The stories behind the numbers

I went to a Jesuit school and college in Calcutta; I was with them from 1966 to 1979. Wonderful times, times I look back upon with joy.

By the time I was in my early teens, I’d heard the story of Pheidippides many times. The literary/historical rites of passage embedded in Jesuit education in India. Pheidippides was firmly tucked in somewhere between Ghent to Aix and O Captain My Captain.

The first modern Olympics I experienced, vicariously and from afar, was the one held in Mexico City in 1968. We had no television at home, or for that matter anywhere in India. [It would be at least a decade before small black-and-white sets invaded, carrying, of all things, I Love Lucy. Hmmm. I passed].

Bob Beamon, Dick Fosbury, Jim Hines, Tommie Smith (and his Black Power salute), these were the names I remember from the Olympics in 1968. [I had fledgling ambitions to become a sprinter in those days. The less said of that the better. We all choose our heroes to suit ourselves].

By 1972 I was a glutton for things Olympic, aided and abetted by our class teacher, Mr Redden (otherwise known to us as Lalmurgi). He got us to make scrapbooks about the event. I remember marvelling at the standardised icons that began to appear that year for each event.

The tragic events of the massacre at the Olympic village overshadowed everything else about those Olympics, and the scrapbook projects were soon forgotten.

Before that, while working on the scrapbook, I was intrigued by how the Marathon was going to be run there. Apparently they’d designed the course to resemble that year’s Olympic mascot, Waldi.

Waldi,_Olympic_logo_1972.png

That caught my eye. Odd and interesting. But not as odd and interesting as the distance the athletes were meant to run. 26 miles 385 yards. 385 yards. Really? That kind of false precision bugged me, even as a teenager. So we were asked to believe that someone had measured the precise distance run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens some 2500 years ago and set it down to 26 miles and 385 yards. Pull the other one.

It continued to bug me. Therein lies a tale. Turns out that he wasn’t called Pheidippides, but might have been called Thersippus or Eukles, according to Wikipedia. [If you enjoy using Wikipedia please donate to them here]. Turns out that the non-Pheidippides person never ran from Marathon to Athens around the battle of Marathon, but may have been confused with a Phillipides who may have done that run — but not during the battle.

Trivia contests used to ask about the origins of the 385 yards, and the accepted answer was that the modern marathon used to be 26 miles, until the 1908 Olympics. That year, the marathon started at Windsor Castle (a stone’s throw from where I write this now) and ended at White City Stadium. [That marathon route remains popular with people living near Windsor Castle: they get into their cars and prepare to join athletic “battle” as they shop at Westfield, standing on the ruins of White City Stadium.]

Legend had it that the route designers made a classic mistake, and that the additional 385 yards were added very late on, to ensure that the race ended in front of the Royal Box. A case of droit du roi?

Turns out that isn’t quite true either. Apparently modern marathons used to be around 40km, give or take variations imposed by the route chosen, to try and model the distance between Marathon and Athens. The IAAF only standardised the distance in May 1921, and happened to use the exact distance of the 1908 London Olympics, 42.195km … or 26 miles 385 yards.

26 miles and 385 yards. Just a number. But with so many stories.

This week, I had the opportunity to delve into another number-story. During the India v England Fifth Test in Chennai, I noticed that the first five wickets to fall during the England 1st innings were all “caught”. So I went down one of my usual rabbit holes and meandered about, reading about concentrations and dispersions in ways to get out in a single innings. I’d grown up believing that there were only ten ways for a batsman to be given out while playing cricket.    The first five are easy and common: bowled, caught, leg before wicket, stumped, run out. The next five are harder and rarer: hit wicket, handled the ball, hit the ball twice, obstructing the field and timed out.

Turns out I was wrong. There is an eleventh. Retired out. Law 2.9(b). When we played cricket in school, “retired” used to mean “retired hurt” and was treated as a “not out”. The runs scored formed part of the batsman’s average, but the innings was considered complete but not out. That changed in 2001; I remember the match but missed the significance. Two Sri Lankan batsman, Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene, both “retired out” in a Test match against Bangladesh. That is, they walked off the pitch without being injured, without formal leave to depart from the field of play. Which meant that Law 2.9 (b) came into effect for the first time, rather than the usual 2.9(a).

Or so I thought.

Not true. It looks like Law 2.9(b) had been invoked, albeit very briefly, during the 5th Test between West Indies and India in April-May 1983. Gordon Greenidge, batting on 154, left the field at close of play on 30th April, and did not return on Sunday 1st May. He had not been injured, which meant that, technically, he could be considered “retired out”.

He hadn’t returned for a tragic reason. His young daughter Ria had been taken very ill with a kidney infection, and he’d gone to be with her. She died a few days later.

It is not clear what the scorers originally put down against his name; the scarce evidence suggests he may have been recorded as “retired hurt”. What is clear is that as a mark of respect, given the tragic circumstances, what finally went down on the scorecard was “retired not out”. According to ESPNCricinfo that’s the only known occurrence of that term on a Test scorecard.

The stories behind the numbers.

We live in times when terms like “post-truth” and “truthiness” are bandied about without a thought. That’s when the stories behind the numbers matter. Context matters. The provenance of the context matters.

So I’m going to be spending time over the Christmas break reading people like John Allen Paulos again, particularly his books Innumeracy and Beyond Numeracy. Similarly, I’m going to be retracing my steps around the works of Howard Rheingold on Crap Detection.

More to follow.

Laying waste our powers

View story at Medium.com

Some Like It Hot: A Paean To Chillies

This is not meant to be a post about the Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis film by Billy Wilder. I didn’t actually watch it till late 1999, some forty years after it was made. It wasn’t on my bucket list. I was 42 by then, and so I was pretty careful about any new entrants to that list.

And then I saw a film called Tango. Which led me to learning about La Cumparsita. Digging into that led me to Some Like It Hot. So I had to watch it. And when I did, I really enjoyed it.

Connections. Things that lead from one to another, the accidents and the sagacity of serendipity.

Which is what my love affair with chillies has been all about.

I don’t remember the first time I came across the chili pepper. For sure that’s not what I would have heard it being called; I probably learnt it as ??????? and pronounced it as “mologa”. [I’m told that I should pronounce it “milakai” but that’s not what I remember from childhood].

As a South Indian Brahmin growing up in Calcutta, I was likely to have been fed the staple idli with the reddish powdered form “mologapudi” while still in nursery; slivers of the green common Indian version of the fruit would have made it into many of the dishes I was served by the time I was seven. I think I must have been a little older before I was allowed to have More Mologa, blackened, desiccated, oh-so-delectable. More in name and in nature.

Life was simple then. Chillies when fresh were red or green. When we dried them and pulverised them the results were red. If we dried them longer they turned black. They tasted “hot”, they always made me salivate, sometimes they made me sweat a bit, and occasionally they brought tears to my eyes. But it was all worth it because they made me feel good.

For 23 years of my life that was the way it was. A readily available feel-good factory that was encapsulated in just one word: chillies.

Then I moved to the UK. For the first year or so I was scared of entering a supermarket. I could not understand a shop that had a whole aisle of toothpaste. So I spent time buying what I needed at local groceries, often run by Indians, usually with very Indian-looking chillies. Life was good.

As I spent more time away from India, I learnt about the sheer variety of chillies available. When fresh green chillies were hard to find, I tried?—?and rejected?—?the cayenne pepper. Then I started coming across jalapeños, and found them lacking as well. Local supermarkets weren’t that good in stocking the hot stuff, except in powdered form.

I wasn’t a fan of the red powder. I was, and continue to be, wary of hot curries where I can taste the grain of the powder in the sauce. They do nothing for me except to go through me. [Which, by the way, is how the wild plant goes about conquering the world. Birds eat chillies, ostensibly drawn by the colour of the chillies. They don’t get affected by the capsaicin and allow the seeds to pass through them unmolested. Something to remember the next time you come across a fresh dollop of bird dropping. Just in case you’re the type of person who is waiting to discover the next kopi luwak. I have always wondered about that; I’d love to know how the person who discovered it actually discovered it. If you know, please tell me].

From the Guardian

It was only a matter of time before I learnt about and marvelled at the Scoville Scale. By then I was almost a connoisseur, graduating well beyond the simplicity of the classic Indian green. My interests were still single-dimensional and focused on cooking and eating the fruit in all its guises.

Years of experimentation led to my being able to recognise particular varieties quickly and accurately; to know when to keep the flesh and to discard everything else, when to keep the seed and to discard everything else, when to hold on to the whole fruit. Which chillies could be eaten raw, which ones needed softening, which ones needed accessorising. Common accessories included garlic, ginger, onion, scallion, soy sauce, lime juice, salt, olive oil, mustard oil, groundnut oil. [Learning can be so much fun. Does someone know of a MOOC on the chilli plant?]

I’d grown up thinking that chillies must be Indian in origin, but was disabused of that notion soon after visiting the US for the first time. Until then I’d never considered the delicious hypothesis that Christopher Columbus could have been instrumental in helping make the hot Indian curry hot. If Columbus hadn’t turned right when he meant to turn left, if he hadn’t discovered the Americas while looking for India, he may never have found the chilli plant to take home and thereby gain forgiveness for his error. If Vasco da Gama and his merry marauders hadn’t found their way to India, and if they hadn’t decided to come bearing gifts, then the curries of my childhood may have remained unmemorable.

Then, in the early 1990s, I read Amal Naj’s wonderful book Peppers. My interest was properly, pepperly, piquantly piqued. I began to investigate how capsaicin worked, how it scammed the body into delivering drugs for free. Why the hotness of the chilli was considered a sensation rather than a taste. Why the endorphins and dopamine were released. I fell a little bit more in love with the plant.

Until then, I only had a first-principles view of chillies. They grew mainly in hot countries, and so I surmised that they had a simple purpose: to aid in making us feel cool. A little sheen of sweat, the slightest wind, and hey presto to green and sustainable air conditioning. Worth the “pain”.

Since then I’ve been able to expand that view, understand something about the medical properties of capsaicin, its use in self-defence, even warfare. I’ve been able to delve into its history, its travels, the legends, the arguments galore. Five cultivars, seven thousand years, millions of miles travelled, aided and abetted by feathered friends and Iberian navigators. Over two thousand varieties now, many of them as a result of passionate amateurs playing with the fire of capsaicin.

I can make myself a different salsa every day, and often do. I’ve had the privilege of travelling often, and wherever I go I look for new chilli tastes. From kimchi at Muk Eun Ji to street hawked chilli gelato in Certaldo. From habanero dosas at Dosa on Valencia in San Francisco to Lindt Excellence Chilli Chocolate Bars hoarded in my fridge for a rainy day.

Some years ago I learnt about Solanaceae. The nightshades. One family of plants. Inclusive of the potato, the tomato, the chilli pepper, the aubergine. Extending to tobacco and on to mandrake root, belladonna, deadly nightshade, and beyond. Tubers, herbs, shrubs, vines, trees. I began to learn about the brothers and sisters of the chilli plant.

And so to today. I remain passionately in love with this strange plant, one that is abundantly available and accessible to both rich and poor. [In Calcutta, the rickshaw-wallah meal often consisted of chillies, salt and what looked like a lump of chapati flour]. A plant that “tastes” wonderful even though the taste is actually not a taste but a sensation. A plant whose migratory history, while fascinating, remains steeped in ferocious argument. A plant whose medicinal properties we’re still learning about. [I’m particularly interested in some areas of research into capsaicin’s anti-carcinogenic possibilities].

You probably think I’m mad, writing about chillies this way. Before you decide how mad I am, take a look at what some members of the Danish National Orchestra got up to.

Tango Jalousie.

A tale of two tangos. La Cumparsita. Jalousie. And everything serendipitous in between.

[Also posted in Medium]

Of certainties and doubts

Still continuing with my experiment, in writing on medium and cross-posting here. I tried it the other way some years ago and it died a death. Let’s see.

View story at Medium.com

The Web and serendipity

Another cross-post from Medium. Still investigating how that pans out.

View story at Medium.com