Intellectual discussions

So this afternoon a friend came home and we had a nice long discussion on a lot of things. And then it was time for him to leave. But by then, I was in the frame of mind where I was craving intellectual discussions, but there were no avenues for me to execute!

I remember this time five years or so ago, when each day when I would come back home from work, I would open Google Talk and initiate five or six conversations with friends who were online. Some would be stillborn, as the counterparty wouldn’t reply, but my carpet bombing would work and there would be 2-3 conversations that would fructify, and I would have a nice time talking!

Unfortunately, with the decline of Google Talk, there are no avenues for such discussions now. In fact, what killed it was the move to mobile – the original point of Google Talk was that you could signal that you were available by logging on. And so when you signalled thus, someone would ping you, and you would have a conversation.

By moving Google Talk to the mobile phone, where you were online by default, it meant that you were shown online even when you weren’t in a mood to chat. People would occasionally ping you, but then give up. It was like the case of the shepherd boy crying “wolf”. So a green button next to someone’s name on Google Talk means nothing now, in terms of their availability to chat!

Other chatting mechanisms, such as WhatsApp are no better, being “mobile first” and thus “always logged in”. You don’t know who is available when, and who you can possibly ping to have a good conversation.

And then five years back, I stopped logging on to Google Talk and initiating five different conversations. I started logging on to Twitter, instead, and making conversation with people on my timeline . Unfortunately, twitter has been ruined, too. It is so full of outrage, and some of such outrage conducted by otherwise smart people, that I’ve radically cut down on the number of people I follow.

As the world solves some problems, it un-solves others, and creates yet others. And there was a time when I would blog, and visit other blogs, to have intellectual discussions. And now people have stopped commenting on blogs, also!

On dealing with good and bad news

So I was having a rough time an hour or so back and called the wife, and told her so, and that I’d been stuck in this vicious circle of negativity for a while now. In response, she said there was this nice TED talk that she had seen on the topic recently, and I should watch it too. And so she sent me this:

It’s a nice TED talk, but I think she uses too many words to describe what she needs to describe. It’s just not “quick enough” (check out the wife’s blog post on distractions caused by professors being too slow in class. She only talked about the throughput of words here, but I think it’s deeper and extends to throughput of information content) and it doesn’t need ten minutes to communicate what she has said here.

And so I thought about how I could convey the message better. I realised that the entire talk above could be condensed into one little finite automaton. And then I drew it (using the Paintbrush App on my Mac).

Goodandbadnews

I must say I’m feeling much better already! Tell me if this is a good representation, though!

On the wife looking Hispanic

So the wife had mentioned to me sometime in the past that many people here in Barcelona mistake her to be Hispanic, and instinctively talk to her in Spanish, which she is not very good at (though she is much better than me, and is taking regular lessons in her university). She claimed that it was because of her skin colour (“fair” by Indian standards, but much darker than white), and “features”.

Now, as far as I can see, she has no Hispanic blood. She is a born and thoroughbred Gult (though her ancestors migrated to Karnataka generations ago). So when she first mentioned this to me a few months back, I didn’t particularly believe her. And then it happened last night.

We were taking a RyanAir flight from Budapest to Barcelona. I was in the aisle seat and she was in the middle seat, and as the drinks cart passed by us, I asked for a Coke (and was offered a Pepsi, and must mentioned that the Pepsi I thus got is nowhere similar to the oversweet Pepsi we get in India. It was actually good), and held a conversation with the steward for over two minutes, speaking in English all the time.

Once the steward had handed me the can of Pepsi and two glasses with ice, the stewardess on the other side of the drinks cart said “that would be two Euros fifty”. Since I wasn’t carrying money (our division of labour (and hedge) during the trip was that I carried the local currency and debit card, while the wife carried Euros), the wife shuffled into her pocket for change.

The stewardess promptly noticed this and immediately said “dos cincuenta” – Spanish for “two fifty”. Clearly she thought the wife was Hispanic! And it is not that the stewardess hadn’t heard me speak to the steward all the time so far, in fairly chaste English!

This must go down as a bizarre occurrence, except that from what the wife tells me this is a rather common issue with her. And she treats this as a feature, not a bug.

Anyway, here is a picture taken on the day that the wife told me that people in Spain mistake her to be Hispanic. This picture was taken in October, on the first day of my first visit to Barcelona.

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ADHD and appreciating art

So a week back I finished reading my third fiction book in four months – “the Rosie project”, a book about a professor of genetics who has Asperger’s syndrome and his effort to find a wife. I got this recommendation via Twitter and procured the kindle sample, and having really liked it went on to read and like the book.

This is not a book review. Essentially in this post I try to analyse why I don’t really read too much fiction. About why in the last ten years I read not more than two or three books of fiction before finally starting on and finishing Neal Stephenson’s cryptonomicon. And then read the same authors 3000 page eight part baroque cycle.

So I’m not a great fan of movies. There are many movies which look interesting thanks to which I DVR them and start watching them but am just unable to sustain interest in them thanks which I end up not watching them. And these movies end up unwatched.

On the other hand there at movies that generate such deep interest that I can’t take my eyes off them and I finish seeing them in one sitting. Thinking  about them these movies have really taut plots, without any fluff, and this allows me to sustain my interest and watch them.

Three years back I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This so-called disorder means that it’s really hard for me to hold my interest on anything that I’m doing. That it means that I’m perennially distracted. That I’m not able to be in the present and am always daydreaming. Because of which I under perform and am occasionally not able to function etc.

Now thinking about it, thanks to my ADHD I’m a great judge of movies and books and lectures and any other media that need to hold your attention to succeed. Because I’m forever distracted it’s very difficult to hold my interest in anything. So my interest can be held iff the “plot” (this applies to movies books articles lectures and all such) is tight and without too much extra fittings. When the plot is not taut there is a higher chance that I get distracted, and since I have ADHD I stop making an effort to concentrate and focus and capture essence and it’s all lost.

Its interesting to note that movies that I like instinctively are those that are generally highly rated. The converse is also true – movies that fail  to hold my attention by not having a taut enough plot are those that are generally not highly rated. Of course you could argue that I’m a sucker for public approval but the correlation is remarkable.

So my ADHD means that I’m unable to enjoy a movie or a book or a lecture or an article unless it’s really well written/ Spoken/performed. In that sense my lack of tolerance for something that’s not up to par – by having redundancies and inanities and thus having too many “extra fittings” – means that I’m unable to consume any content that is even marginally under par. Or that I have very high standards for grabbing my attention towards anything which means that I consume little but whatever i consume is of high quality!

So the reason I gave up on fiction itself is a function of reading a lot of bad fiction. Stuff that was badly written but what I forced myself to read because of the “I’ve started so I’ve finished” principle. And the trouble it’s caused my has meant that I’ve decided not to read fiction at all!

In terms of non fiction I’ve been much more discerning in the first place in terms of stuff I’ve started reading. And the generous peppering of “fundaes” in most non fiction books means that my interest has been sustained and I’ve managed to read a fair bit!

I’ve written this blog post sitting at a lecture written by a rather popular academic. It’s a promising lecture but the first few minutes were not crisp or competing enough – which means that my interest hasn’t been sustained and so I’ve switched off!

The lecturer’s reputation precedes him so my opinion may not match popular opinion about the lecture ( expressed publicly) this time. But I believe that my ADHD has made be a great judge of whether something has been communicated well!

Basketball and playing to your strengths

Earlier this week the wife went to play basketball with some classmates in Barcelona. As she was on her way back home, we were talking about the game and I inevitably referred to my own style of playing (it’s a theme now – she says something about school, and I start off my own story with “back when I was in B-school…”). I was telling her about how I never really got good at laying up or dribbling, and I built my game around a careful avoidance of those themes.

She snapped that I was “one of those guys” who doesn’t bother learning certain kind of stuff because I’m good at other kind of stuff, so I assume that I don’t need to learn new stuff. What she said took me back to this piece in Scientific American which talks about two kinds of learning – which the piece calls as “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”. The piece goes on to say that kids who are usually praised for results or intelligence end up developing “fixed mindsets” and that for such kids, learning stops at some stage. Those praised for effort and process on the other hand, the piece says, continue to learn and their learning is everlasting.

When I read the piece I completely identified with the fixed mindset. I sailed through most of school without putting in much effort, but when the learning curve got steep (like in Class XI physics, or at IIT) I simply gave up and started working around concepts that I found hard to learn. I didn’t do badly then, but it started affecting me when I started working. And over the last three years I’ve institutionalised playing to my strengths, while making an effort to simultaneously learn.

Coming back to basketball, the wife talked that day about how my view of the game was wrong and compared my views to those of people who would ask her “so how many points did you score” after a game – which she said was extremely pointless.

Anyway I had a chance to put that to test this morning when I played basketball (after a gap of close to 9 years) with Rohin, Vivaan and Issac (links not available to latter two). It was a chance occurrence – I stumbled upon Rohin’s tweet calling for people to play basketball with him and I responded. And it was a wonderful morning today, as I played the game after nine years.

Two pertinent observations – firstly I haven’t regressed too much. I missed shots much more frequently than I normally do, but got better as the game wore on. The second and more important pertinent observation – I still play in a fashion similar to how I played back in 1997.

So despite having gone for formal training in basketball for a brief period when I was in class 1 (or 2), I’ve never been good at dribbling. I’ve never learnt to put a good lay up . And I’ve never been a quick runner. And right from the beginning rather than working on these weaknesses, I simply played to my strengths and improving my play in those – I can shoot reasonably well (though I didn’t do so today), my above-average height (by Indian standards) means I can pick rebounds well, I have developed a good sense of positioning to compensate for my lack of speed, which also means I can defend fairly well, and so forth. And I make up for lack of dribbling and layups by relying on quick short passing. And all this put together has made me a reasonable player at casual level, and I had a satisfactory game this morning too.

In short, the way I’ve developed my basketball is by just ignoring what I suck at but focussing on getting better at my strengths. While this means that I rarely put myself outside of my comfort zone, it also means that I become an overall better (though incomplete) player given the amount of effort I put in. I remember times when I would play alone in the half-court behind my hostel at IIT. When you play basketball alone, you have two choices – do layups and shoot. To become a complete player I should’ve practised the former. I chose the latter!

So coming back to the Scientific American piece, while I agree that a fixed mindset can stop growth at some point in time, it is possible to grow around it as long as you recognise your limitations and simply focus on your strengths. And with the coming up of the on-demand economy (which I’m in a weird way part of), division of labour can be such that you can possibly get away doing only those things that you are good at! At least that’s the hope for people like me who’ve grown up with a fixed mindset.

And finally, I realise I’m unfit. Despite going to the gym fairly regularly, the game of basketball this morning showed me up as being severely unfit. Despite being the youngest guy on the court ( I think, but am not sure), it was I who was calling the time outs this morning, and it was I who was panting the most. It’s not good. Basically the kind of fitness you need to play sports such as basketball (lots of short sprints) is very different from what you build by doing “normal gym activities”. To put it another way, squatting 150 lb is no indication of whether you’re capable of playing half-court basketball for 30 minutes!

Depression and TARP

When the US Treasury initiated the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in the aftermath of Lehman Brothers’ collapse, they imposed one condition on banks – banks were forced to borrow money under the scheme irrespective of how they were doing. So you had banks that weren’t doing badly such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan taking TARP money, and getting flak for giving fat bonuses (“from TARP money”, as the press claimed) to their employees who had helped them survive the crisis.

The reason even well-to-do banks were forced to take money under TARP was for the signalling effect. If only banks that really needed the money were to take money from TARP, then banks who really needed the money would be loathe to take it, for it would them mark them out as being ‘in trouble’. By making the well-to-do banks take money under TARP, this stigma of borrowing under TARP was removed, and the American banking system was “saved”.

The reason I got reminded of this was this piece on actor Anupam Kher coming out with his depression. This is on the back of actor Deepika Padukone coming out with her depression, which was reported yesterday. From the article on Kher’s “coming out”:

Kher says what Padukone had done is a very brave and wise thing to do. “People look up to her. When they know that she is consulting a therapist, they will understand there is no problem in getting help, and it is an okay thing to do,” he says.

 

The thing with depression is that it affects people from all over the spectrum – some of them are wildly successful despite their depression, like Kher or Padukone, while depression ruins some others. And then there are others who are ravaged by depression, and lead mostly “middling” lives.

Depression is an illness to which much stigma is attached. Especially in India, if you are consulting a therapist, or taking psychiatric drugs, people assume something is “wrong” with you, and discriminate against you. This gives people with depression a strong incentive to hide their illness, and appear to the world as if they’re fine.

The consequence is that people end up not seeking help even when it is prudent for them to seek help, and this leads to their depression possibly consuming them, sometimes even leading to fatal consequences.

In this context, when you have people who have had successful careers despite being ravaged by depression “coming out”, it makes depression a little more “normal”. On the margin, it can lead to the depressed person seeking help, and potentially getting better, rather than letting depression continue to waste them. Thus, successful depressed people owning up to depression makes it easier for less successful people (who might be worried about the stigma attached to mental illness) to come out with their condition and seek help.

In that sense, “coming out” with depression is similar to banks that were not in trouble taking TARP funds! Oh, and while on that topic, here is my “coming out essay”, from almost three years back.

A mechanical achievement

I’m an engineer. Rather, I have an engineering degree. I have an engineering degree from what is supposed to be among the best engineering colleges in India. If you look at my grades, you might think I did rather well in my engineering (CGPA of 8.91 out of 10). So you might assume that I’m a good engineer.

In my engineering I studied Computer Science. I consider myself to be pretty good at building algorithms and coming up with heuristics (better at latter than former). But I can’t write production code. I can’t write systems code. Fixing together a computer terrifies me. Any “normal engineering thing” is well beyond me.

My father used to rile me about going to IIT and yet being a poor engineer. “What did they teach you at IIT if you can’t even fix a lightbulb properly?”, he would ask. It didn’t help that he was pretty good at the small engineering stuff around the house, despite being an accountant by training and profession. Every time I did something stupid while trying to fix something, he would just say “IIT”. That didn’t mean that I made an effort to improve myself.

My father passed away in 2007. In 2010, I got married, and the wife took his place in riling me as a poor engineer. She is also an engineer by training, but she knows how to fix things. When our invertor gave way two years back, it was she who diagnosed what the problem was and what part should be replaced. Her father, also an engineer and also quite hands-on, procured the necessary part and fixed our invertor. I was quite lost. To give another example, I procured a lightbulb (a slightly complicated one, this one, for a fancy lamp) two months back. And then I waited another month till the wife came home for her vacation to get it fixed!

In this context, what I achieved this morning is surely a spectacular achievement. As I had mentioned on this blog earlier, I was going to meet my friend on Wednesday when my bike refused to start. Despite hitting the electric starter multiple times, despite kicking till my legs almost gave way, and holding down the choke while I was at it, there was no response. I ended up taking the bus that day.

I was dreading having to call Royal Enfield On Road Service and waiting for them to come and fix the bike. The bike is already due for service (I’ve taken an appointment for Tuesday), so I was wondering how I could avoid another round of repairs before that. In an earlier avatar, I would have just prayed (despite being mostly atheist) that the bike starts. This time, however, I was more resolute and decided to see if I can fix it myself.

A little bit of thinking convinced me that the problem was with the spark plug. I had replaced my battery just six months ago, so that was unlikely to be the problem. The noise when I tried holding down the electric starter convinced that. And considering that there was nothing else that was likely to have changed since the last ride (and there was fuel in the tank), and that the problem was in starting, it was clear that the problem was with the spark plug.

After putting NED for 2 days (the diagnosis happened on Wednesday), I decided this morning that I’ll fix it today. I googled for “how to change spark plug in Royal Enfield Classic 500″, and that gave me a few videos which told me where the spark plug is and how I should use a combination of the spark plug spanner (I had always wondered why I had such strange-shaped spanners) and the tommy bar to pull out the spark plug. And so I picked up my toolkit (for the first time in four years) and went down to check.

I located the spark plug (after all I’d seen in the video where it is) and pulled out its covering. The plug stood there bare. I now had to extract it. I tried with my hands and it didn’t work. I then found the spark plug spanner which fit over this plug snugly (a little bit of trial and error was involved in the process). Then came the problem of turning the spanner, which I knew I had to do with the tommy bar. So in went the tommy bar, and one whack I gave, and I felt something move. Soon the thing started getting unscrewed and I didn’t need to use the tommy bar any more. Presently the plug came out.

I realise I’d never seen a spark plug before, to know whether it was sooted and dirty. All I saw was one black tip, and assumed that that was the end that needed cleaning (I’d forgotten to see a video on how to actually clean a spark plug). So I picked up a cloth and wiped it. It took some effort but after some time most of the black stuff was gone from that end. I assumed that this should be enough to make my bike run until the service on Tuesday.

When you’ve debugged code, the greatest trepidation comes in the time when you’re testing the code after you’ve debugged it. For you know that if it doesn’t work now you’ll have to do it all over again! So it was with that trepidation that I fixed the spark plug back in its place (using first just the spark plug spanner and then adding the tommy bar). And I pressed the electric starter. And the engine roared to life!

I know this is trivial – that this is the first bit of motorcycle maintenance that everyone learns, and that an enfield owner is supposed to know something about maintenance and all that. Yet the fact that I managed to diagnose the problem and actually fix it is making me supremely happy. You can put this down as another item in the checklist that contributes to the “late bloomer” phrase in my twitter bio.