1/13: Leaving home

Tomorrow, Pinky turns 30. I set out wanting to write 30 blogposts about her on the occasion. As it has happened, I managed 13 before I ran out of ideas and time. Anyway, I hope she likes them! 

Sometimes it’s hard to understand what some people are going through. When they put up a brave face and tell you that everything is okay, and they don’t crib, you simply assume that all is right with them. You don’t once try to understand that there might be some struggles going on within, and that the brave face is a result of being able to somehow deal with all of that.

Pinky hasn’t had the last three years easy. In August 2014, she moved to Barcelona to live by herself for the first time ever (she used to live with her parents until she moved in with me in 2010). The small matters of living alone for the first time, and in a new country, were compounded by lack of funds. We’d purchased an apartment in Bangalore earlier that year, and had exhausted a lot of our savings for that.

Unsure of how much she had to spend, Pinky economised. She would write a long email to me every day (and I’d wake up every morning looking forward to that mail), and while she seemed to be having a good time meeting new people and partying late into the night (on many days I’d be awake in Bangalore by the time she got home in Barcelona), she was also careful about conserving money.

There were times when she’d go out with new-found friends and not eat anything because the restaurant was too expensive. She’d ask for tap water, or the cheapest drinks, on nights out so that she didn’t blow away the savings. For breakfast she had buns and croissants bought in bulk at supermarkets – that came at a big discount.

She told me she looked forward to my visits to Barcelona in the hope that she could “spend normally”. In her last term when I lived with her in Barcelona, our monthly spending was three times what she normally spent when living alone!

And Barcelona was hardly the toughest part of her MBA. Her focus on e-commerce and operations had taken her for an internship to Jakarta, where she landed right in the middle of Ramzan. With her office being in an out-of-the-way warehouse, there were no lunch options available nearby, and she spent nearly the entire month without lunch, going all day hungry. Also a delay in her pay and reimbursement had led to a working capital crunch, which nearly left her homeless (it ultimately didn’t get THAT bad).

It was similar later that year when she was in U. Michigan as an exchange student. She survived an entire term without a lamp in her room (it was an unfurnished house), and slept on the floor on a mattress another student had donated to her. Food was also a struggle, as being the only woman among a bunch of Indians left her as the “resident cook” of her apartment. And the US sprawl meant she couldn’t get nutritious ingredients, which were only available at far-off supermarkets.

Yet, whenever we spoke, she was mostly positive and seldom cried. Irrespective of the difficulties she went through, she was focussed on her academics and career. It was only much later, after she had graduated that she had told me how she’d gone through really tough times.

And even amidst the toughness, she remained resourceful. She found that her US Visa allowed her to work on campus, and managed to make some money as a teaching assistant. Back “home” in Barcelona, she wrote cases and made more money. And despite some setbacks, she kept her job-hunt going, graduating with a much sought-after job with Amazon.

I’m proud to be married to her! And you might wonder why I’m suddenly writing all this – she turns 30 tomorrow, and this is as good a time as ever to express my gratitude to her!

Seasons

This day eleven years back I travelled to London to intern at an investment bank, in the middle of my MBA. The internship was an academic requirement and popularly referred to as “summer internship” at our school. The term confused people in London, though, with the common reaction being “it isn’t summer now”. Over time I learnt to respond to that with “but it’s summer in Bangalore”.

Back when I was a kid I dutifully learnt from textbooks that there were four seasons – “summer, winter, autumn and spring”. Despite efforts of multiple teachers to explain, I could never understand what autumn (there is no mass shedding of leaves in Bangalore) meant. Some Indian books we had substituted “monsoon” for “autumn” and I started assuming that “autumn” referred to the rainy season.

Over time I have understood that the monsoons are a uniquely India-and-around phenomenon, and they don’t exist elsewhere in the world. What’s taken longer for me to understand, however, is how that has affected my understanding of seasons.

Coming from Bangalore, where April is the hottest month, I’ve always assumed “summer” as lasting from March to May. “Mango showers” start coming in in the beginning of May, cooling down things a bit, and by the time we are in June, the monsoon is in full flow and you might even need a light sweater along with your umbrella.

Things heat up mildly again in October, after the South West monsoon has gone, but the sporadic cyclones of the North-East monsoon aren’t too far away, and there’s a graceful transition to winter. And February is the sole month of “spring” before things quickly heat up again.

It’s April already and things are still cold in Barcelona. It’s not as cold on average as a month earlier – I can occasionally dispense with my scarf, and pavement cafes are more full than before. I still need both a sweater and an overcoat, though, and the winds from the Mediterranean mean that the temperature you feel is much lower than what the thermometer suggests.

While I know that things will heat up in Barcelona in the next month (by which time I’ll be preparing to move back to Bangalore), the fact that things are so cold in April, the month I consider to be the peak of summer, is something that makes me terribly uncomfortable. I also find it quite funny that Barcelona was rather warm in October 2014 (when I first visited, and could walk around in shorts) and is so cold now.

This goes to show how much the monsoons affect the seasons in India, and in South India in particular. In fact, the definition of “summer” (as defined by school holidays) is itself different in different parts of India – South India breaks in April and May, and the North (where the monsoon hits much later) in May and June.

And yet, we continue to teach schoolkids that the “four seasons” are “summer, winter, autumn and spring”

PS: I find it hard to reconcile with the six seasons according to the Hindu calendar as well – maybe those have a North Indian bias

Amending the snooze function in alarm clocks

This is an idea that appeared to me in my dreams. Really. I’m not joking. Or maybe I thought of it as soon as I woke up this morning – in the cusp of dreams and reality, and then presently fell back asleep. Either ways, it doesn’t matter. The idea is surely mine, and not knowing how to profit from it I’m making it public.

The basic idea is that the inter-snooze interval between consecutive alarms should decrease geometrically. Currently, alarm clock apps on mobile phones have a fixed snooze duration. For example, my Moto G has a fixed snooze duration of 6 minutes (which I think i can change through settings, but will remain fixed at the new level then). The wife’s iPhone has a fixed snooze duration of 5 minutes (again customisable I believe).

However, I believe that this is illogical and makes you wake up over a longer time interval than necessary. The reasoning is that the degree of wakefulness at each alarm ring is different. When you wake up at the second ring (after you’ve snoozed it once), you’re more wakeful than you were when the alarm rang for the first time. After you’ve snoozed for the second time, you are unlikely to go into as deep sleep as you did when you snoozed it for the first time, in which case you are unlikely to go into the kind of deep sleep you were in before the first ring of the alarm clock.

By keeping the inter-snooze duration constant, what the alarm clock is doing is to give you an opportunity to go back in into the same kind of deep sleep (the longer you sleep between alarm rings, the greater the possibility that you will go back into deep sleep), which further impedes your complete waking up.

What is ideal is that the first time you get woken up from deep sleep, you struggle, snuggle and snooze, and go back to sleep. The next time you should be woken up before you’ve hit the deep sleep phase. You wake up again, struggle, snuggle and snooze, and go into shallower sleep. The next alarm ring should catch you at this shallower stage, and rouse you up. And so on.

So what I’m proposing is that the inter-snooze interval in alarm clocks should decrease geometrically. So if the first inter-snooze interval lasted five minutes, the next one should last less than that, and the one after that even less than that. Each time this interval should come down by a pre-defined fraction (let’s say half, without loss of generality). That way, even if you snooze multiple times, it ensures that you finally wake up in a time-bound fashion (beyond a point, the snooze duration becomes so small that it rings continuously until you switch off and wake up, and by then you have attained full consciousness).

So the way I want my alarm clock designed is that I define how much time I want to wake up in (let’s say default is 20 minutes), and a (harder to change) multiplicative factor by which inter-snooze times come down (default is half), and the inter-snooze interval decreases accordingly geometrically so that you wake up in exactly the time that you’ve initially specified!

So with the defaults of 20 and 1/2, the inter-snooze periods will be 10 mins, 5 mins, 2 min 30 secs, 1 min 15 secs, 37.5 secs, 18.75 secs, … by which time you should be annoyed enough to have woken up but yet wakeful enough having drifted back only just enough!

I think this is a world-changing idea, but I mention again that I don’t know how to commercialise it so putting it out in the open. If you think this works for you, thank me!

And perhaps this is a good assignment to start my career in programming mobile phone apps. Should I start with iOS or Android? (I have an android phone and an iPad).

Making coding cool again

I learnt to code back in 1998. My aunt taught me the basics of C++, and I was fascinated by all that I could make my bad old x386 computer to do. Soon enough I was solving complex math problems, and using special ASCII characters to create interesting pattens on screen. It wasn’t long before I wrote the code for two players sitting on the same machine to play Pong. And that made me a star.

I was in a rather stud class back then (the school I went to in class XI had a reputation for attracting toppers), and after a while I think I had used my coding skills to build a reasonable reputation. In other words, coding was cool. And all the other kids also looked up to coding as a special skill.

Somewhere down the line, though I don’t remember when it was, coding became uncool. Despite graduating with a degree in Computer Science from IIT Madras, I didn’t want a “coding job”. I ended up with one, but didn’t want to take it, and so I wrote some MBA entrance exams, and made my escape that way.

By the time I graduated from my MBA, coding had become even more uncool. If you were in a job that required you to code, it was an indication that you were in the lowest rung, and thus not in a “management job”. Perhaps even worse, if your job required you to code, you were probably in an “IT job”, something that was back then considered as being a “dead end” and thus not a very preferred job. Thus, even if you coded in your job, you tended to downplay it. You didn’t want your peers to think you were either in a “bottom rung” job or in an “IT job”. So I wrote fairly studmax code (mostly using VB on Excel) but didn’t particularly talk about it when I met my MBA friends. As I moved jobs (they became progressively studder) my coding actually increased, but I continued to downplay the coding bit.

And I don’t think it’s just me. Thanks to the reasons explained above, coding is considered uncool among most MBA graduates. Even most engineering graduates from good colleges don’t find coding cool, for that is the job that their peers in big-name big-size dead-end-job software services companies do. And if people consider coding uncool, it has a dampening impact on the quality of talent that goes into jobs that involves coding. And that means code becomes less smart. And so forth.

So the question is how we can make coding cool again. I’m not saying it’s totally uncool. There are plenty of talented people who want to code, and who think it’s cool. The problem though is that the marginal potential coder is not taking to coding because he thinks that coding is not cool enough. And making coding cool will make more people want to take it up, which will lead to greater number of people take up this vocation!

Any ideas?

When do you take a bus?

By now I’m supposed to have met my friend. If my bike hadn’t acted up this morning that is. It started but then I turned it off for a minute to close the gate and after that it didn’t start. Several futile kicks later I decided to take an auto rickshaw. And then I saw a bus come that way and decided to hop on. I’m sitting in the bus as I write this.

I’m thinking of when you take an auto and when you take a bus. In order to understand it let me list out the reasons I took a bus today.

Most importantly the bus takes the same route that an auto would have. This is not true for most routes in Bangalore – for most pairs of points in the city the bus connection takes a convoluted route. For various reasons, the most important of which is that it is infeasible to connect every pair of points in a city by a bus taking the shortest route.

Secondly the bus was empty. Effort enough for me to find a seat comfortably. But it’s been a rather bumpy ride so far

Thirdly the likelihood of the bus getting crowded en route was small. This is again an important consideration since a crowded bus move s slowly.

Fourthly there were few stops on the way – another rather important consideration. The reason a bus is slower than other means is that it stops along the way.

Finally and most importantly the bus will drop me close to my destination so it’s only a short walk.

That said my destination is here now so I’m getting off and closing this post.

Factorising 2015

Sometimes when I come across a new number I factorise it, just for kicks. So when the year ticked over that’s what I tried doing.

It is intuitive that 2015 is divisible by 5, so I quickly decomposed it into 5 times 403. And then my intuitive reaction was “403 looks prime. So 2015 is such an uninteresting number”.

But then doing the rigorous analysis (dividing 403 by all primes <= 20 (= sqrt (403)), I figured that it goes by 13, and can be decomposed into 13 and 31, which makes it quite interesting!

So 2015 is a product of 5, 13 and 31, which makes it interesting, in that it is a product of relatively small primes!

The year began well here in Bangalore. It started drizzling soon after the clocks ticked over 12, and this morning has also been what people might describe as “gloomy” but what I find to be absolutely romantic weather!

Wish you all a happy and prosperous 2015!

The cross-selling epidemic

Cross-selling is the phenomenon where you try to get more value out of your existing customers by selling them other things. And from the looks of it it is reaching epidemic proportions in India.

Yesterday a guy came up to me at the gym and asked me to try out some “power yoga” group exercise classes. I told him I wasn’t interested, and he continued to talk (I was on the treadmill so couldn’t run away). Of course my membership includes any group classes so I don’t have to pay more to do “power yoga” but the economics are not the same from this guy’s perspective!

Then for the last two weeks my gym (Gold’s Gym in Jayanagar) has been full of advertisements for protein supplements. And today some of their salespeople had even set up shop inside the gym hawking their stuff. From conversations I overhear in the locker room I know that several other members of the gym regularly take such supplements but the kind of advertising within the gym was way too intrusive!

Later today I had gone to visit a dermatologist (who I found via Practo) for a rash I have on my hand. The doctor seemed least interested in checking me and more interested in putting me through a battery of blood tests (which were done in the lab attached to the clinic). I don’t know why I went along but after becoming poorer by a thousand and three hundred rupees I figured that the tests included liver function and thyroid function test! Why a dermatologist would need such tests I don’t know! Anyway I’ll just pick up the reports tomorrow and run! Oh and when I was walking out the receptionist helpfully pointed out that I could buy the prescribed medicines at the little pharmacy also in the clinic! I refused an walked out!

A few months back I’d gone to my ophthalmologist for a routine checkup. After having got my eyes tested I asked him to check for my power on contact lenses also. He said he’ll do so if and only if I were to buy the lenses from his clinic! Since I’d found those lenses to be of poor quality the last time I’d got them, I scooted. Oh, and this guy has been my regular ophthalmologist for over twenty years!

This brazen cross-sell seems so suboptimal that it possibly drives away customers (but from what I hear, if every doctor indulges in such practices there isn’t much choice anyway!). I wouldn’t have minded paying an additional sum (over and above what I’d paid for my generic eye test) to get my eyes tested for contact lens power also. But this option (which would’ve worked out more simply for both of us) wasn’t available! Bizarre, I tell you!