Tuesday, February 13, 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, January 28, 2018


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

Tuesday, January 16, 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, January 1, 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.

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!