Back to IIT

I hereby regret to inform you all that Sri Gurunath Patisserie, and everything around it including the Gurunath Stores and Moon Lab, is no more. There is no sign of its existence. Some new building, maybe an extension to the “giga mess” next door is coming up there.

Until this part of my walk early in the morning on the 15th of August, I had been thrilled to be back at IITM. Thanks to the kindness o the IITM Alumni Association, I had managed to get a room at the Taramani Guest House there for the morning, after my train had deposited me in Chennai at 4:15 am.

Of all the “institutes of national importance” I’ve visited in the recent past (last 1-2 years), IITM seemed the most friendly (and IIMB the least). This is ironic since as a student it was absolutely the other way round – the administration in IITM didn’t treat students well at all but in IIMB they were rather nice. However, now, post-pandemic IIMB has become a terror to get into, with some insane protocols and rituals.

At the IITM gate, though, all I had to do was to show a mail that I had a booking in Taramani House, and my auto was waved past. Delhi Avenue looks exactly the same as it did two decades ago, though maybe some new faculty blocks have been added to the sides. The stadium now has a sponsor (some Watsa – no Prem), and Gajendra Circle was all lit up for Independence Day. Else it was a very familiar ride in.

Taramani House has turned around, though, with its entrance now facing the road between CLT and OAT, and not towards Narmada (my old hostel). The auto dropped me there, and I duly handed over the ?160 change I’d got at the gas station.

A security guard welcomed me and asked me to sit down as he went to fetch the night manager. It was “old style check in” as I had to enter details into a fat log book. The room key was “electronic” (the one you swipe), though, and was handed to me along with a bottle of water and a small cardboard box. Later I found that the cardboard box had a Medimix soap, a satchet of shampoo (hadn’t seen one of those in decades now!) and a toothpaste and toothbrush.

I set an alarm for 7:30 and crashed off. IITMAA had asked me to attend the flag hoisting ceremony “around 8am”, but hadn’t given me more details. I decided to go “in search of it”, and take a walk around campus while I was at it.

After failing to find the flag hoisting ceremony, I expectantly walked towards Gurunath to find that it was no more. And having gone all the way, I went to my hostel.

Again the security guard was rather nice, and just said “oh, visitor?” and waved me past. It was 8:30 am, and I walked through the hostel for about 10 minutes “completely unmolested”. I didn’t cross paths with a single student, or even see one within 20m of where I was. The room I used to live in was bolted from inside (indicating my room-descendent was there). However, when I knocked, there was no response.

This is what my room looks like now:

Where I lived between 2002 and 2004. The graffiti, I think, is a recent addition

Most of the daytime in the hostel was spent at the end of my wing, sitting on the ledge (I’d not yet developed my fear of heights then) and reading newspapers. This is that ledge area.

Again some graffiti

I walked all round the hostel. The mess has been demolished and rooms built in its place. There is a third floor now. Large parts of the notice board in front are behind a locked glass. Even the unlocked part of the notice board has NO GRAFFITI – I guess that’s reserved for the walls now. And I was sad that I didn’t meet anyone – I would’ve loved to talk to the current inhabitants and find out what life is like there.

I had planned to meet Mohan, the legendary quizzer who was one year ahead of me at IITM CS, for breakfast that morning. Not wanting to put too much fight, I asked him to come to the guest house itself, and we ate there. The pongal and vada were good, although the “independence day special kesari bath” (a weird pink colour) was gross. We didn’t even go near the orange white and green idlis.

And then we went off on a rather long walk across campus, mainly covering the academic sections. We saw the new computer science building, and debated on what was in its place twenty years ago. We found this rather interesting nook in that building  – at the end of a corridor, a simple table and stools, and a blackboard.

The nook in the new Computer Science Block

We then went to the Building Sciences Block, which used to host the Computer Science department back in the day. And then kept walking, exploring campus and talking about lots of fun things.

It was interesting going around the place with Mohan, since we were a year apart in college and hence didn’t have any particular shared experiences, though we had SIMILAR experiences because we did the same program. This meant there was a connection but not too much nostalgia, meaning we could explore lots of different things as we walked. Oh, he recommended this book to me.

After that I headed back to my room for a quick shower, and checked out. Once again, it was time to deal with Uber / Ola. That I was deep inside IIT meant that any cab that had to pick me up had to make the trek all the way inside, and the place where I was meeting Kodhi and Aadisht for lunch was not far away at all – implying a huge transaction cost.

At least 5-6 cabs (from both platforms) cancelled on me. The ones who would call would talk about some “distance” (what I could make out given my broken Tamil) and cancel. Finally, I got an Uber that was 14 minutes away (when I booked), and which actually arrived. Turns out it came with a passenger headed TO taramani house, and I got in as he got off.

I might have written here before – I quite like going back to IIT, even though it is in Chennai! I sort of feel at home when I go back there (unlike in IIMB, where I feel like I’m invading someone else’s personal space, unless I’m there to teach or for a reunion), though I’m still very sad that Gurunath is no more.

That was the one place where I had my best memories on campus, and kept me going through my last three years there. Most of the “network” I have from IITM consists of people I hung out with there. And it pains me that it doesn’t exist any more. I really wonder what misfit students do there nowadays!

Read Part One of my trip here.

IQ and mental health

It’s possible that I’ve written about this before, but I’m too lazy to check. I just saw this tweet by Baal about what he calls the “Aaron Swartz syndrome” (of brilliant people lost to mental illness because they put too much pressure on themselves).

(and yay, tweets are publicly visible again)

Baal’s tweet here is about a mutual classmate who we lost over a decade ago.  And this tweet triggered off a thought that I’ve had regarding pattern recognition, and which I might have written about earlier.

Fundamentally, what makes us intelligent is our ability to see patterns. Before the advent of modern “advanced linear algebra”, the difference between giving instructions to a human and to a computer was that the latter had to be incredibly specific. The human, on the other hand, could get approximate instructions, and then quickly see patterns in what they were observing, and get the job done.

Even a lot of “advanced linear algebra” works the same way. You give it a bunch of data, and it uses some mathematical transformations to “learn patterns” about the data, and then looks for these patterns in hitherto unseen data to make predictions. So what makes “artificial intelligence” intelligent is that it can use maths to divine patterns.

I remember taking this Mensa test when in college. It was all about pattern recognition. Four images given, and you need to figure the best fifth image to complete the sequence. That sorts. And Mensa claims to be a “club for the insanely intelligent”, and they use pattern recognition as a means to identify the more intelligent humans.

I can go on but I think I’ve provided sufficient evidence arguments on how intelligence is basically about pattern recognition. The more intelligent you are the better you are at identifying patterns.

Now what does it have to do with mental health?

The answer lies in false positives.

The problem with being good at pattern recognition is that sometimes you can tend to overdo it. You start seeing patterns that don’t really exist. I must mention here that I got over my extremely long-term and fairly deep depression back in 2012 when I was asked to deliver a few lectures on logical reasoning – explaining to my lecturees that correlation does not imply causation convinced me of the same, and I started feelingbetter.

So – because you are good at pattern recognition, you end up seeing too many patterns. I remember this from business school – I saw a bunch of people eating lunch together and thought I’ll go eat with them. And then I noticed a pattern among the set of people (something silly to the effect of “they are all from Section A, and taking this marketing elective”) that didn’t apply to me. And suddenly I decided I didn’t belong there and didn’t go to sit with them.

On that day I remember this happening multiple times, and I finally ate my lunch alone. Now thinking back, this was silly of me – and I had voluntarily brought upon myself unpleasant thoughts (“I don’t belong in this group”) and loneliness.

This is just one example – such things regularly happened through the decade of the 2000s. I would see demons (patterns, basically) where none existed. I would overthink decisions like crazy. I would bring loneliness upon myself. I would make random correlations, that would only serve to depress (“oh, my lucky shirt hasn’t dried, so I won’t be able to do well in today’s exam” types).

Generalising – what you see is that the better you are at seeing patterns, the more the spurious patterns you see (in advanced linear algebra, we call this “overfitting”). And these spurious patterns end up affecting you, and clouding your judgment. And making you less capable of leading life.

I keep thinking, and saying, that my engineering class has been especially badly affected by mental illness. In the class of 30 odd, we’ve lost two people to suicide already (including the person Baal mentioned in his tweet), and know of several others who had mental illness severe enough to either drop out, or take semesters off.

And given that the class was largely made up people from the extreme right tail of the distribution in a highly competitive entrance exam, I’m coming to believe that correlation exists – all of us being superior pattern recognisers, have been prone to recognising spurious patterns, and many have fallen prey to mental illness, to different extents.

PS: I found one blogpost I’ve written about this topic



Last night some colleagues and I were discussing the case of the Titan Submersible. For people who will be reading this after the news cycle has passed, this is basically a submersible that took people to see the debris of the Titanic, and then disappeared.

At the time of discussion, there was reportedly “20 hours of oxygen left” in the vessel, which meant rescue operations had to go on quickly. Then again, I’m writing this 23 hours after our conversation and there is no update yet, so I don’t know what that “20 hours means”.

In any case, someone in the group said “the worst thing that will happen is if someone panics. At that point, the rest of the people will have no option but to just kill this person”. I took a while to figure out what was happening, and then someone mentioned that when you panic, you tend to consume more oxygen.

The “20 hours of oxygen” was at “ground state”, with everyone remaining calm and consuming the average human amount of oxygen. However, if someone panicked, their rate of consumption of oxygen would go much higher, meaning the oxygen reserves will get drawn down much faster, thus lessening the chance of the others to be found.

So, from an expected value basis, it is rational for the rest of the people to kill the panicker, and give themselves a better chance of being found.

There was nobody from my JEE coaching factory in the group, so I didn’t talk about this there, but I got reminded of this story back from 1999 (I wrote JEE in 2000).

Our JEE factory had been making efforts to “imbibe us with fire in the belly”. As one of the teachers in the factory had told us in class, “naavu Kannadigarige aambode mosaranna koTTbiTTre khushhyaagiddbiDtivi” (if someone gives us Kannadigas falafel and curd rice, we’ll live happily forever, and we will forget about working hard).

And so there was this feeling that we need to be taught to be more competitive and ruthless, and part of the factory process involved giving us inspirational lectures to that effect.

“Ning kOpa baralva?” (“don’t you get angry?”), they would ask. They would ask us to imagine something that would make us angry, and then “channel that anger towards cracking JEE”. We needed to have that killer instinct, they would say.

Again, in the context of yesterday’s discussion on the Titan submersible and limited oxygen supplies, I got reminded of yet another of these inspirational speeches from our factory, about the killer instinct.

Remember that this was 1999. The Kargil War had just ended, and was still on everyone’s minds. I’m paraphrasing what one of the teachers said.

“Imagine you are in the army. There is a very good friend with you. You went through the defence academy together, and have always served together. Now you are at war. 

The fight isn’t going very well and you both are hiding somewhere. And then your friend gets hit badly. He is alive but very very badly hurt and can’t move. And he can’t help but groan, and that means there is the risk of giving away your location to the enemy.

So what do you do? You put a bullet in his back and put him out of your misery. Yes, he is your friend. You have both served together for the longest time. But at that moment, you should be willing to shoot him because that is your only chance of survival.”

I don’t know what impact it had on us. The only impact it had on me is that it got etched in my super-normal long term memory. And in a very different, but sort of related context, I remembered it yesterday.

Oh, and when we went to IIT, we found that there was a term for this – “RG”, from “relative grading”. Because grading in most courses was relative, one way of getting better grades was to make sure others performed worse than you (even if you couldn’t perform better).

This took bizarre forms – hiding books in the library so nobody could find them; refusing to share your notes with your classmates; doing much more than required in your course assignments and term papers (this was very very common in my Computer Science class); flattening the tyres of your classmates’ cycles on exam days; teaching others the wrong formulae; and so on.

So in that sense, our factory teachers knew what they were prepping us for!

JEE Math!!

Of late I’ve been feeling a little short in terms of intellectual stimulation. Maybe it was my decision at work to hunker down and focus on execution and tying up loose ends this quarter, rather than embarking on fresh exploratory work. Maybe it’s just that I’m not meeting too many people.

The last time I REMEMBER feeling this way was in May-June 2007. I clearly remember the drive (I was in my old Zen, driving past Urvashi Theatre on an insanely rainy Sunday afternoon, having met friends for lunch) where I felt this way. Back then, I had responded by massively upping my reading – that was the era of blogs and I had subscribed to hundreds on my bloglines (remember that?). I clearly remember feeling much better about myself by the end of that year.

Now, I continue to read, and read fairly insightful stuff. I’m glad that Substack has taken the place that blogs had in the noughties (after the extreme short-form-dominated 2010s), and have subscribed (for free) to a whole bunch of fairly interesting newsletters.

What I miss, though, is the stimulation in conversations. Maybe it’s just that I’m having way fewer of them, and not a reflection of the average quality of conversations I’ve been having. I’ve come to a stage where I don’t even know who I should meet or what I should talk about to stimulate me.

With that background, I was really happy to come across my (2000) JEE maths paper on Twitter. Baal sent it to me this afternoon when I was at work. Having got home, had dinner and dessert and sent off the daughter to bed, I got to it.

Thanks to @ravihanda on Twitter

Memories of that Sunday morning in Malleswaram came flooding back to me. Looking back, I’m impressed with my seventeen year old self in terms of the kind of prep I did for the exam. For the JEE screening that January, I had felt I had peaked a week too early, so I took an entire week off after my board exams so that I could peak at the right time.

For a few days before the exam, I practiced waking up really early, so that I could change my shit rhythm (the exam started at 8am in Malleswaram, meaning we would have to leave home by 7. Back then, you didn’t want to go to any toilets outside of home). The menu for the day had been carefully pre-planned (breakfast after the maths exam, lunch after physics).

The first fifteen minutes or so of this maths paper I had blanked out. And then slowly started working my way from the first question. I remember coming out of the exam feeling incredibly happy. “I’m surely getting in, if I don’t screw up the other papers”, I remember telling some friends.

Anyway, having seen this paper, I HAD to attempt it. I didn’t bother with any “exam conditions”. I put on a “heavy metal” playlist on spotify, took out my iPad and pencil, and started looking at the questions.

Again courtesy

I took 15 minutes for the first part of the first question. While I was clearly rusty, this was a decent start. Then I started with the second part of the first question, got stuck and gave up.

I started browsing Twitter but decided the paper is more interesting. The second question was relatively easy. I left the third one (forgotten my trigonometry), but found the fourth one quite easy (and I remember from my JEE about encountering Manhattan Distance ). The second half I didn’t focus so much on today, but was surprised to see the eighth question – with full benefit of hindsight, it’s way too easy to make it to the JEE!

I didn’t bother attempting all the questions, of “completing the paper” in any way. I didn’t need that. I haven’t decayed THAT MUCH in 23 years. And this was some nice intellectual stimulation for a weekday evening!

PS: I don’t think I’ll feel remotely as kicked if I encounter my physics or chemistry IIT-JEE papers.

PS2: Now one of my school and IIT classmates is pinging me on WhatsApp discussing questions. And i’m finding bugs in my (today’s) answers

The Second Great Wall (of programming)

Back in 2000, I entered the Computer Science undergrad program at IIT Madras thinking I was a fairly competent coder. In my high school, I had a pretty good reputation in terms of my programming skills and had built a whole bunch of games.

By the time half the course was done I had completely fallen out of love with programming, deciding a career in Computer Science was not for me. I even ignored Kama (current diro)’s advice and went on to do an MBA.

What had happened? Basically it was a sudden increase in the steepness of the learning curve. Or that I’m a massive sucker for user experience, which the Computer Science program didn’t care for.

Back in school, my IDE of choice (rather the only one available) was TurboC, a DOS-based program. You would write your code, and then hit Ctrl+F9 to run the program. And it would just run. I didn’t have to deal with any technical issues. Looking back, we had built some fairly complex programs just using TurboC.

And then I went to IIT and found that there was no TurboC, no DOS. Most computers there had an ancient version of Unix (or worse, Solaris). These didn’t come with nice IDEs such as TurboC. Instead, you had to use vi (some of the computers were so old they didn’t even have vim) to write the code, and then compile it from outside.

Difficulties in coming to terms with vi meant that my speed of typing dropped. I couldn’t “code at the speed of thought” any more. This was the first give up moment.

Then, I discovered that C++ had now got this new set of “standard template libraries” (STL) with vectors and stuff. This was very alien to the way I had learnt C++ in school. Also I found that some of my classmates were very proficient with this, and I just couldn’t keep up with this. The effort seemed too much (and the general workload of the program was so high that I couldn’t get much time for “learning by myself”), so I gave up once  again.

Next, I figured that a lot of my professors were suckers for graphic UIs (though they denied us good UX by denying us good computers). This, circa 2001-2, meant programming in Java and writing applets. It was a massive degree of complexity (and “boringness”) compared to the crisp C/C++ code I was used to writing. I gave up yet again.

I wasn’t done with giving up yet. Beyond all of this, there was “systems programming”. You had to write some network layers and stuff. You had to go deep into the workings of the computer system to get your code to run. This came rather intuitively to most of my engineering-minded classmates. It didn’t to me (programming in C was the “deepest” I could grok). And I gave up even more.

A decade after I graduated from IIT Madras, I visited IIM Calcutta to deliver a lecture. And got educated.

I did my B.Tech. project in “theoretical computer science”, managed to graduate and went on to do an MBA. Just before my MBA, I was helping my father with some work, and he figured I sucked at Excel. “What is the use of completing a B.Tech. in computer science if you can’t even do simple Excel stuff?”, he thundered.

In IIMB, all of us bought computers with pirated Windows and Office. I started using Excel. It was an absolute joy. It was a decade before I started using Apple products, but the UX of Windows was such a massive upgrade compared to what I’d seen in my more technical life.

In my first job (where I didn’t last long) I learnt the absolute joy of Visual Basic macros for Excel. This was another level of unlock. I did some insane gymnastics in that. I pissed off a lot of people in my second job by replicating what they thought was a complex model on an Excel sheet. In my third job, I replaced a guy on my team with an Excel macro. My programming mojo was back.

Goldman Sachs’s SLANG was even better. By the time I left from there, I had learnt R as well. And then I became a “data scientist”. People asked me to use Python. I struggled with it. After the user experience of R, this was too complex. This brought back bad memories of all the systems programming and dealing with bad UX I had encountered in my undergrad. This time I was in control (I was a freelancer) so I didn’t need to give up – I was able to get all my work done in R.

The second giving up

I’ve happily used R for most of my data work in the last decade. Recently at work I started using Databricks (still write my code in R there, using sparklyr), and I’m quite liking that as well. However, in the last 3-4 months there has been a lot of developments in “AI”, which I’ve wanted to explore.

The unfortunate thing is that most of this is available only in Python. And the bad UX problem is back again.

Initially I got excited, and managed to install Stable Diffusion on my personal Mac. I started writing some OpenAI code as well (largely using R). I started tracking developments in artificial intelligence, and trying some of them out.

And now, in the last 2-3 weeks, I’ve been struggling with “virtual environments”. Each newfangled open-source AI that is released comes with its own codebase and package requirements. They are all mutually incompatible. You install one package, and you break another package.

The “solution” to this, from what I could gather, is to use virtual environments – basically a sandbox for each of these things that I’ve downloaded. That, I find, is grossly inadequate. One of the points of using open source software is to experiment with connecting up two or more of them. And if each needs to be in its own sandbox, how is one supposed to do this? And how are all other data scientists and software engineers okay with this?

This whole virtual environment mess means that I’m giving up on programming once again. I won’t fully give up – I’ll continue to use R for most of my data work (including my job), but I’m on the verge of giving up in terms of these “complex AI”.

It’s the UX thing all over again. I simply can’t handle bad UX. Maybe it’s my ADHD. But when something is hard to use, I simply don’t want to use it.

And so I’m giving up once again. Tagore was right.

Compression Stereotypes

One of the most mindblowing things I learnt while I was doing my undergrad in Computer Science and Engineering was Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) compression. It’s one of the standard compression algorithms used everywhere nowadays.

The reason I remember this is twofold – firstly, I remember implementing this as part of an assignment (our CSE program at IITM was full of those), and feeling happy to be coding in C rather than in the dreaded Java (which we had to use for most other assignments).

The other is that this is one of those algorithms that I “internalised” while doing something totally different – in this case I was having coffee/ tea with a classmate in our hostel mess.

I won’t go into the algorithm here. However, the basic concept is that as and when we see a new pattern, we give it a code, and every subsequent occurrence of that pattern is replaced by its corresponding code. And the beauty of it is that you don’t need to ship a separate dictionary -the compressed code itself encapsulates it.

Anyway, in practical terms, the more the same kind of patterns are repeated in the original file, the more the file can be compressed. In some sense, the more the repetition of patterns, the less the overall “information” that the original file can carry – but that discussion is for another day.

I’ve been thinking of compression in general and LZW compression in particular when I think of stereotyping. The whole idea of stereotyping is that we are fundamentally lazy, and want to “classify” or categorise or pigeon-hole people using the fewest number of bits necessary.

And so, we use lazy heuristics – gender, caste, race, degrees, employers, height, even names, etc. to make our assumptions of what people are going to be like. This is fundamentally lazy, but also effective – in a sense, we have evolved to stereotype people (and objects and animals) because that allows our brain to be efficient; to internalise more data by using fewer bits. And for this precise reason, to some extent, stereotyping is rational.

However, the problem with stereotypes is that they can frequently be wrong. We might see a name and assume something about a person, and they might turn out to be completely different. The rational response to this is not to beat oneself for stereotyping in the first place – it is to update one’s priors with the new information that one has learnt about this person.

So, you might have used a combination of pre-known features of a person to categorise him/her. The moment you realise that this categorisation is wrong, you ought to invest additional bits in your brain to classify this person so that the stereotype doesn’t remain any more.

The more idiosyncratic and interesting you are, the more the number of bits that will be required to describe you. You are very very different from any of the stereotypes that can possibly be used to describe you, and this means people will need to make that effort to try and understand you.

One of the downsides of being idiosyncratic, though, is that most people are lazy and won’t make the effort to use the additional bits required to know you, and so will grossly mischaracterise you using one of the standard stereotypes.

On yet another tangential note, getting to know someone is a Bayesian process. You make your first impressions of them based on whatever you find out about them, and go on building a picture of them incrementally based on the information you find out about them. It is like loading a picture on a website using a bad internet connection – first the picture appears grainy, and then the more idiosyncratic features can be seen.

The problem with refusing to use stereotypes, or demonising stereotypes, is that you fail to use the grainy pictures when that is the best available, and instead infinitely wait to get better pictures. On the other hand, failing to see beyond stereotypes means that you end up using grainy pictures when more clear ones are available.

And both of these approaches is suboptimal.

PS: I’ve sometimes wondered why I find it so hard to remember certain people’s faces. And I realise that it’s usually because they are highly idiosyncratic and not easy to stereotype / compress (both are the same thing). And so it takes more effort to remember them, and if I don’t really need to remember them so much, I just don’t bother.

Ranga and Big Data

There are some meeting stories that are worth retelling and retelling. Sometimes you think it should be included in some movie (or at least a TV show). And you never tire of telling the stories.

The way I met Ranga can qualify as one such story. At the outset, there was nothing special about it – both of us had joined IIT Madras at the same time, to do a B.Tech. in Computer Science. But the first conversation itself was epic, and something worth telling again and again.

During our orientation, one of the planned events was “a visit to the facilities”, where a professor would take us around to see the library, the workshops, a few prominent labs and other things.

I remember that the gathering point for Computer Science students was right behind the Central Lecture Theatre. This was the second day of orientation and I’d already met a few classmates by then. And that’s where I found Ranga.

The conversation went somewhat like this:

“Hi I’m Karthik. I’m from Bangalore”.
“Hi I’m Ranga. I’m from Madras. What are your hobbies?”
“I play the violin, I play chess…. ”
“Oh, you play chess? Me too. Why don’t we play a blindfold game right now?”
“Er. What? What do you want to do? Now?”
“Yeah. Let’s start. e4”.
(I finally managed to gather my senses) “c5”

And so we played for the next two hours. I clearly remember playing a Sicilian Dragon. It was a hard fought game until we ended up in an endgame with opposite coloured bishops. Coincidentally, by that time the tour of the facilities had ended. And we called it a draw.

We kept playing through our B.Techs., mostly blindfold in the backbenches of classrooms. Most of the time I would get soundly thrashed. One time I remember going from our class, with the half-played game in our heads, setting it up on a board in Ranga’s room, and continued to play.

In any case, chess apart, we’ve also had a lot of nice conversations over the last 21 years. Ranga runs a big data and AI company called TheDataTeam, so I thought it would be good to record one of our conversations and share it with the world.

And so I present to you the second episode of my new “Data Chatter” podcast. Ranga and I talk about all things “big data”, data architectures, warehousing, data engineering and all that.

As usual, the podcast is available on all podcasting platforms (though, curiously, each episode takes much longer to appear on Google Podcasts after it has released. So this second episode is already there on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, CastBox, etc. but not on Google yet).

Give it a listen. Share it with whoever you think might like it. Subscribe to my podcast. And let me know what you think of it.

Social Skills Decelerator

This post is a consequence of a conversation I had with my wife this morning.

I was telling her about how a friend, who also went to IIT Madras with me, recently said something like “I’m surprised XXXXX (another mutual friend) has so much confidence in himself even though he went to <local college>. A lot of my self-confidence comes from IIT”.

“It is precisely because XXXXX went to <local college> that he has so much confidence”, my wife countered (she studied in an engineering college that is very similar to the aforementioned <local college>). And then we started talking about respective lives, and experiences, and all that.

The big insight (I’m writing about this because I think my wife is too lazy to blog about this – though it’s her idea) is that in different schools, you build reputation based on different things. In 11th and 12th standards in schools where people are mugging for JEE, for example, the primary currency for reputation is academics (both my wife and I went to such schools – different branches of the same school, to be precise).

In other schools, it’s due to extracurricular achievement. Some schools place a premium on sport. Others on gadgets and shoes. Yet others simply on good looks. And some on who you know. It’s not a finite list, except that each school has its own “portfolio” of things that help build its students’ reputations.

Coming back to my wife’s big insight, it’s that in IIT, at the prime ages of 17/18 to 21-22, the primary currency to build reputation still remains academics, and that is not the case in other colleges. And in some sense, in terms of building social skills and generally increasing one’s confidence in life, these are the prime years.

And the other thing is that academics is a zero-sum status game – there might be infinitely many “nine pointers” but there can only be one class topper. And if reputation is based on academics, it is likely to be based on relative grading. So at the prime years of your life, when you are looking to build social skills (social skills are positive sum), you are playing a zero-sum academic game for marks. You are not only not building your social skills at an age when you should, but you are actively destroying them by indulging in too many zero-sum status games.

The other corollary, of course, is that by indulging in status games where there can only be one winner, we are all (most of us at least) effectively turning ourselves into losers.  By being in an environment where reputation is built only on one (zero sum) dimension, our confidence is shattered.

Some of us come back from this shattered confidence, and at some point in life (albeit belatedly) start building social skills. Others, unfortunately, never recover.

My wife is right – people are not “confident despite not going to IIT”. They are “confident BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T GO TO IIT”!


Does alma matter?

I just spent the holiday afternoon massively triggering myself by watching the just-released Netflix documentary Alma Matters, about life in IIT Kharagpur. Based on the trailer itself, I thought I could relate to it, thanks to my four years at IIT Madras. And so my wife and I sat, and spent three hours on the documentary. Our daughter was with us for the first half hour, and then disappeared for reasons mentioned below.

I have too many random thoughts in my head right now, so let me do this post in bullet points.

  • I have always had mixed feelings about my time at IIT Madras. On the one hand, I found it incredibly depressing. Even now, the very thought of going to Chennai depresses me. On the other, I have a lot of great memories from there, and built a strong network.

    Now that I think of it, having watched the documentary, a lot of those “great memories” were simply about me making the best use of a bad situation I was in. I don’t think I want to put myself, or my daughter, through that kind of an experience again

  • My basic problem at IIT was that I just couldn’t connect with most people there. I sometimes joke that I couldn’t connect with 80% of the people there, but remain in touch with the remaining 20%. And that is possibly right.

    The problem is that most people there were either “too fighter”, always worried about and doing academics, or “too given up”, not caring about anything at all in life. I couldn’t empathise with either and ended up having a not so great time.

  • My wife intently watched the show with me, even though she got bored by the end of the first episode. “It’s all so depressing”, she kept saying. “Yes, this is how life was”, I kept countering.

    And then I think she caught the point. “Take out the cigarettes and alcohol, and this is just like school. Not like college at all”, she said. And I think that quite sums up IIT for me. We were adults (most of us for most of the time – I turned eighteen a few months after I joined), but were treated like children for the most part. And led our lives like children in some ways, either being too regimented, or massively rebelling.

    “Now I can see why people don’t grow up when they go to IIT”, my wife said. After I had agreed, she went on, “this applies to you as well. You also haven’t grown up”. I couldn’t counter.

  • The “maleness” of the place wasn’t easy to notice. After one scene, my wife mentioned that we spend such a long time in the prime years of our lives dealing only with other men, that it is impossible to have normal relationships later on. It’s only a few who have come from more liberal backgrounds, or who manage to unlearn the IIT stuff, who manage to have reasonably normal long-term relationships.
  • The maleness of IITs was also given sort of ironic treatment by the show. There is a segment in the first episode about elections, which shows a female candidate, about how girls have a really bad time at IIT due to the massively warped sex ratio (in my time it was 16:1), and so it is difficult for girls to get respect.

    And then that turned out to be the “token female segment” in the show, as girls were all but absent in the rest of the three hours. That girls hardly made it to the show sort of self-reinforced the concept that girls aren’t treated well at IITs,

  • After intently watching for half an hour, my daughter asked, “if this is a movie about IIT, why aren’t you in it?”. I told her that it’s about a different IIT. “OK fine. I’ll watch it when they make a movie about your IIT”, she said and disappeared.
  • While the second and third episodes of the show were too long-drawn and sort of boring, I did manage to finish the show end-to-end in one sitting, which has to say something about it being gripping (no doubt to someone like me who could empathise with parts of it).
  • Finally, watch this trailer to the show. Watch what the guy says about people with different CGPA ranges.
  • He talks about “respect 8 pointers and don’t like 9 pointers”. That sort of made me happy since I finished (I THINK) with a CGPA of 8.9

If you’re from an IIT, you are likely to empathise with the show. If you are close to someone from IIT, you might appreciate them better when you watch it. Overall three episodes is too long-drawn. The first episode is a good enough gist of life at IIT.

And yeah, trigger warnings apply.

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!