Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mysore Zoo - 1

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The Mysore Zoo is one of the oldest and best kept zoos in India.

These crocs are definitely not shedding tears. Though you may if you got any closer. Say what you will about these cold blooded creatures, you cannot help but admire the pearly white set of teeth they have.

This giraffe had the most expressive eyes I have seen on a giraffe.

I don't know what this dude was thinking, but I am sure the global financial crisis is not it. Even though he would not be much mistaken in thinking the crisis has been caused by the doings of people not dissimilar to him.

Now isn't this an aww-gee moment?

The weather was hot, and hippo seemed intent on staying put where he was.

And this pachyderm, the Asian elephant and its calf, cooled off by drinking some water and spraying some on him.

© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nudge - Misc Links

See my review of the book here.

Political leaders line up to learn new art of persuasion - Times Online

The serious point about Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, is that it is written by two very serious people. Thaler, professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago, and Sunstein, professor of jurisprudence at the university’s highly regarded law school, are top-ranking academics. (July 6, 2008)
When Humans Need a Nudge Toward Rationality -
Nudging derives from research by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics; by Mr. Kahneman’s late colleague, Amos Tversky; and by Mr. Thaler and others over several decades. Mr. Kahneman, a psychologist, gives Mr. Thaler considerable credit for the birth of behavioral economics. (Published: February 7, 2009 )

Nudge - Richard H. Thaler - Penguin Group (USA)
Book page on the Penguin Books India site

Richard Thaler at a talk at Google. This event took place on May 29, 2008, as a part of the Authors@Google series.

The book site -

The book blog -

© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein

Excellent book.Should help you think about thinking about complex decisions in a different light and hopefully better and more efficient manner. This book belongs with a bunch of similar books - Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, How We Decide, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts - that have come out in recent years that talk to basically the same theme - fallacies and shortcomings in the way we think, what drives our decision making process, and how we can become better aware of these dynamics.

The main point of the book is that small actions (or inactions) can have major consequences down the road, that people underestimate the power of inertia, and that we can be gently 'nudged' into making choices that leave us better off than without. The key here is what Thaler and Sunstein call 'libertarian paternalism', that provides and preserves choice for the end-user (libertarianism) while at the same time helping and nudging the user into making the right choices (paternalism). 'Right' as in choices that leave the person better off and as measured by the user himself.

You do not have to force people into making decisions you want them to make. Nor should you eliminate choices for the people. Nor make it hard for them to select something other than what is offered by default. A gentle nudge may be all this is needed. Take the example of the order in which food items are laid out in a school cafeteria. Placing healthier food upfront is not eliminating choice, since students can always pick up the twinkie from the end of the line:
Would anyone object to putting the fruit and salad before the desserts at an elementary school cafeteria if the result were to induce kids to eat more apples and fewer Twinkies? [page 12]
How to make people save more and more efficiently for retirement, how to reduce smoking, how to help people avoid binging on credit cards, how to improve the rate of organ donations, make people eat better, improve the US medical health program for prescription drugs for senior citizens, how to reduce pollution, even marriages. Turns out all these and more could be improved via nudges.

None of these topics is controversy free. Indeed, people more often than not hold very strong and definite views on these topics. They do not take lightly to even being 'nudged' towards alternative proposals. It is likely inevitable that suggestions, proposals, and arguments put forth by the authors will make some readers see a hidden political agenda or unwanted insinuations. To the authors' credit, they try, conspicuously, to avoid taking political stands, and make sure to avoid criticisms that could be interpreted as political. They succeed, mostly. I will leave it to you, the reader, to read the book and figure out which way they lean, or seem to lean. This judgment will, I suspect, be based in large part on your own political inclinations.

Paternalism does not mean you do not present the end-user with choice. As people have argued (The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less for example), a plethora of choices does not always lead to more satisfaction. It is in fact somewhat counter-intuitive but true that choices lead to a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction. However:
To eliminate complexity is to stifle innovation. A better approach is to improve transparency and disclosure. [page 259]
Disclosure is akin to sunlight - just as sunlight disinfects, the light of disclosure can itself weed out many undesirable practices.
The false assumption is that almost all people, almost all of the time, make choices that are in their best interest or at the very least are better than the choices that would be made by someone else. [page 10]
In other words, we argue for self-conscious efforts, by institutions in the private sector and also by government, to steer people's choices in directions that will improve their lives. [Page 5]
.. never underestimate the power of inertia. [page 9]

Although rules of thumb can be very helpful, their use can also lead to systematic biases. This insight, first developed decades ago by two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1974), has changed the way psychologists (and eventually economists) think about thinking. Their original work identified three heuristics, or rules of thumb - anchoring, availability, and representativeness - and the biases that are associated with each.
This process is called 'anchoring and adjustment.' You start with some anchor, the number you know, and adjust it in the direction you think is appropriate. So far, so good. The bias occurs because the adjustments are typically insufficient. [page 15, 16]
... most people use what is called the availability heuristic. They assess the likelihood of risks by asking how readily examples come to mind. If people can easily think of relevant examples, they are far more likely to be frightened and concerned than if they cannot.  ... Homicides are more available than suicides, and so people wrongly tend to believe, wrongly, that more people die from homicide. [page 27]
Accessibility and salience are closely related to availability, and they are as important as well. If you have personally experienced a serious earthquake, you're more likely to believe that an earthquate is likely than if you read aloud about it in a weekly magazine. [page 27]
... Such misperceptions can affect the policy, because governments are likely to allocate their resources in a way that fits with people's fears rather than in response to the most likely danger. [page 28]
... when asked to judge how likely it is that A belongs to category B, people answer by asking themselves how similar A is to their image or stereotype of B.
.... Again, biases can creep in when similarity and frequency diverge. [page 29]

... loss aversion operates as a kind of cognitive nudge, pressing us not to make changes, even when changes are very much in our interests. [page 37]

Don Norman has written about it, quite eloquently, in his book - The Design of Everyday Things, and Nudge also refers to badly designed products, stating
... they violate a simple psychological principle with a fancy name - stimulus response compatibility. The idea is that you want the signal you receive (the stimulus) to be consistent with the desired action. When there are inconsistencies, performance suffers and people blunder. [page 90]

Therefore, the principles of good (and bad) choice architectures are:
1. Defaults
2. Expect Error
Leaving the gas cap behind (when refueling at a gas station) is a special kind of predictable error psychologists call a 'postcompletion' error. The idea is that when you have finished your main task, you tend to forget things relating to previous steps.
Examples the authors cite are leaving your ATM card behind after collecting your cash, leaving the originals in the photocopier, forgetting to include an attachment when sending an email, etc...
In the case of ATM cards, we have ATM machines that beep very loudly should you leave the card behind, or in some cases first require that you remove the ATM card before the cash is dispensed. For car fuel caps, the fuel cap is now attached to the fuel tank, so that the chance that you will leave it on the hood of the car are almost zero (unless you happen to break the cable connecting the cap to the tank).

3. Give Feedback
4. Understanding Mappings
5. Structure Complex Choices
When we face a small number of well-understood alternatives, we tend to examine all the attributes of all the alternatives and then make trade-offs whenever necessary.
But when choices become too numerous,
... one strategy to use is what Amos Tversky (1972) called 'elimination by aspects'. Someone using this strategy first decides what aspect is most important, then eliminates all the alternatives that do not come up to the standard. The process is repeated, attribute by attribute, until either a choice is made or the set is narrowed down enough to switch over to a compensatory evaluation of the 'finalists.' [page 104]
6. Incentives
As we have seen, people are most likely to need nudges for decisions that are difficult, complex, and infrequent, and when they have poor feedback and few opportunities for learning.
But the potential for beneficial nudging also depends on the ability of the Nudgers to make good guesses about what is best for the Nudgees. [page 247]
Pollution is an example of a topic where decisions taken today have consequences far out in the future. This is one situation where people will find it difficult to make choices that leave them better off. Also, the belief is that their action - of polluting - , taken individually, has too small an impact to have any consequence. Perhaps. But when taken in the aggregate, it can lead to catastrophic results for the environment in the future.

Another example is smoking, where the action of smoking is in the present, but the consequence, an increased probability of developing cancer, is so far out in the future, that self-serving biases spring up, making good decision making almost impossible. The presence of hundreds of millions of smokers worldwide is proof that people have difficulty in making the right decision.
When it comes to the issue of government employing nudges, one good test of whether it is should happen or not is what the authors describe as:
... we endorse what the philosopher John Rawls (1971) called the publicity principle. In its simplest form, the publicity principle bans government from selecting a policy that it would not be able or willing to defend publicly to its own citizens. [page 244]
In the abstract, subliminal advertising does seem to run afoul of the publicity principle. People are outraged by such advertising because they are being influenced without being informed of that fact. [page 245]
People who celebrate freedom of choice are well aware that when 'transaction costs' (the technical term for the costs of entering into voluntary agreements) are high, there may be no way to avoid some kind of government action, even of the coercive kind, When people are not in a position to make voluntary agreements, most libertarians tend to agree that government might have to intervene.
If you engage in environmentally costly behavior next year, through your consumption choices, you will probably pay nothing for the environmental harms that you inflict. This what is often called a 'tragedy of the commons.'
The second problem that contributes to excessive pollution is that people do not get feedback on the environmental consequences of their actions. [page 195]

© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Upanishads - Prashna

The Upanishads

My previous posts on the book and its chapters:
Or simply use this tag search url to view all posts on the Upanishads.

Prashna Upanishad
The structure of the Prashna Upanishad is quite simple: six illustrious seekers approach the sage Pippalada one buy one and ask him a basic question about Reality. ... But the questions probe progressively deeper into the practical mysteries of human existence.
The Indian concept of the individual self was, of course, closer to energy or an essential vibration than to a form or name...

Prashna, "question", is cognate with the modern German word for question, Frage, as well as with the German for research, Forschung.

The two paths in the cycle of time go back to the Rig Veda. One way of looking at this, for purposes of our Upanishad, is that the moon shines by reflected light (as the intellect, in Indian philosophy, is said to shine by the reflected light of the Self); thus those who die without having realized the Self are in a state of reflected reality, while those who have realized the Self merge in Reality when the body is shed.

The individual with the "fires" of prana burning within is compared to a home with its sacred hearth-fire at the center (and, in the original, with the more common image of a city) whose sacrificial altars are active when the rest sleep. Strkingly, the mind is said to perform the life-sacrifice, or to command it: yajaman is the patron who pays the priests to sacrifice in his behalf. The final sacrifice, Easwaran comments, is that the mind "throws itself onto the fire" (i.e. is stilled, restored into prana), so that "what begins with purified butter is carried on with a purified mind."
Question II
2: The sage replied: "The powers are space, air, fire,
Water, earth, speech, mind, vision, and hearing.
All these boasted, 'We support this body.'
3. But prana, vital energy, supreme
Over them all, saidm 'Don't deceive yourselves.
It is I, dividing myself fourfold,
Who hold this body together.'

4. "But they would not believe these words of prana.
To demonstrate the truth, prana arose
And left the body, and all the powers
Knew they had to leave as well. When prana
Returned to the body, they too were back.

Question III
1. Then Kausalya approached the sage and asked:
"Master, from what source does this prana come?
How does he enter the body, how live,
After dividing himself into five,
How leave the body at the time of death?
How does he support all that is without
And all that is within?"

2. The sage replied: "You ask searching questions.
Since you are a devoted aspirant
Seeking Brahman, I shall answer them.

3. "Prana is born of the Self. As a man
Casts a shadow, the Self casts prana
Into the body at the time of borth
So that the mind's desires may be fulfilled.

7. At the time of death, through the subtle track
That runs upwards through the spinal channel,
Udana, the fifth force, leads the selfless
Up the long ladder of evolution,
And the selfish down. But those who are both
Selfless and slefish come back to this earth.

10. "Whatever the content of consciousness
At the time of death, that is what unites us
To prana, udana, and the Self,
To be reborn in the plane we have earned.

Question IV
1. The Gargya approached the sage and asked him:
"Sir, when a man is sleeping, who is it
That sleeps with him? Who sees the dreams he sees?
When he wakes up, who in him is awake?
When he enjoys, who is enjoying?
In whom do all these faculties rest?"

2. The sage replied: "As the rays of the sun,
When night comes, become all one in his disk
Until they spread out again at sunrise,
Even so the senses are gathered up
In the mind, which is master of them all.
Therefore, when a person neither hears, sees, smells,
Tastes, touches, speaks, nor enjoys, we say he sleeps.

5. "The dreaming mind recalls past impressions.
It sees again what has been seen; it hears
Again what has been heard, enjoys again
What has been enjoyed in many places.
Seen and unseen, heard and unheard, enjoyed
And unenjoyed, the real and the unreal,
The mind sees all; the mind sees all.

6. "When the mind is stilled in dreamless sleep,
It brings rest and repose to the body.

7. Just as birds fly to the tree for rest,
All things in life find their rest in the Self.

Book Details:
  • Paperback: 311 pages
  • Publisher: Nilgiri Press; 1 edition (June 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0915132397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0915132393
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 4.5 x 1 inches
© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Upanishads - Taittriya

The Upanishads

My previous posts on the book and its chapters:
Or simply use this tag search url to view all posts on the Upanishads.

Taittriya Upanishad
Spiritual economics: "Never disrespect food; never throw food away; the earth is an inexhaustible source of food. Each creature becomes food for others after death; let us swear we will never turn away whoever seeks for food!"
Part I, 3, 3: What is education? Teacher speaking to the disciple seated by his side, Wisdom between, discourse connecting them.
Part II, 1.1: From Brahman came space; from space, air; from air, fire; water, from water; Earth, from earth, plants, from plants, food; and from food The human body, head, arms, legs, and heart.
Part II, 2.1: From food are made all bodies, which become
Food again for  others after their death.
Those who look upon food as they Lord's gift
Shall never lack life's physical comforts.
From food are made all bodies. All bodies
Feed on food, and it feeds on all bodies.
Part II, 4.1: Within the mental sheath, made up of waves
Of thought, there is contained the sheath of wisdom.
It has the same form, with faith as the head,
Righteousness as right arm and truth as left.
Practice meditation is its heart,
And discrimination its foundation.
Part II, 7.1: Before the universe was created,
Braman existed as unmanifested.
Brahman brought the Lord out of himself;
Therefore he is called the Self-existent.

Part III, 1.1: Bhrigu went to his father, Varuna,
And asked respectfully: "What is Brahman?"
Varuna replied: "First learn about food,..."
Part III 2.1: Bhrigu meditated and found that food is Brahman. ...
Part III 3.1: Bhrigu meditated and found that life is Brahman. ...
Part IV, 4.1:  Bhrigu meditated and found that mind is Brahman. ...

Part IV, 5.1:  Bhrigu meditated and found that wisdom is Brahman. ...

Part IV, 6.1:  Bhrigu meditated and found that joy is Brahman. ...

Book Details:
  • Paperback: 311 pages
  • Publisher: Nilgiri Press; 1 edition (June 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0915132397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0915132393
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 4.5 x 1 inches
© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ranganatha Swamy Temple, Srirangapatna

As I blogged about - Colonel Bailey's Dungeon, Srirangapatna (July 06 2009)- if you happen to be near Colonel Bailey's Dungeon in Srirangapatna, the Ranganatha Swamy temple is a five minute walk away.

As this signpost tells you, which is at T-junction, from where, if you go straight, you reach Colonel Bailey's Dungeon some 100 meters ahead , and if you make a right, you reach the temple. Our guide, helpful as ever, suggested we first see the Dungeon, and then the Temple. Good advice.

If you see the map below, at the top left corner is Colonel Bailey's Dungeon, and the large rectangular structure seen at the bottom of the map is the compound of the temple.

View Larger Map

Per Wikipedia (, the temple is dedicated to Sri Ranganatha Swamy, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu.
The temple was constructed by the Ganga dynasty, and later improved upon by the Hoysalas and the Vijayanagar kings.

The temple dates back to 894 A.D. Yes. That makes it more than eleven hundred years old. 1115 years to be precise. For over eleven centuries this temple has seen a steady throng of devotees, of priests, of ceremonies. This temple stood some 700 years before the British came to India. The Mughal dynasty would start more than 600 years after this temple came into being. Columbus would not discover America for nearly 600 years.Simple awe-inspiring. Living history.

Closeups of some of the sculptures on the outside facade of the temple. Photography is not allowed inside the temple itself.

We saw a couple of elephants parked inside the compound,with the mahouts ready to have the elephants bless the devout, in exchange for some offerings to the pachyderms. Needless to say, there was a steady stream of the devout as well as the inquisitive. Who would not want that?

The Archaeological Survey of India has put up useful information about the temple outside the premises, in three languages - English, Hindi, and Kannada - which means that most literate people should be able to understand more about the temple and its history.

And here are closeups of the three information boards: this first board informs us that this is a monument of national importance, so please do treat it with respect.

Since there are several places of historical interest in the town of Srirangapatna, this board below gives a useful overview of the town and markings of the places therein.

This third tablet informs us of the actual history of the place.

A zoomed-in cropped shot of the plaque:

Which reads:
"Built by a Ganga chieftain, Tirumalaraya in 894 AD this East facing Temple was later expanded by the Hoysalas, Vijayanagara monarchs, Mysore Wodeyars, and Hyder Ali.
The presiding deity is a colossal statue of Lord Vishnu as Ranganatha, reclining on the huge coils of the serpent Sesha, with multiple hoods. This is the largest image of a reclining Vishnu in Karnataka.
The Navaranga doorway is guarded on either side by two large Dvarapalakas. Most of the pillars in the courtyard are in the Hoysala style. The main entrance has four pillars of the Vijayanagar period sculpted with the 24 forms of Vishnu.
There are many other shrines like Ranganayaki, Narasimha, Sudarshana, Gopalakrishna, Srinivasa, Rama Group, and Ramanuja Desika in the complex.
The large granite, pillared collonade in front of the main shrine has a monolithic Garuda stambha of the late Vijayanagara period.

© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.