Mt St Helens

Mt St Helens is an active volcano. It last erupted more than 20 years back, in 1980, and blew off more than a thousand feet off its top, and killed more than 50 people. I visited that place about three or four times over a two year period. From interstate 5 you take an exit and travel some 50 miles before reaching the Johnston Ridge observatory. This below is one of many bridges on the way to the volcano. And if i remember correctly, this bridge is new - it was blown away by the volcanic eruption of 1982.

During summer, when all the snow has melted away, even at the peak, you can see the starkness of the volcano. It is clear which way the eruption took place, and which direction the lava flowed. Everything in its path was burnt, destroyed, and buried under millions of tonnes of molten lava.

This photo taken many miles from the base of the volcano shows you the extent of the damage the volcanic eruption caused.

And this photo, taken from even further away, you can almost see the river of molten lava flowing at more than 200 kilometers an hour... burning everything in its path, raising temparatures to hundreds of degrees around it...

And, if you look closely at the upper right corner of the photo, you can see another mountain in the background. I think that is Mt Rainier, another volcano, albeit a dormant one. Or is that Mt Hood? Don't remember for sure.


And look at this photo - taken in November 2000 I think (or it may have been December). I like this photo and almost always think of two things when I see it: the first is that you can make out very clearly the onset of winter; the peak of the mountain is obviously the first to be covered with snow, and as it keeps getting colder as winter advances, the snow line keeps descending, from 10000 feet, to 9000, to 8000, and lower. By January all that is brown below would be white, covered in snow. The second thought is that this photo could have used a 2 stop neutral density filter (see this link). I had to expose for either the snow or the base - had I exposed for the base, the snow and the peak would have simply been washed out totally. Exposing for the peak meant that the base is very dark, most of the details are lost.




Some links:
- the US Forest service site.
- The NPS (National Park Service) has a short PDF brochure here.
- A totally gorgeous photos of the volcano is available here, or visit the page here.
- More information about the volcano is available here from the USGS site.

Reposted to this blog, Nov 2012
© 1999, 2000, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

The Undercover Economist

I finished reading "The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! by Tim Harford". A brilliant book, excellently written, lucidly explained, and it is simply unputdownable (if that indeed is a word).
If you have read Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, make sure to read this. If you haven't, read this book first. The book takes simple everyday things, like buying coffee, at a railway station, or just outside it, or from Starbucks, or selling telecom bandwidth, or buying vegetables from your local store, and explains the economic concepts that go behind many decisions made here, by the customer as well as the seller. Lots of basic and not so basic microeconomic concepts are introduced and blended into everyday examples from life: price discrimination, demand and supply, revealed preferences, externalities, game theory, marginal pricing, and many more. While the first chapter is titled "Who Pays for your coffee", it takes a few chapters before the mechanics and economics are fully explained.
For my money, a very useful theory that while applied to Cameroon to explain why it is so poor, and its rulers corrupt, could just as easily be applied to India, its politicians, and its endemic corruption. Without going into too much detail, or any detail at all for that matter, the theories of Mancur Olson are invoked many times in this context.
The last chapter of the book is about China and how it grew rich. Towards the end Tim Harford tends to get a bit moralistic and preachy, but given the overall excellence of the book, it can be ignored and excused.

© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved. Reposted to this blog Nov 2011

RK Laxman Cartoons

Some recent "You Said It" cartoons by Laxman.

This one below is actually a rerun (note the "TOI Archives" caption at the top), and you can notice the clean lines and richness of the illustration. This was done before RK Laxman's stroke.

This one below is more recent, and you can see the difference the stroke has made to Laxman's cartoon... the wit is ever present and gentle but sharp, but the lines are a little less precise... The great cartoonist is in his 80s (born 1924, see his bio on Wikipedia)...


This cartoon is in reference to the spate of drunken drivers killing pedestrians (Salman Khan, Nanda, and others...).


The last one is from the Sunday Times edition, and most likely would have originally appeared as a "Science Smiles" pocket cartoon.



By the way, do you know that RK Laxman and Bal Thackeray once worked together? I have a book that contains some of the very early cartoons by both these people...
© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved. Reposted to this blog, Nov 2012.

Strand Book Stall Sale, 2006

I went to the Strand Book Stall's annual sale at the Chinnaswamy stadium this weekend.


Even though it was held at the Chinnaswamy stadium last year also, this year they got a different room, more cramped than last year's.


So they ended up dividing the sale into three rooms, narrow rooms, with billing desks betweent the halls. Each room had three rows of books, and two aisles between them.


Books piled on top of`each other, with eager shoppers standing shoulder to shoulder...


The children's section was in a separate hall by itself, with parents and children equally eager, parents to avoid the 400 rupee priced Disney collections, and the children finding their way to those sections. And, they also had Tintin, Asterix, Calvin and Hobbes, so there was enough there for the children-at-heart adults...


Some good bargains could be found, to be sure. Some books that I had bought over the last year or two were available for an extra 5-10% less. Oh well... that's the economic cost of time, eh? :)


Several books on yoga were available...


This book intrigued me - having lived in Bombay (now known as Mumbai) for several years, and having walked past the maidan facing the Rajabai clock tower on my way to or from Churchgate station... But, having spent thousands of rupees on books this year, I pretty much had to be content with a photo...


"How to Research, Write, and Package Administrative Manuals" - why anyone would want to buy this book is not a huge surprise - after all, different needs require different books... but I was more than a little surprised to find it here.


© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved. Reposted to this blog July 2013.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Kindle Edition)
The best, most informative, and scary book I have read all year has to be Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser. The second best book is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (see my earlier posts - Influence - Shortcuts and Contrast and Book - Influence; the psychology of persuasion). I finished reading this book in September, and I have to say this is the best book by far that I have read this year. If there is one non-fiction book you read this year, make sure it is this one.
I first became aware of this book in 2002 when it was first published, but couldn't lay my hands on it at the local public library (in San Jose), and given the fact that I was empoyed with a startup that had long ceased to pay me, buying the book was not an option that was particularly viable at the time. I forgot about it for a few years, and while doing my MBA just trying to be uptodate on all that was required to be read (and more importantly, ingested) was a challenge I scarcely managed to succeed. This year, 2006, however I did manage to get back into the habit of reading, both fiction and non-fiction. As far as fiction goes I am still with Grisham and Crighton... I inquired about this book's availability in Bangalore, but without success. Upon an impulse, and at the cost of an additional $5 that I could have saved by ordering this book on Amazon.com (the 25-30% discount and the sales tax), I bought this book from Barnes & Noble earlier this year.
The book itself is about the fast food industry in the US - McDonalds, Burger King, Subway - as well as all the elements in the chain - the conglomerates, the workers, the franchisees, the meat packers, those who work at the feedlots, the communities, and more. The effect of the fast food industry and its all-consuming presence, everywhere, is looked at closely.

© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved. Reposted to this blog Nov 2011

Las Vegas



My stay in the US gave me an epiphany (nope... didn't give me enough money, but that's a different story, and anyway you can never have enough money, can you? :) ) - if someone asked me where one should go to sample the US, in my opinion there are three places (if you had to choose no more than three), and they are New York city, Las Vegas, and Grand Canyon. Each represents a different side of the country.


According to Wikipedia, "Las Vegas is marketed as The Entertainment Capital of the World, also commonly known as Sin City or Vice City, due to the popularity of legalized gambling, availability of alcoholic beverages at any time (as is true throughout Nevada), and various forms and degrees of adult entertainment. The city's glamorous image has made it a popular setting for films and television programs." You can read many other fascinating facts about the city at the Wikipedia site here, or the official city site.

The hotels there are huge - I mean simply huge... thousands of rooms, in excess of 4000 rooms for a hotel like Caesar's Palace. And others like Bellagio, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, The Mirage, and many more along the 3 mile 'strip'. No wonder so many conventions are held there - the infrastructure exists to support tens of thousands of people descending there... hotels, entertainment, food, and more...

In the photo below of Treasure Island (wikipedia link), you will notice a flag of the US in the center at the bottom. That's because I shot this photo in 2001; just months after the 9-11 attacks, so the Stars and Stripes was pretty much omnipresent.

Now there is nothing different between the two photographs below - both were shot within seconds of each other, with the same camera, and without a tripod. The second one has a 6 second exposure, while the first one has a much smaller one. The reason I shot the second photo was that I found a place to rest my camera for the long exposure shot.

New York New York is made to resemble the New York city skyline. OnWikipedia you learn a lot more:


New York-New York uses the New York City theme of its name in many ways. Its architecture creates an impression of the New York City skyline; the hotel includes several towers configured to resemble New York City skyscrapers, such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. In front of the property is a pool representing New York Harbor, with a 150 ft (46 m) tall (half-scale) replica of the Statue of Liberty, a roller coaster, and replicas of the Brooklyn Bridge, Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Grand Central Terminal, among other well-known structures. Within the resort, particular gambling areas, bars, eating areas and meeting rooms are named after New York City neighborhoods or landmarks. The main casino area, for example, is named after Central Park, while the "Village Eateries" food court is modeled after New York City's Greenwich Village, even including real menus from New York Chinese takeout restaurants taped to the doors of the mock apartment buildings. New York-New York uses the trademarked slogan "The Greatest City in Las Vegas".

And this below is the Excalibur.


Every single attraction there is meant to make you spend money and time - the restaurants, the shows (the Blue Man Group for e.g. and some of the shows cost upwards of a hundred dollars, per person), the slot machines, blackjack tables - and is a stunningly impressive microcosm of capitalism itself in the mecca of capitalism - the USA. Competition is intense - tens of thousands of hotel rooms along a 3 mile strip - and you can pretty much write reams and reams of paper on the value of differentiation, creating a credible monetization strategy, positioning, and what not...

Someone once told me that there are no clocks in any hotel there - you are supposed to lose all sense of time in the hotel, especially when gambling. It's heady, gawdy, impressive, fascinating, alluring, and more. And the contrast is made more vivid by the presence the Grand Canyon - which is a few hours drive away (at least to Flagstaff - see this and this site).

© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Mt Rainier


1999 and 2000 were also the years I visited the Mt Rainier National Park (Wikipedia link, National Park Service page). If you drive south on I5 (Wikipedia page for the interstate), on a clear day you can see the huge mountain loom straight ahead of the freeway, and makes for a very imposing sight indeed. There are two entrances to the park, the more popular one being the Nisqually Entrance, which is also where the Paradise Center is located.

One of the advantages of going there in summer is that while there is still a lot of snow there, it is melting, the weather is nice and pleasant, and you get the ego trip of getting yourself photographed in a t-shirt, surrounded by snow .

According to Wikipedia, "It is the highest peak in the Cascade Range, with a topographical summit of 14,411 feet (4,392 m)."

You can read up lots more on the history of the park on the very nice NPS site - http://www.nps.gov/mora/historyculture/index.htm

The clear skies makes it possible to get very saturated shots like the one below, using a circular polarizer...


More photos later... I think I have few more of the park.









© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved. Re-posted to this blog June 2013

The Truth About the Drug Companies

The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It (Kindle Edition)

Another book that I read earlier this summer was "The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It" by Marcia Angell. Now, this lady was an editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine for almost 20 years, so what she writes carries a lot of credibiliy.


The author takes many claims made by the drug industry, about the high cost of bringing new drugs to the market, about the billions of dollars it spends on research, and reveals them to be false. The drug companies spend more on marketing than they do on research, in fact they spend more than twice as much on marketing and administration than they do on research.

Many of the blockbuster drugs on the market today (blockbuster drugs are those that have sales in excess of a billion dollars annually) are a result of research done at government funded labs, paid for by the taxpayer, and not at drug companies' research labs.

The drug industry spends billions of dollars on "educating doctors", another way of bribing doctors to not prescribe generics, even though they cost much less than the branded drugs, on encouraging doctors to prescribe medicines to patients who may not need them, and more...

Each facet of the industry is covered in separate chapters, like "Marketing Masquerading as Education", "Patent Games", "Buying Influence", "Just How Innovative is the Industry", "How Good Are New Drugs", etc...

This book was also a New York Times bestseller, and the Publisher Weekly gave it a "starred review", saying "In what should serve as the Fast Food Nation of the drug industry, Angell presents ... a powerful case ... for reform." High praise indeed. Now, the book is not quite in the same league as "Fast Food Nation", which is more detailed in its research, more broad in its coverage of the entire ecosystem of the fast food industry, but this book is written for the average American, which means that some of the technical details that would otherwise have made this book more compelling but inaccessible have been left out. The size of the book also is not daunting, at slightly over 300 pages.

One gauge of just how overmedicated a society we are becoming, especially the west and the US, consider this: a recent issue of Reader's Digest had three or four pages of content followed by four pages of ads for prescription drugs - almost across the entire issue! For everything from arthiritis, allergies, erectile dysfunction, menstrual problems, and many more that I didn't even know would qualify as ailments.




Here are snippets from the book:

Before its patent ran out, for example, the price of Schering-Plough's top-selling allergy pill, Claritin, was raised thirteen times over five years, for a cumulative increase of more than 50 percent—over four times the rate of general inflation.

Furthermore, in one of the more perverse of the pharmaceutical industry's practices, prices are much higher for precisely the people who most need the drugs and can least afford them. The industry charges Medicare recipients without supplementary insurance much more than it does favored customers, such as large HMOs or the Veterans Affairs (VA) system. Because the latter buy in bulk, they can bargain for steep discounts or rebates. People without insurance have no bargaining power; and so they pay the highest prices.

Second, the pharmaceutical industry is not especially innovative. As hard as it is to believe, only a handful of truly important drugs have been brought to market in recent years, and they were mostly based on taxpayer-funded research at academic institutions, small biotechnology companies, or the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The great majority of "new" drugs are not new at all but merely variations of older drugs already on the market. These are called "me-too" drugs. The idea is to grab a share of an established, lucrative market by producing something very similar to a top-selling drug. For instance, we now have six statins (Mevacor, Lipitor, Zocor, Pravachol, Lescol, and the newest, Crestor) on the market to lower cholesterol, all variants of the first.

From 1960 to 1980, prescription drug sales were fairly static as a percent of US gross domestic product, but from 1980 to 2000, they tripled. They now stand at more than $200 billion a year.

In the 1990s, Congress enacted other laws that further increased the patent life of brand-name drugs. Drug companies now employ small armies of lawyers to milk these laws for all they're worth—and they're worth a lot. The result is that the effective patent life of brand-name drugs increased from about eight years in 1980 to about fourteen years in 2000.[10] For a blockbuster—usually defined as a drug with sales of over a billion dollars a year (like Lipitor or Celebrex or Zoloft)—those six years of additional exclusivity are golden.

Drug industry expenditures for research and development, while large, were consistently far less than profits. For the top ten companies, they amounted to only 11 percent of sales in 1990, rising slightly to 14 percent in 2000. The biggest single item in the budget is neither R&D nor even profits but something usually called "marketing and administration"—a name that varies slightly from company to company. In 1990, a staggering 36 percent of sales revenues went into this category, and that proportion remained about the same for over a decade.[13] Note that this is two and a half times the expenditures for R&D.

Kindle Excerpt:



© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved. Reposted to this blog Nov 2011

Steven's Pass, Washington

It was in March 1999 (Mar 27, according to the date stamp on one of the photos) that I and Subhash went skiing. It was near the end of the skiing season - so I wasn't very sure of our chances of finding any of the places open - we had only two choices: Snoqualmie Pass (wikipedia link, WA DOT link) and Steven's Pass (they also have a live webcam). There is skiing on Hurrican Ridge too, but that wasn't a very practical alternative.


This description is from a web site (http://www.gonorthwest.com/)
Stevens Pass, elevation 4,061 feet, is on US Highway 2 - the Stevens Pass Greenway - and is one of two east-west highways with mountain passes open year-round in Washington State. The other is I-90, to the south, which crosses Snoqualmie Pass.

The 105-mile Stevens Pass scenic byway winds through the rugged, forested Cascade Mountains and runs beside the wild and scenic Skykomish and Wenatchee rivers along most of its length. Year-round recreation opportunities include white-water rafting, hiking, skiing and auto touring. Travelers are advised to carry tire chains and monitor weather conditions during snow season.

Here is the Washington State Dept of Transportation (DOT) web page that lists all passes in the state, the Steven's Pass page also has a live webcam.

As it turned out, the weekend was the last weekend of skiing at Steven's Pass, after which they would close for the season, and open only in November or December, depending on when the first snowfall hit the pass.


Since neither of us had skied before, classes were needed. It's also good that Steven's Pass had cross-country skiing, which, while less exciting than downhill skiing, is also easier to try if one is trying skiing for the first time.

There was a special package available, that included a day pass, skis, boots, and a one hour group training session. Lucky day that it was for us, we were the only ones there that day who were skiing there with a single day pass - everyone else there had season passes or had their own ski equipment. We ended up getting a personal lesson that day!

The fun thing about falling on your posterior in snow is that it doesn't hurt, at all. I fell down that day at least a hundred times, without so much as a hint of a sore butt to show for it. And, if it is cold enough, as it was that day, the snow is powdery enough that it doesn't soak your jeans either. Skiing with a wet jeans is not very nice, though if you have to have one part of your body wet with melted snow, the posterior is the one.

Once we figured out that the key to successful skiing, at least cross country, is to learn to balance your weight, it was loads of fun after that. Three hours or so on the trails - about two hours uphill and one hour downhill - is one of the best cardio workouts you could imagine, and that too without running up a sweat. You do sweat, but you don't feel it - it's cold, that's why.

Subhash was nice enough to shoot some photos of mine, on my two feet as well as when I was on all fours.


No good deed should go unpunished. So, when it came to my turn with the camera, knowing that my good friend was as much a ski expert as I was, all I had to do was to aim the camera at him, and wait. And I didn't have to wait too long...





A couple of weeks later we went to Mt Hood for downhill skiing - which was even more fun. We took the beginner's slope there.

© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved. Re-posted to this blog June 2013

Late Show in New York

1996, Thanksgiving weekend, in New York City - my first visit to the big apple. The date stamp in the photo below is off by a day or two...
1996_NYCLateShow


© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved. Reposted to this blog, April, 2013

Audi A4


Nov 04 2006

This is by far the most expensive car I bought, and probably the most expensive I may ever buy.

This is a 1998 Audi A4, 2.8 liter V6 engine, with five valves per cylinder.

190 bhp, 206 ft-lbs of torque, 'Quattro' 4wd, ABS, traction control, tiptronic transmission - the works.

Apart from my brother's 7 series, this is the only car I have been in where you could be driving at 65 mph, step on the gas, see the tachometer rise, the car downshift one gear, and actually feel the car surge forward effortlessly, passing 80mph in a whisker. Of course, this did get me a couple of speeding tickets in Milwaukee - so that's a reinforcement of the benefits of obeying the law! Crime does not pay.

The building in the background is the office of McHugh Software (now called RedPrairie Corporation), based in Waukesh (which is a suburb of Milwaukee). Here is the Waukesha Google map, the city web page, and the county web page.



Reposted to this blog, Dec 2013.
© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Whitewater Rafting

The only time I went whitewater rafting was in August 1999 with three other friends (Subhash, Zahid, and Ramesh), in the Wenatchee river (Wikipedia link). The rapids were level 3, which meant there was no real risk of death by drowning, though the guide did tell us that if we didn't listen to him and row as he told us to, there did exist a real threat of capsizing.



The entire adventure took a little over 4 hours. The rapids started appearing only after some half an hour or so, which gave the guide time to get everyone familiarized with how to paddle correctly, and other commands.



The next thing that Subhash wanted me to try was bungee jumping or parachuting, both of which I was not going to try anytime soon. As Seinfeld said in one standup show, the helmet is wearing you, not the other way round. And the helmet is really there to try and protect a head that has stopped functioning...




© 2006, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved. Re-posted to this blog June 2013