Monday, December 31, 2018

Reading in 2018

This is the year in which I made one key change to my reading habit which was influenced by a post from Tim Urban titled ‘The Tail End’. The gist is the following. I manage to read at roughly the rate of a book a month, and I turned forty recently. So even if I live to be ninety, I’m going to read around 600 books more. Millions of books have been written and catalogued and there are thousands more to come in my lifetime, but the sobering conclusion is that I only have time left to read 600. That insight destroyed an enduring superstition that most booklovers seem to carry, which is to persist with a book once you have started it. This year I abandoned books ruthlessly but here are the ones I managed to complete.

Three remarkable books by three different authors hailing from different parts of the globe.
Though I started this piece with how limited my overall reading time is I still reread two classics for two reasons. First, the key to reading productivity is to read what you like and there’s no better test of likability than to know that you’ve read it once and liked it. Second, there’s always more value left to derive from the truly great classics. I read Slaughterhouse and 2001 nearly a decade after I first read them and it was as refreshing to read them now as I remember feeling back then. One thing to note was how little I remembered of the details in each of these books that I professed to like, and I now realise, the primary aim from good fiction is to be affected by it, and not to remember details.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Thoughts on Learning

Some random notes to myself on "Learning"
  • The brain is unlike a vat, or a hard disk, that has finite capacity. A closer metaphor is the Banyan tree, with each of the prop roots representing your grasp of the basics. Those props have to take root to allow you to learn more. In short, the more you learn, the more you can learn.
  • On a related note, effective learning happens when you weave a web of related knowledge. Islands of disconnected pieces of knowledge are less effective and more prone to fading. 
  • When you learn something, test yourself out to increase retention. If you can’t explain a concept in simple terms, you probably haven’t learnt it adequately yet. 
  • Bursts of learning are great (like completing a course, for instance) but don’t ignore the compounded effect of learning a mere 1% more, iteratively and consistently.
  • Success is almost directly attributable to how much you can learn.
P.S: This is not original. Almost all of the above are paraphrased from scattered sources. I just haven't had the discipline to save the links. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Cuyabeno, Ecuador

For me, one of the big attractions of Ecuador was a chance to see the Amazonia in all its remoteness. Our lodge was on the river Cuyabeno, a tributary of the Amazon three levels removed; Cuyabeno empties into the Aguarico, which then joins the Napo which finally meets the Amazon. Our journey to the lodge needed us to take a bus to a grimy town called Nueva Loja, and then from there another short bus ride to a jetty on an unmarked stream. A motorized canoe then took us through the bends and curves of the stream to the Cuyabeno. Three hours later as we navigated through some of the densest forests I’ve seen we reached our lodge. For a few hours we forgot that we were tourists buying a package tour and felt like true pioneers entering one of the last wildernesses. At the entrance of the clearing in which the lodge was nestled we had our reminder that there are no truly remote spots left on earth - we were greeted by a Bangladeshi tour guide.

AB, or Bangla as he was called by the rest of the staff, was to give us VIP treatment during our entire stay. He completely excused my broken hindi and insisted on speaking in only that tongue. You could tell that this was his way of communing with his motherland.

I benefited immensely from AB’s attention and knowledge of the ecosystem, not to mention from the excellent explanations of the local flora and fauna from our other guide, Diego, whose Spanish accent made every story more fascinating. There was something new to discover in every inch of this dense jungle. There were the ten species of monkeys which included the aptly named Pocket monkey, which happens to be the smallest primate species on earth. There was the shy Pink River Dolphin that would show up next to our canoe every now and then. There was the iconic Anaconda looking a few degrees less hyperactive than its Hollywood caricature. There was the two-toed sloth that was engaged in a lethargy competition with the Anaconda. Even the trees had their own idiosyncrasies. There was a tree that actually walks (well, over months) looking for clearings in the foliage. There’s another that has evolved highly acidic leaves to eliminate competition around it. The bugs were not to be left behind. There was a species of termite that does not bite, but sprays an insect repellant, as an adaptation to defend its home. You just had to put your hand in this termite’s mound to get a natural bugspray that keeps you safe from the other insects in the forest at least for the next couple of hours. Of course there were the birds, and they deserve a separate post!

Contrary to all the cautions we had received on the way here, we got three days of glorious sunshine. On the fourth day, on our canoe trip back to the base, we learned why this is called the rainforest. As the incessant rain poured down rivulets formed in the jungle floor and emptied into the Cuyabeno everywhere you looked, and the river had tangibly swelled in a matter of hours. You could tell this scene was getting repeated all across the Cuyabeno and the hundred other rivers that form the Amazon system. You could tell that the three dry days we had experienced were the anomaly and the raindrops dropping out of the sky in an endless outpour was business as usual. In a small way you could appreciate why this river system is so important to the health of this planet.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mindo, Ecuador

All of 3000 people live in the town. There’s exactly one main road. The maximum taxi fare from anywhere to anywhere is 2$ and, I believe, there’s enough margin built in into that fare. Mindo is that kind of small town.

What had brought us here was what lay just outside of the town, though. Mindo is tucked away in a valley in the famous cloud forests of Ecuador which are home to some dizzying number of species of birds. We stayed in a beautiful lodge called the Yellow House, which itself was in an estate that has some famous birding trails within it. The reputation, I realised, is well-deserved. I probably saw more number of species of birds here than in any other 3-day period in my life anywhere else I’ve travelled to. The pièce de résistance in the Yellow House was the breakfast table in the balcony where you could watch hummingbirds hovering metres from you while you have your eggs and coffee in the morning. (See my posts on the birds of Mindo, and one separate one on the hummingbirds I photographed there.)

In the three short days we spent there I got my fill of birds. What I hadn’t bargained for at all was how much I ended up liking the sleepy little town. We kept stumbling from one endearing episode to another but here’s my favorite one. It was the first day of May and we were spending our third day in town. May 1 is presumably a popular holiday and almost all of the restaurants were shut. We walked along the one main road in town looking for any place that would offer us a bite, and ended up at the little cafe in front of the bus stop where we had had lunch the previous afternoon. The hostess recognised us from our last visit and flashed a smile at us. We took that for a welcome and walked in. She said something long in Spanish which my recent short online course hadn’t equipped me to understand. From the non-verbal cues, though, I started to sense that she probably was trying to communicate something important. The hunger had clearly made my wife oblivious to such hints; she had picked up the menu and had started pointing at her picks. The hostess shook her head and started crossing off items on the menu with her finger. This session of charades lasted a while, and finally, looking visibly exasperated, she said “Only Burrito”. We were beggars that afternoon and we said we’ll take it. At this time only one other table was occupied with what looked like family members of the hostess who was serving us. When she came out with a bunch of burritos it finally dawned on us that the restaurant was closed for the day. She had figured it was easier to share the burritos that she had made for her family with us than explain to us that the kitchen was closed. Mindo is that kind of small town.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Farm Diary: The Mango Cultivars

Conventional wisdom says that Mango trees yield a big harvest every other season. I'm not sure what drives that behaviour, but since last summer was thin pickings, we were excited about the current season. Sure enough we had a bounty this time. The frequent rains this year also seem to have helped; the farm is green and fresh almost as it would look like in the early months of monsoon. With the trees still laden with the fruits I got a chance to inventory the various cultivars in our farm. The count is evenly split across the three main varieties.

1. Sindhura: This is the fruit that you are most likely to see in the juice centers across Bangalore. It tends to be smaller in size and the skin is fairly thin. One way to identify this cultivar is by the pinkish/reddish hue on the fruit before it ripens.
2. Raspuri: This is my favorite cultivar. Has a thick skin and is extremely juicy inside. It is pretty messy to eat, and some would say that's what is so much fun about this type.

3. Badami is the poor man's alphonso. The pulp is orangeish and has fewer fibres, so you don't have to floss at the end of a binge. Fetches the highest price in the local markets here.

While 90% of the trees in the farm belong to one of these dominant types there are some interesting oddball varieties.
4. Shiri: We have exactly one tree of this variety, that my caretaker calls Shiri but I can't seem to map it to any known cultivar, although it seems to resemble the Dasheri a little bit. The skin is thick, and the ripe fruit remains green on the outside. This type doesn't get any takers in the mandi, and so we end up taking most of them home. Thankfully, I love the taste so I have no complaints about the lack of demand in the market. 

5. Omelette: We have three or four trees of this variety. The picture doesn't convey a sense of proportion but this is a huge fruit, some individual fruits growing to as much as a kilogram in weight. They are used for making pickles. 

6. Naati: Finally, this one is a plebeian variety and goes unharvested every year. Looks like many of our trees are grafts, and you see this variety showing up on one section of some of the trees. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Turtles of Rushikulya - Mass nesting

Every February some mysterious force brings thousands of Olive Ridley turtles to this beach in Odisha, the very beach on which these turtles hatched some years ago. Last year, at this remote beach just south of where the river Rushikulya enters the Bay of Bengal, we saw the life-affirming sight of a million hatchlings crawl out of their nests in the sand and make it to the sea. This year we wanted to witness the mass nesting and we were lucky that on both nights we visited the beach, we got to witness large arribadas. While the visuals from last year, of the sands teeming with hatchlings, are still fresh in my memory, the sight of the imposing grownups covering the beach is even more dramatic. The mothers came in waves, headed straight to their chosen real estate, worked their rear flippers in surprisingly deft fashion to dig a square hole, dropped a hundred-odd eggs, filled the hole with sand, and patted the area down with their bellies before crawling back to the waters. The odd tourist here and there didn’t seem to deter their sense of purpose. At the risk of anthropomorphising, they almost seemed to be in a trance. I could have watched the scene all day, all week.

That day, on the beach, there was a specimen of another species who also seemed to be in a trance, and whose sense of determination rivalled that of the pregnant turtle mothers. Rabindranath Sahu has been working on the conservation of this turtle population in his area for years now, and you could tell that nights like these are his rapture. The size of the arribadas has been growing in this area, thanks in no small measure to the work of this man. As long as he stays in his trance, I know the turtles here will thrive.