Missing the Obvious

It was a year and a half back that I bought this desktop that I’m writing this post on. Given that the desktop was to be placed in my study, and the modem is in the drawing room, the most intuitive thing for me to connect up this desktop was to buy a USB wi-fi adapter, which cost me in excess of a thousand rupees. While it worked well in general, it gave problems once in a while, requiring reinstallation of the software and setting some random settings.

Last week, when I got some data from a client, I realized that my computer was wholly unsuited for big data operations, and I needed to upgrade, big time. I’ve now got myself a badass Intel I7 processor, with 8GB RAM and a 64 bit OS which will hopefully enable me to run my business successfully. The downside of this is that my old USB Adapter doesn’t work on a 64bit processor (it can be made to work, but the process is long and tedious). After getting my wife to dirty her hands on this (she is the in-house hands-on engineer), I realized that it wasn’t possible to get the USB Adapter to work, and thought of complicated options such as using this computer purely for analysis and using my laptop and a Pen Drive for the networking. Half a day of working thus told me it was way too inefficient. Then I thought of shifting the entire modem to the room, drawing a line from the telephone jack in the drawing room all around the house,  a process that is not painless.

Finally, for two hundred and sixty rupees (less than a fourth of what I had paid for the USB Adapter) I got myself a 20 meter long LAN cable, and have simply connected my computer with that. Beautiful, intuitive, simple. The question, though, is about why I had never thought of this beautiful, simple, intuitive solution for so long! It turns out that I had never really taken this option into consideration at all, for had I done it there would have been no grounds to reject it at any point in time.

I have recently embarked on a career in consulting, and I believe that a significant proportion of my insights are going to be beautiful, intuitive, simple solutions which for whatever reason the client hadn’t particularly thought of. Why do such low hanging fruit exist at all?

What is it about our thinking that we get so tied up in complications and completely miss out the obvious? Is it a fallout of our spending large amounts of time trying to solve complicated (and in the larger context inconsequential) problems? Or is it that these simple obvious solutions have to “hit us” sometime (in the form of an insight) and when we sometimes approach the problem in too structured a manner we tend to miss out on these insights? What do you think?

While I’m happy that I’m connected again, and in such simple a manner, I’m cross with myself that a simple soluti0n as this didn’t strike for such an extended period of time.

Staggered surprises

When you have a number of things to surprise someone with, you can either flood them with that, or present it to them in a staggered manner. And based on recent experience with both forms, on both ends of the divide, I get the feeling that staggered surprises are superior and more effective than flooded surprises.

A year and half back, for my then girlfriend’s (now wife) birthday, I had got a bunch of things. There were clothes, food, a collage and even this laptop I’m writing this post on. And as soon as I entered the girlfriend’s house that day, I started producing these one by one. Before she could react to any of the gifts, I had produced another, and there was a flood. In hindsight, I thought the value of some of the things I’d got her were lost because I didn’t give her enough time to appreciate them while she was still surprised.

She played it differently at my birthday yesterday. Again, there was a bunch of things she had lined up. So at midnight yesterday, she says happy birthday and hands me a kurta. I try it out, and as soon as I’ve finished appreciating it (took a while) she makes me take it off, and gives me another. This way, over the course of the next ten minutes, she gives me five kurtas. And then a leather bag. And a box of tea. And some fancy paper to scribble on.

Giving gifts in a trickle, I think, works because of the expectations it sets. When Pinky produced the first Kurta, the natural thought in my head was, “oh she’s got me a kurta for my birthday”. I had expected one kurta. And when she slowly produced the next, I was surprised. You don’t generally expect someone to get you five kurtas, so each one she produced was met with a fair bit of surprise. The trickle had set my expectations low, and so the degree of surprise was high.

Pinky wasn’t done yet. She had solicited “happy birthday videos” from a number of my friends, from various stages of my life. Due to a personal tragedy (her grandfather passed away on Saturday) she hadn’t had time to put them together in a montage, but that helped her stagger-surprise me again. She first played videos from relatives, and after I had thought that was all to it, she played videos from friends. One by one. Not pushing expectations too high, and continually surprising me.

It was to play out similarly at the surprise party she had organized for me last night (after all the gifts and video messages, the last thing I had expected was a party). I had been told we’d be going out for dinner, when two of my oldest friends (I’ve known them for 25 years now) arrived. “Maybe she’s called my oldest friends to join us for dinner”, I thought. After a while they were followed by a friend from college who lives in the US now. I was truly shocked. He and his wife had dropped in while on their way to a wedding, I was told. I had no idea a party was on.

And then some quizzing friends appeared. And then some most recent colleagues (remember I don’t have any “current” colleagues). And Pinky, who had disappeared a while back, materialized with a cake. Soon enormous quantities of food appeared. I was already drinking by then and it was surreal. The best birthday ever, for sure. No, really! I don’t know if I would have been as happy had the surprises not been staggered.

PS: Ashwin and Vyshnavi responded to Pinky’s call for “happy birthday videos” with this one. It’s total kickass.

Unknown Music

There are times when you want to listen to songs that you don’t know. You want to listen to something that seems very vaguely familiar but something you don’t know. One way to implement this it to put winamp on randomize mode. But then, you are likely to know the songs so it won’t work that well. Another way is to listen to the radio but then they may not always play your kind of music (for example, there is one English radio channel in Bangalore and most of the time they play Miley Cyrus nad similar trash – not at this moment though, some awesome house music is playing).

Another way of implementing this which I’ve discovered is to listen to bands that you don’t listen to too often. A 250 GB harddisk on my laptop allows me to store lots of music and there are lots of bands whose music I largely like but don’t listen to enough in order to make myself familiar with their songs. So when I’m in one of those moods when I just wnat to listen to music without analyzing too much or thinking too much I just pull out one of these artistes, and listen to a couple of their albums.

Since I know what they broadly sound like, I can choose music to fit my mood. On the other hand, since I don’t listen to these bands too often, it sounds fresh and unfamiliar all the time, so I end up not thinking too much.

Do you people also feel the same sometimes? Feel like listening to music that doesn’t sound too familiar? What kind of stuff do you listen to then? Where do you source the music for such occasions? Do let me know

You know, I have this condition

My memory cache (talking about my memory, not my computer’s or my laptop) seems to have suddenly diminished. My life seems to have become very Markovian. In fact, a few months back, I used to think that a Markovian existence is the best kind of existence, since in that kind of a situation, you respond to every situation on instinct, don’t make plans, are always on the lookout to optimize, etc. Now that I’ve actually reached close to that state, I don’t know if it’s desirable.

So basically my already weak short-term memory has become weaker. I’ve already talked about one paradox – I’ve traditionally had great long-term memory but awful short-term memory. I remember strange things, dates when those things happened, the colour of the shirt I was wearing when certain things happened, etc. And I typically can’t remember much of what someone told me recently, or what my mom asked me to buy at the market. The explanation I give myself for this is that I’m weak with details – and missing out on details is not as critical when you are talking about long-term stuff as it is in the short term.

Anyways what has been happening to me of late is that days seem very long. Towards the evening of most days, I really can’t remember what I did that morning. Ok, it’s not that bad – I can remember with some effort, but that effort is approximately equal to the effort required to remember what I did a year ago or some such. Once I get into doing a certain activity, I completely forget about everything I was doing prior to that particular activity – it all goes into memory, rather than staying in cache (like it used to earlier).

The most interesting (and scary) part of the deal is that my memory loss seems to be especially bad when it comes to numbers. This evening, I was out shopping for a computer table. I checked out stuff at some four shops, but as soon as I entered one shop, I completely forgot about the prices quoted in the previous shop. So I actually didn’t have a handle on comparative price. Tomorrow, I’ll mostly go buy that table which I liked best, and trust the shopkeeper to rememeber the price that I’ve bargained.

Considering that I’ve traditionally been a “numbers guy” and have a good eye for numbers, this is extremely scary. I just hope it’s some minor problem caused due to something like lack of sleep (i sleep only 8 hours a day) or hunger (i eat at least 6 times a day) and not something more serious. For example, I use a prepaid mobile phone. And each time after a call or a message I see the balance, I don’t know how much I’ve spent becasue I don’t know the previous balance. I remember that the last time I used a pre-paid phone (the same number; back wehn i was at IIMB) I would meticulously keep track of expenses.

While the condition lasts, I seem to be enjoying myself. Days seem so much longer, so I can relax so much more in the given time. I occasionally feel bored, but quickly find myself something to do, and get engrossed in it. I don’t get easily distracted like I used to. I don’t multitask (earlier I was a compulsive multitasker). I’m able to concentrate again, like I used to during the days of blindfold chess in the backbench. I don’t get worried. I don’t remember a thing from my previous jobs – though I’m sure I can pull it up from secondary memory if absolutely required.

But you know, I have this condition..