The high cost of “relaxing” activities

So I have a problem. I can’t seem to enjoy movies any more. I’ve written about this before. My basic problem is that I end up double-guessing the plots of most movies that I watched (how many storylines are there anyways? According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are six story arcs).

So as I watch movies, I know exactly what is going to happen. And just continuing to watch the movie waiting for that to happen is simply a waste of time – it adds no information content to me.

The result is that I’m extremely selective about the kinds of movies I watch. Some genres, such as Westerns, work because even if the stories may be predictable, the execution and the manner of execution are not, and that makes for interesting watching.

Then, of course, there are directors who have built up a reputation of being “offbeat”, where you can expect that their movies don’t follow expected story arcs – their movies have enough information content to make them worth watching.

And most “classic” movies (take any of the IMDB Top 250, for example) have stories that are told in an extremely compelling fashion – sometimes you might know what happens, but the way things are built up implies that you don’t want to miss watching it happening.

Now, all this is fine, and something I’ve written about before. The point of this post is that while I feel this way about movies, my wife doesn’t feel the same way. She watches pretty much anything, even if the stories are utterly predictable.

For example, she’s watched at least a 100 Telugu movies (though, admittedly, during a particularly jobless stretch in her MBA when she was watching loads of movies, even she got bored of the predictability of Telugu movies and switched to Tamil instead!). She likes to watch endless reruns of 90s Kannada movies that now appear rather lame (to me). She especially loves chick flicks, which I think have excess redundancy built into them for a very specific reason.

I don’t have a problem with any of this! In fact, I’m damn happy that she has a single-player hobby that enables her to keep herself busy when she’s bored. The only little problem I have is that she believes it is romantic to watch movies together. She might sell video for Amazon for a living, but she surely is a fan of “netflix and chill” (more the literal meaning than the euphemistic one).

And that is a problem for me, since I find the vast majority of movies boring and predictable, and she thinks the kind of movies I like are “too serious” and “not suitable for watching together” – an assessment I don’t disagree with (though I did make her watch For a Few Dollars More with me a couple of months back).

I’d prefer to spend our time together not spent in talking doing other activities – reading, for example (reading offers significantly higher throughput than movies, and that, I think, is a result of formats of several lengths being prevalent – newspaper articles, longform articles, books, etc.). I’ve offered to watch movies with her on the condition that I read something at the same time – an offer that has been soundly rejected (and I understand her reasons for that).

And so we reach a deadlock, and it repeats every time when we have time and want to chill. She wants to watch movies together. I initially agree, and then back out when presented with a choice of movies to watch. Sometimes I put myself through it, thoroughly not enjoying the process. Other times, much to her disappointment, we end up not watching.

Clearly there are no winners in this game!

 

 

Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.

 

Movie plots and low probability events

First of all I don’t watch too many movies. And nowadays, watching movies has become even harder as I try to double-guess the plot.

Fundamentally, commercial movies like to tell stories that are spectacular, which means they should consist of low-probability events. Think of defusing bombs when there is 1 second left on the timer, for example, or the heroine’s flight getting delayed just so that the hero can catch her at the airport.

Now, the entire plot of the movie cannot consist of such low-probability events, for that will make the movie extremely incredulous, and people won’t like it. Moreover, a few minutes into such a movie, the happenings won’t be low probability any more.

So the key is to intersperse high-probability events with low-probability events so that the viewer’s attention is maintained. There are many ways to do this, but as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote (in his masters thesis, no less), there are a few basic shapes that stories take. These shapes are popular methods in which high and low-probability events get interspersed so that the movie will be interesting.

 

Kurt Vonnegut’s Masters Thesis on the shapes of stories

So once you understand that there are certain “shapes” that stories take, you can try and guess how a movie’s plot will unfold. You make a mental note of the possible low-probability events that could happen, and with some practice, you will know how the movie will play out.

In an action movie, for example, there is a good chance that one (or more) of the “good guys” dies at the end. Usually (but not always), it is not the hero. Analysing the other characters in his entourage, it shouldn’t be normally hard to guess who will bite the dust. And when the event inevitably happens, it’s not surprising to you any more!

Similarly, in a romantic movie, unless you know that the movie belongs to a particular “type”, you know that the guy will get the girl at the end of the movie. And once you can guess that, it is not hard to guess what improbable events the movie will comprise of.

Finally, based on some of the action movies I’ve watched recently (not many, mind you, so there is a clear small samples bias here), most of their plots can be explained by one simple concept. Rather than spelling it in words, I’ll let you watch this scene from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

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!

Bangalore trip update

The recent inactivity on this blog was mainly due to my inability to log on to wordpress from my phone and write a post.  I had gone home to Bangalore for an extended weekend (taking Friday and Monday off) and the only source of net access there was my phone, and for some reason I wasn’t able to log on to NED from that. During the trip I had several brilliant insights and brilliant ideas and wanted to blog them and finally such NED happened that I didn’t even twitter them. Deathmax.

The main reason I went to Bangalore was to attend Pradeep (Paddy)’s reception. I think this is an appropriate time to share the funda of his nickname with the world. Before he joined our school in 9th standard, there was this guy two years senior called Pradeep, and for some reason not known to me he was nicknamed Paddy. I vaguely knew him since I used to play basketball with him, and after he graduated there were no more Paddys in school. So when this new guy came from the Gelf, it presented a good opportunity to get back a Paddy into school. It turned out to be such a sticky nickname that not even IIT could change it.

Friday was Ugadi – yet another reason to be home in Bangalore – and was mostly spent visiting relatives. When they heard about my impending market entry, all of them brought up stories of not-so-successful marriages of people they knew well, and put fundaes to me about avoiding certain pitfalls. These fundaes were liberally peppered with stories. Mostly sad ones. Mostly of people who have chosen to continue in their marriages despite them clearly failing. It is amazing about the kind of stuff people I know have gone through, and yet they choose to not run away.

Saturday morning was rexerved for my first ever “market visit”. I was taken to this bureau in Malleswaram and asked to inspect profiles. “There are profiles of hundreds of girls there”, my uncle had told me “so let us go there before ten o’clock so that you have enough time”. The profiles were mostly homogeneous. The number of engineering seats available in Karnataka amazes me. Every single profile I checked out over there had studied a BE, and was working in some IT company. Things were so homogeneous that (I hate to admit this) the only differentiator was looks. Unfortunately I ended up shortlisting none of them.

One of the guys I met during my Bangalore trip is a sales guy who lives in a small temple town without any access to good cinema. So he forced me to accompany him to watch Slumdog (in PVR Gold Class – such an irony) and Dev D. I agree that Slumdog shows India in poor light, but filter that out and it’s a really nice movie. We need to keep in mind that it was a story and not a documentary, and even if it were the latter, I think documentaries are allowed to have narratives and need not be objective. Dev D was simply mindblowing, apart from the end which is a little bit messed up. Somehow I thought that Kashyap wanted to do a little dedic to his unreleased Paanch.

There is this meet-up at Benjarong which is likely to contribute enough material to last six arranged scissors posts. I’ll probably elaborate about the discussions in forthcoming posts but I must mention here that several arranged marriage frameworks were discussed during the dinner. The discussions and frameworks were enough to make both Monkee and I, who are in the market process, and Kodhi who will enter the market shortly to completely give up in life.

One takeaway from Paddy’s reception is that if you can help it, try not to have a “split wedding” (and try not to have a split webbing also) – where different events are held at diferent venues, on disjoint dates. In that case you won’t have people lingering around, and you will lose out on the opportunity to interact with people. Note that there is zero scope for interation during the ceremonies, and the only time you get to talk to people is before, and after, and during. And it is important that there is enough before or after or during time to allow these interactions. In split weddings guests are likely to arrive and leave in the middle of an event and so you’ll hardly get to talk to them.

One policy decision I took was to not have breakfast at home during the length of my stay. I broke this on my last day there since I wouldn’t be having any other meal at home that day, but before that visited Adigas (ashoka pillar), SN (JP nagar) and UD (3rd block). The middle one was fantastic, the first reasonably good except for bad chutney and the last not good at all. Going back from Gurgaon it was amazing that I could have a full breakfast (2 idlis-vada-masala dosa-coffee) for less than 50 bucks. Delhi sorely lacks those kind of “middle class” places – you either eat on the roadside or in fine dining here.

Regular service on this blog should resume soon. My mom has stayed back in Bangalore for the summer so I’m alone here  and so have additoinal responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning. However, I think I should be having more time so might be writing more. I can’t promise anything since blog posts are generated by spur-of-the-moment thoughts and I never know when they occur. Speaking of which I should mention that I put elaborate fundaes on studs and fighters theory in my self-appraisal review form last week.

On how blogs have changed the way I look at books

I have more than a hundred feeds on my Google Reader. It could be much more, just that I haven’t bothered to keep track. Apart from these hundred odd feeds, I also read posts which have been shared by people on my GTalk friends list. And then, you have people who send you the odd link to some strong post or article, and I usually end up reading them too.

The point I’m trying to drive at is that most of my reading time nowadays is spent reading blogs and news articles and magazine articles. The kind of stuff that promises to offer a strong insight once every 1000 words or so, and usually delivers on that promise. Which, in effect, has spoilt me.

So, in effect, whenever I read something, I end up expecting an insight every few hundred words (no, i’m not that jobless to count words. this is just an approximate estimate). And this is the reason why, I think, I’ve stopped reading fiction. Fiction simply doesn’t offer the same kind of insights that blogs do. Yes, stories can be insightful. They do help you learn stuff. They definitely help you “develop as a person”. But if they are longer than a few hundred words (i still have appetite for short stories), they end up boring me. I quickly lose interest. I find no point in reading them.

Whenever I look at a book now, I end up comparing the experience to reading blogs. I see if the book can promise insight at the same rates that blogs can. Which is why I hate single-idea books. i had recently read this book called Why Popcorn Costs So much at the movies. My crib with that was that it didn’t offer enough insight for it’s length. What could have been explained in 20 blog posts had been stitched into a book.

In the era before blogs, such books made sense. There was no quick fix way to get insights, and you would be willing to plough through long books in order to get some insights. And for the author, there was no quick and profitable way of disseminating insights – he was forced to write long books. It was a sustainable market.

Blogging seems to have changed all that. There is a quick and possibly profitable way of disseminating informationn. There is a quick and easy way of receiving it. Some books that were great ideas in an earlier era simply can’t hold up now. In these times, if you are to write a book, you need to make sure that there is actually enough material to hold up all the pages that it’s written on. That even if the main idea can’t hold for so long (it usually can’t), you put in enough sub-plots and side-stories to sustain it.

I want to write books some day. Maybe even take that as a full-time profession – though it’s too early to call on that. However, when I do get down to writing this, I need to keep this concept in mind. That I will need to fill the book with enough insights to sustain it.

PS: i don’t feel the same about movies. I don’t mind the slow buildup and long periods where nothing happens at all. maybe it’s because the movie lasts only about two odd hours in its entirety.