Sunday, November 09, 2008

Merits of the Middle

I'm as pleased as millions of others around the globe about the anointment of Obama. All those weeks of watching the polls anxiously whilst hissing at the perceived distortions of the right wing media. As I've been telling my colleagues, British politics is too boring simply because everyone has moved to the centre, and so you can't really tell the Tories much apart from Labour. It's polarization that makes politics fun, and American politics surely offers that. In life in general, I firmly believe that all truth lies generally somewhere in the middle, but then the truth ain't always much fun!

However, moving back to the merits of the middle, the race aspect that seems to please most people in the Obama case is that a black man made it to the presidency. Terrific as that is, I am more chuffed about the fact that a bi-racial person became president. I once took an ecological modelling class with a famous professor called Bruce Hannon, who firmly believed that human salvation lay in inter-racial relationships. I remember him marvelling at the genetic mix of a girl in our class who was half-Chinese and half-Mexican. I too silently cheer everytime I see a pale arm entwined with a dark one, or an oriental head resting on a latin shoulder. Whether it is inter-racial or inter-religious or simply inter-national, surely there is no better symbol of crumbling walls!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

In Bruges (and out quickly, thank god)

Ghent and Bruges, Belgium

A long gap since my last blog, but since I talk to myself all the time and this blog is just a variation on that theme, nothing much lost. The only difference is that the blog serves as a diary of sorts, and I'm sure it'll help me turn the nostalgia tap on down the road.

The highlight of August was a trip to Ghent, Belgium, with a detour to Bruges thrown in. What a relief to be able to take the Eurostar and not go through more tiresome airport routines. Ghent was charming, the sun was out, and Bee was with me, and so it was just splendid. All canals, cobbled streets and confectionery. We expected picture postcard in Bruges, and we got picture postcard, only with a zillion tourists flashing V signs at the camera. I for one was happy to beat a retreat to the less celebrated but surely more lovable Ghent.

And oh, there was the minor matter of attending a conference at Ghent. But that is always secondary to the town it is held in.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Going, going...

It seems that green spaces and black rhinos are not the only endangered things. Second-hand bookstores are quietly disappearing across the UK. I read of this somewhere, and had to restrain myself from weeping openly. For, if you're into books at all, there is no greater joy than stepping into the cool confines of a second-hand bookstore, delighting in the musty whiff of a thousand dog-eared old volumes, and proceeding to crane your neck for the next hour in search of a hidden gem or two. When the admirable Keegan's bookshop in Reading closed down a year ago, I felt genuine anguish given that three fourths of my books hail from there. I remember well the hardbound copy of 'Portnoy's Complaint' for 50 pence, and the terrific Rabbit trilogy by John Updike appealingly offered at a throw-down £1.50. Even in London, the former second-hand book haven at Charing Cross, the part near Leicester Square tube, seems to be shrinking. There are only three or four shops left, thankfully including my favourite, 'Any amount of books' (seen above). If, as foreshadowed by the arrival of twenty-twenty cricket, test cricket dwindles into endangered territory too, I have marked out a shop in Lambeth where I can buy a handgun (which, it seems, are definitely not endangered) to take care of the needful. That said, my recent discovery of the sensationally good 'Blossom book store' in Bangalore has somewhat restored my faith.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Spleen venting

One of the readers of my blog (I am the other one) emailed me the other day to remark on how I seemed to display a uniformly sunny disposition in my jottings. Don' t you have any bile to expend, he queried. Fear not gentle reader, I only refrain from bilious outpourings because I am afraid that once started I will not be able to stop. So let me see, what are some of my least favourite things?

I have to start with something that riles me at every one of my gym visits - troglodytes who occupy pieces of exercise equipment for ages. A 10 second exercise burst, followed by an extended bout of relaxing on the machine, another 10 second burst and so on. I recall having to wait close to 30 minutes for a machine to free up during one visit. I came perilously close to hurling a dumbell in the general direction of the chap's head, only I couldn't lift one more than waist-high.

Ok, now that I have loosened up. House/Techno and most other forms of dance music. Night-clubs. DJs (I mean, who ARE these guys anyway; why do they get paid enormous amounts of money to spin records and mix bad music that they didn't even create themselves?). Mobile phones (although I do own one). Inconsiderate *@##& who use up seats on crowded trains by placing their briefcases on the seats next to them. Friends. I mean the TV show, and all the characters in it (I would love nothing more dearly than to watch a movie where Freddie from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies or Jason from Halloween takes a chainsaw to the occupants of the Friends house). Quentin Tarantino movies. The fact that it is considered cool to like Quentin Tarantino movies. Cars. Talking about car models and makes. Any dish that mixes sweet flavours with sour/spicy/salty ones. Pineapple on pizza (which genius thought of that one?). Pigeons. Spitters. Litter louts. Those who write in library books. Celebrities. Big Brother. Celebrity Big Brother.

Ok, I reckon I'd best turn the tap off now.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

And the music never stops

I happened to glance at my CD rack the other day and realised that I hadn't played any of my CDs for over a year. I remember a time when I was quite proud of my CD collection, and now I can barely remember it exists. The main reason, of course, is the quite dramatic expansion in online music availability over the last few years. It is amazing that access is practically unlimited, at costs approaching zero if you are little inventive and not too hung up on pristine sound quality. I usually either have the streaming grateful dead channel, or my Yahoo customized radio station on. Both are absolutely free, and the latter has an astonishing catalogue. Nor am I plagued with adverts on these. With the Yahoo station, I have a preferred list of artistes (Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Louis Armstrong, Modern Jazz Quartet, Milt Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, you get the drift) and the player throws up random selection from these and similar acts in the genre. Amazing stuff, there is barely any repetition. The best part is, I get to record these off my sound card using a simple piece of software that cost me £20. So now I have a massive mix of miscellaneous setlists for when I am offline. Until last year, I was also subscribing to the MSN music jukebox service. It let me play full albums on demand, at the cost of 1p per track. Actually buying the track cost 30p per, but why would you want to do that when you could play it fo 1p and record off the sound card perfectly legally?! I subscribed and recorded until my hard drive was bursting at the seams!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Eavesdropping on the great and the good

A favourite pasttime of mine, typically when I have a few minutes while biting into my mozzarella sandwich at lunch, is to haunt the websites of great academic departmental and personal websites. There is a vicarious thrill in observing day-to-day life in esteemed institutions - the CVs of legends, nobel laureates scheduled to give seminars, etc. A great examples of this is the website of the mathematics department at Princeton University. You go to the page and scroll down, seeking that one name, and reach a modest space with no photo and a single link to 'bibliography'. That's all there is about the dead-set genius that is Andrew Wiles. Andrew Wiles! The chap who proved the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture, and thereby cracked the seemingly insurmountable last theorem of Pierre de Fermat! One is at a loss for words to describe the magnitude of his achievement. Perhaps Professor Wiles felt similarly tongue-tied, and that is the reason for the information on him extending only to a simple 2 page pdf file of his 22 publications, including among them the modest-sounding, 'Modular Elliptic Curves and Fermat’s Last Theorem, Annals of Mathematics, 141, (1995), 443-551'.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Boys of Summer

This is the time when you get to look heavenward and thank your stars you got to be an academic. The academic year has folded to a close, the campus has emptied out apart from graduate students, and the mind-numbingly boring elements of the profession such as grading, marking and attending examiners meetings are done and dusted for the time being. Three tantalising months of immersion in your reserach questions stretch ahead of you. You actually bound out of bed in the morning, looking forward to that exciting-looking paper you've set aside for reading, or the prospect of getting your econometric estimates to converge satisfactorily during the day. There are no appointments of any kind to annoy and distract, just the developing embryo of your next paper and you. You walk across campus for lunch, absent-mindedly observing the ducks while ruminating on the latest set of estimates. How do I fix that troublesome referee comment I can already see coming? Returning from lunch, a germ of an idea forms - why not try first-differencing the equations? Your steps quicken in light excitement and you can't wait to get back and see what those three extra lines of code might throw up. Certainly a time of the year when you wouldn't want to trade with any other profession!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tea River

Bangkok, Thailand

This time around, we haven't had the time or energy to cast out on to the Chao Phraya river by which we once lived. This is of course, the monsoon season, and a particularly good time to visit the river since runoff from the hills upstream turns the river the colour of a cup of Yorkshire tea with a dollop of milk in it. Many a time have we sipped cups of Yorkshire's finest from our balcony perched right atop the river, while watching a mirror image in the river below. The first picture above shows the river in its monsoon garb, while the second below shows the balcony from we which enjoyed the stunning panoramic views.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

There's no such thing as refusing a free lunch

Emirates Lounge, Dubai International Airport

Off on a short trip to, you guessed it, Thailand. Just arrived here from London, awaiting my connection to Bangkok at the frequent flyer lounge. The flight was tolerable. Emirates has a great entertainment system, with about a hundred movies and a large number of TV programmes available on demand for 'free' at every seat. The problem is, I've flown Emiratres so frequently that I've watched a large proportion of the programmes that I do care to watch. Seeing me scroll repeatedly through the choices, an Indian lady seated next to me eagerly pointed out where I could find the latest Bollywood movies. However, I absolutely detest most Bollywood fare. I politely thanked her and settled for a repeat viewing of a Scrubs episode.

The frequent flyer lounge is a pretty good place. They do great warm and cold food - plenty of pasta, cheese, halloumi sandwiches, fruits and vegetables, etc. etc. I'm always intrigued by how everyone absolutely gorges themselves when offered 'free' food, whether on the flight or at the lounge. No one seems to refuse the tiniest cracker. Plates in the lounge seem heaped well beyond the point of zero marginal utility for the average person. Sauce drips down mouths as belts are loosened. God forbid one should miss out on yet another slice of cheesecake. I often try to sleep through red-eye flights, taking care to carefully affix the 'Do not disturb' sticker to my seat. Yet, almost every single time, the hostess will wake me to offer me food. Jaws drop when I weakly smile and say I am passing on the grub. The hostess stiffens and proceeds flight deckwards, doubtless to report to the captain that passenger Shankar is behaving rather suspiciously.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Amazon offered some great deals a few months back, and I snapped up three Woody Allen movies for £10 - Mighty Aphrodite, Crimes and Misdemeanours, and Husbands and Wives. The first I had not seen before, and the last two I first saw such a long time back that I remembered little. It must be the best £10 I ever spent. These movies are really just collections of conversations woven around themes concerning marital relationships, guilt and middle-age crises. But they are absolutely riveting.

As a jazz fan, Woody's films are especially dear to me, as the soundtracks invariably contain some exquisite pieces married perfectly to on-screen happenings (for example, 'You made me love you' by the Harry James Orchestra in 'Hannah and Her Sisters' comes in just as Michael Caine is shown ducking out on to a Manhattan street to make a rendezvous with his lover. For reasons hard to describe, the tune matches the scene brilliantly).

The inconsistency of genius is the hardest bit for a fan to take. Woody has also obviously made some real clangers - Cassandra's Dream to name one. You wonder how someone who could rise to the dizzying heights of 'Manhattan' could wallow in the dank depths of 'Curse of the Jade Scorpion'! Thankfully, 'Match Point' seemed to indicate some sort of return to form (although some critics hated it, and it was somewhat surprisingly plot-oriented for a Woody film). Here's to the hope of a born-again Woody!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Let it grow

Mint, Coriander, Chilli (Cayenne as well as Jalapeno), Tomato - that's going to be the crop for this year. The exotics like Okra and Aubergine have been given up as pipe dreams. They asked for hot and dry, and we could only guarantee cold and wet. We offered partly cloudy and 50% chance of showers, but they wouldn't bite. Given their dismal performance last year, we finally took all offers off the table.

Planting has been delayed due to travel, which is a bit of a bother. But the tomato seedlings have germinated already, although the chillis are taking their own time. It's a strange thing; you can always buy some of these plants at a slightly grownup stage for not much money, but that's not nearly as fascinating as watching them go through their entire life cycles.

Days have already grown considerably long. I am already able to take the shortcut through the woods back from work even at 7:30 p.m. The woodpeckers in the woods are really hammering away rat-a-tat-a-tat for their spring worms. You can hear the sweet crack of cricket bat hitting ball as you pass open fields. Everyone seems just a little bit more cheerful with all the regeneration in the air.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Detour

Bangalore and Madras, India

Just back in the UK after finishing off a last leg of travel in India. The pace of change there is dizzying. Materially, there is virtually nothing you cannot get anymore in India. But all the old neighborhoods are gone, apartment blocks are everywhere, and the traffic jams look set to rival legendary Bangkok. Yet, as they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. An upcountry weekend break with family shows clearly that relatively little has changed in the hinterland. Lying on hammocks at night by the riverside, we watch the night sky heave with stars, a visual treat that one seldom gets to enjoy in Northern Europe. Fireflies provide a parallel show at ground level. Hidden between the layers, the India I knew still exists, it only takes much more looking for.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Hibernation mode

Khon Kaen, Thailand

I am a hermit and this flat is my cave. Since the weather is hot outside and I don’t have a means of transport when Bee is at work, sometimes days may pass before I venture outside. The laptop is up all day, and I get to chip away at accumulated work without much distraction.

It is a tiny third floor flat in a concrete block in a row of identical concrete blocks. I suppose it sounds like one of those horrendous Stalinist apartment buildings ubiquitous across Eastern Europe, but thanks to the Thai touch, it is spotlessly tidy and very cheerful. The rains have arrived rather early this year. Around sundown, more often than not, clouds gather, frown darkly for an extended period, and then let loose a tremendous deluge. It never drizzles as in the UK, it only ever pelts down in fury.

I am out of touch with the semi-communal living of such blocks, but staying here brings many childhood memories back. Always, the sounds – someone splashing water on themselves from a bucket next door, the vegetable vendor playing an electronic tune to announce himself, the children laughing and screaming up and down the stairs. In Asia, you are never alone, and it is sometimes quite a comforting thing.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

On the road again

Khon Kaen, Thailand

At it again, my trusty laptop and I. My tattered passport overflows with Thailand entry and exit stamps, and so it is difficult to tell exactly, but I calculate that this is my 21st trip to the land of smiles. Considering my average trip here lasts 3 to 4 weeks, it is hard to tell which place I should call home.

Two days of work in Bangkok. If there is one thing you can count on in this unpredictable world, it is that Bangkok will always have yet another impossibly glitzy shopping mall coming up in the Siam Square area. The streets are teeming and the weather is ridiculously hot. I note with interest, and not a little glee, that the forecast for Sunday is Max 4C and snow in London, and 34C and wall to wall sunshine in Bangkok.

A coach trip to Khon Kaen. We could have flown, at £40 apiece, but decide to try the £8 coach that gets you to Khon Kaen in 6 hours. Only the Thais could provide such outstanding value for £8 (which is what I pay as cab fare from home to Reading station). The air-conditioned coach has private entertainment screens in front of every seat, with a range of movies (with both Thai and English audio options) and games (I learn to play Super Mario World). Each seat has a dozen settings and can give you a back massage. The road versus skies equation never looked better.

Ensconced in Bee’s tiny but much-loved flat in Khon Kaen University, writing this at 3:00 am in the throes of the usual jet lag.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


'If you hear that same sweet song again, will you know why?
Anyone who sings a tune so sweet is passing by'

I had noted last week that I was yet to hear the blackbird sing this young year, but that has since been put right by a lovely chap I found hopping and cooing in my backyard this morning. I know that I tend to go on a bit about the blackbird's song, but truly, there is no sound that gladdens the heart more. William Henley said it much better than I ever could:

The nightingale has a lyre of gold,
The lark's is a clarion call,
And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute,
But I love him best of all.
For his song is all of the joy of life,
And we in the mad, spring weather,
We two have listened till he sang
Our hearts and lips together

Yes, the joy of life sounds about right. If you have real audio, you can hear a sample here.

I would love for the interloper in my garden to stay and sing all season, but Robert Hunter speaks the truth, anyone who sings a tune so sweet is only passing by.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Here comes the sun

It is early March, and there is the faintest whiff of spring in the air. I know, it was only last week that a light snow could be seen falling, and the temperature is still hovering in the early teens. However, the daffodils are already reprising their role as harbringers of spring, and the birds can clearly feel it coming in the air. It is too early yet for the blackbird to fill the air with its liquid tones, but a pair of Robins have already started raiding my backyard for tufts of grass to line their nest.

As spring approaches, a man's thoughts inevitably turn to his garden. Long someone who held gardening in about as much esteem as outdoor jogging or taking long walks in the countryside on weekends (very low, to clarify), I was converted last year and found myself browsing seed catalogs and devising devious methods to keep the evil pigeons off my cherry tomatoes. With the resounding success of my green chilli crop last year (see picture), the plan is to double the metrage this year, moving along from the increasing returns to scale spot that I currently inhabit on the chilli production function. Chilli is also a patently risk-reducing crop choice, since the squirrels, pigeons and myriad other pests won't go anywhere near it. Given the relatively low labour requirements in growing it, and the daily demand for it in my kitchen, chilli is just about a perfect crop for me. I reckon I'll also have the usual tomatoes and various flowers, but cut out the attempts at exotics like okra and aubergine this year. However, all planting will have to wait until I return from Thailand and India in April.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Happiness is a roomful of books

I have a recurrent happy dream, and it looks something like like this picture on the RHS. What a delightful idea, a staircase that doubles as a bookcase, leading up to a reading room! The only change I would make to this design would be to arrange for a couple of cushions on some corners of this stair/bookcase, so that, if you happen upon a book you wish to investigate further, you could just browse then and there in comfort.

I have a modest collection of about 300 books now (not counting academic volumes at my office), but have ambitions of some day owning 10 times more. Sadly, homes in the UK are not cut out for such large collections. Given the astronomical house prices, space comes at a hefty premium, and it is unrealistic to harbour ambitions of storing and displaying large collections. That will have to wait for later, much later - retirement! Bee and I have idly spoken of building our dream place in Khon Kaen, her hometown. Projects like these would be much more viable there, where you can make homes to order without parting with an arm and a leg. Someday!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Speaking in tongues

The daily language lab rolls on indefinitely. I've been juggling Thai and French for the past couple of years - 15 minutes a day, everyday. 3 days of Thai and then 3 days of French and so on. With both languages, I had a period of initial formal lessons; Thai for 2 years at SOAS in London, and French for a year right here at my University. Here is what I have learnt about optimal language learning:
(i) For the first couple of years, formal classes are a must. One really needs help with those formidable initial hurdles - scripts, basic grammar rules, etc. Brave is the person taking this on without expert help.
(ii) After the initial couple of years, you can plough on on your own. Progress will not be as fast as it would be with a formal class structure, but it is possible if you are disciplined. 15 minutes a day is really all you need, but this has to be more or less everyday. Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate. Keep going back to the same lessons and repeating them. It is very tempting to keep pushing for new lessons, but really only a quarter of the new material will stick in one's mind after a couple of weeks pass. Hence the critical role of revision and consolidation.
(iii) Following on from the last part of (ii), it is a pre-requisite to be extremely bloody-minded and infintely patient. On average, my estimate is that it takes at least 5 years of consistent input to get moderately comfortable with a European language, and closer to 10 years for a non-European one. I have found French so much easier than Thai, and that should really not be surprising.

The Thai language is curious. It is one of the most economical languages around. It favours short words of one, or two syllables at most, using minor variations in vowel attachments and tones to weave a whole language out of a small number of basic sounds. But it is precisely this economy that makes it a deuce of a difficult language to learn. About 10% of the Thai language derives from Sanskrit - these are typically the longer, fancier words. I can usually guess the meaning of these words, for obvious reasons. I can also remember them relatively easy, because they are typically distinct from one another and fancy in their construction. But it the 90% set of small devils that frustrate me to no end.

Why learn them at all? Surely one can make do with English? Yes, I think so, even in Thailand. But learning languages has ceased being utilitarian to me, and has become pleasurable for it's own sake - a hobby, in other words. Much like running is for some people. I would personally never run more than is absolutely necessary to keep myself fit. But I can understand that running is not just utilitarian for many (although the question always nags away at me: but don't you find it spectacularly boring?!)

Thai and French will keep me going for a while. I have idly contemplated Chinese for the distant future, but I think it is going to be a bridge too far! Perhaps Spanish, although I consider acquiring another European language as a bit of cheating once you have a couple under your belt already.

One will lose most newly learnt languages without constant practice. In fact, even languages that one has known forever depreciate somewhat over time. My Tamil becomes shaky every now and then, sometimes embarassingly so (although my Hindi has not depreciated quite as much, curiously).

All the hard work really pays off when you see that squiggly sign while travelling in rural Thailand, and are able to make out what it says. You feel strangely proud to have deciphered 'Do not use, Toilet broken'!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Old Friends and Bookends

It's been a year of getting back in touch with some rather fine amigos from the past. Like many others, I get all misty eyed every new year's eve when the chorus breaks into anglicised Robert Burns:

'And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
And surely I’ll buy mine !
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.'

Usually, the sentiments drain away with the pint cup and the new year reveals itself to be much like the old year, except with more work and more commitments and less contact than ever with auld lang syne.

However (and this is very possibly an early indicator of mid-life crisis), I've lately been feeling the urge to reconnect with the past more than ever. An Xmas card from me resulted in a long letter from an old chum. I've also tracked down and emailed others after years.

They say you can never go back there again. It is true that sometimes these reconnections work - you meet old Joe Blog after 10 years and the two of you pick up over a pint like you had never left off. In other cases, the magic has sadly slipped away with the tide of settings and contexts. You talk a little bit of old stories and how mad things had been, you spin the meeting out with more yarns, you find yourself reverting to the same story you had reminisced about half an hour back, and you can feel the link fading steadily.

No matter. 'Time it was, and what a time it was'!