People are Predictably Irrational – Professor Thaler

Williamstown, MA. Autumn in New England.

Williamstown, a town in Berkshire County, in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Richard H. Thaler was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences on Monday. Way back in 2010, while writing about Choice Architecture as it pertains to advertising, I found his best-selling book “Nudge” rather fascinating.

In a nutshell, the book is about our choices. But it’s not just about how we make them, the authors have also shown us how reasonable choice architecture can nudge us towards making better decisions. And of course, their statements are backed by decades of research in the fields of behavioral economics.

Here’s an excerpt from my post on Choice Architecture and Advertising –

“If books like Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Prof. Cass R. Sunstein or Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely are to believed, our mind plays quite a few tricks on us, and those tricks actually influence our day to day decisions! This piqued my interest in the subject and I realized along the way just how invaluable this field of study, known as Behavorial Economics, is for the advertising industry.”

To read more, hop on to The Business of Advertising.

Prof. Thaler also appeared in the 2015 film “The Big Short,” which in my opinion, is one of the best depictions of the 2008 housing bubble, the fiasco that led to the financial crisis.

Mainstream economics simply surmised that people behave rationally. But according to the good professor, one has to keep in mind that people are human, not flawless robots. People behave irrationally, yes, but they do so consistently. And it is this consistency that will help us foresee, and in some cases, shape behavior.

When behavioral economists say that people are predictably irrational, it’s the word predictable that will make all the difference in the world. Now you see where marketing and advertising comes in.

Sure, governments around the world have experimented with his model to drive everything from school lunch programs to retirement savings plans. But I am intrigued by the implications it has for understanding buyer behavior and buyer motive. It ties in well with my current pursuit of Web Analytics.

When Prof. Thaler was asked how he would spend his prize money of about $1.1 million, he said that he would “try to spend it as irrationally as possible.”

On that note, don’t ask me why there is a picture of fall foliage at the beginning of this post. I am discussing behavioral sciences here, a topic that has nothing to do with the four seasons of New England. Well, what can  I say? In keeping with the topic at hand, I am trying my best to be irrational as well.

Allergy Friendly Birthday Treat

Strawberries dipped in chocolate

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Last time I did a post on allergy friendly snacks, it was about tahini on toast. This year I found a great alternative to cupcakes, when it came to the annual school birthday treat. With those frosted cupcakes, sugar is already on the cards, so I decided to go for strawberries dipped in chocolate. No eggs. No nuts. And if you use vegan chocolate, you can go dairy free as well.

A box of freshly rinsed, plump strawberries and melted chocolate, that’s all you need. And yes, it was a hit with the first graders. For those with strawberry allergies, as you know, any other berry or fruit works. It’s hassle free and ticks all the birthday treat boxes – sweet, tasty and chocolate-y.

Just wanted to put this out there as a healthy allergy friendly alternative for kids. Moms and Dads, please take note.

Durga Pujo in Kolkata, India

Durga Puja in Kolkata, India

Photo by Dibyaroop Samajpati All rights reserved ©

Let me start by saying Durga Pujo in Kolkata is not your usual Pujo, a word that roughly translates to “offering of prayers to a deity.” It’s not about penance, abstinence, or thriftiness. Think of all the fun festivals around the world. Dare I say Rio? New Orleans?

Okay, now that we are in the right direction, let’s add a fierce goddess (Durga), astride a lion, in battle with a shape-shifting demon, being replicated in various art forms in handcrafted tents (pandals) around the city. If it wasn’t for her, and the rituals and prayers that accompany her presence, this wouldn’t have been a Pujo per se.

As I have often tried explaining to many around the world, India is diverse and complex. All of us are not vegetarians, and neither do we all do the head-nod or head-shake or whatever you call it. The dots are not a must-have accessory for men and women, no matter what Brian and Stewie from Family Guy say. We have different languages and customs. This particular pujo is native to Bengal, and the people who hail from there, aka Bengalis.

Durga Puja in Kolkata, India

Photo by Dibyaroop Samajpati All rights reserved ©

While watching an episode of Wild Kratts, my five year old found out that the Royal Bengal Tiger is from Bengal, and yes, we are quite worried about their dwindling numbers. We are partial to football (you say soccer I say football) and fried fish, and the arts. Not necessarily in that order.

So, can you think of a better place to show off the handiwork of native artists than the intricate designs adorning the various Durga idols and the surrounding pandals? Themes are decided months in advance and then brought to life by skilled artisans. The artwork is brilliant, and I must admit it’s not easy to watch it all being dismantled after just four days.

Durga Puja in Kolkata, India

Work in progress. Photo by Dibyaroop Samajpati All rights reserved ©

But for those precious few days, we revel in the celebrations with friends and family. Nowadays many age old customs have been modified to include the outliers, the outcasts, and the marginally ignored. Clay modeling forms the base of the idols, and only after the basic shape has been formed, the idols are painted in bright colors and pretty designs. Once a male bastion, this field of creativity has now expanded to include women.

It is heartening to see silly old traditions being replaced by fresher, fairer perspectives. Being sensitive to the environment is another trendy aspect of this annual bash. Prizes are awarded for the greenest pandal and so on and so forth.

As with any festival, shopping and food and drinks are a big part of the pujos. No Bengali worth their salt is going to pass on the flavorful and sinfully rich mutton kosha or an aromatic mustard fish during the festival. Fun cocktails embracing the spirits of the pujos make the rounds in restaurants. Diets be damned. Fasting is unheard of. Other parts of India may celebrate their festivals by staying away from food. Not us. Not the Bengalis.

Thanks to the mask of anonymity provided by the Internet, there’s been a recent spate of hateful comments around this very theme. How come Bengalis gorge on egg-mutton rolls and chicken biriyani while the rest of India fasts? Well, to that I say, chill and watch this video by Bong Eats.

By the way, Bong is short for Bengalis. Sorry to disappoint anyone who came here looking for the actual thing.

As for shopping, think Christmas. Think Black Friday. Get the picture? Not one to lament about commercialization of a mildly religious institution, I think this meteoric rise in spending does wonders for the economy.

And guess what, tourism gets a boost as well. My brother had friends from Spain and Japan making the trip to Kolkata just to experience this joyful madness, the gorgeous chaotic extravaganza that is Durga Pujo.

Note: In no way do the above photos do justice to the creativity of the artists or the variety of art found in Kolkata during this time of the year. For more pics, you could google Durga Puja or hop over to this article on The Wire.

Pic(k) of the Week – Maine Sunset

Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

Ocean Point Walk. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

On our very first evening in Boothbay Harbor, we parked on Shore Road and walked along the rocky coastline just in time to view this gorgeous sunset.

The Ocean Point Inn stood by the shore making the most of its vantage point.

One day, I intend to go back there and enjoy this very sunset with a glass of chardonnay. Till then, stay tuned for more postcards from Maine.

Main Streets of Maine

Boothbay Harbor, Maine

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

So, there we were, parked right on Boothbay Harbor’s hopping Main Street. It had everything you would expect in a quintessential New England setting. And I was thinking of wandering in and out of quaint shops selling everything from tshirts and scarves to knick-knacks that I wouldn’t know what to do with even if I bought them.

Although, I did like the sea-themed pillows and cotton totes that were on display at a surprisingly fancy-looking furniture store. Not too many summers back, I got a white tote with blue whales from a museum in Ogunquit, and truth be told, I am slightly obsessed with it.

But this time around, we didn’t spend much time shopping or exploring the downtown area because our five-year-old found his way into Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop and didn’t seem inclined to step out until lunch time. Spread over two floors, Sherman’s is a welcoming independently-owned haven for bookworms.

Right before entering the store, I saw a bowl of water left outside for the dogs who frequent the sidewalks. I don’t know if it’s the norm out there, but norm or not, I found it sweet and thoughtful.

We browsed, read, and bought our way through many, many books, some of which were on sale. Apart from books and magazines, Sherman’s sells toys and trinkets as well, as do most bookstores these days. This one, though, seemed to be thriving. They have expanded to Bar Harbor, Camden, Damariscotta, Freeport, and Portland in recent years.

At check-out, I asked if they close during the long winters that Maine is famous for, and they said no, not unless they are totally snowed in. As their website says, they are open 362 days a year, closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

We didn’t have time to check out the adjoining cafe, or the rest of downtown for that matter. But we did find some good books. There’s something about the ambience of a well-loved, well-stocked, local bookshop that makes all three of us happy.

Sherman's Maine Coast Book Shop

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

As George R.R. Martin put it, “A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”

Maine – Pristine Beaches and Lobster Tales

Popham Beach, Maine.

Popham Beach, Maine. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Deep harbors, scenic lighthouses, lobsters, blueberries, rocky coastlines, and thick forests come to mind when one thinks of Maine in summer. If you go by satellite images, its jagged coastline stretches to 5500 miles, if we include all the islands. Conveniently located farther northeast than any other state in U.S., the state of Maine covers nearly as many square miles as the other five New England States combined. Initially a part of Massachusetts, Maine officially gained statehood in 1820.

I have always visited Maine during the warmer months, although all it takes is a gust of wind for us to wrap our cover-ups a little tighter. And if the sun decides to go behind a giant cloud, out come the jackets. The water feels chilly in August, even as the warm sand feels glorious under our feet.

A trip during the icy winter months is one worth thinking about, even as I haven’t yet unpacked from our beaches and lobsters getaway. Did you know that Stephen King wrote his first novel, Carrie, while working as a teacher in Bangor, Maine? It’s hard to write about Maine without a mention of one of its most famous natives who has based many of his horror stories in the state.

On day one, we drove to Popham Beach on Maine Route 209, in Phippsburg. It’s a long stretch of sand beach that undergoes extreme change in shoreline and frequent dune erosion. It’s the marked effect of such beach dynamics that has led to Popham being called a rare geological landform. Visitors are advised to stay on the trails and avoid all vegetated areas.

Popham Beach in Phippsburg, Maine

The sand bar to Fox Island disappears during high tide. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

We timed our arrival during low tide and walked all the way to Fox Island. As with Silver Sands Beach, be careful not to get stuck on the island as the water can rise swiftly during high tide. Undertows and occasional rip tides are not uncommon in this area. The park has fresh-water solar rinse-off showers and clean bathhouses, plus being spread over 500 acres gives it the distinct advantage of seeming sparsely populated, even on busy summer weekends.

The Kennebec and Morse rivers border each end of the beach, and if you ask me, pictures can’t do justice to its pristine beauty. As with all Maine shores, the craggy rocks add a much-needed edginess to the bland allure of the blue and green.

After spending the better part of the day in Popham, we drove to nearby Spinney’s for dinner. If you are in the area, check out Fort Popham, a Civil War-era defense structure which found its place in the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

Spinney’s Oceanfront Restaurant lets you know that its not a fast-food place so do not expect your food to arrive immediately. A local fixture for quite some years, it’s the waterside location that draws people to Spinney’s. Five year olds are rarely partial to seafood, so my husband and I tried their lobster, which by the way, was not always the delicacy that it is today.

Found in abundance and called “cockroaches of the sea” by the colonists, lobsters were used as fertilizers and fish bait, and routinely fed to prisoners and servants. But then something happened. The railways started to expand all over America, and trashy old lobster began to be repackaged and served as a rare, exotic dish.

Inland passengers lived in their inland bubble and had no idea that lobster was considered coastal peasant food. They loved it, demanded it, and by the 1950s, the rebranding of lobster from yuck to yum was complete. And of course, in keeping with the basic law of economics, as demand increased, so did the price.

Speaking of seafood shacks, we also checked out Percy’s, another local establishment with even lesser frills than Spinney’s and a great view. It’s a convenience store and seafood place rolled into one. Although they tried, it seemed like they were ill-prepared to handle food allergies. As for Spinney’s, as you can see from the picture, they could have eased up on the fries.

Initially a fan of the whole lobster, this time around we stuck to the buttery rolls. If you are in the area sans kids, and with plenty of time to combat the long wait on the sidewalk along U.S. Route 1, do check out Red’s Eats. It’s located at the end of the Donald E. Davey Bridge in Wiscasset, and its lobster rolls are legendary.

Spinney's Restaurant and Percy's Store in Phippsburg, Maine

Seafood Digs in Phippsburg, Maine. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

When you go deep into Maine, away from the crowds and tall buildings, the sky seems to open up and the air turns fresher and saltier. For a while, you wish you lived there. People who actually live there may feel otherwise. That’s not surprising, is it? As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side.

Pic(k) of the Week – Cold Springs, NY

Cold Springs NY

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
— Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

Reading Enid Blyton in 2017

Enid Blyton

My tattered copy of the Bedtime Story. Notice the surreal cover. A clockwork mouse and a real mouse enjoying tea.

I grew up on a daily diet of Enid Blyton’s stories. Adventures, mysteries, boarding schools, pixies, gnomes, elves, wizards, talking toys, farms – she has covered a wide range of genres and ages when it comes to children’s books. I devoured them while growing up in India, often trying to draw parallels between my childhood and the one depicted in the books.

As you must have guessed, it was not an easy task.

She wrote about castle-like schools on the edge of the ocean, rocky bluffs, verdant greens, abandoned islands, sea-washed caves, horses, lacrosse, high-tea, and English manners. Most of her stories were set in the English countryside in the early 1900s. I was growing up in a city in India, in the eighties. Similarities were hard to come by. And maybe, that is what made her books more attractive to me.

The schools in her books provided a wide range of extra-curricular activities. My school was focused on studies. So in order to be more like those freckle-nosed outdoor-loving English girls, I started playing tennis. It was the one sport that my family had in common with the books. Nobody played lacrosse in India. I don’t think they do even now.

The moment I opened a book, I could go to a world, far far away. And when I wanted to come back to modern-day amenities and city life, it was all there. Waiting for me. But truth be told, the lives depicted in the stories, with their midnight feasts and laugh-out-loud classroom tricks often won.

Her adventure stories had the kids getting up in the middle of the night, still in their pyjamas, with a dog at their heels, going out to explore some fishy going-ons. Throw in a smuggler, some hidden treasure, a secret cove, a hitherto-unknown passage in an old dilapidated building, and a bunch of curious kids and see the magic unfold.The kids always had enough scones and biscuits and ginger beer to see them through whatever mess they had found themselves in. They were smart and brave, and above all, honest.

And in keeping with Blyton’s character trend, most of her characters, at least the good ones, loved the outdoors. They would go on camping trips, hike for days, go tobogganing in winter, and swimming in summer, all the while trying to stay out of trouble. But in vain. Whichever picturesque corner of England they chose to holiday in, trouble, or more aptly, adventure, would follow.

Nothing really bad ever happened, and the good guys always won at the end.

But in recent years, I have read critics who have pointed out (sometimes rightfully) that her stories were often not politically correct. It was the early 1900s for crying out loud. Things were different then.

With that in mind, I have started reading her bedtime stories with my five year old. We began with Enid Blyton’s Fifth Bedtime Book, which I recollect to be perfect for his age.

The story is called Sammy and the Spider.

It’s about a boy named Sammy who is scared of spiders. One day, on coming across one, he is about to kill it, when his mother tells him to gently put the spider outside the window. Amongst other things, she says “You must be kind to things even if you don’t like them. Don’t turn yourself into somebody cruel and unthinking, when you see something you are afraid of.”

Later, Sammy comes across another huge spider and instead of killing it, he lets it climb on his cricket bat and ushers it out into the garden. After a few days, on a windy Saturday, his birthday money flies out of his open bedroom. After searching high and low for it, guess where he finds it? Yes, stuck on a huge web spun by the huge spider he had recently freed.

Spiders are essential for the ecosystem. So this story teaches kids about caring for our environment.

And, it teaches them to be kind. Kind in the face of the unfamiliar, the weird.

These are the sort of kids who will go sit next to a child having lunch by themself. These are the sort of kids the world needs. And has always needed.

Enid Blyton’s books aren’t so dated after all, are they?

HubSpot Academy – Inbound Certified

Inbound Marketing is what we see happening all around us. Gone are the days of pushy, interruptive, seller-centric efforts aka traditional marketing. These days it’s all about the buyer’s persona and their journey. The buyer persona is created through extensive research, it’s a semi-fictional representation of an ideal customer.

Apart from being buyer-centric, this new kind of marketing is tailored to provide information, not withhold it. It’s all about leveraging the right content through the right distribution channels to the right person at the right time.

Contextual content is created, amplified by social media, distributed, and analyzed. Over and over again.

Marketing and sales people work as a team and share a common revenue goal, giving rise to the term “smarketing.” It’s a non-linear effective way of reducing duplicated contacts. It helps increase both marketing and sales ROI.

While studying for the certification, I covered the following topics –

  1. Essentials of an Effective Inbound Strategy
  2. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) – the process of improving your website so that it attracts more visitors from search engines
  3. Creating Content with a Purpose
  4. Fundamentals of Blogging
  5. Social Media
  6. Enticing Clicks with CTA (Call to Action)
  7. The Anatomy of a Landing Page
  8. Guiding the Next Step with Thank You Pages
  9. Sending the Right Email to the Right Person (If done right, email has an ROI of 4300%)
  10. The Power of Smarketing
  11. Taking your Sales Process Inbound
  12. The Pillars of Delight (Innovation, Communication and Education)

So, if anyone out there is looking to brush up the above skills, HubSpot Academy is the way to go!

Silver Sands State Park in Milford – Beaches, Pirates and Buried Treasure

Silver Sands State Park in Milford CT

Silver Sands State Park. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Silver Sands State Park in Milford CT

Silver Sands State Park. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Legend has it that Captain William Kidd, notorious pirate that he was, may have buried some of his treasure on Charles Island, off the coast of Milford in Connecticut. The island is accessible from Silver Sands State Park during low tide but it’s off limits for most of summer as it’s a designated natural preserve for local birds. The slippery half-mile sandbar (or tombola if you will) gets submerged during high tide and beach-goers are encouraged to be careful on it.

Compare the pics above and watch the sandbar disappear like magic. On a pedagogical note, it’s a good opportunity for kids to get to the bottom of this so-called magic and learn about gravity and tides.

Going back to 1699, the story (which many historians vouch for as true) of Captain Kidd goes like this – being a marauder of sufficient merit, he had a ship full of spoils, only part of which he buried on Gardiners Island, while stashing the rest away on Charles Island. After being captured in Boston and sent to England, he claimed to have tempted the authorities with the possibility of yet-to-be-discovered buried treasure in Connecticut. This could very well have been a last-ditch effort to save his life.

Also, going by local folklore, Kidd’s ghost haunts the island so as to protect his riches from up and coming treasure-hunters.

Connecticut’s coastline with its gentle waves could do with more such stories, as they add a certain charm to the place. We had a ghost-less, pirate-free, pretty unremarkable but quite pleasant day at Silver Sands. Sand castles were built, decorated with seashells, the water was tested, waded in, and splashed around. The day was not too windy with just the right amount of sun.

To go along with the cut-up watermelon and drinks in our cooler, we got seafood wraps with French fries in Chinese take-out boxes from the nearby Greek Spot Cafe and Grill. The fries were crunchy and served with four different types of dips, each tastier than the next. You can probably guess that we will be going back to the Spot.

The salty sea breeze made everything taste better. The sun continued to shine, the water remained cold and refreshing, and the seagulls didn’t tire of looking for food in picnic baskets. A relaxing day like this is by itself a treasure, don’t you think?