Quantifying life

During a casual conversation on Monday, the wife remarked that given my interests and my profession (where I mostly try to derive insights from data), she was really surprised that I had never tried using data to optimise my own life.

This is a problem I’ve had in the past – I can look at clients’ data and advise them on how exactly to build their business, but I’m thoroughly incapable of doing similar analysis of my own business. I berate people for not using data and relying too much on “gut”, but “gut” is what I use for most of my own life decisions.

With this contradiction in mind, it made sense for me to start quantifying my life. Except that I didn’t know where to start. The first thing you think of when you want to do something new is to buy new gadgets for it, and I quickly asked the wife to pick up a Fitbit for me on her way back from the US next month. She would have none of it – I should use the tools that I have, she said.

I’ve tried logging stuff and writing diaries in the past but it’s mostly been tedious business (unless I’ve had to write my diary free form, which I’ve quite liked). A couple of days is all that most logs have lasted before I’ve lost interest. I hate making checklists (looking at them psyches me out), I maintain my calendar in my head (thus wasting precious memory space) and had nightmares writing notes in school.

A couple of times when I’ve visited dieticians or running coaches I’ve been asked to make a log of what I’ve been eating, and I’ve never been able to do it for more than one meal – there is too much ambiguity in the data (a “cup of dal” can mean several things) to be entered which makes the data entry process tedious.

This time, however, I’m quite bullish about maintaining the log that the wife has created for me. Helpfully, it’s on Google Docs, so I can access it on the move. More importantly, she has structured the sheet in a way that there is no fatigue in entry. The number of columns is more than what I would have liked, but having used it for two days so far, I don’t see why I should be tired of this.

The key is the simplicity of questions, and amount of effort required to fill them in. Most questions are straightforward (“what time did you wake up?” “what time did you have breakfast” etc.) and have deterministic answers. There are subjective questions (“quality of pre-lunch work”) but the wife has designed them such that I only need to enter a rating (she had put in a 3-point Likert scale which I changed to a 5-point Likert scale since I found the latter more useful here).

There are no essays. No comments. Very little ambiguity on how I should fill. And minimal judgment required.

I might be jumping to conclusions already (it’s been but two days since I started filling), but the design of this questionnaire holds important lessons in how to design a survey or questionnaire in order to get credible.
1. Keep things simple
2. Reduce subjectivity as much as possible
3. Don’t tax the filler’s mind too much. The less the mental effort required the better.
4. Account for NED. Don’t make the questionnaire too long else it causes fatigue. My instructions to the wife was that the questionnaire should be small enough to fit in my browser window (when viewed on computer). This would have limited the questions to 11 but she’s put 14, which is still not too bad.

The current plan is to collect data over the next 45 days after which we will analyse it. I may or may not share the results of the analysis here. But I’ll surely recommend my wife’s skills in designing questionnaires! Maybe she should take a hint from this in terms of her post-MBA career.


So I’ve been trying to overcome my self-imposed taboos on online shopping, and trying to buy things online, especially brands and sizes that I already know and items that offline shops don’t stock much of.

As the title of this post might suggest to you I’m trying to buy shorts. I’ve had to decommission several pairs over the last couple of years for a number of reasons – some became too loose, some too tight, others wore out, more are fading away. And the lack of inventory of shorts in my wardrobe means that I end up wearing this one red pair pretty much everywhere.

While the beauty of online shopping is supposed to be that you get massive variety, and the long tail can get served, the problem is that the way sites are designed makes it hard to discover them. Here are two images, one each from Amazon and Jabong.

So I have two basic problems with the shorts that are available for sale online, based on these two sites.

  1. Too long: Check out the Jabong picture here. First of all, Jabong groups shorts and “3/4ths” (when did those abominations even become a thing) in the same category. But they are nice and allow you to specify length. I said “thigh length” and this is what they show me:
    Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 6.25.31 AM
    I mean, shorts by definition are supposed to be short right? I grew up in an era when Pete Sampras was bossing Wimbledon and shorts of this length were classified as “bermudas”. If you look at the image above, save a couple of “sports shorts” (it’s sad that Jabong doesn’t even allow me to filter those out, since I’m not looking for them), they’re all knee length! Which is too long for a pair of shorts!
  2. Too narrow: Jabong refuses to admit that there is something called “relaxed fit” (even for cargos). Amazon has no fit filters for shorts. And the shorts all look like they’re just truncated pants rather than shorts. The difference between shorts and pants (apart from the extent of leg they cover of course) is that while the latter are narrow, shorts are more relaxed, and shouldn’t stick to your leg! And this is what Amazon shows me (while Amazon has a separate sportswear section, it continues to show sports shorts along with the regular shorts. They even showed boxers. There is no option to specify I want the button-zip-belt kind of “casual wear” shorts):

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 6.36.03 AM

All of them are way too narrow! Of the radius where they get stuck to the thigh when you sit down leaving you with the potential embarrassment of pulling them down when you get up.

I had ranted during an earlier attempt to buy online about the difficulty of sorting through inventories so I won’t go into that here.

All I have to say here is that it seems like “shorts” don’t mean what they used to, and I’m extremely unhappy about it.

Sudden death and the discount rate

It’s six years today since my mother passed away. She died in the early hours of Friday, 23rd October 2009 following a rather brief illness. The official death summary that the hospital issued reported the cause of her death as “sepsis”. She only officially died on the 23rd. As far as I’m concerned, I’d lost her two Mondays earlier, on 12th October 2009, when she complained of extreme breathing difficulty and was put on ventilator in the ICU.

Looking back (this year’s calendar is identical to that of 2009, so memories of that year have been coming back rather strongly this year), I realise that the suddenness with which it all happened have left me with a deep sense of paranoia, which can be described in financial terms as a “high discount rate”.

Having moved back from Gurgaon in June of that year, my mother and I had settled down in a rented house in Tata Silk Farm (she didn’t want to go back to our own house in Kathriguppe where we’d lived until 2008). She had settled well, and living not far from her sisters, had developed a nice routine. There were certain temples she would visit on certain days of the week, for example.

And then suddenly one day in September she complained of breathing trouble (she took thirty minutes to walk from our then house to my aunt’s house, which is only a ten minute walk away). Initial medical tests revealed nothing. More tests were prescribed, as her breathing got worse. There was no diagnosis yet.

She started seeing specialists – a pulmonologist and her cardiovascular surgeon (she had had trouble with some veins for a few years). More tests. Things getting worse. And before we knew it, she was in hospital – for a “routine three day admission” for an invasive test. The test got postponed, and the surgery finally done a week later. She got out of the ICU and remained there for hardly two days before she complained of insane breathing trouble and had to be put on ventilator – the only purpose the 12 days she spent on that served was to help me prepare for her impending death.

In all, it took less than a month end to end – from initially complaining of breathlessness to going on ventilator. What seemed to be a harmless problem leading to death.

I realise it’s caused insane paranoia in me which I’m yet to come out of. Every time I, or a relative or a friend, show minor signs of sickness, I start fearing the worst. I stop thinking about the symptoms in a Bayesian fashion – by looking at prior probabilities of the various illnesses that could be causing them – and overweight the more morbid causes of the symptoms. And that adds paranoia and anxiety to what I’m already suffering from.

Like two weeks back I had a little trouble breathing, but no apparent cold. It wasn’t something that happens to me normally. A quick Bayesian analysis would have revealed that the most probable cause is a sinus (which it was), but I spent half a day wondering what had become of me before I applied Vicks and quickly recovered. When my wife told me a week after she reached the US that she had got a high fever, I got paranoid again before realising that the most probable cause was a flu caused due to a change of seasons (which it was!).

Another consequence of my mother’s rather sudden death in 2009 (and my father’s death in 2007, though that was by no means sudden, as he had been diagnosed with cancer two years earlier) was that I suddenly stopped being able to make plans. I started overestimating the odds of something drastic happening, and planning didn’t make sense in such scenarios, I reasoned. As a consequence I became extremely short-term in my thinking, and couldn’t see beyond a few days away.

There have been several occasions where I’ve left a decision (such as booking tickets for something, for example) until it has been too late. There have been times when I’ve optimised for too short a term in some of my decisions, effectively jacking up my “discount rate”.

I’d written a while earlier about how in case of rare events, the probabilities we observe can be much higher than actual probabilities, and how that can lead to impaired decision-making. Thinking about it now, I’ve seen that playing out in my life over the last six years.  And it will take a considerable amount of effort to become more rational (i.e. use the “true” rather than “observed” probabilities) in these things.

Sweet nothings

The problem with a long-distance relationship is that there is only one way you can spend time with each other – by talking to each other. Of course there are many ways of doing this now, given the advances in communication technologies – text chat, voice chat, video chat, …

But as you can see, the common thing to all this is chat. And to chat, you need things to chat about. Which means that the amount of time you spend with each other is limited by how interesting your days have been and what you have to say to each other.

It is a rather common occurrence that you want to spend more time with each other than what what you have to say to each other dictates, and in such times, you have a few options.

You could talk about everyday happenings like the weather or some news or sports (extremely unlikely, though, that a couple will spend time discussing sports). Another popular option is repeatedly saying lovey-dovey things such as “I love you” or “I miss you”, so that you prolong the conversation. You could even tell each other the mundane details of your lives that day, like “and then I got into bus 37 and … “. Else you could talk about your respective mental states, like “I got so psyched out while writing this algorithm this morning” or “I felt so happy I answered that question in class”. And so forth.

While all of these make for excellent fillers, and help you spend more time with each other by way of creating things to talk about, the problem is that they seldom add value (except perhaps for small doses of lovey-dovey talk). And when you over-indulge in filler conversations, they end up subtracting value from your conversation by overemphasising attention on the mundane at the cost of talk with positive information content.

Contrast this with a “normal” relationship where there are so many other ways of spending time with each other other than talking – I don’t need to enumerate them here.

In other words, when you do long distance, you only have access to a small subset of your relationship. Which makes long distance hard. And occasionally makes you go mad.

PS: tools such as FaceTime allow you to “virtually be with each other” by dialling and then going about with your own lives. But you are still stuck to the fixed point which is the computer, and that means whatever life you go about is unreal, and that can further add to the pressure! And hence subtract value.


Bring on the Blook

I’m normally not one to notice such stuff, but I was randomly browsing my site stats the other day and found that I had published 1997 posts till then (not including the three that I’d published and subsequently withdrew for various reasons). I’ve written two more posts after that which makes this one the 2000th post on this blog (including its predecessor). It’s taken a bit more than 11 years (I started blogging in August 2004) to reach this milestone.

A couple of years back, I’d considered writing a “blook”. “Blook“, for the uninitiated, is a book that is based on a blog. So you don’t really write a blook. You simply compile posts from your own blog, fix them in a logical order, write a foreword, and there it is! Back when I had considered the blook, I thought I didn’t have enough good posts on this blog. And then set myself a target of “another 200 blog posts”. I forget when I set this target. It doesn’t matter.

If I’ve written 2000 blog posts so far, I’m sure at least a 100 (5%) of them are pretty good, and good enough to share with a wider world than my readers? So this time, I’m seriously considering publishing a blook.

I’m looking for an editor to assist me in this exercise. The job of the editor is to go through my 2000 blog posts, and identify a 100 or so “good posts” (which are in a sense “timeless”) and figure out a way to compile and curate and put them together under  themes, perhaps, in order to compile a blook. I could possibly do it myself, but I might be biased, and attached in unhealthy ways to certain posts, so I’d prefer a trusted third party to take this up.

So if you think you can edit my blog into a blook, or know someone who can do that, please do let me know. I’m really serious about it this time. We can figure out a “structure” to compensate your efforts. And you will get editing credits for the blook.

A little celebratory speech before that: when I started writing in 2004, little did I know that I would hit 2000 blog posts one day. I thank all my readers, loyal and disloyal. I thank people who have cared to comment on this blog over the years (excluding the spambots), for it’s they who’ve kept me going. I thank people who’ve  brought up subjects from this blog for discussion in social gatherings. And last but not the least, I thank my wife, who I met through this blog (it’s predecessor to be precise), and who constantly berates me for not writing enough about her!

Oh, and don’t forget the blook!

When Kara met Pinky

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have an above-average long-term memory, and frequently indulge in “this day that year” exercises. While I have blogged about it a couple of times in the past, I do this practically every day – wonder what happened on that day in a previous year.

There are some anniversaries that are special, though. And there is no particular number – the special anniversaries are those where both date and day of week coincide. This usually happens at a frequency of five or six years (depending on the leap cycle), though it can be longer at times. For example, I vividly remember all years when my birthday was on a Sunday (1987, 1992, 1998 and 2009), and they were all spectacular (so I’m hoping for a spectacular birthday this year, too).

Anyway, today is the 28th of September, and it is a Monday. The last time 28th September was a Monday was back in 2009, and in hindsight it turned out to be a rather special day. The previous evening my “chat friend” had called me, trying to explain why she didn’t want to meet me. I convinced her to meet me the following day. And we agreed to meet in Basavanagudi (basically I was playing on “home ground”).

We spent some three hours together that day, and for virtual strangers who had only bantered on Orkut and LiveJournal and GTalk earlier, the breadth and depth and ease of conversation was rather spectacular. I remember this rather “special” feeling as I walked back home that day.

I promptly freaked out, and wrote this blog post:

Yesterday I met a friend, an extremely awesome woman. Once I was back home, I sent a mail to my relationship advisor, detailing my meeting with this friend. And I described her (the awesome friend) as being “super CMP”. I wrote in the mail “I find her really awesome. In each and every component she clears the CMP cutoff by a long way”. That’s how I’ve become. I’ve lost it. I’ve lost my heart. And I need to find it back. And I don’t know if I should continue in the arranged scissors market.

She seemed more positive than that. This is what she wrote:

First step is to keep your eyes open to delicious and nutritious tharkaris(potential marriage material girls/boys). Then, somehow thru some network, make someone set you two up. Third, interact. with tact. Fourth, put meet. or beat. Fifth, this can go in two ways now. Or more. First, is a no. Definite no. Second, yes. Full yes. Okay, there’s a third possibility too. Third, Yes, but not yet. This is a lucrative possibility which gives super scope to put more meets, learn about each others funny faces, food tastes, sense of humour, patience, sense of dressing, chappliying, smells, etc. Finally, it’ll end up in louuvu..maybe not the gut churning romantic feeling for the other party like a unit function, out of nowhere. This is more sustainable like a step function built on affection, tolerance, enjoying each others company, comfort, care, etc and if it were to ever fall apart then it would be one step at a time and less painful.

Things moved reasonably fast after that. Exactly fourteen months after we first met, we got married. We had fun. We occasionally fought. We bought a house. And we went long distance. Yet, in the last six years, I’ve never done anything for any of our anniversaries (date or marriage). There have been some customary dinners but nothing spectacular.

So I thought I should make a video this time. I decided to retrace the path of our first date, recalling some memorable bits of the conversation, All photos and videos were shot with a hand-held Nikon D90. I got creepy looks from people around. Lots of people asked me what I was doing. But the photowalk experience helped.

Normally, it’s the wife who stitches up the NED Talks videos, and this was my first experience with iMovies. Both my inexperience and my general lack of attention to detail clearly shows. Commentary was recorded in “synch sound” (along with the video). And I hope youtube doesn’t take down this video citing copyright issues.

Tinder and Arranged Scissors

For those of you who have been following my blog for a while know, I was in the arranged marriage market for a brief period in 2009, before Priyanka magically materialised (from the comments section of this blog) and bailed me out. I may not have covered this in any of the Arranged Scissors posts that I wrote back then (ok I alluded to this but not really), but I had what I can now call a “Tinder moment” during the course of my time in the market.

So on this fine day in Bangalore, I was taken to this Marriage Exchange called Aseema. The name of the exchange is quite apt, since based on two data points (my own and one acquaintance’s), if you go there your search for a spouse is literally endless.

My uncle, who took me there and who was acting as my broker-dealer for that brief period, told me that they literally had binders full of women (note that this was three years before Romney), and that I could search leisurely if I accompanied him there on Saturday morning.

My uncle didn’t lie. This place did have several binders full of women (and men – I too ended up in one such binder after I signed up) and four binders that said “Smartha (my subcaste) Girls” were pulled out and handed over to me. My uncle probably expected me to spend a few hours ruminating through the binders and coming up with a shortlist.

It was nothing like it. Each profile in the binder followed a standard format. There was this 4 by 6 full-length photo. You knew where to look for educational qualifications. And professional summary. It was like LinkedIn meets Facebook profile picture. And that was it.

I remember having some criteria, which I don’t remember now. But once I had gone through the first few pages, it became mechanical. I knew exactly where to look in a particular profile page. And quickly come to a judgment if I should express interest.

Thinking back, I might have just been swiping (mostly left – I came up with a grand shortlist of one after the exercise) on Tinder. The amount of time I spent on each profile wasn’t much more than what the average user spends on Tinder. Except that rather than looking only at the photo, I was also looking at a few profile parameters (though of course whether I would want to sleep with her was one of the axes on which I evaluated the profiles). But it was just the same – leafing through a large number of profiles in a short amount of time and either swiping left or right instantly. Talking to a few other friends (some of it at the now legendary Benjarong conference) about this, my experience seemed representative (note that I’m still in anecdata territory).

Maybe there is a lesson in this for all those people who are designing apps for arranged marriage (including the venerable Shaadi.com and BharatMatrimony.com). That even though the stated intent is a long-term relationship, the initial process through which people shortlist is no different from what people follow on Tinder. Maybe there surely is a market for a Tinder-like arranged marriage application!