Monday, November 15, 2010

Cost of a Smile

Recently someone updated their Facebook status with a question -
A sweet smile costs nothing. Does it?
Here are my thoughts on it - 

Suppose a smile costs nothing and everyone knows it. By default , everyone smiles at every one else. In such a scenario, the smile will have no value for the person receiving it - since he knows that to the smiler it costs nothing and everyone smiles at everyone else by default. Basically, it means that sending the same signal all the time is sending no signal at all. 

But, this is not the case. People assign a non-zero value to a smile, so it must cost something to the one smiling. And that cost is the Opportunity Cost of smiling. i.e. the value one would have gained had they not smiled. This value can be positive in many cases. e.g. the cost of smiling at everyone on the streets of a city like Delhi can be quite huge - especially for girls. 
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Thursday, November 4, 2010


"Thanks for your love, support and belief. The large scale experiment I started 20 years ago to study behavioral, social and psychological factors affecting credulity of people is now over. I have collected all the necessary data and will shortly be publishing the results. You can now stop believing me as a man of God." said Swami Ji - actually an undercover behavioral scientist - to a gathering of his perplexed followers.
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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Born to Run

Christopher McDougall - an amateur runner - asks his doctor perhaps the most frequent question asked by runners - "How come my foot hurts?", and when his doctor tells him that the human body - specially his at 6'4" - is not designed to take the kind of abuse that running exposes it to, Christopher McDougall - the journalist -  sets out in search of answers and insights into running. He ends up telling a fascinating story that involves an ancient tribe of running people, elite ultra runners and other crazy characters in his book - Born to Run.

Anyone who loves running or has a taste for adventure should like this book, not the least because of the ensemble of interesting characters involved in the story. The writing style is clever (even though sometimes straining to be too clever) and the author handles the multiple threads in the story quite dexterously and naturally. It is an engaging read which every now and then wanders tangentially to the interesting subjects like history of running and evolution and morphology of humans as a running species.

However, the fault of the book lies not with what it includes but what it fails to. In his zeal to counter the conventional wisdom, Christopher McDougall cuts some intellectuall corners and fails to provide a balanced perspective while making conclusions based on studies that are still work in progress. At one point he cites a study which shows that since the introduction of running shoes in '70s the Achilles complaints have increased by 10%. Now this statistics in itself doesn't tell anything unless it accompanied by the number of runners involved during two study points. The 10% increase could simply have been due to increase in number of runners. The author doesn't think it worthwhile to clear this important point.

Somewhere else he cites a study that found that the most common factor amongst the injured runner was price of the shoes worn and concludes that the most expensive shoes are the most dangerous. His conclusion might be right - but he might as well be completely wrong. What he shows for as evidence is correlation but what he claims is causation and the two are not interchangeable. Let me try to explain what I mean. Consider a very reasonable scenario where all the runners wearing expensive shoes are richer than the runners wearing inexpensive shoes. Further, consider another reasonable scenario where the rich runners lead a lifestyle that is qualitatively different from their poorer counterparts. Now, it is entirely possible that the injury inducing factor in the study is not the shoe type but the life-style of the runner. (McDougall , himself provides some support for this argument when he advocates coach Vigil's nutrition strategy for olympic marathoners: "Eat as though you are a poor person" suggesting that the life-style does play a role in how you train for running.) A well designed study will therefore try to eliminate such correlations. They control for all other factors except for the one being tested. So, in this case a better designed study - where income level and all other factors amongst the runners were same on an average - would have been necessary to reach the conclusion that McDougall makes.

At another point McDougall cites an interesting study by Professor Lieberman that shows how the impact forces experienced by the runners wearing thick heeled shoes are greater than the those experienced by barefoot runners. The study also shows that the way bare foot runners habitually strikes the ground is qualitatively different from the shod runners. While the study is quite interesting and suggests that wearing thick soled cushioned shoes for long distance running might cause injuries, Prof. Lieberman is quick to point out that no controlled studies have yet been done to conclusively prove these claims. So, while McDougall tells that no study conclusively proves that shoes prevent injuries and pitches for bare foot running, he conveniently chooses not to mention that studies to prove his claim - barefoot running prevent injuries - are absent as well. Again, he might be right about bare foot running but - as the Prof. Lieberman says - the current evidence is totally anecdotal and needs further research.

In conclusion, the good things going for Born to Run are its plot, characters and its love for running. However, I suggest you take the scientific claims in the book with a pinch of salt and consult the original studies for a more balanced understanding.

P.S.  Here are the links to the two interesting studies by Lieberman et al. that were published in scientific journal Nature. Both of these studies are relative easy to follow and understand.
1) Link to Endurance running and the evolution of Homo.
2) Link to Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners.
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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Journal Update: Hyderabad Runners Club Run

They say organizing a marathon is as rewarding as running one. OK, may be no one has actually said that and may be running a marathon is tad more rewarding but, as I found out this Sunday morning after working for organization of the first Hyderabad Runners Club Run, the assortment of emotions you feels at the end of both are not entirely different.

You feel the same sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and exhaustion after both. There's the same feeling of relief that it's successfully done; mingled with that contradictory sense of void at the loss of an immediate purpose. And eventually you internalize both as a mix of fond memories and lessons learnt and look forward to do them again in a better way.

Personally, the August Run has a special significance for me as a runner. As I wrote exactly a year ago, this was my debut half marathon where I first discovered the joys of long distance running. And it was at this run that I got introduced to the Hyderabad Runners - a group of enthusiastic runners with whom I later ran my first full marathon at Auroville. So it was doubly satisfying to work along with this same group and successfully organize this year's Run. 

However any discussion of the event will be incomplete without mentioning the enthusiasm and passion with which the volunteers helped in organizing this run. From event photography to the runners support at aid stations it was these volunteers who woke up at 3:30 on a Sunday morning just to make sure that the runners got as much support as possible during and before the event. And as is evident from the numerous testimonials that we received from the runners, the volunteers did an excellent job.
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Friday, June 18, 2010

Accused of Protecting Self Interest

This article from IBN-Live reports "Whether it's the Bhopal gas tragedy or the oil spill, the US government is being accused of protecting its own interests." which makes one wonder who might these bright folks be that are doing such accusing. Last I heard, a government is supposed to protect its own interests and unless someone shows how this has changed overnight, the inanity of such accusations will remain baffling to me. Such vacuity would not be of much importance during the normal course (who would be surprised to find such inanity in the daily news items?) but in so far as such accusations divert the attention from the real culprits, they should be addressed.

It is the job of Indian government (and not US) to ensure that interests of Indian citizens are protected. And what has the attitude of various governments in India during this whole Bhopal Gas Tragedy episode been? "Protective of its citizens' interest" is exactly not the answer that leaps to mind. In fact, the attitude has been anything but protective.

Arjun Singh, the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, hoping to score a few political points for the upcoming elections got Warren Anderson briefly arrested in his own guest house and released him a day later on orders from central government headed by Rajiv Gandhi. As if in an apology for the inconvenience caused, a government aircraft was arranged to take Anderson to Delhi from where he then boarded a plane back to US, never to be seen again on Indian soil. Since then Indian government has never made a sincere effort for extradition of Anderson.

In 1989 Indian government struck an out-of-court settlement with Union Carbide for $470 million in compensation, reduced from original claim of $3.3 billion filed earlier in an american court, essentially reducing the price tag attached to an Indian life. That US places a larger values on its citizens lives can not be held against it.

Not only did the subsequent government of Manmohan Singh refused to increase the payout to the victims but he has also been heard saying "Bhopals will happen, but the country has to progress" suggesting that such accidents are part and parcel of country's high growth agenda. If the Indian Prime Minister himself advocates a move on approach,  can we expect others to be more sympathetic to our problems?

Given such attitude of successive Indian governments (all headed by Congress party) and absurdly slow Indian judicial system (26 years to pass judgement in the worst industrial disaster!), it is ridiculous to accuse US of what essentially is an Indian failing.
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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Freakonomics - Some Thoughts

If morality represents the way that people would like the world to work, then economics represent how it actually does work.

After a gap of 6 months, I read a book this weekend. Not knowing what exactly to read and not wanting to spend money or time on something that I would not enjoy, I scanned through the book collection of my flat mate. The advantage of this approach, I thought, was that even if at a later point I did not like the book I could safely abandon it and avoid the sunk cost fallacy - you know, that feeling of obligation to finish a bought book even when it becomes clear that you do not really like it.

So browsing through the collection I came across a book titled Freakonomics-A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Levitt and Dubner. According to the authors, the book had "no unifying theme" and their aim was to "follow whatever freakish curiosities may occur to them". To me, who did not exactly know what he was looking for, this seemed like something that I might have been looking for. And the book did not disappoint me.

The book is an easy and interesting read. And even though it does not have an underlying theme there are some recurrent ideas throughout the book that are applied to a variety of situations. Following are some of the most stressed points in the book -

Correlation does not imply causation. This perhaps is the most prevalent logical mistake found in wide range of situations - from the suggested implications in popular advertisements to the conclusion of scientific studies. However, correlation very often hints at causation and the distinction between the two is made further difficult by the subtle nature of relationship between them. As xkcd points out - "Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there". During the course of the book, the authors make it sufficiently clear that anyone trying to look beyond the casual and conventional wisdom should be aware of this trap.

People respond to incentives. A truism of sorts. And particularly so when you define incentives in the broadest sense possible - from financial to psychological and social motivations. In defining so, an incentive just becomes an all encompassing term that can be used as a placeholder for the motivations and reasonings involved in decision making. But as some of the cases in the book demonstrate, more often than not understanding the underlying incentive scheme is crucial to understanding the behavior and interactions amongst various actors.

Conventional wisdom is often wrong. The key to understanding this is, quite unsurprisingly, understanding the underlying incentive scheme. More often than not the propagators of conventional wisdom - the experts and the media - are busy serving their own agenda which results in anything but wisdom. And when this propagated wisdom happens to resonate with the prevalent views amongst the masses, who themselves are loathe to critically examine the situation, it becomes conventional.

P.S.  A word to someone looking for a book recommendation - if you are someone who is curious to understand why the things are the way they are then you should find this book interesting.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Why do I run?

I don't know, I just like to run.

"A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they're capable of understanding." - said Steve Prefontaine about races.

Running, in a similar way, is an experience that also affects people in as many ways as they are capable of  appreciating. In its most basic form, running is so inherent to us that it readily lends itself to a large array of meanings that we might be inclined to assign to it. For instance, a novice may extol running for its health benefits while a veteran, on the other hand, may find spiritual upliftment in it. The question "Why do you run ?", therefore, has as many answers as there are runners. The articulation of this answer, however, is not always easy and specially so when the innate desire to run precedes the conscious motive for running. And I think this is the source of the often repeated existentialist answer  - "I don't know, I just like to run."

So, Why do I run ?

I started running for a break from the routineness of my weight training sessions in gym. But why I continue to run (now exclusively), as I said, I do not know. I just like doing it. So, rather than giving reasons for why I run, I will list down some of the better things I have discovered about it along the way. 

Running affords me an opportunity to disconnect from the external world and have a continual mind-body conversation, which is very difficult otherwise. The conversation starts just before the run when the mind asks the body - "How do you feel?". The body might reply "Good!" in which case mind just says "Kool ! Let's go then." or the body might say "Not good." or "I don't know." and then mind tries to cajole it - "OK, we will start easy and then see how it goes from there. You are not such a wimp, are you?". And then as the miles go by, this intermittent conversation continues, interspersed with occasional, and almost meditational, blankness.

Then there is that famous high - that ecstatic feeling when everything just clicks into its rightful place and all becomes well with the world. The scenery becomes more beautiful, birds more melodious, lungs stronger and body lighter. And the best part is the unexpectedness of these highs, they may follow one of the most pathetic phases of the run or there may come multiple of these highs sandwiched right between some of the more pathetic phases of the run.

Finally, post run I love that indefinable feeling of lightness in both body and mind; as if while running I have shed some of the unnecessary mental and physical load.

I am sure this is only a start and there are a lot more other things that running will reveal to me. Till then, whenever asked about why do I run, I will be comfortable with the customary explanation - "I don't know. I just like to run."
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