A walk along the route of Lisbon’s Tram 28

Lisbon’s iconic yellow trams are quite the tourist attraction. Tram no. 28 is especially popular as it takes a scenic route through the city’s historic neighbourhoods. We had sat in one during our visit to the city over a decade ago1. This time we were too put off by the crowd of people queuing up for a ride. Historic city centres of many European cities can sometimes begin to feel like theme parks. And a tram line mostly used by tourists feels like a joy ride. Anyway, here we were in Lisbon and staying a short walk from the first stop of tram 28. To assuage our guilt, we decided to just walk its entire route. Like one of those pilgrimages of penance some religions prescribe.

The trams, unlike the ones in Amsterdam, use a single carriage only. Two of them had queued up at a turn before the stop and the drivers were having a friendly chat.

There was a small queue at the bus/tram stop for the tram. We were visiting Lisbon during the Chinese New Year week so this particular street had been decorated with red lanterns.

These were taken on the evening of the second last day of our stay. The wife and I had had quite a full day and were tired. We aborted the walk after a couple of stops.

The next day promised to be warm and sunny. We resumed the walk where we left it. We mostly followed the tram tracks all the way but the wife occasionally consulted Google Maps to:

  • make sure that we were indeed following the right tram’s track after they’d fork

  • take any diversions and side-alleys that were more interesting than what was on offer along the tracks

To our slight dismay, not all trams were entirely yellow. Many now featured advertising, like this Samsung one2. I saw this one coming from far away. A car had been partially parked on the tracks so it was held up for a couple of minutes. The tram driver frantically dinged its bell till the car was removed. A small traffic jam had begun to materialise behind the tram and a small entourage of cars now drove in its wake.

I also noticed, perhaps for the first time, how narrow the tram tracks were.

A side alley (Tv. São Vincent) had a colourful, large mural painted on the compound wall of one of the buildings. There were cars parked in front of it so it was hard to get a decent picture of it3.

Many houses are really close the tram tracks.

I loved how compact and elegant this one looked.

Though I wonder how it must be like to live in one. The trams do make a loud rumbling noise when they pass. It must not be pleasant to have one pass by your doorstep every few minutes. Could you ever learn to tune it out?

We finally did catch a plain yellow tram4 sans any advertising - just as it passed a house painted the same shade of yellow. Are you not entertained?

The path of Tram 28 eventually led us to the Santa Luzia church which, being at an elevation, offers sweeping, panoramic views of Lisbon and the Tagus River. We had spent considerable time here during our last trip and rather than the views I found myself drawn to this tiled fountain.

We were close to the halfway mark. The tracks continued to guide us through narrow, winding streets of Lisbon. The trams kept passing us by.

A building that was being repaired, was covered in white tarp. I marvelled at how they had manoeuvred around the beautiful wrought-iron and glass street lamp to let it protrude.

It had easily been 90 minutes since we had started walking and a short coffee break was in order. We sat down at a local chain near the Church of Loreto (aka the Church of the Italians).

Refreshed, we resumed our walk but it soon dawned on us that we had a flight to catch in the afternoon. There was a good hour left in our walk - perhaps longer at our leisurely pace that borders on languid once you account for the stops for taking pictures. We decided to abort the walk along the tram route and changed course towards the nearest bus stop with a connection to our hotel - but not before taking some more pictures to remember the day by:

  1. Not sure which number we took.↩︎

  2. Oh no, Samsung again. They sure are spending a lot of marketing dollars.↩︎

  3. This Google Street View will give you a good sense of it. There are cars parked in front in the Street View too. And something in the mural triggers Street View’s face detection and so it keeps blurring out parts of it to protect their privacy.↩︎

  4. Except for the logo of the public transport agency Carris that runs them.↩︎

February 25, 2024

Thoughts on DALL·E 3

In less than a year, the quality of the images generated by DALL·E has improved dramatically. In Oct’22 I had given DALL·E 2 some unusual cricket related prompts. I revisited them to compare the results against DALL·E 3.

My first prompt:

Astronauts playing cricket on moon

Resulted in a set of these four images:

Astronauts playing cricket on moonAstronauts playing cricket on moon

While DALL·E 2 had struggled to render the humans, the wickets and the bats accurately, DALL·E 3 had no problems with them. Sure, there are still a lot other issues with these images - multiple moons or earths in the background, missing helmets, beard jutting out of at least one astronaut’s visor and in one case, batsmen standing across the width of the crease rather than its length. But still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how far we have come in a matter of months. DALL·E 2 had seemed quite revolutionary back then but relative to DALL·E 3, its output looks like grotesque smudges.

One of the questions I had raised in my original post…

What race or skin tone should the AI have given to these depictions of humans? To say nothing of their gender. Did DALL·E try to cop out of having to settle this question by generating generic illustrations of humans in spacesuits as the first three choices? The reality with AI is often more anodyne - it merely reflects the images the model was trained on.

…seems to have been addressed.

This prompt covers two human endeavours that are not very diverse individually, let alone their intersection. DALL·E 3 still did a fine job of producing pictures that were very inclusive. It does so by rewriting your prompts before feeding them into the image generation pipeline. In doing so, it adds a bit more detail and variation. My succinct five-word prompt was rewritten four times with specifics of gender and race:

Photo of a female astronaut of Asian descent and a male astronaut of African descent playing cricket on the moon’s surface, with Earth in the background.

Illustration of two astronauts, one of Hispanic descent and one of Caucasian descent, engaged in a game of cricket on the moon. The moon’s craters and the pitch are clearly visible.

Rendered image of a male astronaut of Middle Eastern descent bowling to a female astronaut of European descent on the moon. The cricket bat, ball, and wickets are clearly seen.

Photo of three astronauts, one male of Indian descent, one female of Indigenous descent, and another male of mixed race, playing cricket on the moon with the stars shining brightly above.

My second prompt…

Astronauts playing cricket on moon with three slips and a gully and earth rising in the background

Cricket on moon with three slips and a gully?Cricket on moon with three slips and a gully?

…did not result in images of astronauts holding impossibly long bats bordering on polo sticks. Still, as impressive as the output is visually, it is a long way away from the cricket field setting the prompt describes. In the last image, a white cricket ball is seen lying in a crater - one wonders if they just chose a terrible spot for the pitch or if it was made by a bowler pitching with superhuman strength.

My final prompt gave results that also looked quite plausible:

Sachin Tendulkar playing a pull shot while riding an elephant in Mumbai

Sachin Tendulkar playing a pull shot while riding an elephant in MumbaiSachin Tendulkar playing a pull shot while riding an elephant in Mumbai

While I woundn’t mistake any of the players as Sachin Tendulkar, they definitely look like cricket players and not mahauts on tuskless elephants with polo sticks that DALL·E 2 had generated in 2022. More importantly, the backgrounds in all four images are quite evocative of Mumbai. Especially the building in the background of the first image - it looks like the facade of the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel.

And once you know that DALL·E rewrites yours prompts you can also ask it not to. You get four1 identical images but they adhere much more closely to your prompt’s intent. In my case, I finally got someone that might pass for Sachin Tendulakar from a distance.

Sachin Tendulkar playing a pull shot while riding an elephant in MumbaiSachin Tendulkar playing a pull shot while riding an elephant in Mumbai

At this rate, you could expect another post next year where I wonder what exactly had impressed me about these pictures by DALL·E 3.

  1. Four images was the default images DALL·E 3 would render in response to a prompt when it had launched last year. Within a few weeks of the launch, they seem to have been reduced it to two - presumably to save GPU resources in the face of massive demand?↩︎

January 28, 2024

Bangalore Vignettes - Opera House

When I had moved to Bangalore in the early 2000s, The Opera House building at the end of Brigade Road (one that meets Residency Road), was already well past its prime. Like hundreds of other such colonial-era buildings in the city at the time, it was in disrepair and mired in lengthy legal disputes1. I must’ve thought that it would meet the inevitable fate that awaited buildings like these - to be torn down for a glass-concrete highrise with a mall and offices - because my 20-something self hasn’t seemed to have bothered to even take a proper picture of the building. The only picture of the building I have from my time in Bangalore is an accidental one. I was taking a picture of the decorative wooden cornice at a (now long closed) Chettinad restaurant on Residency Road for use in my blog’s header2 and a large part of the Opera House building happened to be in the background across the road.

An accidental photo of the Bangalore Opera House taken in 2005An accidental photo of the Bangalore Opera House taken in 2005

As you can probably tell from the picture, it was not in a good shape.

So it was a very pleasant surprise to return to Bangalore 11 years later and find this building fully restored. It was a little jarring to see it turned into a Samsung showroom and even branded as Samsung Opera House - but hey, if that’s what it took to save the historical building, I am not complaining.

The restored Opera House building seen from Brigade RoadThe restored Opera House building seen from Brigade Road

It also seemed like Samsung were being a good custodian. There was a small open courtyard outside, freely accessible to the general public.

Samsung Opera HouseSamsung Opera House

The entrance to the Samsung showroom inside the Opera HouseThe entrance to the Samsung showroom inside the Opera House

One Friday evening, as we were walking past the building, we heard snatches of one of our favourite Bollywood songs through the din of traffic and incessant honking. A small musical concert was taking place in the courtyard3.

A musical performance outside the Samsung Opera HouseA musical performance outside the Samsung Opera House

As the short clip below will hopefully testify, not only were the performers talented, the speakers they were using did a good job of projecting the sound and masking the traffic noise. Somewhat.

We joined everyone else enjoying the music on that pleasant Bangalore evening and stayed for about twenty minutes. It is one of my fondest memories from this trip.

  1. Back then I had assumed it was. While researching this post, I came across this Deccan Herald article that confirmed this.↩︎

  2. Because that’s what 20 year olds did back then. Blogs with comments and our curated blogrolls were our generation’s social media.↩︎

  3. Presumably paid for by Samsung!↩︎

January 7, 2024

2023: My year in music

Each year I make a playlist of 52 or so songs that I absolutely loved that year. Here is this year’s playlist.

Most songs weren’t released in 2023, I merely discovered them in 2023. There is one exception to that rule in this year’s playlist. Lana Del Rey’s Mariner’s Apartment Complex. I had heard the song a couple of years ago but it slowly grew on me this year and got so much play time (along with the rest of the album it’s from) that it had to be in the playlist.

When I made first of these playlists in 2016, I remember being a little apprehensive at being able to continue to put one together each year. Well, it’s year 8 of doing this and not once has it been a struggle1. I usually end up with 3x more songs than I want to fit into the playlist. It’s now a year-end ritual to start with a longlist and gradually whittle it down over a period of 4-6 weeks. A ritual I’ve found myself looking forward to each year.

I started learning Spanish in 2022. Despite finishing a 500+ day streak on Duolingo in 2023, I feel the progress has been modest. And yet, it has already enabled me to appreciate the poetic beauty2 of many of the songs - songs that otherwise I might not have enjoyed quite as much. So while this year’s playlist has songs spanning many genres and languages - including English, Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Japanese, you might find it a little Spanish-heavy. I hope the lyrics won’t get in the way of enjoying the music!

  1. Ok may be 2020 (aka the pandemic year”) was a little hard, but then the year was hard on so many other counts as well… That said, I still haven’t mustered the energy to put together track by track liner notes like I used to in the early years.↩︎

  2. Yamaguchi by Amaia, Yo no Necesito de Mucho by Laura Itandehui and Mañana by Silvia Pérez Cruz are three of my favourites.↩︎

January 1, 2024

Bangalore Vignettes - Church Street

I visited Bangalore recently after a gap of over eleven years. Naturally, I noticed a lot of changes - both big and small. I hope to share some of these through a series of short blog posts.

The metro entrance at Church Street did not exist when I lived there. I loved the colourful mural that it had been decorated with. It reminded me of Studio Ghibli movies.

Church Street/M. G. Road metro entrance buildingChurch Street/M. G. Road metro entrance building

Close up of the muralClose up of the mural

Another new feature of Church Street was these footpath handrails. Upon looking at them closely I realised that they depicted the game of Rock Paper Scissors!

I didn’t think such a thing would have been possible, but Church Street seems to have gotten even busier! It was always a popular destination but with all the foot traffic that the metro station exit now sends and the many seemingly unregulated street-side vendors, it felt really crowded. Especially in the evenings.

I was sad for many of my favourite old haunts that were now gone, but also happy to experience the ones that were still around. The magazine store from this blogpost was (inevitably) gone. So was the jazz/western classical CD shop that I used to frequent. I was half hoping they’d have found a way to ride the recent vinyl record revival and survived. But the second-hand book store Blossom was still there and doing well. It now has not one, but two new branches on Church Street itself. That place calls for a blog post of its own. The Indian Coffee House had moved from MG Road to Church Street and it was around too! The liveried waiters still serve the usual affordable fare of butter toast, potato cutlets and their signature sweet coffee with a distinctive flavour.

December 31, 2023

The story of our plants: marigold

On our balcony we have two large, rectangular planters in which we plant all manner of random flowers and enjoy watching them bloom from spring till the end of summer1.

We had a very warm and dry June this year. Specifically, the average mean temperature was 1.2ºC higher than the previous record. A record set a mere two years ago. As a result of all that dry heat our flowers died out. We probably should also have been watering them more. The planters had been leaking water even after little to moderate watering, annoying our neighbours below. To remedy this, we picked up drip trays to place under our planters from a hardware shop. The shop had a gardening section that sold seeds. Since we were there, we picked a packet each of marguerite daisy and marigold.

I wasn’t sure when I’d plant them. The instructions on the packets of the seeds seemed to suggest that I shouldn’t expect to see any flowers this year if I were to plant them this late in the summer. Towards the end of June, the weather forecast showed that a spell of cool and wet weather was headed our way. It would almost be like late spring. I wondered if that would coax the plants to grow and flower.

One Sunday, in anticipation of the upcoming milder weather, I cleared the planters of the dead plants, added a few centimetres of fresh potting soil and planted the seeds. Worst case, we’d see flowers next year. The relatively cooler and wetter July and August that followed, were very favourable for the growth of the plants. It is likely that our packet of marguerite daisy seeds was mislabeled. Whatever is growing in the parts of the planter where I sowed those seeds is definitely not going to sprout any daisy flowers.

Not quite the marguerite daisies we were promisedNot quite the marguerite daisies we were promised

But with the marigolds we seem to have hit a jackpot. The plants began to bud in late August and with some assistance from the unseasonably warm September weather, they are thriving.

Marigold flowersMarigold flowers

Marigold flowersMarigold flowers

Marigolds were ubiquitous in Delhi where Mansi and I grew up. They are a staple of the decoration in North Indian weddings. The flowers are robust, feature a festive mustard-orange-maroon palette and can easily be strung into long garlands. I haven’t been to a single wedding as a child where the kids didn’t appropriate a handful of them from the decor and playfully pelted them at each other. If you press hard into the marigold’s green base with your thumb and tear it open, hundreds of immature seeds would spill into your hands. I thus developed a passing familiarity with marigold seeds - even though as a child I had no idea what I was holding.

When I tore open the packet of marigold seeds from the shop, thanks to this childhood connection, I immediately knew that I was holding the right stuff.

A few years ago I would’ve been very sceptical about their ability to grow here. How would something that grows, even prospers in the much warmer and drier Delhi climate, adapt to the wet, temperate climate of Amsterdam2? But then our world has been growing warmer. Varieties of grapes from southern France now grow well in Maastricht and places as far up north as Norway are starting to produce wine. During the many walks through our neighbourhood during the pandemic, we had seen them grow outside several ground floor homes. That was confirmation enough for us to try.

I am glad we did! Given how excited Mansi has been about them, I am pretty sure they’ll be seen growing on our balcony for years to come.

  1. Our balcony faces west and offers no shade. The plants bear the brunt of long summer evenings. We usually prefer to plant hardy, wildflower varieties.↩︎

  2. A couple of years ago plant shops here were selling another plant I remember from my childhood in Delhi - bougainvillea. We got one. Our attempt to keep it alive past September were an utter failure. Despite keeping it indoors during winter, the poor thing hardly had any life left in it the next year.↩︎

September 17, 2023