Luxury and frugal managers

You remember very random things from business school, nearly two decades on. Usually none of this is academic – the lessons are only “internalised”, not “learnt”. A lot of it is from outside the classroom, silly things someone said or did or posted on the internal bulletin board. Most of the stuff you remember are rather arbitrary things that professors said, and made it seem like something profound.

“Management is like making music”, one professor lectured to us in the first week of classes at IIMB, back in 2004. “First you make music with what you have, and when you don’t have that, you make music with what you have left”. It was rather random, but random enough to stick in my head 18 years on.

It has been another disappointing season beginning for Liverpool. I didn’t watch the Crystal Palace game last night, but I clearly remember feeling at multiple points during the draw at Fulham that this was “like 2020-21 all over again”. The sort of mistakes that Virgil Van Dijk made. The length of the injury list. More players (Thiago) going off injured midway through the game. Nat Phillips starting. And add some new issues – like having your shiny new striker getting himself sent off and suspended for 3 games for a stupid show of anger.

I see the list of substitutes.

  • 2
    Joe Gomez (s 63′)
  • 8
    Naby Keita
  • 13
    del Castillo Adrian
  • 14
    Jordan Henderson (s 63′)
  • 21
    Konstantinos Tsimikas (s 63′)
  • 28
    Fabio Carvalho (s 79′)
  • 43
    Stefan Bajcetic
  • 72
    Sepp van den Berg
  • 42
    Bobby Clark

Yes, there are youngsters (unlike 2021-22) but that is fully understandable. What I don’t understand is seeing youngsters I’ve never heard of. Two games in, I’m already getting the feeling that this will be a really hard league campaign.

I wonder if Klopp is more of a “luxury manager” than a “frugal manager”. These are two very different management styles, requiring very different skillsets. The names are fairly descriptive.

Luxury managers need luxury. They need resources for “option value”. In the corporate context, they need large budgets and space and little control over how they operate. And given all of this, a lot of the time, they deliver big. Yes – there are cases where they spectacularly fail (in which case they don’t stay on in their management jobs), but when they do deliver they deliver big.

Frugal managers don’t need any of this luxury. They are experts at making the most of whatever they have been given. In Ramnath’s words, they are adept at “making music with what they have left”. Any kind of luxury, any kind of optionality, seems like a waste to them. Why pay the option premium when you can get the same payoff through a complicated basket of one deltas?

And just like any other dichotomies (think of studs vs fighters, for example), luxury and frugal managers struggle in the opposite settings. Without the luxury, luxury managers are simply out of their depth. They are necessarily wasteful (a bit like Salah) and cannot produce if they are not able to waste some. However, they win big when they do.

Frugal managers are good at eking out solutions in terms of adversity, but abundant resources can overwhelm them. They won’t know what to do with it. More importantly, they are unable to deal with the expectations of delivering big (which come with the luxury) – they have been experts at delivering small against nonexistent expectations.

What about teams though? If you’ve been used to working for a luxury manager, what happens when you get a frugal manager? And the other way round? I don’t have immediate answers for this but I suppose you will struggle as well?

Aamir Khan and Alcohol Buddies

Over the weekend I was watching Koffee with Karan, the episode featuring Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor. It was one of the better episodes in the season, along with the one featuring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt (I did not finish watching any of the others, they were damn boring).

The thing with Koffee With Karan is that it is highly dependent on how interesting the guests are, and not all bollywood stars are equally interesting. Even in this episode, Kareena Kapoor came off as a bit of a bore, refusing to answer most questions, but Aamir Khan was great.

In the early part of the episode, both Kareena and Karan accused Aamir of being “boring”. “You come to a party stand alone and just leave; You catch one or two people and just hang out only with them for the full party”, they said. And then a bit later, one of them (I now forget who – possibly Kareena) said “when I meet you in small groups of 5-6 or less you talk a lot and you are such an interesting person, but why is it that you are such a bore at parties?”

Then Aamir went on to talk about a party at Karan’s house where the music was so loud everyone had to shout to be heard. Nobody was dancing to the music. Nothing was happening. “What is the point of such a party?” he asked.

My friend Hari The Kid has this concept of “alcohol buddies”. These are basically people who you can hang out with only if at least one of you is drunk (there are some extreme cases who are so difficult to hang out with that the only way to do it is for BOTH of you to be drunk). The idea is that if both of you are sober there is nothing really to talk about and you will easily get bored. But hey, these are your friends so you need to hang out with them, and the easiest way of doing so is to convert them into alcohol buddies.

Bringing together this concept and Aamir Khan being “boring”, we can classify people into two kinds – those that are fun when drunk, and those that are fun when sober (some, I think, are both). And people who prefer to have fun when drunk consider the sober sorts boring, and people who prefer to have fun sober think the “alcohol buddies” are boring.

Aamir, for example, appears to be a “have fun when sober” guy, who likes to hang out in small groups and make interesting conversation. Most of Bollywood, however, doesn’t seem to operate that way, hanging out in large groups and not really bothering about conversation.

Yesterday, my wife and I were talking, after an event, about how if you are the sort that likes to hang out in small groups and make conversations, large parties can be rather boring. The problem is that you would have just about started making a nice conversation with someone, when someone else will butt in (hey, this is a party, so this is allowed) and change the topic massively or massively bring down the interest level in the conversation. Every conversation ultimately goes down to its lowest common denominator, leaving you rather frustrated.

And if you are the types who likes large parties and alcohol buddies, small conversations will drain you. You struggle to find things to talk about, and there are only so many people to talk to.

PS: Alcohol and good conversations are not mutually exclusive. Some of my best conversations have happened in very small groups, massively fuelled by alcohol. That said, these have largely been with people I can have great conversations with even when everyone is sober.

Structures of professions and returns to experience

I’ve written here a few times about the concept of “returns to experience“. Basically, in some fields such as finance, the “returns to experience” is rather high. Irrespective of what you have studied or where, how long you have continuously been in the industry and what you have been doing has a bigger impact on your performance than your way of thinking or education.

In other domains, returns to experience is far less. After a few years in the profession, you would have learnt all you had to, and working longer in the job will not necessarily make you better at it. And so you see that the average 15 years experience people are not that much better than the average 10 years experience people, and so you see salaries stagnating as careers progress.

While I have spoken about returns to experience, till date, I hadn’t bothered to figure out why returns to experience is a thing in some, and only some, professions. And then I came across this tweetstorm that seeks to explain it.

Now, normally I have a policy of not reading tweetstorms longer than six tweets, but here it was well worth it.

It draws upon a concept called “cognitive flexibility theory”.

Basically, there are two kinds of professions – well-structured and ill-structured. To quickly summarise the tweetstorm, well-structured professions have the same problems again and again, and there are clear patterns. And in these professions, first principles are good to reason out most things, and solve most problems. And so the way you learn it is by learning concepts and theories and solving a few problems.

In ill-structured domains (eg. business or medicine), the concepts are largely the same but the way the concepts manifest in different cases are vastly different. As a consequence, just knowing the theories or fundamentals is not sufficient in being able to understand most cases, each of which is idiosyncratic.

Instead, study in these professions comes from “studying cases”. Business and medicine schools are classic examples of this. The idea with solving lots of cases is NOT that you can see the same patterns in a new case that you see, but that having seen lots of cases, you might be able to reason HOW to approach a new case that comes your way (and the way you approach it is very likely novel).

Picking up from the tweetstorm once again:

 

It is not hard to see that when the problems are ill-structured or “wicked”, the more the cases you have seen in your life, the better placed you are to attack the problem. Naturally, assuming you continue to learn from each incremental case you see, the returns to experience in such professions is high.

In securities trading, for example, the market takes very many forms, and irrespective of what chartists will tell you, patterns seldom repeat. The concepts are the same, however. Hence, you treat each new trade as a “case” and try to learn from it. So returns to experience are high. And so when I tried to reenter the industry after 5 years away, I found it incredibly hard.

Chess, on the other hand, is well-structured. Yes, alpha zero might come and go, but a lot of the general principles simply remain.

Having read this tweetstorm, gobbled a large glass of wine and written this blogpost (so far), I’ve been thinking about my own profession – data science. My sense is that data science is an ill-structured profession where most practitioners pretend it is well-structured. And this is possibly because a significant proportion of practitioners come from academia.

I keep telling people about my first brush with what can now be called data science – I was asked to build a model to forecast demand for air cargo (2006-7). The said demand being both intermittent (one order every few days for a particular flight) and lumpy (a single order could fill up a flight, for example), it was an incredibly wicked problem.

Having had a rather unique career path in this “industry” I have, over the years, been exposed to a large number of unique “cases”. In 2012, I’d set about trying to identify patterns so that I could “productise” some of my work, but the ill-structured nature of problems I was taking up meant this simply wasn’t forthcoming. And I realise (after having read the above-linked tweetstorm) that I continue to learn from cases, and that I’m a much better data scientist than I was a year back, and much much better than I was two years back.

On the other hand, because data science attracts a lot of people from pure science and engineering (classically well-structured fields), you see a lot of people trying to apply overly academic or textbook approaches to problems that they see. As they try to divine problem patterns that don’t really exist, they fail to recognise novel “cases”. And so they don’t really learn from their experience.

Maybe this is why I keep saying that “in data science, years of experience and competence are not correlated”. However, fundamentally, that ought NOT to be the case.

This is also perhaps why a lot of data scientists, irrespective of their years of experience, continue to remain “junior” in their thinking.

PS: The last few paragraphs apply equally well to quantitative finance and economics as well. They are ill-structured professions that some practitioners (thanks to well-structured backgrounds) assume are well-structured.

Goldilocks and Barbells

Most children learn the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks finds the bears’ home, and tries out random things there. Pretty much for everything she tries, there will be three versions (each belonging to one of the bears), with one being <too extreme>, the second being <too extreme at the other end> and the third being “just right”.

The basic message can be summarised as “extremes bad, means good”. In fact, even if you didn’t learn the story as a child (I didn’t), the message of “doing everything in moderation” gets impressed upon you from various quarters. “Don’t eat too much, don’t eat too little, eat in moderation” is possibly the most prominent example of this.

And in some way we have all internalised this messaged. That both too much and too little of everything is bad, and it’s the middle path that is the right one.

And then on the other side, a concept that has always existed but formally articulated fairly recently, is the “barbell“. First articulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb as an investment strategy, it talks about investing in a combination of extremes and eschewing the means. In Taleb’s original case, it was about an investment strategy that is a mix of low-risk bonds and high-risk (long) out-of-the-money options, that together give a low-risk winning portfolio in the long run. This ran contrary to “modern portfolio theory” that tries to get a mix of assets that maximise expected returns and minimise standard deviation (note I’m saying standard deviation and not “risk” – they’re not the same).

And this strategy applies pretty much everywhere in life. There are a lot of things where the only way you can benefit is by “being all in”. Doing things in moderation can actually be hurtful, and combinations that have a “little bit of everything” can be suboptimal to a simple superposition of extremes.

My breakfast is a barbell, for example. I either skip it completely (nearly zero calories from black coffee only), or have a big breakfast with at least two eggs. A light breakfast completely messes up my day.

My exercise is a barbell (no pun intended). I either lift heavy weights (attached to a barbell) or do nothing. Exercises with light weights make me feel miserable.

In my nearly eight month long return to corporate life, I haven’t taken many days off. My philosophy there is that if I take off, I should be able to completely take off (no “one email here”), and have done so only when it’s easy to do so.

You can think of corporate strategy and a company’s focus being a barbell.

The list goes on. The point is – life is full of barbells, or we can make the most of life by using barbell strategies. Do either this extreme or that extreme, but don’t get confused and do something in the middle.

The problem, however, is that we get brought up on goldilocks, not barbells. And think that the middle path is superior to the extremes. It isn’t always so.

More on status and wealth

Playing zero-sum status games is down to our animal instinct. We have evolved to play those. But the way we can be more human is to seek wealth.

Last week, an old friend from high school sent me this podcast, based on all that I’ve been writing here of late on status-seeking, wealth-seeking, and zero and positive sum games.

I haven’t listened to the full conversation, but only a small snippet (the bit that my friend asked me to listen to, from minutes 20 to 30).

Then, on Sunday night, I started re-reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. I’m in the middle of the first chapter now (one of my favourites from the first reading, and which I’ve read multiple times). This is the one about depression and serotonin. And that triggered further thoughts on status and wealth and all that.

So some pertinent observations based on these:

  • Mating is a status game. Across species, creatures desire to mate with the highest status members of the opposite sex. And you maximise your chances of that by increasing your own status.

    A high status individual (of whatever species) will have greater access to mates, and greater access to high-quality mates, and thus greater chance of propagating their genes.

    Thus, we have evolved to seek status, not wealth

  • You may argue that in human society, wealth is also an avenue for getting superior mates. However, the problem with this is that we are simply using wealth to buy status in this case. The fundamental reason your mate wants to mate with you is your status, which, in this case, you have got on account of your wealth.
  • Status seeking is zero sum, as Naval Ravikant says in that viral podcast. As the above linked podcast (which is about Rene Girard and mimetic desire) says, when we seek status, we seek to imitate people with higher status than us.

    There are two problems with this kind of approach. Firstly, by doing things that higher status people have done, we don’t necessarily get that kind of status. Especially when the things we do are things that involve power-law payoffs.

    Secondly, if everyone imitates the same kind of high status individuals, everyone ends up seeking the same thing. If you and I are seeking the same thing, we don’t trade with each other. And thus we don’t make each other better off.

    If we are seeking wealth (an unnatural thing, as explained above), rather than status, we go about it in our own ways, and that makes it easy for us to trade and all get ahead towards our respective goals.

  • The podcast talks about how people with conditions such as Asperger’s (or anything on the spectrum, or anything that reduces empathy) have inferior empathy, and that means they see less need to conform, or to imitate. And this can lead to them achieving superior outcomes since they do things their own way (I add that this can also lead to them achieving inferior outcomes – basically “vol goes up”).

    Sounds good to me 😛

  • When we imitate others too much, they become rivals to us. Whether you consciously think of them that way or not. And this can lead to misery to all parties (unless you are high-status, or wealthy, enough to not care)
  • At the beginning of Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking (Division Bell), Stephen Hawking comes on and says “for millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learnt to talk”.

    And when we learnt to talk, one of the powers of our imagination that got unleashed was the ability to trade. We figured out that by trading, we can build wealth. And by building wealth, we have an easy means of cooperation. And the ability to play positive sum games. And not having to futilely play status games all the time.

In some sense, trade, commerce and wealth are the fundamentals of what makes us human. It just happens that we’ve evolved to seek status instead, and so we keep pulling each other down.

 

Not all minutes are equal

I seem to be on a bit of a self-reflection roll today. Last night I had this insight about my first ever job (which I’ve  said I’ll write about sometime). This morning, I wrote about how in my 15 years of professional life I’ve become more positive sum, and stopped seeing everything as a competition.

This blogpost is about an insight I realised a long time back, but haven’t been able to quantify until today. The basic concept, which I might have written about in other ways, is that “not all minutes are created equal”.

Back when I was in IIT, I wasn’t particularly happy. With the benefit of hindsight, I think my mental illness troubles started around that time. One of the mindsets I had got into then (maybe thanks to the insecurity of having just taken a highly competitive, and status-seeking, exam) was that I “need to earn the right to relax”.

In the two years prior to going to IIT, it had been drilled into my head that it was wrong to relax or have fun until I had “achieved my goals”, which at that point in time was basically about getting into IIT. I did have some fun in that period, but it usually came with a heavy dose of guilt – that I was straying from my goal.

In any case, I got into IIT and the attitude continued. I felt that I couldn’t relax until I had “finished my work”. And since IIT was this constant treadmill of tests and exams and assignments and grades, this meant that this kind of “achievement” of finishing work didn’t come easily. And so I went about my life without chilling. And was unhappy.

The problem with IIT was that it was full of “puritan toppers“. Maybe because the exam selected for extreme fighters, people at IIT largely belonged to one of two categories – those that continued to put extreme fight, and those who completely gave up. And thanks to this, the opinion formed in my head that if I were to “have fun before finishing my work” I would join the ranks of the latter.

IIMB was different – the entrance exam itself selected for studness, and the process that included essays and interviews meant that people who were not necessary insane fighters made it. You had a rather large cohort of people who managed to do well academically without studying much (a cohort I happily joined. It was definitely a good thing that there were at least two others in my hostel wing who did rather well without studying at all).

And since you had a significant number of people who both had fun and did well academically, it impacted me massively in terms of my attitude. I realised that it was actually okay to have fun without “having finished one’s work”. The campus parties every Saturday night contributed in no small measure in driving this attitude.

That is an attitude I have carried with me since. And if I were to describe it simply, I would say “not all minutes are created equal”. Let me explain with a metaphor, again from IIMB.

The favourite phrase of Dr. Prem Chander, a visiting professor who taught us Mergers and Acquisitions, was “you can never eliminate risk. You can only transfer it to someone who can handle it better”. In terms of personal life and work, it can be translated to “you can never eliminate work. However, you can transfer it to a time when you can do it better”.

Earlier this evening I was staring at the huge pile of vessels in my sink (we need to get some civil work done before we can buy a dishwasher, so we’ve been putting off that decision). I was already feeling tired, and in our domestic lockdown time division of household chores, doing the dishes falls under my remit.

My instinct was “ok let me just finish this off first. I can chill later”. This was the 2002 me speaking. And then a minute later I decided “no, but I’m feeling insanely tired now having just cooked dinner and <… > and <….. >. So I might as well chill now, and do this when I’m in a better frame of mind”.

The minute when I had this thought is not the same as the minute an hour from now (when I’ll actually get down to doing this work). In the intervening time, I’ve would’ve had a few drinks,  had dinner,  written this blogpost, hung out with my daughter as she’s going to bed, and might have also caught some IPL action. And I foresee that I will be in a far better frame of mind when I finally go out to do the dishes, than I was when I saw the pile in the sink.

It is important to be able to make this distinction easily. It is important to recognise that in “real life” (unlike in entrance exam life) it is seldom that “all work will be done”. It is important to realise that not all minutes are made equal. And some minutes are better for working than others, and to optimise life accordingly.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might think this is all rather obvious stuff, but having been on the other side, let me assure you that it isn’t. And some people can take it to an extreme extreme, like the protagonists of Ganesha Subramanya who decide that they will not interact with women until they’ve achieved something!

More on Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and Inclusion are words that are normally thrown around by people of a certain persuasion. In fact, they were among the key principles espoused by one of my earlier employers as well (to their credit, some of their diversity and inclusion sessions did a lot of help broaden my worldview).

However, as I’ve argued earlier on this blog, in a lot of cases, arguments on diversity and inclusion are (literally) only skin deep – people go big on diversity of sex, sexuality, skin colour, nationality and so on while giving short shrift to things like diversity of thought, which in my opinion plays a larger role in building a more successful team.

I’ve also mentioned earlier on this blog about how some simple acts of inclusion can go a long way – for example, I’d mentioned about how building a pedestrian walkway, or pedestrian crossing with signals, would help make one of the roads in Bangalore more inclusive towards pedestrians (a class of people the usual proponents of diversity and inclusion don’t care about).

I was reminded of diversity and inclusion when the recent hoopla about messaging apps happened. A number of my contacts said they were leaving WhatsApp and moving to Telegram or Signal. Others said they weren’t going anywhere and were sticking to WhatsApp, and that Facebook’s new privacy rules were nothing new.

From my personal point of view, since I didn’t have a view on this messaging apps issue, the best solution turned out to be “inclusion”.

I’m on all apps. I’m on Signal, and Telegram, and WhatsApp, and iMessage, and good old SMS. However you choose to reach me, I’m there to receive your message and respond to you. In that sense, when you don’t have a strong opinion, the best thing to do is to be inclusive.

Of late I’ve realised it’s the same with language. Since I now work for a company that is headquartered in Gurgaon, a number of colleagues instinctively speak in Hindi. Initially I used to be a bit snobbish, and tell them that my Hindi sucked, and when they spoke Hindi, I would reply in English.

Over time, however, I’ve realised that I’m only being an asshole by refusing to be inclusive. Since I know Hindi (I got more marks in Hindi in Class 10 board exams than I did in English – not that that says anything), I should let the people decide whether I’m worth talking to in Hindi at all. I’ll talk to them in my broken Hindi, and if they think it’s too broken they can choose to switch to a language I’m more comfortable in.

And a week ago, Pranay and Saurabh of the Puliyabaazi podcast asked me if I’m willing to go on their (Hindi) podcast to talk about logical fallacies and “how not to use data”. I immediately accepted, not only because it’s a great podcast to be on (they’re fun to talk to), but it also gives me an opportunity to show off my broken Hindi.

The episode dropped on Thursday. You can listen to it here:

I realised while I was recording that my Hindi has become really rusty, and I found myself struggling for words many times. I also realised after the episode dropped that I don’t even understand what the title means, yet I’ve been happily sharing it around in my office! (a colleague kept asking me if I knew this word and that word, and I realised the answer to all that was no. Yet I had made assumptions and gone on with the podcast – another example of my own “inclusiveness”!)

Henceforth I’m never telling a colleague that I don’t know Hindi. However, if I find that someone overestimates my level of Hindi I might inflict this podcast on them. Even then, if they choose to speak to me in Hindi, so be it! I’m going to make an attempt to be more inclusive, after all.

 

Apolitical fake news

For the last 4-5 years, the ills of “political fake news” have been well documented – documented well enough that I don’t even need to link to them (I think). However, there is another kind of fake news that doesn’t get the sort of (negative) attention it deserves – unbiased or apolitical fake news.

Before we describe such news, a couple of frameworks. Firstly, there are two kinds of media publications – periodicals and perennial. Periodicals deliver news at a certain periodicity – daily or weekly or monthly or whatever. Their job is to tell the reader what happened in the world (or the subset of the world that the publication focuses on) since the previous edition. Examples of periodicals include newspapers and magazines and the 9 o’clock (or whenever) news on Doordarshan.

The other side is perennials, which are “always on”. When some news breaks, their mandate is to break it to their audience as quickly as possible. When there is no breaking news, they need to make up something, or analyse, or have talk shows and shouting matches, or whatever. Examples of perennial publications include 24×7 TV channels and twitter.

The second framework is something I’ve written about a fair bit – on finite and infinite games. This was introduced by the late NYU philosopher James Carse. The basic concept is that the objective of a finite game is to win. There is a particular end point. In an infinite game, there is no concept of “winning”. The objective is to just continue playing. I think it’s a rather profound theory, and has consequences in lots of facets of life.

Including media. My argument is that periodicals play a finite game and perennials play an infinite game.

The objective of a periodical is to make each issue good enough that the reader/viewer continues the subscription until the next issue. This might, at face value, appear like an infinite game, but from the point of view of a single edition, it is a finite game. If the reader/viewer continues subscription (however you define it) till the next issue, you have “won”.

It is different with perennials because there is no discrete “next edition”. The next edition of a next edition is the next minute. And that makes the “game” mentioned in the earlier paragraph hard to play. Instead, running a perennial media house is like playing an infinite game, where your objective is to make sure that the viewer/reader “continues to play the game”, or continues to watch without switching channels or diverting attention.

In other words, the objective of a perennial media house (like a 24×7 media channel, or twitter) is to make sure users stay on the platform. Which is good.

Except that, over a period of time, some of these media houses have figured out that one surefire way of retaining viewership and viewer interest is by stoking viewer anxiety. When a viewer is anxious about something, they want to get as much information as possible about the thing they are anxious about, and continue to hunt for information. This means that they are going to continue to hang around the channel (or social media platform) in the hope of resolving their anxieties. Which means that these channels or platforms “win” the infinite game of retaining audience attention.

And how do these channels create anxiety? By creating outrage. By creating sensationalism. By resorting to fake news, of the kind that is certain to cause anxiety among viewers, in the hope that they will continue to watch (and consume the intervening ads).

I clearly remember the Kaveri riots in Bangalore in 2016 (the week my daughter was born), when Kannada 24×7 news channels took to showing the riots and arson live on TV. And giving reports in a rather sensational voice on how the riots were only going to increase and things are going to get worse. This wasn’t “fake” per se, but sensational and anxiety causing (we kept the TV on one whole afternoon wondering if it was safe to go to the obstetrician’s clinic (300m away from home) ).

And the Kannada 24×7 channels were at it again in 2020 during the covid-19 induced lockdown. One day (in May) suddenly one of them claimed that “all of Bangalore would get sealed down because of increasing cases”. It turned out that two small neighbourhoods were “sealed down” because of a high density of cases there. The rumours of “seal down” were clearly fake news, that clearly created anxiety among the viewers.

I’m only quoting one such instance from this period, but news channels kept at this business of fostering anxiety by saying things that weren’t true (I don’t normally watch these channels, but kept getting informed about these fake “news” by elderly relatives who as a rule keep watching news all the time).

What I’m disappointed by is that this kind of fake news gets no attention at all, compared to the more political sort of fake news which is easy to see through for someone with an iota of brain cells. Then again, the platforms that give footage to the ills of political fake news (twitter, some whatsapp groups, etc) are also perennial news sources themselves and so it doesn’t make sense to call out people of their own ilk.

Concepts from The Obesity Code

Based on the recommendation of a friend who had once described his waistline as “changing more often than Britney Spears’s (?) bra size”, I read Jasun Fung’s The Obesity Code over the last couple of days. The book is stellar.

Here are my highlights from the book.

Anyway, fitness and nutrition is something I’ve been struggling with for a very long time in life now. I used to believe that I have my health numbers (primarily triglycerides) under control because of regular lifting of heavy weights, but a recent blood test called that assumption to question. Having got what I now think is bad advice about what to eat and what not to eat, getting better advice on food is something I’ve been fairly receptive to. And the book does a great job of it.

The basic idea is – your body weight is controlled by hormones. How much you eat and how much you exercise doesn’t really matter. Calorie counting just doesn’t work. Your body has a “natural weight”, and if you are above that the body will try to adjust it lower, and vice versa. And this “natural weight” is guided by the hormones, especially insulin. The higher the level of insulin in your blood, the more your “natural weight” will be.

So the idea is to keep the level of insulin in your blood low. The author builds up a stellar case with some rigorous presentation of research. There is NO RELATIONSHIP between the fat that you eat and risk of heart attacks. A high carb low fat diet will make you fat.

And what I liked about the book is the structuring – the first 220 pages is all about presenting the research on various topics, and not really “giving away” what you should or should not eat. And then in the last 20 pages, he puts it all together, with a broad plan on what is good to eat and what is not.

In any case, I’m not going to reproduce the book here. You can go read it (it’s very very well written), or just read my highlights. The reason I started writing this post is to document my learnings from the book. I think I’d already internalised a lot of it, but some of it is new. This is how I plan to change my diet going forward:

  • Sometimes in recent times I’ve noticed this “heady feeling” upon eating certain foods. I used to think it’s due to eating too much sweet. Now, after reading, I think it’s the feeling of an insulin spike in my head. I’m not going to have any fruit juices. Fruits need to be eaten whole
  • I’ve largely eschewed added sugars for a while now (sometimes on and off). This will continue.
  • Artificial sweeteners also cause a spike in insulin. I didn’t know this. So no more coke zero. No more Muscle Blaze Whey Energy powder as well (I now need to find a whey powder that doesn’t contain any sweet or any sweetener). No energy bars. No “no added sugar” biscuits.
  • This is maybe the most important concept in the book – NO SNACKING. Eat exactly two or three times a day (I used to eat two a day, but nowadays I go to the gym in the mornings, so breakfast is necessary). Eat as much as you want at each meal, but don’t eat in between meals. The body needs lots of periods of time when insulin levels go low – so it doesn’t adjust to a higher natural level of insulin, which means a higher natural weight.
  • Dairy products have a high “insulin index” (produce lots of insulin once eaten), but also have high satiety – they keep you full for a very long time after eating. After my last cholesterol test, after a fight with the wife, I largely gave up on cheeses. I’m reversing that now. I love cheese, and it’s good for me. Calorie counting just doesn’t work (the book does a great job of explaining this).
  • Not doing keto. It’s unsustainable. And I love my fruits too much. Oh, and I need to eat my fruits along with my meals. Not as “snacks”
  • Processed carbohydrates are not good. So no more bread for me. I need to figure out if fried eggs + milk will be enough for breakfast. Or find a decent substitute.
  • I also need to figure out how good or bad basmati rice is. Definitely makes me feel better than sona masuri (which we used to eat before). Need to figure out if this feeling is justified.
  • Peanuts are good. Peanut butter is good. Other nuts are good as well. But need to eat them for breakfast. Not as a snack.

The hardest part for me, with this new regimen I plan to start, is “no snack”. I’d gotten so used to snacking that I think I eat far less than necessary during my main meals. And that results in a vicious cycle. I’ve attempted to start breaking out of that by supplementing my chapati-paneer curry with some curd rice tonight.

So far I’ve been feeling great. Let’s see how this goes.

Ending on a high

Now that I have a “proper job” I don’t get that much of an opportunity to post during the week. So I might dump “ideas gathered during the week” each weekend. Hopefully quality won’t suffer. Also, I should add that all opinions here are my own and don’t reflect that of any organisation(s) I’m associated with. 

My lifting had suffered massively during the lockdown. In the first week of March, just before the lockdown had hit, I had managed all-time personal bests in front squat, back squat and bench press. And then the gym shut for six months.

Both physical and mental health suffered. Physical because I wasn’t lifting, and so wasn’t burning as much calories as I used to, and so I lost muscle, and put on fat, and triglycerides and other things.

Mental because I wasn’t lifting, so I wasn’t sure any more what or how much I could eat. I would be anxious about every little thing I ate, or didn’t eat (after considering eating). All the mental models I had built up over time of what is good or bad for me went for a toss, meaning I had to make decisions on the fly. And that wasn’t easy at all.

So when the gym reopened in the middle of August, I was among the first to get back. Yes, the risk of catching the disease of 2020 was there, but that got counterbalanced by the prospect of vastly improved physical and mental health.

I restarted slowly, at about half the weights I had left off at in March. I had expected it to take a year to reach my previous highs. The guy who runs the gym thought it will take a couple of months. He had the better prediction – in the beginning of November I managed to deadlift twice my body weight (I had done that once before, in September 2019, but for post-lockdown, this was a massive high).

And then things went for a toss. Maybe I started going to the gym too often. Maybe I started sleeping too little. Maybe the diet I went on (after the elevated levels of triglycerides in my blood got confirmed due to a blood test) ended up reducing my strength.

The following week, I attempted 5 kg above twice my body weight. Failure. A week later (I do “normal deadlifts” once a week, and “sumo deadlifts” once a week), I tried 2X my body weight again. Failure again. And yet again. And three continuous weeks of failure was a bit too much to take. And it didn’t help that in my usual program, the deadlift is the last exercise before I wind up. Irrespective of how much I had lifted before, ending the workout with a failure wasn’t a great thing to do.

A T-shirt I bought recently

And so this week, I decided to reverse course. I still continued with the deadlift as my last lift of the day, but gave myself enough time for it (by changing my workout schedule) that there was time to “end on a high”.

So on Tuesday, I tried 2X my body weight once again. Failure. However, my schedule meant that I had time left over. I removed 5 kg, and tried again. Failure again. I wasn’t going to be done. I took off another 10kg and attempted again, and managed to complete 3 reps. I was done for the day.

It happened once again with the sumo deadlift yesterday, and with the overhead press three days back – giving myself more time meant that I had the time to scale back upon the end of my unsuccessful lift, and finish the day on a high, even if it is a lower high than what I wanted to end on before I started my workout.

Oh, and I should mention that in the last week, I’ve managed to hit all time personal bests (including pre-lockdown) in front squat, sumo deadlift and bench press. I think the “ending on a high” philosophy, combined with giving myself more time, have something to do with it.

PS: Ending on a failure, apart from ruining the rest of that day, also makes you more apprehensive the next time you want to lift, and might lead you to lift less than your potential next time.