholesome, pedal-powered version of the Hells Angels. This image, which I found on their Facebook page, may just be the greatest photo I've ever seen.

IV. The Tallbike Guy
While the Custom Cruisers display a preference for elongated bikes, others, inspired by Chicago's historic Eiffel Tower bikes, prefer to extend them vertically.
Pictured above is the third tallbike I've seen in Copenhagen. The first one, a two-wheeler, stopped next to me at a red light. The rider told me he built it at home by welding one frame on top of another. I asked him why, and he replied, "Why not?" Then the lights changed: he vaulted nimbly onto the saddle and sped off, leaving me open-mouthed.

V. The "Grand Old Man of Velomobiles"
In an environment with ample resources and no natural predators, bicycles in Copenhagen have evolved into all sorts of rare and unusual forms. At the Bicycle Innovation Lab where I volunteer, I ran into Carl-Georg Rasmussen, creator of the Leitra velomobile. He was kind enough to invite me to a tour of his workshop in Herlev, which I really hope to do someday.

VI. The Bus Driver
Last month, as a steward for Copenhagen Bike Pride, I was tasked with riding at the back of the parade to block the road. (We had permission to go on the main road because there were too many of us to go the bike path.) At one point, there was a bus right behind me, followed by a double-line of cars. I offered an apologetic wave to the driver, but after that I was too embarrassed even to look in his direction: we were inching forward at what seemed like an agonisingly slow pace, and all I could think of was how annoying it must be for him and his passengers.
This went on for about 10 minutes, but to me it felt like hours and hours. Eventually our routes diverged: as the bus veered to the left, the driver honked twice. I looked at him with trepidation, but he was waving at us with a broad grin on his face. It almost seemed like he would have joined the parade if he could!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Snapdragon

Our balcony garden has a hanging basket with ivy, spotted deadnettle and snapdragon (the latter grown from seeds I got for free from Beefayre).


Snapdragons have a specialist pollination strategy. Their corolla tube, which contains nectar and pollen, is closed by two "lips" which prevent most insects from entering and stealing their nectar. Only bumblebees – their preferred pollinators – and a few other insects can trip the trapdoor mechanism and gain access to the tube.

I've spent more time than I care to admit watching honey bees trying and (and failing) to enter our snapdragons.


And here is a common carder bee – a type of bumblebee – showing you how it's done:


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Love and Death on the Peninsula

For my birthday last week, I decided to treat myself by taking the afternoon off and going to the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park. Last year a species of bee was spotted in the park for the first time in Britain, and I've wanted to go there ever since.

I could not definitely identify the viper's bugloss mason bee even if I saw one – there are nearly 250 species of solitary bees in the UK and I can recognise only a few common ones – but I did see some other cool insects. What's more, I was able to identify most of them using the field guides in the park library.

Exhibit A: the common red soldier beetle. This insect is often seen copulating on hogweed, hence its amusing nickname, the hogweed bonking beetle. Here is a nonconformist pair, mating not on hogweed but on hemp agrimony.


Exhibit B: common blue damselflies. Before mating, the male (blue) uses claspers at the tip of his abdomen to grasp the female behind her head to prevent other males from dislodging him. My friend Lalanti taught me how to tell apart damselflies and dragonflies: when resting, damselflies hold their wings parallel to their abdomen, while dragonflies hold them at right angles.


Exhibit C: a thick jawed orb weaver spider which has ensnared a solitary bee slightly larger than itself.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Welcome

Last night I was reading a graphic novel – Just So Happens by Fumio Obata – which brought back a lot of memories about Japan.

In 2011, I spent six months working at a law firm in Tokyo. Almost from the first week, I felt an inexplicably strong affinity for the country and its people – the trains, the beaches, the language, the street maps, even their obsession with ranking. At the end of my stint, on my flight back to London, I was thinking back on the last few days – the staff at the café where I had breakfast every morning pooling together to buy me a hamper of Japanese souvenirs, one of the older secretaries in our office saying「また来てね。みなさん待っています。」("Please come back again. We're all waiting.") – and I realised I was trying (not very successfully) to hold back tears. I had not been this sad even when I left my hometown, Calcutta, to work in London – perhaps because I knew I could go back during holidays, and when I did, it would be (almost) like I'd never left. Whereas if I went back to Japan, it would almost certainly be as a tourist, which is not the same thing at all.

Anyway, back to the book. Just So Happens has a panel showing the protagonist coming home (a faithful reproduction of Narita airport).


When I first arrived in Japan in 2011, I couldn't read Japanese at all. By the end of my stay, I could read basic Japanese, and when I went back there on holiday two years ago, I noticed something interesting. While the English text simply says "Welcome to Japan", the Japanese text has a slightly different – and for me, rather heartwarming – message: okaerinasai or "Welcome home".

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Easter Egg Tree

Sometime back I speculated that knowing the name of a thing can be an obstacle to seeing it. But knowing the names of things can also induce us to look more carefully. "We see with our categories," said the infamous Wendell Johnson. The quote is usually invoked to suggest that categories can be limiting, but if we cannot but see with our categories, perhaps the best we can do is to have more and better categories.

After reading The Cloudspotter's Guide, I started taking more notice of clouds (which London skies are seldom without). Since I took up beekeeping, I look more carefully at bee-like flying insects: that is how I recently realised that a "bee" I photographed on a trek 8 years ago was in fact a hoverfly exhibiting Batesian mimicry.

In 2010, I summed up my attitude to trees as follows:
I like trees in the abstract, but regrettably, I know little about them. Which is to say, when I see a tree, I appreciatively say to myself, “Ah, a tree,” and I leave it at that. But I can’t help feeling a twinge of envy for people who can spot and identify trees, and who, even while strolling through a city street, sometimes remark upon an unusual tree, or point out a commonplace one and mention some interesting attribute.
This state of affairs persisted more or less unchanged until last month. Then, inspired by some tree identification walks and lectures I attended during London Tree Week, I decided to educate myself. Accordingly, in the last couple of weeks I have been skiving off work for an hour or two in the afternoon, trying to identify trees around our university campus with the help of a field guide.

A short walk from our campus is a street called India Place. I have been there many times, as it is home to the High Commission of India in London, so I cannot have failed to see the two handsome trees at its northern end.


Only today did I really notice them. I was also able to identify the species: Koelreuteria paniculata – common name: Pride of India.

I felt like I had stumbled upon an anonymous town-planner's Easter egg. Happy solstice, everyone!