Some weeks ago I noticed that junk calls from telemarketers was decreasing in frequency. I put this fortunate circumstance down to the pandemic. After all, these immense telemarketing operations are super-spreading venues, and must have been closed down. I suppose that meant that some of these jobs went into a gig economy. I guess that the extreme incoherence of some recent telemarketers, and the high levels of background noise in their calls could be due to this. Now the market has stabilized again, not due to vaccines, but because of automation. Today I was woken in the morning by an automated telemarketer.

I always fall into the bullshit. Why?
Socks on in bed—the devil is a lie.


Travel agents were losing business for a while, and the pandemic has killed them off. Retailers have bounced back, but not exactly to where they used to be. Online marketing has taken on a larger share of the market, and the pandemic has moved a larger number of people into delivery gigs. A couple of times I opened the door for a delivery and saw a man older than me. I wonder what their stories are. Sudden loss of a job? Death of the main bread-earner in the family? While this low-paying job market seems poised for growth, how long will it be before delivery is further automated? The gig economy is a passing phase: it is the automation of shops and customer service counters. Now the automation is reaching deeper: right into the service being provided. The pandemic provides a window where accepting this change becomes easier.

Yet in a circle, pallid as it flow
By this bright sun, with his light display,
Rolled from the sands, and half the buds of snow,
And calmly on him shall infold away.


Complicated jobs requiring simultaneously human judgement and manual work have been automated: for example, large cargo ships now run with crews of ten or so. My two cataract operations at the end of last year were performed, in about fifteen minutes each, by a robot which calmly intoned the purpose of each part of the process before beginning on it. I found it soothing. The doctor was in the operation theater and supervising, but it will not be many years before she is redundant. How long before the rest of the chain around her is also automated? Perhaps you will get your glasses from a vending machine in a few years. And instead of me, an artificial neural network will be writing these posts.

Lakshman Jhula

When I was a child I listened to my granduncle describe how he spent a vacation walking from Uttarkashi to Rishikesh. The one thing that stuck in my mind was that he crossed the Ganga at Lakshman Jhula on a swaying bridge more than 20 meters above the water. In my mind the bridge he described was mixed up with a 19th century bridge here which was made of ropes, and crossing this bridge became my touchstone for adventure. I went to see the bridge a couple of times later. When you see the same thing again, it seems to become mundane. So it was good to see it with fresh eyes, those of The Family.

We drove up from Rishikesh along the right bank to the village of Tapovan and parked the car. The sun was still pretty high up, so we thought of sitting down for a coffee until the day was a little cooler. Two decades ago I’d found a nice German cafe near the bridge, serving warm rolls fresh out of an oven. We looked for it, but it had changed hands a long time ago, and looked very characterless now. It had a good view, so we took the time to take a few photos. We found a more interesting cafe in the large marketplace which has sprung up here in the twenty years since my last visit, and waited the sun out. What we didn’t know was that the ninety year old bridge is officially closed for almost two years. In early July of 2019 the state government closed the bridge and declared that they would build a new one a little way downstream.

When we walked up to the bridge there was sign saying DANGER, but crowds streamed past it. There was no sign saying that the bridge is officially closed or condemned. We crossed, stopping on the bridge that my granduncle had crossed a lifetime ago, to take photos upstream towards the mountains from which the Ganga descends, downstream where a raft was headed back to town from the white waters upstream. The sun was setting behind Tapovan village, giving it a nice halo. Jonk village, the east bank was bathed in a wonderful golden light. It was no longer possible to walk along the river, as I had done on an earlier trip here.

Hardly any of the locals wore a mask. Barely 5 kilometers away, in Rishikesh, areas of town were being sealed into quarantine as the pandemic struck, but the lives of the locals had not changed. The road was not too crowded, and we were masked, so I did not think we were particularly in danger that day. Most masked people seemed to be tourists. Of course, even among them there were those who were not masked, such as the white-water rafters in the Ganga. I chatted with the vegetable vendor, his vegetables here come from Haridwar. There were no takers for the chai or the chana. People seemed to prefer sugarcane juice. We took our photos and walked back the 140 meters to the village on the other bank, crossing the river 20 meters up in the air.

Greening the red

Electric buses have been visible on Mumbai’s roads in the last few months. The plans seems to be to put 340 electric buses on the road by early next year. That is about 10% of the fleet. Quite a fraction of the new buses seem to have been deployed already. I haven’t been in one yet, but they are supposed to have 60 seats, and space for 30 standees (there’s another version with 25 seats). A friendly new feature is a mechanism to lift wheel chairs into the bus, or lower them to the road.

Yesterday my taxi was held up for a minute while this but backed into a parking bay on a narrow road. I clicked the photo you see here, and looked up the technical specifications. In normal use the engine uses about 150 KW from a Lithium battery which stores 186 KWh of energy. That rating should give nearly 100 hours of run. I suppose the reality is more restrictive, because according to the BEST (Brihan-Mumbai Electric Supply and Transport corporation) press handout, the batteries are supposed to last 200 Kms on city roads in a single charge. The bus is fully electric, from start to stop, and has no clutch or gear control. The company lists in-bus utilities like charging points for users and WiFi on the go, but the BEST press release does not mention them. I guess I will have to check these out when I ride the buses.

I was surprised to find that these buses have already run over 4 million Kilometers on city roads, in various cities. There are hybrid electric buses already running on intercity routes. These are the visible results of the government’s scheme, FAME, for Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric vehicles in India, started in 2015. If these emission-free and (relatively) noise-free buses turn out to have a lifetime of 15 years, like the older buses on the roads, then it will be a rather nice and big change.

Counting the days

Finally, the tickets are booked. I’m looking forward to a trip through the Himalayas again. Wonderful views would be great, but no views, just fog, is also welcome.

There are very few things I want in life (only about a hundred and forty seven), and the pandemic has taught me to seek a balance between them.

Rally on Republic Day

There are several things that happen around now in most years: many classical music concerts, the Mumbai Marathon, and (my favourite spectator sport) the vintage car rally. Unfortunately none of them are happening this year. So here are some photos from a past rally, ten years ago.

Have a fun republic day.

PPE pollution

We’ve all been very happy with the decreased soot and dust in the air and the lower level of noise pollution. The anxiety of having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic makes these positive changes great things to hold on to. Unfortunately, as life starts again, this will go back to normal. The immense economic disruption that the whole world has gone through will mean that little money will be left to improve soot emissions in the short term. And then there is one invisible bit of pollution which will spread even more. That is the disposable PPE. Already, for several years now, pollution from single use plastics was a major concern. Now we will begin to add more to it. Airports are producing a lot of this every day as air travel has opened up again; market places are full of it too. The Family took a photo of her hairdresser in a disposable kit. This is an indicator that there will be wider use of such things as the economy opens up again.

Fortunately, some people have taken notice. There is a very timely paper from a team of chemists in Dehra Dun who test a solution to this problem. They reduce this to a fuel which is similar to industrial diesel. The simple process was proven in other contexts, and is not new. Another nice thing about this process is that the plastics don’t have to be separated. One can take entire garbage bags full of the kits and use them as starters. So there is a problem, there is a solution. What is needed next is to take this out of the lab and into the world. That needs economic and political will.

A fun show

At one end of Wuhan’s Han Street entertainment area is the Han Show Theatre. Modeled after Chinese red lanterns, the architects Steven Chilton and Marc Fisher (who was the director of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics) created a theatre that made it difficult not to have my jaw drop. What looks at first sight like a grandiose stage swings away to create a deep swimming pool. The front seats draw back from the pool area. Behind the immense stage three screens descend to form a backdrop on which videos play.

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I got to see the Han Show, crafted by the Belgian theatre director Franco Dragone. While watching the spectacular acrobatics and aquatics show I thought to myself that this was the Cirque du Soleil on a really grand Chinese scale. I was happy to find later that I was not mistaken; Dragone was one of the creators of the Cirque du Soleil. Given a 2.5 billion RMB investment from the Wanda group, the architects and directors created a ninety minute show that leaves you with a great big smile on your face.

At a late point in the show I realized that I did not have to take stills. So here is a video of a part of the show that was fun. Not as impressive as the forty meter high dive (one of the photos in the slide show above), but great fun.

Train to Nanjing

One of the things I like to do in China is to take a train, the high speed G train (高速动车组列车, Gāosù dòngchē, or simply Gāotie). I took one such from Wuhan to Nanjing and back. Amazingly, the train sustained a speed of 247 Kilometers an hour for a substantial portion of its 500 plus kilometer route. The result is that the two and a half hour run easily beats a car or a plane for its convenience. From the first time I took a Gao train, I’ve been impressed by its stability: a bottle of water set on a table in front of you barely has ripples on its surface.

In the early 90s, when China started developing its own high speed trains, the average speeds of Chinese trains were 48 Kilometers an hour; as a result cars and flights had begun to carry larger fractions of long-distance traffic. But now, with the fast trains, everything’s changed. There are no direct flights between Wuhan and Nanjing, for example. With over two thirds of the world’s fast trains, Gaotie is China’s contribution to green travel.

In keeping with this marvelous achievement, the new train stations are monumental (see the entrance to the Nanjing South station in the photo above). Since I planned my travel to maximize my time in Nanjing, I found it very convenient to find a marketplace inside the station where I could buy dinner before getting on to the train.

Sober cold stone

You enter the Hagia Sophia from the narthex on the west, so that the first thing you see when you step into the square naos is the immense apse right in front of you. It is difficult to tear your eyes away from it, but it is worthwhile later to come back to this place and look at what was behind you. The beautiful west gallery above you is fabulously decorated with mosaics and a carved stone railing between elegant pillars (featured photo). The gallery had collapsed in an earthquake in 989 CE, and the portion which was rebuilt has painted plaster instead of the mosaics of the rest of the interior. You can tell this easily by the fact that the paint is beginning to peel.

The details on the pillars are amazing. I brought my camera down to the pillars that hold up this curved gallery simply because it is there. Time and invaders have been kind to this part of the structure. The details are as razor sharp as they would have been 1500 years ago when they were freshly chiseled out. It is hard to remember that the use of regular geometric floral motifs was deliberate: it would be faster to do this repeatedly.

Above the Imperial Door in the middle of the western wall is this small stone inlay panel. I’m fairly certain that this must have symbolic meaning, but neither my audio guide, nor any references throw any light on it. I could remain ignorant for ever, or I could toss this question out to you (o gentle reader). What is the symbolism in this panel?

In the south eastern corner of the naos the light was much better. The carved capitals of the pillars were as breathtaking as the black, white, and red inlay work in the wall next to it. But all this was outshone by the mosaic above the pillar, with its large fields of gold. This is stone on fire, heady, breathtaking; quite the opposite of stone cold sober.

On another wall we came across panels of marble: Afyon marble, white with purple patches, alternating with Carian marble, red with white flakes. Between the panels ran a band of Tunisian marble with its dark veins running through reddish white. The light from the large windows lit up this wall and the gold tesserae of mosaic above it.

The cubicle that you can see in the photo above is the library of Sultan Mahmud I. We looked through the golden grille in the southern vestibule which separated it from the rest of the space. My audioguide did not warn me to spend time looking at the railing above it, which you can see in this photo. This railing is decorated with a repeating pattern of regular nonagons (nine-sided polygons). Constructing regular nonagons with compass and ruler is an ancient problem, and its solution presented in this railing was a statement about the mathematical prowess of the architect, Mimar Sinan. I must remember to take a close look at it the next time I visit this museum.

Let me end this post with a photo taken in the south gallery, one level above this. Again you see the wonderful carved capitals of the pillars similar to those in the featured photo. The complexity of the mosaic above the pillars is astounding for something made in the 6th century CE. Beyond it you can see part of the central dome, with the some of the forty windows which run around its base, and the forty ribs which support it. This was the main innovation of Isidore the Younger when the dome was re-erected in 563 CE, five years after the earthquake which destroyed the original dome.

Stress and buttress

I was trying to get a close look at the western turrets added to the Hagia Sophia in the 16th century CE by Mimar Sinan (featured photo) when I realized that I was looking at four buttresses to the church. I stepped back a little to photograph them in their entirety (below) and realized that they were actually flying buttresses. I’d thought that they were invented in the 12th century in France, so this surprised me.

Hagia Sophia is remarkably stable, given the frequency of earthquakes in Istanbul. Over 1500 years, the dome has had to be rebuilt only twice. A large part of this stability is due to the geometric design of the dome, with its supporting half domes built atop a central square section. However, recent studies found that the improperly cured bricks and mortar miraculously make the structure stronger than properly cured bricks of the 6th century would have. This is likely to be an accident of the hurried construction of the church, rather than deliberate materials science, especially since this technique was not used in any other Byzantine structure. Even with this fortunate accident, the pressure of the huge dome would have caused the structure to collapse if it were not for buttresses added over the years.

The four flying buttresses on the western facade, which you see in the photo above, are remarkable. They look like they are, at least in part, made of the same material as the rest of the western facade. This was rebuilt in 994 CE, within five years of its collapse during the earthquake of 989 CE. So I wondered whether the flying buttress was invented by the Byzantines before the French. The older view is stated clearly in this paper from 1935, “… we can at once discard any hypothesis which would date these buttresses to the ninth century, for the simple reason that flying buttresses were unknown before the twelfth century”. This paper buttresses this erroneous reasoning with an aesthetic judgement that these four are different from “ungainly masses” which were erected by Byzantine and Turkish architects, and so must have been made by French engineers who arrived here during the Venetian occupation.

The modern view is different. Flying buttresses have been discovered in buildings in Cyprus which were buried in the 8th century CE, well before its reinvention in France. So these buttresses which puzzled me could have been a Byzantine construction from the 10th century CE. In a structure as old as the Hagia Sophia, one seldom has a clear answer to questions of provenance unless there is contemporary documentation. For these four there is none, although the circumstantial evidence is that the buttresses are about a thousand years old. This raises the inverse question, could the engineering idea of flying buttresses, which began to be used from the 12th century in western Europe, have been carried there from Byzantium?