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!

NED Talks – First Edition

Back in 2009, the TED conference was held in Mysore.┬áIf there can exist TED Talks, I reasoned, there is no reason why we cannot have NED talks. And as is my wont, I had shot off a blog post in April 2009, announcing that the first NED Talks would happen in October 2009. Some of the points I had made in that blog post are interesting – I had said that it would be a day long (or even weekend long event), speakers would be “mango people”, and that talks would be uploaded on Youtube. I had no clue what would happen at the NED Talks.

Much happened though between April 2009, when I wrote that blog post, and October 2009, when the first edition of the talks were to happened. I moved jobs. I moved cities. My mother died. Life changed way too much for me to be bothered about NED Talks any more. And so I did what came naturally to me – put NED!

On several occasions in the last five years I’ve thought of “finally organising” the NED Talks, but they never came to fruition for a multitude of reasons, the most important of them being NED itself! I would think I would organise it, start thinking about how I would organise it, and then get confused, and then get into doubt, and thus, postpone! I went through several cycles of this until last month.

It was a day before the wife was to return to Bangalore for her winter holidays, and she suggested that we do the talks while she is in town. She was in luck that I was prepared to listen to her that day. And the idea took root. A guest list was quickly prepared. One guest was quickly signed up and with his help we froze what seemed like a convenient date. And by the end of the day, the first set of invites had been sent out!

The inaugural edition of the NED Talks took place last night, at our residence in Bangalore. There were a total of thirteen speakers, each of whom spoke for five minutes each. Both from our pertinent observations, and from the feedback we received from attendees, I think the event was a grand success. Like they say in Page 3 party reports, “everybody had a good time”.

The format was designed so as to be conducive to NED. One of the big barriers to hosting an event is to arrange for a venue. So we decided to do it in our own home. We didn’t want audience to put NED during the talks, so each speaker was allotted five minutes (though by my accounts most exceeded that limit). Getting professional video was NED-inducing, so we set up a DSLR on a tripod. Food came from the nearby Upahara Darshini and Gayathri Stores. Wine from Venus Wine Stores, also very nearby. The whole thing was set up such that there was no way for us to put NED.

And no one put NED. The talks were all excellent, and thought-provoking. Though none of them were “ideas that can change the world” as TED promises, they were all interesting. So we had a demonstration on different kind of knives, and an exposition on the enduring appeal of late 80s-early 90s Bollywood music – whose musical qualities leave much to be desired. Someone spoke about the importance of being shallow, and someone else on what makes someone interesting. There was a demonstration on the engineering behind consumption of certain herbal products! Thirteen speeches. All very well received.

This being the first edition there were the usual glitches. I had taken upon myself the quadruple role of emcee, DJ, photographer and videographer, which meant that the latter three didn’t receive much attention. So soft background music which was supposed to be played during talks were never played. Some talks were not captured on video at all, while others were only partially recorded (so we will only be putting up a montage of the talks on youtube rather than individual videos). The same camera was being used for taking both photos and videos, which meant not many photos were taken!

Post the event one NED-inducing activity is to make a montage of the videos. We’ve put enthu and done the first part which is cutting up interesting sections from different videos. Now we have the job of stitching them together. Hopefully we’ll upload pretty soon!

Nevertheless the wife and I are extremely kicked that we managed to pull this off. That the much-awaited NED talks finally happened. And now that they’ve happened, we hope to have them on a regular basis. Given that they’ll continue to happen in our drawing room, they’ll remain invite-only events, though.

Jai to NED!

The Goa Project

The last three days I was in Goa, attending the second edition of the Goa Project. Considering how stressed out I was with work last week, it was a good three-day break, and I had a good time meeting new ! people, getting to know them, generally hanging out and drinking (though I must admit I got sick of beer).

The Goa Project is an interesting concept. The basic idea, as one of the organizers put it, is to get a bunch of interesting people together and put them in one place for two days and let the network effect take over. There is no particular objective in terms of immediate outcomes from the workshop – it is simply about connecting people! Talks are scheduled through the days and at any point of time one typically has three sessions to choose from, but like in any good conference, most of the “useful stuff” happens outside the lecture halls – where participants meet each other and just “hang out”.

I took an overnight bus to Goa (first time I used VRL – was pretty good), and so reached the venue only at 11:30 am. The first pair of keynote lectures (those that don’t have any “competitors” and thus don’t give you a choice to not attend) had just got over and people were moving around. The first set of “real sessions” were starting, and I realized there were few people I knew. But then, the point of an event such as this is lost if you end up knowing a lot of people there, and don’t make any effort to expand your network.

In ten minutes I was in and out of all three simultaneous sessions – all of which I found rather uninteresting. Then began my quest for what I called the “white noise space”. The problem was that the microphones at all three venues had been turned up, and it was impossible to have a conversation without any of those lectures disturbing you. Finally I reached what is possibly the “weighted centroid” of all the loudspeakers, where sounds from each of the three lectures could be heard equally loudly, so that they cancelled one another out, allowing us to have a conversation.

Two or three weekends back, I was reading this book on networking called “Never Eat Alone” (on Gandhi’s recommendation), which for a “management book” was a really good read and rather insightful. It was while I was in the middle of that book that I got an invite to speak at the Goa Project. So it can be said that my visit to the Project was an attempt to put what I read in that book to practice.

During the course of the two days of the workshop I don’t think I talked to more than twenty people (there were over two hundred there). My wife had made twenty five or so new business cards for me to give out at the workshop, and I gave out less than ten. I collected three of four business cards. There was this small group of people (some of whom I knew earlier, but not too well, and most of whom I had never met earlier) that I met, and this group expanded during the course of the Project. So while I didn’t expand my network wide, I did manage to get to know a few people well.

The irrepressible Krish Ashok (with whom I hung out for a large part of Day One) gave an absolutely kickass talk on day one about mixing and making music. Fittingly, it was heavily attended, despite it eating into lunch time (inevitably, I must say, there were delays and the schedule got badly mangled). There were only two other sessions on day one that I sat through till the end, though, with most of the others being rather underwhelming.

When we got married, my wife and I had decided that we would not have live music for the reception, for if you keep it too soft, the artists will get offended, and if you keep it too loud, it can interfere with conversation. The live music at the end of day one had the second of these effects, and with some people who I’d hung out with that day, I went to a far corner of the venue (where the music was actually enjoyable) to eat my dinner.

I was talking about the economics of auto rickshaws – perhaps a part two of the talk on Chennai auto rickshaws I’d delivered in Chennai in 2011. I got slotted into a track called “society”, where interestingly I was perhaps the only speaker who was not an activist. In some senses that made me a bit of a misfit with the rest of the track speakers. Sample this interaction during my talk:

Audience member: Given that the auto driver is under privileged ..
Me (cutting her short): Policies should not be framed based on who is under privileged and who is over privileged. They should be based on sound economic reasoning.

The audience member was a bit stunned and took a while to recover to continue the question I had cut short.

Anyway, the lady who was managing my track had sent an email asking us to rehearse our talks and also sent Amanda Palmer’s TED talk to tell us how we should structure our sessions. She had asked us to script our talks, and rehearse it a few times. While my experience on day one indicated that few other speakers had bothered to actually rehearse, early on Day Two, I thought I should rehearse at least once before the talk.

And talking in front of the mirror as I made coffee and dressed myself, I over-exerted myself and promptly lost my voice.

The rest of the morning, before my talk, I decided to “conserve my voice”, and thus not being able to speak, I decided to attend some talks. I sat in the front row when Lucia director Pawan Kumar talked about how he crowd-funded and made the movie. I listened to this guy (who I know via a “secret society” but had never met before) talk about his experience of being a cop in London. In between, I walked about, talking in a low voice, with people I had met the earlier day.

Mangled schedules meant that my 12:40 talk started only around 1:50, when lunch was underway. It didn’t help matters that it was scheduled in the arena farthest from the cafeteria. Calling it “economics of local for-hire public transport” also didn’t help. But that there were less than twenty people in the audience meant that I could settle down on the stage and deliver my talk.

And so I delivered. Mic in hand, low voice didn’t matter. Small crowd meant I could take questions through my talk. Hanging out with a few people through the length of the workshop meant they helped enhance my audience (a favour I returned). And a lunch-time talk meant that when I started getting too many questions, the track manager declared “lunch break” and I slipped away.

I was wearing a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, over khaki cargo shorts. Sitting on stage cross-legged (which meant that the fact that my shirt was untucked or that the shorts were cargo didn’t show), with a microphone in my left hand and waving a pointed right forefinger, I think the only thing that separated me from an RSS pramukh was a black cap on my head!

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The rest of the day went well. I attended some excellent talks through the afternoon and evening, though not too many others did, for the schedule had played havoc again. Dinner time saw a nice band playing, though I stopped drinking since I got sick of beer. I met a few more people, gave out a few more cards, “watched” Liverpool massacre Arsenal via Guardian minute-by-minute commentary, and returned to my hotel a happy man.

The Goa Project continued into its unofficial third day today, as I met a few of the other attendees for breakfast (we were all at the same hotel), a few others for lunch, and some more at the waiting area of the impossibly tiny and congested Dabolim airport as I waited to fly back to Bangalore.

I’ll be back next year.