Depression and Stimulus

Ok so this post has nothing to do with macroeconomics, though it borrows its concepts from there. As the more perceptive of you might have figured out by now (ha, i love that line!) I was diagnosed with clinical depression about a year back. Actually that was the second time I had been diagnosed with that diagnosis, the first being a full six months earlier, when I had suddenly stopped medication after I had lost trust in that psychiatrist.

For over a year now, I have been on anti-depressants. It started with 37.5 mg per day of Venlafaxine (brand name Veniz), which got slowly bumped up until at 187.5 mg per day I started going crazy and having crazy mood swings and had to be scaled back to 150 mg. I was at that level for over six months when I realized that I had plateaued – that there was no real improvement in my mental situation thanks to continuous intake of the drug and perhaps I should consider getting off.

I proposed this idea to the psychiatrist when I met her last month and amazingly she agreed without any hesitation and quickly drew up a plan on how I need to get off the drug (you need to decrease dosage slowly else you’ll have withdrawal symptoms which are pretty bad). I found it a little disconcerting that she so readily agreed to take me off the drug, given that she had herself not given any indication of wanting to take me off the drug. I was disconcerted that I had been taking the drug for much longer than necessary, perhaps.

The doctor, however, paired the paring of my anti-depressant with doubling the dosage of the stimulant that I have been taking for my ADHD for the last six months. As it happened, though, I went through a major bout of NED that evening, and didn’t muster the enthu to go to the one pharmacy that legally sells Methylphenidate (the ADHD drug,  supposed to have similar chemical composition as cocaine) in Bangalore. That I managed to function pretty well the following one week, including the three days spent at my client’s office, meant that I probably didn’t need teh ADHD drug also. So as I write this I’m off all mind-altering substances (apart from my several-times-a-day doses of caffeine and occasional ingestion of ethanol).

Recently I met a friend who told me that I had been too generous in my praise of psychiatric drugs in my blog, and that I hadn’t taken into consideration their various side effects and addictive symptoms. I’ve heard this from other people also – that I probably wasn’t doing the right thing by taking anti-depressants. So do I now regret taking them, given that I’ve chosen to go off them? Probably not.

This is where the analogy of economic depression and clinical depression comes in. In an economic depression, there is a halt in economic activity thanks to which there isn’t much circulation of money. When people start earning less, they start spending less, which further depresses their income and the whole economy goes into a tailspin. Going by Keynes’s theory, letting the economy slowly repair itself would take an extraordinarily long time (in the course of which we will all be dead, as the joke goes), so it is recommended that the government steps in and spends heavily in order to “stimulate” the economy and break the vicious circle it was getting itself into.

When you suffer from clinical depression, there is a shortage of flow of this chemical compound called Seretonin in your brain. Thanks to that, your mental energy is at a much lower level and you get tired and stressed out easily. Moreover, depression also leads to a significant drop in your confidence levels. You start believing that you are useless and not capable of anything. But then, your lowered mental energy levels mean that it is tough for you to be good at work, and do things that are likely to give your confidence a boost. And this in turn leads to further lowering of confidence and there is no way out for you to break out of this vicious circle.

A number of people believe that depression can be conquered with “willpower”, but this is applicable only if you’ve recognized it in its early stages. In most cases though, you realize it only when it’s deep into the vicious circle, and your “willpower”, much like “normal economics” during an economic depression, will take way too long to break you out of the vicious circle, and by then half your productive life will be gone.

Hence, to draw the Keynesian analogy, you need a stimulus. You need some sort of an artificial stimulus that breaks you out of your vicious cycle of low self-esteem and low performance. Sometimes, there can be a fortuitous life event which by matter of chance gives you a sudden sense of achievement and helps you break out of the cycle (for example, I was quite depressed (most likely clinically) through most of my life at IIT, but success in CAT proved to be a good stimulant in helping me break out of that cycle). But then, most of the time, life is structured such that there are few opportunities for such positive black swans, especially when you are older and especially when your mental energy levels are in general quite low.

Under these circumstances, I believe, there is no way out but chemical stimulants to help you get out of your depressive state. Clinical researchers and psychiatrists over the years have found the answer to be this molecule called “SSRI” which slows down the rate of seretonin uptake into the brain, with the result that there is greater flow of seretonin in your nervous system (continuing our economic analogy this is like the government cutting taxes as a form of stimulus). Greater seretonin in the system means greater mental energy, and sometimes the difference in energy levels is itself enough to push up your self-esteem levels, and the new energy levels means you have given yourself a chance to perform, and the cycle breaks.

Keynes said, as part of his theory, that it is important that a stimulus is short and targeted, and that in good times a government needs to be fiscally conservative so that, if not anything else, it has the necessary firepower to deliver a stimulus when necessary. Similarly, it is important that you don’t get yourself addicted on these anti-depressants and that you don’t become immune to them. Which is why psychiatrists typically wean you off your anti-depressants six months to a year after you started on it. By then, they expect, and in my case it did, that the stimulus would have been delivered.

US MBA Admissions

B-schools based in the US use a unique self-selecting mechanism to filter out applicants who might be a bad fit for a management job. This they achieve by making the application process more complicated, but in a way that the kind of people they hope to attract find it simple.

Let me explain. Like most other graduate programs in the US, B-schools also require applicants to get a set of letters of recommendation. Unlike other programs, though, these are not simple letters of recommendation. Rather than the recommender simply writing out one essay where he/she extols the virtue of the candidate he/she is recommending and requests the university to grant admission, here he/sh has to answer a bunch of questions that the university is asking for. These questions might range from the mundane sounding (I’m told there’s a catch, though) “How do you know the applicant?” to some high-sounding stuff like “What is your opinion of the leadership qualities of the applicant? How can that be improved?”. World limit for all questions put together comes to 1500 words.

So now, if someone comes to you asking for a recommendation, unless you are really invested in their careers you will not want to put the enthu of putting so much effort. If you like the candidate, you might be willing to put in some time into it, but you are likely to wholeheartedly produce four good essays for each school the applicant is applying (note that no two schools ask the same question) only if you feel really invested in the applicant’s career, the probability of which is really low.

By having such a complicated system of soliciting recommendations, the schools ensure that all candidates fall into one of two categories. Either they should have done so well in one of their jobs that their boss or client feels invested enough to spend a few hours of their time writing recommendations, or they should have the necessary people management skills to go to bosses and clients and professors to get them to write the recommendations. Of course, irrespective of how good your people management skills are , it is unlikely to get someone to spend so many hours on your recommendation letters. Still, the minimum you require is to convince them that you will write the recommendation yourself and they should rubber stamp it. No big deal, that.

This way, all applicants to US B-schools are people who have a knack of getting things done. The age at which application happens (mid to late twenties) also minimizes parental participation in the effort. Apart from the self-selection and filtration, the amount of time and effort required for application also helps weed out frivolous candidates (remember those that “wrote CAT just as a backup”?).

Why Kannadigas are Inherently Lazy

There is something about the weather in Bangalore. There is something about the weather in Bangalore that perks you up. There is something about the weather in Bangalore that most of the time you really want to do something, to be active, to go out, walk around, lead an active life and all such. The first few days I spent in Bangalore after my return from Gurgaon in June I spent literally jumping around. The weather was so uplifting. It filled me with so much enthu for everything in life!

So I was wondering why people usually classify Kannadigas as being inherently lazy. As one of the professors in my JEE coaching factory used to say “naavu Kannadigarige aambode mosaranna koTTbiTTre khushhyaagiddbiDtivi” (if someone gives us Kannadigas dal vada and curd rice, we’ll live happily forever, and we will forget about working hard). Basically implying that we are inherently not too ambitious, and that we are generally laidback about stuff.

Thinking about it, I was wondering if the wonderful climate of South Interior Karnataka has to do with this (people from North Karnataka and the coast are supposed to be fairly hardworking, and are not known for their laidbackness unlike us Old Mysore people). I wonder if this laidbackness is because our wonderful weather has spoilt us. Spoilt us to an extent that we don’t really need to normally fight against the odds.

So I was thinking about Gurgaon, the other place where I’ve recently lived in. Gurgaon has horrible climate. Maybe a total of one month in the year can be desccribed as “pleasant”. Most of the time it’s either too hot or too cold. Temperatures are extreme. When it rains the whole place floods up. If people in Gurgaon are happy it is in spite of the weather and because of it. And therein lies the reason why people from there are traditionally more hardworking than us people from Old Mysore.

Blessed with such wonderful climate, we don’t really need to fight the odds. If today is too hot, we can put off the job for another day when we’re sure it’ll be cooler. If it rains too much today, we know that it’s likely to be dry tomorrow and can thus postpone it. Essentially we don’t need to put too much fight. When the weather is good, we are all jumpy and enthu and do our work. Which allows us to wait and sit when the weather is bad.

The man in Gurgaon, or in Chennai, or even in Raichur, however, can’t afford that. The likelihood of him having a good day weatherwise sometime in the near future is so thin that there exists just no point for him to postpone his work thinking he’ll do it when he feels better. This means that he is culturally (rather, climatically) conditioned to work against the odds. To do stuff even when he doesn’t want to do it. To essentially put more fight. And so he avoids that “inherently lazy” tag which people like us have unfortunately got.

I’m reminded of the second case that we did in our Corporate Strategy course at IIMB, from which the main learning was that sometimes your biggest strengths can turn out to be your biggest weaknesses.

nODi swami, naaviruvudu heege.

Studs and Fighters and Form

It’s been a long time since I wrote about the Studs and Fighters framework. I had overdosed on it a few months back, when I’d put some 3 posts in 4 days or something, but that was when I was hajaar enthu about corporate affairs.

It’s been almost two months since I quit my last job, and in this period, among other things I’ve lost all enthu for anything corporate. I don’t find Dilbert funny anymore. I usually just put well left to the office-politics posts that some of my friends on Google Reader share. And since the S&F theory was mainly meant to deal with corporate situations, that too has gone to the backburner.

I was thinking about Mitchell Johnson’s inclusion in the Aussie team in the Third Test. Given how badly he has been bowling all tour, and given that Stuart Clark hasn’t been bowling badly at all, it seems like a surprising selection. But dig deeper, and employ my favourite framework, and you’ll know why he’s still in the team.

It seems like Johnson is a stud bowler (as I’d remarked earlier, Test match bowling in general is stud). And the theory goes that form matters so much less for the stud. This is mainly because studs are significantly more inconsistent than fighters, which makes forecasting one data point based on historical data a nightmare. This also means that the last few data points say much less about a stud’s next data point than they do for a fighter’s case.

All that a stud needs to do to make amends for his hitherto bad form is to come up with one, or maybe a handful of moments of inspiration/insight. And that can happen any time. In fact, theory says that it is more likely to happen when the stud is defocussed on what needs to be done.

So even in the first couple of Tests, you could see Johnson occasionally coming up with the totally awesome delivery, which would produce wickets. Most of the time he was crap, but the occasional moments of brilliance were enough for him to make an impact. So the thinking in persisting with him is that sooner or later, he will produce enough moments of brilliance in a game that no one will look at all the crap he has bowled, and even that the moments of brilliance can push up his confidence which can lead to less crap.

This kind of thinking doesn’t apply to a traditional fighter, who isn’t capable of that “moment of brilliance”. He usually relies on consistency, and accuracy, and process to do what he needs to do. For the fighter, it has to be a steady rise from one “form situation” to another. And so persisting with the fighter doesn’t make sense. So for example, if Mike Hussey continues batting in the same way as he has been this series, there is a case of sending him to domestic cricket.

The problem with a lot of fighters is that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of studs and treat them too as fighters (on the other hand, most studs understand the existence of fighters). And this treatment of studs (assuming they are fighters) can have disastrous effects.

Happy Birthday

This blog celebrates its first birthday today. It was on the 22nd of July 2008 that I wrote my first ever post on this site (prior to that I’d  been blogging on livejournal). Exactly a year back, I wrote:

The concept of NED has existed as long as mankind. Maybe even longer. If you have read Christian Theology you would have read that God took six days to create the world, and then took rest on the seventh day (Sunday). The truth is that God wanted to create even more and wonderful creatures, and give them even more wonderful features. He just happened to put NED. Since at the time that the Bible was written no one had quantified the concept of NED, the writers decided to take the easy way out by saying that God took rest on Sunday.

NED, for the uninitiated, stands for No Enthu Da. I don’t know how to explain it. In fact, no accurate explanation exists for this in English, for if it did, I wouldn’t have bothered inventing this phrase. By sacrificing some bit of accuracy I can say that NED is a state of mind where you don’t feel like doing anything. You just want to do nothing, and you don’t even have the enthusiasm to do nothing. Yes, if that confused you, you need to remember that there is no perfect explanation for NED in English.

I really don’t know how to celebrate the blog’s first birthday. I seem to be tending towards the trivial solution that Sanjeev suggested to me on facebook yesterday – to just put NED. If you have any bright ideas as to how to celebrate this, please let me know.

One blog fan has suggested that I get the blog a “new set of clothes”. That sounds like a good idea. If you can suggest any good 3-column wordpress theme (widget enabled, with sidebars on both sides), I’d be grateful.

On Religion

Last Thursday there  was a function at home, of the religious type. An aunt and an uncle had come home and sang a large number of hymns. I was told that the hymns were part of a series, called the narayaneeyam, and all in praise of Lord Krishna. There were a few activities also planned along with the chanting of hymns, and occasionally people in the audience (a few other relatives) were asked to do a “namaskaara” to the deity. I mostly put ‘well left’ to these additional stuff, and watched the proceedings dispassionately, sunk into my bean bag with my laptop on my lap.

One of the guests at that function was a two-year old cousin, and he seemed to be full of enthu. He is of the religious sorts – his mom is hyper-religious, I’m told. And he did all the namaskaaras and other activities with full enthu. Later on, my mother was to admonish me saying how even the two year old would respect religion, while I just looked on. She complained about how I’ve been spoilt, and fallen under the wrong influences. I muttered something about the cousin being too innocent to know what was going on around him because of which he sincerely obeyed.

When I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion about six months back, I didn’t feel anything special. I’m told that the book has a lasting impact on its readers – one way or another – and that a lot of people consider it to be life-changing. I felt nothing of the sort. I just read it from start to finish, agreeing with most of its contents, and using some of its sub-plots to enhance the Studs and Fighters Theory. The only ‘impact’ it had on me was about not being a quiet atheist, and to get into arguments about existence of god, etc.

I have an interesting background in these matters. My mother and her immediate family are all ultra-religious, and I happened to grow up mostly in my maternal grandfather’s place (since both parents worked). My late father, on the other hand, was a rationalist, though he stopped short of calling himself an atheist and would passively approve of my mom’s various religious indulgences. He would quietly drive my mother and my family to the Sai Baba ashram in Whitefield, and then wait patiently outside while the rest of the people went in for their “darshan”. I would usually go in and make noises about exposing the Baba.

I don’t know how, but till recently (when I read Dawkins’s book), I would never realize when people were talking about religious stuff. For example, whenever my mom said “it’s due to god’s grace that you escaped the accident unhurt”, I’d just think that she was being rhetorical. At least, that (and swearing) are the only cases in which I take god’s name. It’s only recently, and after reading Dawkins’s book, that I realize that my mother wasn’t being rhetorical after all, and that she actually believes that it was the strength of her daily prayers that ensured I escaped those accidents unhurt.

It is also intersting to note the selection bias. My mother, and her ultra-religious sisters, and their ultra-religious relatives, selectively pick on favourable events and attribute them to god’s grace. Earlier, before reading Dawkins’s book, I would shut up, but now I’m a bit more vocal about these things, and ask them why their prayers didn’t prevent the unfavourable events from occurring. Then, they start looking for the silver lining in the cloud and attribute that to their prayers. Never mind the cloud.

So what about my religion? Some people find it contradictory that my political views are right-leaning (socially) even though I don’t believe in God. I say that I’m ‘culturally hindu’, and that Hinduism/Hindutva is not a religion but a way of life. And if you scrap away all the rituals and other beliefs, what remains in hinduism is the religion that I follow. I like to describe myself as “athiest but culturally hindu”.

I believe that poojas are just an excuse to throw feasts. I believe in rituals such as marriage ceremonies as no-questions-asked-processes which “have to be done” but I don’t believe that they are a necessary condition for any benefit, or against something bad.

Two years back, when my father died, I found the post-death ceremonies quite depressing and decided I’m not going to do them. So an uncle came up to me and asked me why I didn’t want to do the rituals. I told him I didn’t believe in them. He replied saying there was no question of belief but it was my duty to do the rituals. I told him that I didn’t believe that it was my duty to do them.

Problem with defeating elders in logical arguments is that they tend to take it personally, and then decide to attack you rather than attacking your argument. I finally ended up doing all those rituals. But I happened to fight with the shastris during each and every ceremony.

In hindsight, I realized that my fighting with the shastris, though ugly, had managed to send a “don’t mess with me” message to my relatives.

Alumni Dinner Pricing

So this is Anusmaran week. This is the week where all over the world, in over eleven cities, alumni of IIMB will meet in the annual alumni meet up. The venue for this is usually a convention hall or a lawn in a hotel, and people have to contribute an “entry fee” in order to pay for the dinner. Drinks are usually “extra” and you have to pay for each drink that you drink.

The problem with this is that for “pseud value” reasons the event is usually held in a reasonably expensive place. For example, in Delhi it happened at the India Habitat Center, with the “participation fee” being rupees eight hundred only. And on a Sunday evening, and you know how early or late parties in Delhi start. I didn’t go for it so I don’t really know about the response but I don’t expect it to have been spectacular.

The probelm with alumni meets is that the organizers (usually students doing their summer internship in the city where it is held) underestimate the elasticity of these meets. They don’t realize that people who want to be in touch with each other continue to be in touch with each other irrespective of efforts by the Alma Mater, and that there needs to be some sort of concrete incentive in order to come and attend the alumni meet up.

As I was discussing with Baada a short while ago, networking for networking sake does require a reasonably high level of enthu. It doesn’t come naturally for most people. You netwrok if you have a product to sell and need to meet potential buyers. You netwrok if you are looking for a job and hope to meet potential employers. You network if you are looking for some favour and there is a good chance you might meet someone who might do you that favour. You don’t naturally network for netwroking sake.

Given this, expecting people to shell out a not-so-inconsiderable amount to attend a networking event where food will probably be of dubious quality and you have to pay for each glass of booze is a bit too much. The more enthu people and people who want to network will turn up. The rest won’t. They will probably get together with their own little gang of people (maybe all alumni of the same college) and go elsewhere for good dinner and conversation.

The first time I attended Anusmaran was in 2005 when I helped organize it in London, where I was interning. All of us London interns were full of enthu for networking back then and turned up in good numbers. There were quite a few alumni also, and it was good fun. I attended Anusmaran in Mumbai in 2006, immediately after I’d joined my first job. I knew that a large number of people from our batch was in the city, and Anusmaran provided us a good opportunity to catch up. Extremely good fun.

In 2007, I had gone to the Bangalore meet and walked out looking at the extremely thin turnout. I went to the nearby Adigas for dinner along with Aadisht and GB. Was good value for money.

Yes I might be a cheap guy. But what the organizers need to keep in mind is that a large number of attendees are also cheap guys. So forget all the pseud value and hold it at a place where it doesn’t cost too much for the attendee in order to network.