Drawing for 26 May, 2021

May 27, 2021

I wanted to do a portrait. I picked this:


And here’s the drawing:

This is only in 2H and HB. I used 2H to shade the background ferns – and that’s barely shown up in the scan; and HB to shade the shadows on the model’s face.

Like the plane drawing from earlier in the week, I went with instinct rather than trying to measure and recreate angles and lengths of lines. So, again, proportions have become weird – the model’s head has become smaller, I think, while her neck and torso have become larger. But I don’t feel quite as bad about this as I did in the aeroplane. I think I’ve ended up more accurate – it might be self-delusion, of course.

Having absolutely no idea of how to replicate the blur in the background with pencils, this ended up being much quicker and easier to draw then I had anticipated when I bookmarked this photo – since I was doing only the foreground. If and when my sense of how to draw shadows and shades comes back, this will probably be a much more complex photo to replicate.

Drawing for 22 May, 2021

May 27, 2021

This was the original:


And this is the drawing:

I felt practically timid drawing this, and I think it shows in how poorly formed the top of the plane is.

On one hand I’ve stopped trying to painstakingly recreate lines and angles and gone more with an impression.

On the other hand my impressions aren’t good enough to replicate actual shapes and perspectives.

If my drawing stops again after lockdown ends, I greatly fear that any skills I manage to build back up will evaporate again. Poop.

Spycraft Without Peer: Who Was Really the Earl of Oxford?

May 20, 2021

Adult life has made it hard to stay in touch with old friends, but every time I do get in touch with them, the conversation is all the sweeter for being so rare. I had the good fortune of talking to my friend Neha Natalya Pandey recently. In spite of the pandemic, she, and all her family, have been keeping well. In fact, her father, the learned Dr Acharya Somuchidonanda Pandey had turned the pandemic to his advantage, and spent the past year carrying out researches in the Saint Basil Archives. Of course, he does that even without a pandemic around him. But his discoveries in the past year have been so astonishing, revelatory, and pathbreaking in our conception of history, that they make up for all the horror of the year gone by.

I could not possibly do justice to Dr Pandey’s discoveries by attempting to paraphrase or describe them myself. As always, I shall share the venerable professor’s research in his own words below, while marveling at the grace he has shown by choosing my humble blog as the platform for his research before sharing it through more formal and academic channels. What follows is the precis Dr Pandey has written of his past year’s work.

The task of the historical entrepreneur is a fearsome and awe-inspiring one. He must confront the millennia of history that has come before him, and with courage and boldness, speculate on the area of his inquiries. The historical project is frequently built upon chance and tiny odds. It is my privilege to have lived a life in which these odds have fallen in my favour, and in my mission of bringing the truth to light. No more so than in the past year, when my routine activity in the Saint Basil Archives of Rostov-upon-Don revealed documents that had been hidden for almost five centuries – first, for reasons of statecraft and intrigue; and then, out of shameful neglect. The Basil-Don papers not only bring about a new understanding of the growth of European nationalism, but overturn a narrative that has besmirched the reputation of a great man. I am a man of history, but equally of justice – and in the few paragraphs that follow, my aim is not so much to discuss the minutiae of statecraft, as it is to give a maligned man his rightful due.

But first, I must explain the nature of these papers, and how they came to rest in Russia. The documents I have found are memoranda from the Elizabethan Age of England, passed between queen and cabinet members. They are a window into the diplomacy and espionage practiced by England, and are astonishingly detailed in not only their discussion of strategic aims, but in the minute details of the English Crown’s agents who were pursuing these aims. They were carefully archived under seal in London for a little over a century; but in the eighteenth century, were moved to the Prussian court, in a quid pro quo for the dowry of Caroline of Ansbach. For two centuries, they remained in Berlin, unopened and unrecognised. In the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, the liberating Red Army moved the archives from Berlin to the motherland, where Stalin planned for my mentor, Professor Varely Smirzkoff to study them. Unfortunately, Professor Smirzkoff’s untimely death meant that the documents did not see the light of day for another sixty five years. Only last year, when I first opened this trove, did the intrigues of four hundred years past come to light.

The papers reveal that England, though weak in military power, was accomplished in diplomacy and spycraft. This spycraft extends beyond that already acknowledged by history in the activities of Sir Francis Walsingham. There was another ring of spies, working not at home but abroad – one whose existence was unknown until now. Sir Francis Bacon, thought to be merely the legal counsel to Queen Elizabeth, was in fact the leader of this intelligence network, one which sent diplomats and spies across Europe, disguised as poets or members of acting troupes, to keep track of military musters, courtroom gossip, and weapons manufacturing.

Bacon’s circle of spies included the older Edward de Vere. de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, had spent the 1570s traveling through France and Italy, and sending intelligence back to Bacon. One of the most important members of the English espionage effort, his contributions were so important that they could never be made public – and in fact, some years later, Bacon encouraged the impression of de Vere having fallen from the queen’s favour as an elaborate ruse to protect him from the vengeful French and Spanish. Despite this ruse, his status remained high in the courts of Europe, who would demand his personal presence in diplomatic negotiations. It was a disaster, therefore, when de Vere suddenly fell ill and died right before a crucial diplomatic conference in 1584.

Bacon urgently needed a replacement for the Earl of Oxford, and one of his agents, a young man named Christopher Marlowe, provided a solution. Bacon did not need a new diplomat – he could get a new man to play the old diplomat. Marlowe introduced Bacon to an up and coming actor, a man of immense talents, but not yet famous enough to be recognised – William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare entered Bacon’s ring of spies, and as his first assignment, impersonated the Earl of Oxford at the diplomatic conference. Shakespeare’s immense acting talent meant that the courts of three foreign powers were utterly taken in, and that the impersonation was a flawless success. With this success done, Bacon would not let Shakespeare go. For the next twenty years, Shakespeare led a triple life – living as the Earl of Oxford in the rich parts of London, as himself in the world of theatre, and as a spy on the Continent whenever Bacon required it of him. It was not until 1604 that Bacon was able to untangle his web of intrigue and lay the impersonated Earl of Oxford to rest. In the intervening time, Shakespeare had made a name for himself as a playwright and actor, but also a name for the Earl of Oxford as a poet. He acted both on stage and off it, disguising himself as a nobleman, a sailor, or a merchant on espionage visits to France, and Italy. Bacon’s other agents had their hands full, destroying all portraits and sketches of Shakespeare that were being created by his devoted stage fans, so that nobody might notice the strange resemblance between the accomplished actor and the Earl of Oxford.

Bacon did not only cover up a death, but in an odd balance, he created a fake one. In 1593, needing Christopher Marlowe to be in the field ever more, he spread the news of Marlowe’s death, and had a poor street urchin buried under Marlowe’s name. Marlowe then spend the next eighteen years spying for Bacon across Europe, and eventually died in 1620, having spent a full and happy life. In the intervening years, he sent intelligence reports to Bacon, with personal letters to his friend Shakesepare, who was happy to take Marlowe’s descriptions of Italian towns, and incorporate them into his own plays. Indeed, the great man was not above wryly commenting on his own situation in his plays, which frequently deal with impersonation, mistaken identity, and ruminations on the nature of self and identity.

While Bacon continued his activities well into the seventeenth century, Shakespeare was exhausted by the triple life he was leading, and eventually retired to his home town, bearing the – alas, very secret – thanks of his queen and country.

Unfortunately, while the passage of the centuries and the final destruction of the Stuart conspiracies should have allowed for Shakespeare’s remarkable talents and accomplishments to have taken their place in the spotlight of history, the transfer of the Baconian archives to Hanover meant that it was not to be. Even more tragically, while independent researchers in the nineteenth century came close to discovering the truth of the connection between Shakespeare and de Vere, in the absence of the archival material, they got the connection the wrong way around – and claimed that de Vere had been Shakespeare, rather than the true facts of the matter – that Shakespeare had been de Vere for more than twenty years.

This reverse identification, although perversely testifying to Shakespeare’s brilliance as an actor, did the great man an injustice and attributed his writerly brilliance not to the actor, but to a character he played.

It is this injustice that I set out to correct in this monograph, and which the future publication of the Saint Basil papers will finally lay to rest. I am delighted that my years of research have allowed me to overturn a longstanding historical myth, and bring a purer truth to light.

(The author of the above monograph is the Hon. Director of the Smirzkoff Centre for Historical Speculation. He lives with his wife, Dr. (Mrs.) Valentina Dimitrieva Pandey, and up to twenty two of their children, in suburban St Petersburg.)

Drawing for 19 May, 2021

May 20, 2021

Lockdown, what is it good for? Stopping coronavirus transmission, hopefully. Getting back to drawing, definitely.

I moved from Delhi to Chennai in October, and the following months of guesthouse life, house hunting, setting up house, and doing two hour one-way commutes meant that drawing went out of the window. Now, with Tamil Nadu the only state in India that’s growing new cases, I’m locked down and not commuting. Time to draw.

I was so ashamed of my first two or three attempts when I got back to it that I haven’t even scanned them. Last night, I finally did something I’m not completely frustrated by. This photograph, taken in Kaohsiung, Republic of China (the best China in the world).


And this is my drawing:

The hand of the woman is a little weird, and the shadows on her legs are off – but I do feel happy about getting the stances mostly correct.

A View to a Skill

March 22, 2021

Friend1 Ashish recently2 blogged about a conversation we had about essential skills that everybody ought to have by the time they finished school. Ashish made such a magnificent thesis out of what was me essentially backlashing at a backlash that I now feel embarassed about not making my own expansive post out of an offhand chat. This is that post.

Context and Caveats

Back in January, the backlash against Byju’s Whitehat Jr was in full swing. The perverse contrarian that I am, I perfunctorily agreed with the meat of the backlash – that it seemed to be a money-grabbing scam preying off the paranoia of Indian parents – but then spent far more time on the nitpick of “But coding is awesome, actually.” I then tied it in to my long running rant, which goes as follows:

Every time there’s a social panic, the government decides to address it by bringing the topic of outrage, be it malnutrition, violence against women, or lack of patriotism, into the school syllabus. Textbooks are hastily updated, and CBSE Class X exams throw in a two mark question about the topic in question. Five years later, students have treated the topic with all the contempt a mere two mark question engenders, and forgotten all about it.

And then, tying it to my personal experience of what I actually do remember from my own school and university days, and use to this day, I came up with an overarching theory of how we would all be better served if schools focused far more on teaching skills than on teaching complexes of knowledge. After all, I reasoned, we forget facts, but skills persist. We can also look up facts any time, but the sooner we learn skills, the more time we have to deploy them and to get better at them. And since it was a lovely Saturday morning, and I had a notebook and pen handy while I had my morning coffee, I soon had my list of skills that everybody ought to have, and which as a corollary, were too important to be left to elective courses.

I’ll come to the list itself in a bit, but first a caveat. Once my initial feelings of grandeur wore off, I realised the problem in my premise. Yes, I personally retain skills much more easily than I retain facts. But that might just be me, and might not be universally true – and therefore not necessarily a reason to fundamentally overhaul Indian education as we know it3.

But with that caveat expressed, I feel that making, and sharing, our personal lists of essential skills is a fun exercise, and maybe even a useful one. Ashish has already shared his. Here’s mine.

Things Everybody Should Be Able to Do

  1. Close-read a book.
  2. Skilfully take notes about that book.
  3. Skilfully take notes not about a book, but about an unfolding project.
  4. Write a clear report, summary, and / or letter.
  5. Sketch. If given a piece of paper and pencils; and either a photo reference or a scene in front of them, they should be able to draw something that’s at least recognisable as the original.
  6. At the other end of skill with pencils, engineering drawing. At least up to being able to come up with the plan, elevation, profile, and angle views (what was the name for that again? See what I mean about retaining skills but not facts?)
  7. Maths: being able to integrate and differentiate functions.
  8. Statistics: apart from the usual mean, median, and mode; and linear regressions; I’d like people to be able to identify clusters and data anomalies. I confess, though, I have no clue on how you would actually measure or test for that.
  9. Electrical wiring: being able to give an appliance a new plug, swap plug points and switches in and out of switch boxes, and change light fittings.
  10. How to use household tools: Putting a nail into a wall4, assembling and disassembling furniture, and knowing how to mix and apply paint.
  11. How to use kitchen tools: given a selection of vegetables, can you cut slices, cut cubes, grate them, and mince them? If you eat meat, can you do the same to that? Can you make a meal out of a multitude of ingredients such that not one of them is either undercooked or overcooked5?
  12. Double entry accounting. I learned this in 2004. I only started using it outside of accounting tests for my own personal finances in 2019. It changed my life.
  13. Coding had to make an appearance at some point. But, as with everything else here, I don’t propose getting too deep into the details. Being able to work your way around with basic if-thens, loops, and data structures is good enough.

That perverse contrarianism I mentioned earlier? Let’s end the list there, so that it’s an unlucky thirteen.

What I Left Out

A couple of days after shooting this list off to Ashish, I looked upon it more soberly and realised that there are skills that I respect but I never included.

The first one is being able to drive a car. And after giving it some thought I maintain that I might as well go on leaving it off, because:

  1. It’s not like cars are affordable enough that everybody in India will need to know how to drive them.
  2. The true skills gap isn’t knowing how to drive, it’s knowing how to behave respectfully in traffic.
  3. I continue to dream of a future of widespread and high quality public transport and / or self-driving cars, and wanting everybody to be able to drive feels like a surrender.

Apart from that, the things I left out fall in an odd space of “I really hope these are skills because that means you can learn them. But I realise that this might just be wishful thinking and that I could be falling foul of Diax’s rake, and in my second thoughts, I decide that I might just be jinxing things or exposing my naivete by listing them down. So I’m putting them down below, in their own section.

  1. Bullshit Detection: There’s a whole online course on how to detect bullshit, so maybe it is a skill, and hopefully it’s a skill that can be acquired in childhood itself. On the other hand, maybe presenting it as an acquirable skill is itself an example of bullshit. Sigh.
  2. Empathy: there are lots of people claiming that empathy is a skill that can be learned. I really hope they’re right, and I really fear that they’re being wishful thinkers.
  3. Imagination: You could go the Paul Bloom way, and claim that the socially beneficial attribute is not empathy, but imagination. His title is at least a little clickbaity, and his argument depends a lot on dropping a tight, not generally accepted definition on a loosely used word. But that aside, imagination is an attribute worth possessing even if it doesn’t bring about the beneficial outcomes usually associated with empathy. Is it a skill? I dunno.
  4. Since we’ve gone all the way to imagination, I might as well bring in my pet obsession – can we teach the capacity for narrative?

Conclusion and Invitation

Well, there’s no conclusion, really. But I do invite you to bring back the golden age of blogging, and use the comments to share your own lists. Better yet, use your blogs to share your own lists.

Drawings for 7 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

The first drawing is one that I’d started outlining on the previous day; and then left to finish the next day because I had to leave early for work. It was based on this reference photo:

home, by Gerben of the lake

This is what I made:

I think I’m so spooked with drawing either human faces or anything where perspective is needed, that I use lighter, less confident pencil strokes. It’s not just scanner settings.

Here, too, the proportions / perspective are off from the photo. But I think I was more confident drawing the Buddha statue than the background.

I’ve now realised that when it comes to drawing faces, drawing the Buddha again and again is probably a great way to learn and get better. The Buddha’s face is serene, unlined, and symmetrical – and it’s a great way to build up to drawing more complicated, wrinkly, tilted faces. I think I’ll be drawing one Buddha face a week for the near future.

I also did another drawing completely from scratch, based on this photo:

Leopard, by Geert

This is what I did:

The depth I tried to show in the ears hasn’t really come through in the scan, but it could have been a little better even in the drawing. Overall, I’m really happy with what I’ve done here. There is room for improvement, but those feel like minor faults and not insurmountable ones.

Just like with the cat drawing from earlier in the week, I can’t quite get the whiskers right.

But I think that this shows that I’m best, and most confident, at drawing felines, regardless of species.

Drawing for 6 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

Wifi problems again. I went back to a really old favourite, from back in 2006 when I first started using flickr. This one:

Suddenly. – Mariana Hummell.

This is what I drew:

I had tried to draw the full reflection, as it is in the photo. But trying to get it to the similar light, translucent image as in the reference image meant that despite my best attempts to tweak settings, the scanner just didn’t pick it up. And in the drawing of the model herself, the blacks have become much darker as a result.

There’s a smile in the eyes of the original photo that I haven’t been able to capture at all. But this is better than my recent drawings of human beings. And I think it’s crossed a threshold, and is now mediocre rather than awful.

Drawing for 5 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

For whatever reason, on the morning of the 5th, my wifi was acting up, so instead of go through the Flickr explore page, I picked an old favourite. This one:

Five Pigeons and a huge Seagull - Lizzie is just looking (In Explore 2020-07-14)
Five Pigeons and a Huge Seagull, by DizzieMizzieLizzie

And this is what I drew:

I’ve made the left eye a little higher than the right eye, and the whiskers are also off in a way I can’t quite understand. But I’m happy that I’ve got the depth right – even better than the previous day’s baboon. And I’m also proud of myself for using different pencil grades to show the cat’s eyes, the shadow on the left side of her face, and the mouth.

Drawing for 4 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

I decided to continue with animals, but a more challenging animal than an elephant. Flickr explore had this wonderful photo of a baboon:

Don't Look Back In Anger
Don’t Look Back in Anger, by Michael Hoffmann

This is what I made:

I did most of the hair by lightly shading with a 2H pencil, and the darker patches by adding HB or 2B shading over that. Unfortunately, my scanner hasn’t quite picked up the lighter hair.

The face lines are also not as naturalistic as they should be.

But overall, I’m happy with what I’ve done here. I think this is one of my first drawings where I’ve managed to show the depth in a face properly.

I said when I started that I didn’t want to be good, I just wanted to stop being terrible, and I think I’ve managed that in this drawing.

Drawing for 3 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

After the demoralising Sunday, I wanted to go back to drawing animals.

My not-yet-two year old nephew loves elephants, so I’d been thinking for a while that I should learn to draw them realistically. Happily, Flickr explore in the previous week had an elephant photo that I saved for later:

Taken in Uganda
(by kathleen EVERITT)

I was still demoralised, so I did only the elephant, and not the background buffalo or trees.

It still seems a little cartoony – I’m not too sure how to get the wrinkles just right.