Category Archives: personal

Meeting your husband’s old crush

I wonder what it’s like to meet your husband’s old crush. Someone who you know he was quite obsessed with back in the day, when he did all sorts of crazy things because his crush was hardly materialising, in honour of whose stillborn love he wrote short stories (something he has never ever done for you), and someone who he is still good friends with even a decade after his crush ended.

I wonder what it’s like to be in a new city, where you’ve only been for four days, and then venturing out to an unknown part of town to meet someone who you’ve never met before, who you’ve never even spoken to, and about whom you know only because of reading your husband’s blogs about her, and because of what your husband has told you about her.

I wonder if it feels weird, or if it is just a part of the game, that you are going to travel two hours to meet someone whose only connection to you is your husband, who is not going to be there with you when you meet her. He has made that introduction, told both of you perhaps more than you need to know about each other, but now he’s throwing both of you into the deep end, asking you to meet, to hang out, to make conversation. Is he asking too much of both of you?

What are you even going to talk about? Your husband, who both of you know very well, is one obvious topic, but what about that signboard in Bishop Cottons Boys’ School (that your husband told you about) that said “great mind discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people” (or some variation of that)? There is the professional stuff that you guys can talk about, which you perhaps would even prefer, but would you want to spend most of your time on your first meeting with someone you are likely to get along with, just talking about work? Then again, it helps immensely that both of you are outgoing and extroverted and generally good conversationalists, people who are inherently good at putting the counterparty at ease. But with two of you being of the same “type”, will there be a clash?

If not anything else, one good thing that will come out of this meeting is that your husband (evil guy he is) is going to call up both of you after you’re done with each other, and find out “how it went”. If not anything else, there will be value added in terms of some entertainment for him, as he will speak to the two of you and try and elicit gossip after you’re done meeting. As far as the universe is concerned, the cost that the two of you will have to pay in terms of possible discomfort and awkwardness will be offset by the value that your husband will gain by means of “entertainment value”. And then there is the option value of the two of you actually getting along and having a good time together!

So for the universe, it works out. For you and for your husband’s old crush, it may lead to negative value. But then such deals are precisely the kind of stuff that your evil ex-banker husband is good at structuring!

24 October

Today it’s 24th October and it’s still deepavali. An earlier occasion when the festival fell on this date was in 1995, which I rank among my best deepavalis ever

24th October 1995 saw a total solar eclipse in India. In Bangalore it was only partial but clearly visible. We had procured special goggles (made of aluminium foil or something) to view the eclipse. I don’t remember any other solar eclipse during my lifetime of close to 32 years getting that much footage.

I don’t have too many cousins (total of 5 both sides put together) but a couple of them were home that deepavali. So after the eclipse we went off to see The Mask in galaxy. One cousin who was 18 them just couldn’t get enough of Cameron Diaz’s cleavage and legs, I remember.

We came back and burst crackers. The previous day too we had burst – deepavali is a three day festival in Bangalore and usually we burst lots of crackers on days 1 and 3. Back then I remember going to relatives’ houses and relatives coming to my house to burst crackers together.

On day three (25 October 1995) we went to see Rangeela in urvashi. I was quite enamoured by Urmila Matondkar’s assets but couldn’t do or say a thing since my dad was sitting next to me! Just quietly watched. And back in those days there was no YouTube or Internet to make amends later!

I remember ruling thulping food at MTR after the movie. Don’t remember what I ate though.

And again we burst crackers that evening – in a cousins house if I remember right (or it might have been the other way round – cousins house oh day 2 and my house on day 3. I don’t remember now). 

This was only the latter half of the five day deepavali weekend that year. On the first two days 21st and 22nd I’d gone for a chess tournament somewhere in Rajajinagar (one of my last tournaments before I retired from competitive chess). I remember starting the tournament nondescriptly but having a spectacular second day of the tournament to finish with 4 out of 6 points, losing out on a podium finish on progressive score.

It was a spectacular five day weekend overall. The variety in fun was significant, and the quantity too!

Of late though I’ve stopped celebrating deepavali – crackers don’t excite me any more and there is nothing else to the festival as far as I’m concerned!

As I’d remarked on this blog a year or so back – festivals are like memes. In the original sense of the word, as Richard Dawkins intended it when he invented the word!

Required: A new value proposition

Today, more than five years since I started out with Pinky, I realise that I need a new value proposition for the relationship. So far things had been simple – I was simply the rich guy in the partnership. I was working for the Giant Squid when we met, I’ve since remodelled myself as a quant management consultant and make reasonable money out of it, and save for a short period in 2011-12, my contribution to the household finances has far outpaced hers.

However, with Pinky now pursuing an MBA from a top global (pun intended – it was she who coined the phrase “value proposition” for this post) B-school, this is going to soon change. The next two years she’s in debt of course (some of it to me), but after graduation she’s likely to get a great well-paying job which is likely to significantly cut down my advantage in terms of the family finances (I still hope that I’ll retain my lead, and I mean this in a good way – that she gets a really well-paying job and I’ll be able to outpace her).

So by this one stroke of Pinky going to get herself an MBA, my main value proposition in the relationship has been completely destroyed. What this means, of course, is that I need to find a new proposition. If I’m a dog (remember I described myself as a bakery doggie in a recent post?) I need to learn new tricks. Or perhaps I need to get back to my old tricks?

Back in 2006, when we first talked, what impressed Pinky (by what she tells me now) was this blog – my income statement wasn’t particularly great then, and she had absolutely no clue about it until we met three years later. In 2006, Pinky liked how I used to write about every damn thing here, especially about all my failed attempts at relationships. She has repeatedly told me since that she loves being written about, and that one of her great big hopes of being with me was that I would write reams about her on this blog, like I have about all those failed attempts at relationships.

On this count, though, I’ve utterly failed her. For reasons I’m still not able to put a finger on, I’ve hardly written about her. There was the usual flurry of posts in the first few days of our involvement (this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one). By the time the last of those posts was written, I was preparing to meet her parents and things were cementing. And then, bang, boom, fizzle! I stopped writing about her!

There has been the odd post I’ve written here or there but I’ve been writing nowhere close to what she possibly expects from having been with me for over five years now. On the primary criterion – the spike – that she evaluated me on when we got together (I must say I did damn well in those initial days to sustain interest), I’ve been an utter failure. It’s almost like the reason she married me has not come to bear fruit.

In this context, I hope to get back to my old value proposition – maybe because I’m not creative enough or too lazy to come up with a new one. In the year and half that I have (before Pinky graduates) to come up with the new proposition, there might be some other good that might come out – something else I might discover about myself which would be a great value proposition for me in the marriage. You need to start your search somewhere, though.

When you break up, sometimes your first attempt at doing a rebound is by checking if your ex is still single and if you can hook up with hem (my friend and fellow-IESE-WAG Aravind told me yesterday that this is the word the Swedes have come up with as a short form of saying “him/her”, as a gender neutral pronoun). You are unlikely to succeed, and you are more likely to find someone totally new. But your ex gives you the starting point for your search.

It is similar in my case. With my value proposition due to expire, my first instinct is to go back to my ex – my ex value proposition that is (I have no other exes!!). Maybe it will succeed. Maybe it will not – in which case I’ve to find something new. But rebounding to the ex is the safest bet. So if I manage to make this work, you can hope to find a lot more Pinky in these pages.

Language

For millions of years
Mankind lived
Just like the animals

And then something happened
That unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk

(from Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking from Division Bell)

And then we moved to a place where no one speaks any of the languages you speak. And we became animals again.

This trip to Barcelona is the first time I’ve spent a reasonable length of time I’ve spent in a place where no one speaks any of the languages that I speak. And I’ve been literally feeling like an animal again, absolutely incapable of communicating, pointing at things and using sign language. It seems like my experience here has been significantly diminished given my inability to speak any of the languages spoken here.

I learnt to talk Kannada when I was perhaps one, or max two. I learnt English in a year or two after that. And then my language learning stopped. I had Hindi as my second language in school, and somehow struggled through it despite scoring 90 out of 100 in my board exam (shows how pointless board exams are). I can understand Hindi, and watch Hindi movies, but I still can’t speak fluently. When I have to speak Hindi, I construct a sentence in Kannada and then translate it. And I speak it with a heavy Kannada accent, much to the mirth of people around.

I have a Bihari cook in Bangalore. He claims to know Kannada  but I’ve never tried testing that. And I try speaking to him in Hindi. It is almost like we use sign language. I point to a set of ingredients and tell him the name of what I want to eat. He cooks, and buzzes off. At least talking face to face is fine. There are occasions when I have to call him and give him instructions (“come early tomorrow” or “come late today” or “don’t come today” or some such). It is a nightmare.

It’s not like I’m absolutely bad at languages – I can pick up words  quite easily. Thanks to football watching I’ve learnt a fair bit of European history and geography and culture, and through the process I’ve learnt a fair number of words (they’re of the kind of trequartistaregistatornante, etc but European words nevertheless). I know words in several languages. Just that I have this inability to learn grammar, or how words are put together to form sentences and communicate thoughts (except of course in English and Kannada).

Fourteen years back I went to IIT Madras, and half the people in my class were Gult. That meant I had the opportunity to pick up a fair bit of both Telugu and Tamil. I did neither. I can understand both languages a fair bit, but my understanding of the languages can be described as “assembly language”. I know words and what they mean. I listen for such keywords in what people are saying and interpret based on that. And when I speak these languages, it is based on keywords – I just say out the noun and the root form of the verb and expect the other person to interpret. I’ve never managed to get beyond this!

So there are these bakeries near where I live which might have already marked me off as a weird animal who just walks in and out o them. I go in, survey what they have and if something looks interesting point to that. They pack it for me, and then tell a number. I ask for the bill – so that I can read the number, or just give them a large enough note and trust them to return me the exact change. When nothing looks interesting to me in the display I can’t talk and ask them for what I want. I just look around (perhaps like a bakery dog) and just walk away. I don’t know how to say “Sorry I don’t know what I want”, or “Thank you, but I don’t find anything interesting here”. And I’ve been visiting some of these places multiple times, doing the same thing!

The level of discourse we are reduced to when we are unable to communicate is rather remarkable! It’s like we can simply not unleash the power of imagination, it is like going back to living like animals. I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to remedy it – I simply can’t pick up new languages!

Reading fiction

In the semester of January-May 2004, I took a course on Indian Fiction in English. This was in order to satisfy the quota for “humanities” credits at IIT Madras. The course was mostly good, and taught well, and we got a glimpse of how Indian writing in English developed, and the motifs that have been unique to such writing. There are a number of short stories we read as part of the course that I still remember vividly. But then there was the book.

For a one semester course, having lots of short stories makes sense, but no course is complete without analysing a novel, and so we were asked to read Jaishree Misra’s Ancient Promises, a truly depressing and mindfucking piece of literature. I don’t know if it was a consequence of that, or that I didn’t read much anyway, that the number of books of fiction I’ve read since then can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Soon after graduating from IIT (after some wrangling – I had attendance issues in the said Indian Fiction in English course, thanks to all the IIM interviews and some casual bunking), I paid Rs. 95 for Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone and devoured it. Fresh out of IIT (and having spent a summer at IIT Delhi, I could relate to the settings in the book), I must say I loved it. A few days later I borrowed To Kill A Mockingbird from God. Loved that, too. Then I borrowed (from God, again) Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Never got past the initial pages. I don’t think I even returned the book to God.

Then I bought Catch 22 and didn’t read it (the book was soon in tatters and I gave it away). Through IIM, I was too busy reading the Business Standard and blogging and indulging in unsavoury activities to have any time for reading. And after graduation I turned to non-fiction (I started with Duncan Watts’s Six Degrees, then James Suroweicki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Freakonomics, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, James Gleick’s Chaos, etc.) – mostly books on science and history and economics. I was hooked and for the last eight years this is what I’ve mostly read. The only book of fiction I remember reading in this intervening time period was Amit Varma’s My Friend Sancho. I had gone for the book’s launch in Delhi (more of an excuse to meet Amit and other friends who were going to turn up there), bought it out of sheer social pressure at the occasion and read it. I must say I quite liked it (though I like Amit’s recent writings on risk and ancient writings on freedom much better).

So scroll back (or forward – depending on which frame of reference you are in ) to about a month back, after I had left twitter and facebook when I decided I must use the now available time to read some fiction. I started off with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (free Kindle edition), struggled though to about 50% and promptly gave up. I needed some fiction that would inspire me.

Some ten years back Madness had recommended that I read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I promptly ignored him. Eight years back he made the same recommendation. I ignored him again. In 2008 I decided to read the book, but couldn’t find a copy (pre-Kindle days, remember). Sometime in 2009 or 2010 I found a copy in Blossom, and bought it, and it was sitting in the back of my bookshelf till two weeks back. I didn’t start reading from that, though.

When I had my accident in Rajasthan back in 2012, I had injured the ligament in my left thumb, and the greater injury of my fourth right metacarpal had meant that I had ignored this ligament injury until it was too late. So I have a weak left thumb. And that means it is hard for me to hold open a paperback with my left hand – it has to be placed somewhere. This means most of my reading in the last two years has been on the Kindle.

And so I got a sample on my Kindle. The first scene involving movement of currency in Shanghai had me hooked. Soon I was through the sample. Before I hit that “buy” button on my Kindle, though, I checked the bookshelf to see if the physical copy still existed. It did, though it was yellow (perhaps it was already yellow by the time I bought it). So I picked up the physical copy. And over the last ten or twelve days I’ve read it. All 918 pages of it.

It’s been a fabulous book (if a work of fiction has to hold my attention for this long it ought to be fabulous – my ADHD makes me a very good judge of books and movies). Insane fundaes on cryptography, privacy, the second world war, American legal system and just about everything else. It’s been so insanely full of fundaes that I actually sat through 918 pages of it! Can’t recommend the book enough!

I wonder if I would have read it had I still been on Twitter and Facebook. I probably would have – despite being on these media I did read a sufficient quantity of non fiction in the last 2-3 years. But I had the kind of mental space I didn’t for a long time (possibly in part with living alone). And so I read. It’s been fabulous.

The next two books I plan to read are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (I’d begun reading it two years back and liked it before I had a problem with that Kindle and had to exchange it) and Dr. Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga (considering I’m traveling to Catalunya next month). I still don’t know which one I’ll pick up next (figuratively – both books are on my kindle).

A month of detox

I cheated a little bit this morning. Since it’s been a month now since I got off Twitter and Facebook, I logged in to both for about a minute each, to check if I have any messages. The ones on Facebook weren’t of much use – just some general messages. There was one DM on twitter which had value, and I sent the guy an email explaining I don’t use twitter any more. I presently logged out.

The one month off Twitter and Facebook has so far gone off fantastically. For starters it’s given me plenty of time to read, meet people, talk to people and other useful stuff. And apart from some interesting links that people post on Twitter, I haven’t really missed either of them.

There have been times when there have been thoughts that would have earlier led to a tweet. However, given that the option exists no more, I end up doing one of two things – if there is substance to the tweet and I can elaborate on it, then I do so and it results in a blog post (you must have noticed that the frequency of blogging has gone up significantly in the last one month).

If it’s not really blog worthy but just something that I want to share with someone, I think of whose attention I would have liked to have caught by putting that tweet. In most cases I have found that there is a small set of people whose attention I would have liked to catch with a tweet – every time I tweeted, I would think of how a particular set of people would respond. So what I do when I have something to say and a particular set of people to say it to is to just message it to them.

While this gives a much better chance of them responding to the message than if they just saw it on their timeline (or missed seeing it), it also has the added benefit of starting conversations. Which is not a bad thing at all. In the last one month I’ve seen that my usage of WhatsApp and Google Talk has gone up significantly.

The only thing I miss about twitter is the interesting links that people post. I’ve tried a few things to remedy that. Firstly I tried to see if I could write a script that crawls my timeline, gets popular links (based on a set of defined metrics), and then bookmarks the top five each day. I went some way with the code (pasted below the fold here) but couldn’t figure how to post the linked articles to Pocket (my article bookmarker of choice). So I ended up tweeting those chosen links (!!) with a #looksinteresting hashtag, so that ifttt does the job of adding to Pocket.

It went for a bit till multiple people told me the tweets were spammy. And then I realized I needed to tweak the algorithm, and it needed significant improvement. And then I realized the solution was at hand – Flipboard.

If you have an android phone or an iPad and not used FlipBoard you’re really missing something. it’s a great app that curates articles based on your indicated areas of interest and history, and one of the sources it can get links from is your own Twitter and Facebook accounts. It is generally good in terms of its algo and good links usually bubble up there.

When I went off Twitter and Facebook on the 6th of August (in a fit of rage, outraged by all the outrage and negativity on the two media) I wanted complete isolation. And thus I deleted Twitter and Facebook from my FlipBoard also. Now I realized that adding back twitter on FlipBoard will allow me to access the nice links shared there without really getting addicted back to twitter, or partaking all the outrage.

For the last two weeks it’s worked like a charm. That twitter is present only on FlipBoard, which I use not more than twice a day (once in the morning, once at night), means that I’ve had the best of both worlds. And not being on twitter has meant that i’ve been able to get a fair bit of work done, finished three books (my first attempt at reading fiction in ten years fizzled out midway, though – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness failed to sustain my interest beyond about 40% (I have it on kindle) ), written dozens of blog posts across the three blogs and had more meaningful conversations with people.

I hereby extend my sabbatical from Twitter and Facebook for another month.

Below the fold is the code I wrote. It’s in R. I hope you can make some sense of it.

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Law of conservation of talent

For starters. there is no such law. However, there exists a belief in most people’s minds that everyone is equally talented, and it is only that talent in different people is spread across different dimensions.

It starts when you are in school. If you are not good at maths, people tell you that you must be good at something else – arts perhaps. At that age it is perhaps not a bad thing – to be told when you are a child that you have no talent no way helps you in growing up. You are encouraged at that age to try different things, to find the thing that you’re good at.

And then you grow up. And you grow up with this entrenched belief of the “law of conservation of talent”. When you see someone good at something, you will assume that that is the only thing that they are good at. When you see that someone is bad at something you assume there is something else that they are good at. When you see someone good at more than the average number of things, you think they cannot be real, or that it is unfair, or perhaps that they are just faking it.

I once heard this story of a mother arguing with a schoolteacher that her son did not need remedial classes in maths. When told that the kid was indeed poor at maths, the mother responded “so what? He might be good at art. Why does he have to pass his maths exam for that?” (not sure I’ve paraphrased accurately but this is broadly the picture). While it might be a good idea to tell the kid that there is perhaps something else that he is good at, the mother strongly believing in the same thing is simply not done.

\begin{controversy}

Back in business school, there was this set of people who claimed to have a deep passion for marketing. Now, these people belonged to two classes. The first were actually passionate about marketing – there was something about marketing that gave them a kick and they wanted to pursue a career that would allow them to generate such kicks. From my conversations with them I know the passion was real, and most of them are doing rather well now in their marketing careers.

And then there was the second type. This was the class of people who had found that they were no good at mathematics and accounting and economics, and thus figured that they had no hope of a career in anything related to any of these fields, and thus found refuge in marketing. Of course they wouldn’t admit that – they would also claim a deep passion in marketing. While that was okay – perhaps marketing gave them their best chance of pursuing a successful career, and thus I don’t grudge their choice – what got my goat was that these people would claim that because they were no good at the “hard sciences” (mathematics, accounting, etc.) they were “creative”. Who says that mathematics and accounting and economics are not creative subjects? And why does anyone who is not good at these subjects (it is impossible, for example, to excel at mathematics unless you are creative) automatically become “creative”? It is the law of conservation of talent, simple.

\end{controversy}

For people who are good at more than one thing, law of conservation of talent can bite you in more than one way. Actually there is more to do with this than just law of conservation of talent – people like to analyze other people by putting them in easily understood silos, or categories. And law of conservation of talent helps assign sets of talents to these silos.

Over the last two years, by hook or by crook, I’ve built my reputation to be a great quant. I consult with companies helping them with their quant and data stuff, I write a quant blog and I write a series in Mint on quant in elections. While it is all good and I’m glad that I’ve built a reputation as a quant, the downside is that people refuse to look beyond this and recognize my other skills.

For example, I think I’m rather good at economic reasoning, and I believe that my prowess in that combined with my prowess in working with numbers can deliver massive value to my potential clients. However, when people see me as a quant, it is hard for them to digest that I could also be good with economic reasoning, or behavioural sciences, for example. Thus, when I take on a mandate to do something beyond quant, people find it extremely hard to accept that I dole out non-quant advice too. I blame the law of conservation of talent for this – when people think you are good at quant, they exclude all other skills you might possibly have.

I’ll end this post with another anecdote from  business school. A few months in, things were going well and I had (even back then) built a reputation as someone who was good at quant and mathematics and accounting and economics (in business school, all these fell on the same side of the fence, so the law of conservation of talent allowed you to be good at all these at once). Quizzing was a related activity, so I was “allowed” to be good at that. If I remember right, what perhaps upset people’s calculations was when I represented my class in the inter sectional basketball tournament and didn’t perform badly – based on reactions after the game I think people were a bit thrown off that I could be good at basketball too (especially given that I’ve never looked remotely athletic, and have always been a slow mover). Law of conservation of talent again!