Monday, April 30, 2012

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer - Review

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer
Anecdote-heavy travels through the world of creativity, and its practitioners
(Amazon, Flipkart, Infibeam, IndiaPlaza)
4 stars

This is an enjoyable, surprising in places, though somewhat anecdote-heavy, travel through the world of creativity and a look into what drives the spark and sustains the fire of creativity in people who are masters of creativity in their disciplines.

If you read Jonah Lehrer's, the author, articles in Wired magazine, you will know two things. First, he writes exceedingly well, a craft honed no-doubt over thousands of hours of focused practice, and secondly, his writings are very much into understanding how the mind works and how we decide, incidentally the title of his previous monster blockbuster bestseller, How We Decide. This book is no different - written with a flowing felicity. Its focus is on a specific capability of the brain - creativity.

Whether it is designing a better mop, writing songs (Bob Dylan), becoming a renowned playwright (Shakespeare, of all people), creating movies (Pixar), performing as a soloist (Yo-Yo Ma), creativity works in somewhat surprising yet also reassuringly familiar ways. The single biggest rule of creativity is that it is open to almost everyone. Even people traditionally bucketed as "handicapped" or "disabled" (autistic people for instance) are blessed with a brain that is differently wired from others, and therefore better adept at creativity in specific areas.

Drugs too can help - yes, I would call that a tad controversial, but the evidence does lend itself to the supposition that certain drugs can help free the mind from the shackles of conformity and set it on a path of creativity. And not just drugs, even stimulants like tea or coffee can help. "Paul Edros... is said to have remarked that a 'mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.'" Actual drugs work by changing the way the brain works. "Amphetamines act primarily on a network of neurons that use dopamine, a neurotransmitter, to communicate with one another. ... the drug dramatically increases the amount of dopamine in the synapses, which are the spaces between the cells." However, this creativity needs to be followed up by long, long hours of drudgery, so to say, where this spark of creativity is refined, again and again, and then some more, till it reaches the pinnacle of perfection. "If you are doing it right, it's going to feel like work." or "In fact, there is evidence suggesting that the ability to relentlessly focus on a creative problem can actually make us miserable." To wit, if the next time you complain to your boss that he is making your life miserable, he may well respond it's all to make you creative!

Day-dreaming is for the creative types too - disciplined daydreaming, if ever there was a conundrum. Working in teams can dramatically, and provably so, increase productivity and creativity. The example of Pixar is used, and describes some extreme steps like moving the bathrooms at the Pixar team's office into the atrium, which meant, in Steve Jobs' words, "Everybody has to run into each other." Did it help? Well, consider Pixar's track record - every single movie of theirs has been a commercial and artistic success. There is also the story of how Toy Story 2, less than a year before its release, was "Well, it's okay". It took radical steps, like getting everyone close together, physically, and long, long hours of debate and criticism and debate, to get the movie out in the form everyone saw it. Did it take a toll on people? Yes, severe. Tradeoffs I suppose.

Lastly, cities are often derided as agglomerations of decay, pollution, crime, corruption, and moral decay. And certainly, cities and their denizens work overtime to fulfill that promise. However, cities also act as a multiplier when it comes to creativity. Again, provably so. From the times of Shakespeare, or even much before that, densely populated regions have acted as creativity catalysts.

To summarize, this book can be read as a loosely connected collection of essays on creativity. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of creativity, held together by scientific evidence and anecdotes. I would strongly recommend this book to one and all.

These are the author's previous novels:
Some other books I would recommend:
Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five, by John Medina
Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, by John Medina
( linkAll resultsKindle edition, my review on
The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home


Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lying with Charts - Google Finance

Here's a short post on visualizations and distortions, unintentional but still there.

There was an article on the web that remarked on the rather steep fall-off in Apple's stock over the past week or so. I went over to Google Finance to take a look. What I found was interesting. I took some screenshots and have added them to this blog post.

I wanted to find out how much the stock had actually fallen, which is easily done, and how much the line chart was portraying as the fall in the stock, also fairly easily done.
Let us do some math now. Simple math, the kind I like, the only kind I can probably do now.

First, let us calculate how much the stock has actually fallen. The Google Finance page on Apple, , tells us that on April 16, the stock closed at $580.13 - which we will round off to $580. Next, we find that its 52-week trading high was $644
So, you can see that the stock has fallen $64 from its peak, which translates into a 10.2% fall from its peak (64/640).
So, the first number of significance is 10.2% - we will format it bold to make it noticeable.

Next, take a look at the first chart. Even with a linear scale, the problem is that the axis does NOT begin from zero. Notice the first number on the vertical axis is $420 - Google is using a broken axis, which is useful for highlighting the magnitude of changes, as in this graph, but misleading because of its very nature; it inaccurately magnifies increases and decreases. By how much? Let's calculate.

If you were to take a measure and see what is the height of the stock chart from the base to its maximum, i.e. $644, you would find it measures 4" from top to bottom - approximately.
Next, you measure the fall from the peak of $644 to the current trough of $580. It measures approximately 0.95".
So, in this chart, a peak of $644 equates to 4".
A drop of $64 measures 0.95"
Therefore, the chart plots the drop as a 23.75% drop as seen on the chart - we will bold it to make it noticeable.

There you have it - an actual drop of 10.2% looks, note, looks, like a 23.75% drop.
To put that in perspective, had the stock actually fallen by 23.75%, it would have sunk by $152. Yes, and it would have been trading at $492.

Apple Stock Graph in 2012

Even when you change the time-scale to 5 years, it does not help completely, because the vertical axis is STILL a broken axis. The inaccuracy as displayed on the chart is a lot less, but it is still there.
Apple Stock Price over 5 Years

It is only the 10-year plot that has a true, non-distorted picture of the stock. But because of the 10-year plot, the recent rise and steep 10% fall is not very visible. If you zoom only into the current year, 2012, then the distortions creep right back into the graph.
Apple Stock Price over 10 Years

What Google Finance needs to do is add an option, a checkbox, in their Settings panel to allow a user to select whether they want an unbroken axis or not - i.e., to let the charting engine plot a broken axis when it sees fit, or to always display an unbroken axis.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Strand Book Stall, Mid-year sale, Bangalore

The Strand Book Stall is having its mid-year sale, just for this weekend. It is taking place in the compound of the Wesley Tamil Church, which is located behind Garuda Mall on Magrath Road in Bangalore.

This is the hall where the book sale is taking place.

This is the Wesley Tamil Church; it has an unassuming but elegant facade.

 The hall is to the right of the church. Behind the hall you can see the massive Garuda Mall.

On the road that connects Magrath Road to Richmond Road, you can see a couple of signs that point you to the Wesley Tamil Church compound and the sale.

The hall is is not a very large one, but still big enough to have four aisles.

As always there were some good and interesting books to be spotted in the collection. This is one that I had not heard of before, but will do so now.

Paul Theroux is a noted author, and this is a book with a very striking cover, shall we say. Most people will recognize the photo as that of Goddess Kali, but one can imagine that many in the west would find the cover rather striking. I have not read the book, so cannot say whether the cover has any bearing on the plot, or it is more by way of exercising creative instincts. In any case, I have added A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta to my wishlist.

The day was very hot and dry, and quite unlike Bangalore summers. This has been a particularly long and hot and dry spell in Bangalore, and with no respite from the short but refreshing showers that provide much-needed cooling down of the city. That heat could probably explain the low attendance at the sale. I could also point to the explosion of online sales of books via vendors like Flipkart, IndiaPlaza, Infibeam, and others. What is not in dispute is that online sales have been hurting traditional retailers.
Nonetheless I would also suggest improvements that Strand could have made to their sale. The books had been laid out in one long, continuous heap, arranged very broadly by theme, but not much more to guide visitors by. They could have selected the 500 bestsellers and given them prominence. These bestsellers should have been surrounded by similar books. The visible placement of bestsellers attracts people's attention - they do not have to hunt around the whole hall searching for books. The hunt is something that appeals to some people, and there's nothing wrong in that, because the hall had enough books to satisfy the motivated hunter of books also. For the majority of the people however, a better thought-out placement would have helped.

View Larger Map

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Laxman's Questions - Pratham Books

Laxman's Questions, by Lata Mani (Author), Zainab Tambawala (Illustrator)
4 stars
A small and cute book about a young boy's questions.
Laxman has questions. For birds and trees. About animals and nature. He wonders. And he learns that questions are as important as answers. His grandmother is always encouraging, while his mother is secretly proud of her son's inquisitiveness.

Book Synopsis:
Laxman’s head was full of questions: Why did seeing a bird fly make him happy? Did the birds who saw him feel just as happy? Read this book to see if you have such questions too.
Reading Level :3
Level 3: Reading Independently For children who are ready to read on their own
As part of Pratham Book's initiative to have volunteers conduct reading sessions, I contacted Maya and offered to conduct a reading, or two. She agreed, and a few days later I had the book in my hands. A few days later I was able to conduct a reading at, an amazing school for pre-schoolers, run by Ravi and Viji.

There were about twenty toddlers in the room - Magic Puddles follows somewhat of a Montessori model, where children different ages are mixed together to provide for a more enrichening learning experience.

Having children between two-and-a-half and four-five years of age meant reading out the story page-by-page would be a challenge.
What I instead decided to follow was to not read out the story, but rather use the rich, full-page and double-paged color spreads to tell the story.

Holding up the book, spread open, and then asking the children to guess what was happening turned out to be a winning strategy, and injecting humour in-between kept the kids' attention.

There was one child who had read the story earlier - rather, her father had read the story out to her, and she was super-super-excited to participate in the story telling session! I can imagine the excitement she would have felt - I was taken back more than thirty years back to my own childhood - as best as I can remember it now :-)

One thing that I realized was that the kids were too young to quite understand the importance of speaking to plants and animals, in a metaphorical sense. They understood the importance of asking questions. And were very willing to demonstrate it in practice too!

I shot this too soon... the little fella had not yet finished putting the book up.

And now he has. And now seeing the photos again, I sure hope the little angel in the brown t-shirt got his turn, because in the photo below, he is looking very hopefully, but still without the book in his hands.

And did I tell you the book is priced at Rs 30!! I think all of Pratham Books' books are priced at below Rs 50 - that is simply amazing!

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

The Fifth Witness, Michael Connelly - review

The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly
Sticks and stones do break the bones, and yes, words too can hurt.
(my review on Amazon)
3 stars
Michael Haller's law business is running on low, and he is handling house repossession cases, arising as a result of the financial meltdown. Therefore, he is sort of surprised, or maybe not, when one of his clients, Lisa Trammel, a "nuisance client" in Haller's words, is arrested and charged with the murder of Mitchell Bondurant. Bondurant was a senior vice president at the bank that was foreclosing on Lisa Trammel's house. To spice things up further, Lisa had been issued a restraining order (a temporary restraining order, to be precise) by a judge and ordered not to come near the WestLand Bank. Therefore, Lisa was a person who had the motive, and perhaps the opportunity too. To defend Lisa, Haller needs to find a strawman, an alternative theory, and introduce probable cause and sufficient doubt in the jury's minds to acquit Trammel of the charge. Facing him, as the public prosecutor, is Andrea Freeman, a shartp, smart, and no-nonsense person who plays to win. There is a shady Hollywood hustler, Dahl, who is trying to secure a lucrative deal for himself and Lisa for the movie rights to this story, something that Haller is also trying to sew up, more to get himself paid since Lisa is more or less financially incapable of paying Haller. There is a serious assault on Haller by unknown thugs that lands him in hospital with broken bones. In a nod to the prevalence and increasing ubiquity of social networking, there is somewhat crucial role that Facebook, the social networking site, plays. And there is a reference to Matthew McConaughey - who, incidentally, or not, played the role of Mickey Haller in the successful movie, "The Lincoln Lawyer" (see my review)!

Running along a parallel track is Haller's somewhat complicated relationship with his first ex-wife Maggie McFierce, yes - there are two ex-wives, and their daughter Haley.

The book ends with a slight twist in the tale, as has been the case with the author's two earlier Mickey Haller novels, and then there's a new, and major twist to the tale that should make the next installment of the franchise interesting.

This is Michael Connelly, the author's, third book that I read, and all three have been Mickey Haller books. Of the three, this is probably the weakest, in my (humble) opinion. There is a considerable amount of space devoted to the trial itself, in the courtroom, and to the frequent interruptions, objections, motions, and sparring between all three characters - Haller, Freeman, and judge Perry. While the basic plot and narration holds your attention, it somehow feels less than satisfying, compared to the earlier two novels. It still rates an entertaining thriller, but suffers somewhat in comparison.

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Oracle Nasdaq Times Square Manhattan New York City

This is another photos I shot in 2002, on 35-mm film, using a Canon A2 SLR, in Manhattan in New York city, in Times Square. The giant eight-storey high NASDAQ screen has a logo of Oracle on it. This giant screen was launched in 2000 I think, and apart from displaying stock and market-related information, the giant screen is utilized for displaying  the logos of companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange. Even amongst the crowded digital screen madness in Times Square, the NASDAQ screen stands out.

When taking this photo I had two challenges. The first was that this display would display the Oracle logo for a few seconds, and then move on to an animation that lasted for a few more seconds, and then return to the Oracle logo, and so on. I knew it was going to move to some other company's logo after a few rounds of showing the Oracle logo. So I had to make sure that whatever I wanted to shoot I shot quickly, before the logo changed to another company, and also, at the same time, make sure that I did not end up capturing some meaningless-looking animation in transition. Basically I had a two-three second window of opportunity, that would present two or three more times, in which to take this photo, or wait an hour, or more, for the Oracle logo to cycle back.
The second challenge was the lighting. This was not a digital camera, so I could neither peek on the camera's LCD screen and get a preview to make sure I had the exposure right, nor could I switch the ISO value to something higher, like ISO 800, and be guaranteed a sharp shot, and not one that was blurred due to hand movement and a slow shutter speed. The trick was to do spot metering, and then adjust the aperture till I got at least a 1/30 or 1/45 sec shutter speed. Spot metering was essential because I was interested in only the digital screen being properly exposed. If I tried to include the surroundings and try and have them also exposed properly, the screen was going to turn out totally white, and useless. HDR - high dynamic range - photography probably did not exist at that time either. Careful hand-holding of the camera when taking the shot would ensure that the photo would not be a complete wash - I did not have a tripod with me.

As it turns out, not bad. I was reasonably happy with the results, which I saw after moving back to India a few days later. That, I think, is another story.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Litigators, by John Grisham - Review

The Litigators, by John Grisham - my review
A Return to Form of Sorts for Grisham
5 stars
(my review on Amazon, buy from Amazon, Kindle, Flipkart, Infibeam)
After a long time John Grisham returns to writing a decent legal novel. Thriller it is not, enjoyable it is.
David Zinc is a bright, young, and burned-out attorney, working with a large firm that employs thousands of bright and young attorneys like him. David has a meltdown one fine morning, and spends the rest of the day, and afternoon, and evening at a downtown pub, drinking himself beyond drunk. He spends the night at the offices of Finley and Figg, partners at a boutique law firm. Calling it boutique and firm would be a stretch, and calling Finley and Figg laywers an even greater one. These are two past-middle-age lawyers who make their money by handling quickie divorces, DUIs charges, and have a dog's keen ear-sight, shall we call it, for car wrecks. This is where David Zinc, the bright, young, and now burned-out lawyer, decides to work at. While Figg (Wally) pokes around and dscovers a retirement-rich pot of gold jackpot waiting in the form of a cholesterol-reducing drug that may have been causing heart-attacks, David gets involved in trying to get justice for the undocumented immigrant parents of a now mentally-handicapped child, who got exposed to chemicals in the paint on a toy.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot of the book. The book is replete with hilarious send-offs of almost everyone in the book - lawyers mostly. The plot is not too complicated or multi-layered to make it a heavy read. The characters are mostly, and transparently so, transparent, shall we say, and in one case, we can see the train wreck coming from a mile away.

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.


Companies in the sands of Silicon Valley - Macromedia.
I had taken this photo in 2002, while in the San Francisco Bay Area for a business trip to my employer, Oracle. On a weekend, when I had time and a camera in hand, I went for a short drive and took some photos. One such photo was of a company called Macromedia, which was the maker of the highly popular Flash and Dreamweaver line of products, among others. In 2005 it was acquired by Adobe, primarily for its Flash and Flex line of products and technology. Unknown to me, or perhaps forgotten, was the fact that Microsoft executive, Stephen Elop, now CEO of Nokia, had been the CEO of Macromedia at the time of its acquisition by Adobe ( In 2002 Macromedia introduced Flash MX, which was to  quickly become Flex, and became the catalyst for Adobe's acquisition of the company. One of the reasons cited by Adobe's CEO at the time was the fact that Macromedia had, in Flash, a runtime whose distribution required less than 2MB of space. This was a huge consideration then, especially with companies starting to think on how to distribute rich interactive experiences to users on phones. Adobe tried to take the Flash/Flex platform to the next level, of making it a computing platform with the introduction of Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), codenamed "Apollo", in 2007. This ambitious goal never quite fructified for Adobe, was exacerbated by the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007, the move of the web towards HTML5, Adobe's own inability to bring out a Flash runtime that could run performantly on smartphones, and finally saw Adobe donating Flex to the Apache Foundation in 2011 ( and moving its own efforts more towards development tools for building HTML5-based applications.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.