Sunday, July 10, 2016

Copenhagen, 11:50 pm

Since I wrote about long summer days in Copenhagen, the days have grown ever-so-slightly shorter, but even so, twilight lasts from sunset to sunrise. This photo was taken just before midnight. The streaks of light are from an S-train speeding south through Frederiksberg.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Day Length and Decision Theory

I am in currently Copenhagen where, 15 days after the solstice, there is no such thing as night. Daytime gives way to civil twilight, then nautical twilight – and that is the darkest it gets.

Growing up in Calcutta, I experienced relatively little seasonal variation in day-length. As far as I remember, it affected my life in only one respect: I was allowed to play in the streets in the afternoon on condition that I'd be back before dark, which meant I could stay out a little later in summer.

The longest day of the year in Calcutta is less than 3 hours longer than the shortest day. In London, where I now live, the difference is almost 9 hours. I sometimes wonder: if I had to choose between Calcutta and London based on day-length alone, which would I pick?

Graph made using data from

Other things being equal, I prefer longer days. By moving to London, I gained about 350 daylight hours in summer, but gave up the same amount in winter.1 The question is, does the loss offset the gain?

Most people are thought to be loss averse: the pain we experience if we lose £100 is more than the pleasure of winning £100, and in general, bad things have more impact than good things. The psychologist Paul Rozin illustrated this beautifully: "a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches."2

But when it comes to day length, I am not quite sure what I prefer. Sometimes I lean towards more variation, sometimes towards less. Perhaps this means I am indifferent!

A question for the reader: How much variation seems optimal to you? No variation (12-hour days all year, like at the equator), extreme variation (6 months of darkness and 6 months of light, like at the poles), or somewhere in between?

1.In reality the gain is not exactly equal to the loss, but let's pretend it is, for the sake of simplicity.
2.As quoted in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Four Postures

I took this photo five years ago at the International Manga Museum in Kyoto.

I posted it online with the caption The four postures for reading manga, and since then, a couple of people have independently told me they liked the caption.

The photo below was taken by Anasua's dad in a village in North Bengal (and is posted here with his permission). It is perhaps presumptuous to caption someone else's photo, but it would be a travesty to call this anything other than The four postures for playing carrom.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Subjective Well-Being

When I was in high school, on a visit to my uncle's, I came across a book called Tennis Confidential which he had borrowed from a library. It had a passage which I found interesting enough to copy down in my notebook:
Chris Evert was dubbed "The Ice Maiden" for her stoical on-court demeanor, but behind that facade swirled powerful emotions. On Evonne Goolagong, her immensely popular 1970s rival, Evert once revealed: "I never resented the fact that the crowds were for Evonne. But I was envious and wanted to shout, 'Don't you know I'm feeling something inside?'"
Presumably Goolagong reacted more vehemently than Evert did when she missed a volley. But perhaps Goolagong really did feel the disappointment more keenly – who can say?

Psychologists confront this problem in trying to measure subjective well-being. Most measurement methods rely on self-reporting, but as the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being put it:
[t]he nature of subjective measures means that we can never really know whether one respondent's 8 out of 10 corresponds to the exact same mental state as another respondent's 8 out of 10.
But not all questionnaires involve numbered scales. Goodwin Watson's 1930 study asked respondents to choose the best-fitting description from a series of options. My favourite among these is, "Life often seems so worthless that there is little to keep one going. Nothing matters very much, there has been so much of hurt that laughter would be empty mockery."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Seeing and Forgetting

I was just reading a book by the sociologist Howard Becker where, in a passage about the problem of categorisation, I came across the following quote:
Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing we are looking at.
The origin of the saying is not clear. Becker attributes it to Robert Morris, while other sources cite Paul Valéry. Be that as it may, I like it a lot. (This is one of the things I like about being in academics: I seem to encounter at least one brilliant idea every week – or maybe I'm just easily impressed.)

It seems to me that the insight can also apply in reverse. Ten years ago, in Bombay, a friend and I went to Marine Drive, my favourite place in the city. Neither of us had been there before. My friend saw the piles of tetrapods on the waterfront and said, "Wow, what are those?"

"Tetrapods," I said. (I knew about them from Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.)

"I see." His curiosity seemingly satisfied, he turned his attention elsewhere. He still did not know what they were for or why they were so oddly-shaped. He had received literally no additional information than he had before the conversation, other than what they are called.*

It seemed that knowing the name of the thing we were looking at had stopped him from seeing.

*OK, if you want to be pedantic, now he also knew that I knew what they are called.