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.

2014: Year in review

2014 was a big year in terms of changes in personal life, with two big events that might both end up being investments in potential bubbles.

In April this year, we completed the purchase of an apartment in Jayanagar, Bangalore. We had expressed our interest to buy it back in 2012, when the construction of the building started, but it took until 2014 for the building to get completed.

The first few months of the years thus went primarily into overseeing the final stages of construction of the house, getting the interiors done, and getting a bank loan to fund the purchase (which turned out to be harder than I expected). Finally, after what seemed like an eternity we moved into the apartment towards the end of May.

And barely two months later the wife moved out. In August she left for Barcelona to do an MBA at IESE Business School. She has completed one term and so far seems to be enjoying it. I’m back to a bachelorly life here in Jayanagar and so far I’ve been coping reasonably well.

I stopped making coffee at home in order to cut down my caffeine consumption. Now I walk 10 minutes to Maiya’s in Jayanagar 4th Block to get my caffeine fix. It costs eighteen rupees plus about five minutes spent standing in queue, but it’s really awesome and well worth it!

On the professional front, things have been quieter than I had imagined. My consulting continues, and I ventured into a new sector this year. I still need to up my business development, though, and that is going to be the focus in the new year. There have also been a couple of interesting opportunities for a change in line that have come up towards the end of the year but it now looks like I’ll continue what I’ve been doing.

There has been one exciting development on the professional front though – I started teaching at IIMB earlier this month. I’m an “adjunct faculty” and will be there for the length of one term. The classes started a bit slowly (in terms of student participation) but now I think I quite like the lot. And so far I’ve been enjoying teaching. I hope I can continue doing this going forward.

Another feature of my life this year is my constant in-and-out in my use of social media, primarily facebook and twitter. I was off twitter for all of January, August, September and October, and part of December. I was off Facebook for most of this time (all except January). The break helped and my blogging has picked up significantly. So much so that the hosting provider had to twice increase my bandwidth quota!

My plan for next year on the professional front is to ramp up on business development and hopefully expand my business. I want to write a book. I’d set a rather aggressive target for that but now it looks unlikely and I need to possibly extend it. And then I plan to see a little more of Europe (based in Barcelona – helps that Vueling has its hub there), and hopefully do a bike trip. Of course one can’t plan for everything!

Wishing all of you a happy new year 2015 and a great year ahead!

Teaching at IIMB

Starting tomorrow I’ll be teaching at IIMB. It’s a course called “Spreadsheet modelling for business decision problems”, and targeted at term 6 MBA students. I explicitly warned them to not take the course if they don’t consider themselves to be competent at mathematics. Yet, some 60 students have registered (current IIMB batch size is ~400)!

This promises to be fun. The only part that may not be so much fun is that in order to make it compatible with the rest of my work I requested for the 8-930am slot on Mondays and Tuesdays so that means I need to get back to my early-to-bed-early-to-rise ways which have served me so well for most of my career (last few months though I’ve become a late riser).

Now, for everything that I do I like to have a “sweetener” – something that is totally unrelated that spurs me to do whatever I’m doing. Usually the sweetener is something that sounds quite trivial but is actually useful in spurring me on. The sweetener in this case is that SN Refreshments in JP Nagar 2nd Phase lies on my way from home to IIMB, and they make absolutely awesome idli-chutney. So the plan for tomorrow (and every other class day in the next 3 months) is to leave home early and have breakfast there and then head on to IIMB.

I’m hoping for a nice lively class. I’ve reserved 20% of the evaluation for “class participation”. I hope at least that spurs them to be nice and lively! Then again it’s first thing in the morning on Mondays and Tuesdays so you never know..

I’ll keep you guys updated on anything whacky that might happen in class. Oh, and I’m going to be starting a “class blog” for my students where they can write for extra credit. Will send out the link once it’s up and populated.

Now to decide whether to go by car (for some strange reason when I take the car – the same one I had when I was a student at IIMB – I never get stopped by the security guys at the gate. there’s no sticker on the car though) or by motorcycle (easier to navigate traffic and park near SN)!

Anniversaries past and present

I realise that whenever there is an occasion where I want to write something and I don’t know what to write, I can simply rely on my superior long-term memory, and do a this-day-that-year kind of thing. So here goes, recounting past anniversaries.

-1 (2009): The day began with some errands. I even remember what those errands were but it doesn’t matter here. I finished up with those errands and drove up to Rajajinagar and picked up the now wife and her sister (who I was meeting for the first time) from in front of the Nirmala toilet in Rajajinagar, in front of the Capuchin monastery. We drove up to the 100 ft restaurant in Indiranagar and had lunch.

Then we went shopping. Of course those were still early days for me to buy stuff for her, but she bought lots of things anyway. And that was the day I realised what it’s like to take out a woman shopping – hanging out in the area just outside the dressing rooms while she tried stuff, without trying to look awkward. And then Baada, who had brought his then-newlywed-wife shopping to the same place “caught” me there.

Later in the evening I visited her place for the first time, and had both “tiffin” and dinner there. And made small talk with the in-laws, whom I’d met for the first time less than a week earlier.

1 (2011): It was quite unremarkable, frankly. She went to work. I bummed around all morning and went for a lecture in the afternoon (all the way across town) and walked out of it in half an hour since it was so uninteresting. We went to RimNaam at the Oberoi on MG Road for dinner. Apart from the complimentary cake they gave us (since we told them it was our anniversary), it was quite unspectacular.

2 (2012): We were doing a week-long holiday in Goa, along with the in-laws. The day began with the mother-in-law picking flowers from all over the resort and making a small bouquet and handing it over to us. Presently we went to the flea market in Anjuna (it was a Wednesday) and got bored, since we hate bargaining. We then decamped to Calangute, and discovered Infantaria where we had an awesome lunch.

In the evening we went to Thalassa in Vagator where we emptied a bottle of Chilean wine and ate awesome Greek food. We hadn’t booked early enough to catch a cliff-side seat, though, but it didn’t matter since the sun set behind clouds that day.

3 (2013): The day itself was unremarkable. The previous day I was returning from a work trip to Bombay, and I hunted around the airport for a gift, not able to decide until they called for boarding when I picked up what was frankly an unremarkable pair of artificial earrings. She had put in more thought into my gift, though. I got a nice large notebook (which I’ve never used much) and a nice Parker ballpen (which I’ve used so much  that I’ve had to change the refill already).

The next day (technically speaking, since the flight was at 1 am or something) we went off to Singpur, where we enjoyed Sushobhan and Sudha’s hospitality, visited museums, got stuck in rain, waited for taxis and were again taken for a wonderful dinner by Sushobhan and Sudha.

4 (2014): Still early in the day yet, early for me and very very early for her. I’m in Bangalore, she’s in Barcelona. Our first long-distance anniversary. I might update this post tomorrow.

And finally, 0 (2010): It was a long day. I actually woke up late. Was paranoid while shaving since I didn’t want to cut myself on the day of my wedding. The late start meant I had the opportunity to eat good breakfast, a luxury she didn’t have since she was involved in some pre-ceremony poojes. The ceremony started at 11, and we went for a ceremonial lunch at 5 (yeah, South Indian brahmin weddings take so long). And then we had to get ready for the reception. Both of us started laughing at each other since we were both so badly made up! And then two hours of standing and shaking people’s hands and posing for photographs. And then some more ceremonies.

And then we went home, where I had some Absolut Orange stashed away. We hadn’t bothered getting the ceremonial glass of milk, so we just took a shot each of the Absolut. And we couldn’t even sleep in peace since there were remnants of the wedding ceremony the following day!