Stereotypes, K-Dramas and ADHD

My wife is currently watching a K-drama which she said I might like, because the leading female character in that is autistic. “You have ADHD, and you might be on the spectrum, so you can at least half watch with me”, she said.

Given that it is in a language that I don’t know, I can’t really “half watch”, but I’ve sat through an aggregate of about ten-fifteen minutes of the show in the last 2-3 days.

My first impression of the show and the character was “gosh she’s such a stereotype”. They showed her in court or something (the character is a lawyer), and she takes something someone says extremely literally. And then there was something else that seemed rather stereotypical and then I almost wrote off the show.

And then they showed one scene, which is also possibly stereotypical (I don’t know) but which I massively massively empathised with, and then my view of the show turned, and at this point in time I’m “half watching” the show (to the best extent you can when you need subtitles) as I write this.

I might have written about this before – back in 2013, after about six months of taking methylphenidate for my ADHD, I had started to believe that it was crimping my creativity. What I thought had defined me until then, which is also something you see a lot on this blog, is connecting very random and seemingly unconnected things.

In fact, I considered that to be one of my superpowers – to see connections that a lot of other people can’t. After a few days of not taking the medication (when I saw myself making those connections again), I decided to get off them. I didn’t get back on till 2020 (as things stand I take them).

Anyway, back to the show, the protagonist is shown having a vision of a whale, and that vision reminds her of something else, and she keeps connecting one thing to another (I was really empathising with her in this snippet), and gets a massive insight that solves the case that she is on. My view of the show turned.

A few pertinent observations before I continue:

  • One of the speakers at one of the early episodes of NED Talks made a point about how some of have possibly evolved to have what are now considered as “disorders”. “Hunting and gathering are team activities, and you need different skills for it. Not everyone needs to run after the prey. The autistic person in the tribe will be able to detect where the prey is and the rest can hunt it”.

    So we have evolved to be different like this. Putting together genetics and game theory, it is a “mixed strategy”.

  • The downside of being able to connect seemingly unconnected things is that you tend to hallucinate. I’ve written about this, in a completely different context.
  • Another downside of seeing visions and connecting unconnected things to find a solution to the problem that you’re working on is that it makes it incredibly difficult to communicate your solution. Having seen it in a “vision”, it is less explainable. You cannot “show steps”. Then again I don’t think this trait is specific to people with ADHD or on the autism spectrum – I know one person (very well) who doesn’t have ADHD by any stretch of imagination, but has a worse problem than me in showing steps
  • I have always been happy that I didn’t study law because it’s “too fighter” and “involves too much mugging”. But then the protagonist in this show shows remarkable attention to detail on things that she can hyperfocus on (and which her visions of whales can lead to). I’ve also read about how Michael Burry found holes in CDOs (back in 2008 during the global financial crisis) because he was able to hyperfocus on some details because he has Aspergers (now classified under the autism spectrum in general)

Anyway as I was writing this, I half watched parts of the second episode. In this again, the protagonist had another vision of the whales, which led to something else and an insight that led her to win her case. Now it appears stereotyping again, after I saw the same setup in two different episodes – it seems like the standard format the show has set up on.

I don’t know if I’ll half watch any more.

Alcohol, dinner time and sleep

A couple of months back, I presented what I now realise is a piece of bad data analysis. At the outset, there is nothing special about this – I present bad data analysis all the time at work. In fact, I may even argue that as a head of Data Science and BI, I’m entitled to do this. Anyway, this is not about work.

In that piece, I had looked at some of the data I’ve been diligently collecting about myself for over a year, correlated it with the data collected through my Apple Watch, and found a correlation that on days I drank alcohol, my sleeping heart rate average was higher.

And so I had concluded that alcohol is bad for me. Then again, I’m an experimenter so I didn’t let that stop me from having alcohol altogether. In fact, if I look at my data, the frequency of having alcohol actually went up after my previous blog post, though for a very different reason.

However, having written this blog post, every time I drank, I would check my sleeping heart rate the next day. Most days it seemed “normal”. No spike due to the alcohol. I decided it merited more investigation – which I finished yesterday.

First, the anecdotal evidence – what kind of alcohol I have matters. Wine and scotch have very little impact on my sleep or heart rate (last year with my Ultrahuman patch I’d figured that they had very little impact on blood sugar as well). Beer, on the other hand, has a significant (negative) impact on heart rate (I normally don’t drink anything else).

Unfortunately this data point (what kind of alcohol I drank or how much I drank) I don’t capture in my daily log. So it is impossible to analyse it scientifically.

Anecdotally I started noticing another thing – all the big spikes I had reported in my previous blogpost on the topic were on days when I kept drinking (usually with others) and then had dinner very late. Could late dinner be the cause of my elevated heart rate? Again, in the days after my previous blogpost, I would notice that late dinners would lead to elevated sleeping heart rates  (even if I hadn’t had alcohol that day). Looking at my nightly heart rate graph, I could see that the heart rate on these days would be elevated in the early part of my sleep.

The good news is this (dinner time) is a data point I regularly capture. So when I finally got down to revisiting the analysis yesterday, I had a LOT of data to work with. I won’t go into the intricacies of the analysis (and all the negative results) here. But here are the key insights.

If I regress my resting heart rate against the binary of whether I had alcohol the previous day, I get a significant regression, with a R^2 of 6.1% (i.e. whether I had alcohol the previous day or not explains 6.1% of the variance in my sleeping heart rate). If I have had alcohol the previous day, my sleeping heart rate is higher by about 2 beats per minute on average.

Call:
lm(formula = HR ~ Alcohol, data = .)

Residuals:
    Min      1Q  Median      3Q     Max 
-9.6523 -2.6349 -0.3849  2.0314 17.5477 

Coefficients:
            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept)  69.4849     0.3843 180.793  < 2e-16 ***
AlcoholYes    2.1674     0.6234   3.477 0.000645 ***
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 3.957 on 169 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.06676,   Adjusted R-squared:  0.06123 
F-statistic: 12.09 on 1 and 169 DF,  p-value: 0.000645

Then I regressed my resting heart rate on dinner time (expressed in hours) alone. Again a significant regression but with a much higher R^2 of 9.7%. So what time I have dinner explains a lot more of the variance in my resting heart rate than whether I’ve had alcohol. And each hour later I have my dinner, my sleeping heart rate that night goes up by 0.8 bpm.

Call:
lm(formula = HR ~ Dinner, data = .)

Residuals:
    Min      1Q  Median      3Q     Max 
-7.6047 -2.4551 -0.0042  2.0453 16.7891 

Coefficients:
            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept)  54.7719     3.5540  15.411  < 2e-16 ***
Dinner        0.8018     0.1828   4.387 2.02e-05 ***
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 3.881 on 169 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.1022,    Adjusted R-squared:  0.09693 
F-statistic: 19.25 on 1 and 169 DF,  p-value: 2.017e-05

Finally, for the sake of completeness, I regressed with both. The interesting thing is the adjusted R^2 pretty much added up – giving me > 16% now (so effectively the two (dinner time and alcohol) are uncorrelated). The coefficients are pretty much the same once again.

Call:
lm(formula = HR ~ Dinner, data = .)

Residuals:
    Min      1Q  Median      3Q     Max 
-7.6047 -2.4551 -0.0042  2.0453 16.7891 

Coefficients:
            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept)  54.7719     3.5540  15.411  < 2e-16 ***
Dinner        0.8018     0.1828   4.387 2.02e-05 ***
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 3.881 on 169 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.1022,    Adjusted R-squared:  0.09693 
F-statistic: 19.25 on 1 and 169 DF,  p-value: 2.017e-05

So the takeaway is simple – alcohol might be okay, but have dinner at my regular time (~ 6pm). Also – if I’m going out drinking, I better finish my dinner and go. And no – having beer won’t work – it is going to be another dinner in itself. So stick to wine or scotch.

I must mention things I analysed against and didn’t find significant – whether I have coffee, what time I sleep, the time gap between dinner time and sleep time – all of these have no impact on my resting heart rate. All that matters is alcohol and when I have dinner.

And the last one is something I should never compromise on.

 

 

 

40 and growing old

Recently (less than a month ago) my daughter came to me and said “appa, this December you’ll be turning 40. Then you will start becoming old”. Instinctively I got a little upset, and then gave her a little lecture on how aging is a continuous process, and not a discrete one.

That how much I age between 38 and 39, and between 39 and 40, and between 40 and 41 is not so different. You age just a little more each year, but well at a faster rate (aging is nonlinear). And so using an arbitrary cutoff like 40 is not proper, I told her.

But then, thinking about it, I realised that my daughter is not alone in feeling this way. I actually remember, back in the day, calling my father “old” when he turned 40. Maybe it was due to his grey hair. Maybe because most sportspersons retired well before 40 (that said, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe were both very much active then (1992-93) ).

I don’t think my father gave me a lecture on continuous aging, but I remember him feeling rather annoyed that I had called him “old”.

And then recently an aunt sent a photo to one of my family WhatsApp group. It featured my parents, and they were 42 when the photo was taken. And in that, my father visibly looks old.

Now, we had bought our “family camera” by then (a Canon SnappyQ), but we seldom took photos, so I don’t have too many recollections of what my father looked like at that age. I frequently see family albums from 1990 and 1992 (some vacations), and from much later in the 90s, and there is a discontinuity in how my father looks in both (grey and thinning hair, paunch, etc.).

What this 1995 photo that my aunt sent recently showed me is that by then my father already looked much closer to what he looked like in his late forties and early fifties (he didn’t live much longer beyond that) than what he looked like in his thirties.

I would be lying if I were to say that the picture didn’t scare me. And instinctively I felt a bit better about calling him “old” when he was 40. And I felt a bit better about my daughter saying that “this december I will start becoming old”.

Then again I’m starting to wonder what I can do to not suddenly start aging now. Hair volume and colour I have no control over. General fitness I guess I do. Or maybe not – I have too much of a sweet tooth.

On which point I need to go full bimodal about food – as things stand I end up having “a little” junk food and “a little” alcohol on most days, but in terms of returns in terms of feeling good, I’m not sure if this is the best strategy. Should I go barbell instead?

 

PS: In most places where I need to submit a photo, I use one that was taken when I was 36, when an old friend was trying to build a career in portrait photography and used me as a guinea pig. I wonder how long I can use that.

Alcohol and sleep

A few months back we’d seen this documentary on Netflix (I THINK) on the effects of alcohol on health. Like you would expect from a well-made documentary (rather than a polemic), the results were inconclusive. There were a few mildly positive effects, some negative effects, some indicators on how alcohol can harm your health, etc.

However, the one thing I remember from that documentary is about alcohol’s effect on sleep – that drinking makes you sleep worse (contrary to popular imagination where you can easily pass out if you drink a lot). And I have now managed to validate that for myself using data.

The more perceptive of you might know that I log my life. I have a spreadsheet where every day I record some vital statistics (sleep and meal times, anxiety, quality of work, etc. etc.). For the last three months I’ve also had an Apple Watch, which makes its own recordings of its vital statistics.

Until this morning these two data sets had been disjoint – until I noticed an interesting pattern in my average sleeping heart rate. And then I decided to join them and do some analysis. A time series to start:

Notice the three big spikes in recent times. And they only seem to be getting higher (I’ll come to that in a bit).

And then sometimes a time series doesn’t do justice to patterns – absent the three recent big spikes it’s hard to see from this graph if alcohol has an impact on sleep heart rate. This is where a boxplot can help.

The difference is evident here – when I have alcohol, my heart rate during sleep is much higher, which means I don’t rest as well.

That said, like everything else in the world, it is not binary. Go back to the time series and see – I’ve had alcohol fairly often in this time period but my heart rate hasn’t spiked as much on all days. This is where quantity of alcohol comes in.

Most days when I drink, it’s largely by myself at home. A glass or two of either single malt or wine. And the impact on sleep is only marginal. So far so good.

On 26th, a few colleagues had come home. We all drank Talisker. I had far more than I normally have. And so my heart rate spiked (79). And then on June 1st, I took my team out to Arbor. Pretty much for the first time in 2022 I was drinking beer. I drank a fair bit. 84.

And then on Saturday I went for a colleague’s birthday party. There were only cocktails. I drank lots of rum and coke (I almost never drink rum). 89.

My usual drinking, if you see, doesn’t impact my health that much. But big drinking is big problem, especially if it’s a kind of alcohol I don’t normally drink.

Now, in the interest of experimentation, one of these days I need to have lots of wine and see how I sleep!

PS: FWIW Sleeping heart rate is uncorrelated with how much coffee I have

PS2: Another time I wrote about alcohol

PS3: Maybe in my daily log I need to convert the alcohol column from binary to numeric (and record the number of units of alcohol I drink)

 

Impossible careers

A month ago, I had this idea that rather than squatting and deadlifting super heavy, I should learn “olympic lifts” (snatch, clean and jerk). I’d even made up my mind that I’ll ask one of the coaches at my gym to offer personal training during the summer so I can learn it.

And then, randomly, 2-3 weeks back, I decided to do some new exercises, and decided to do snatch grip overhead squat (something you need to do while you’re doing an olympic snatch). And that’s when I realised I would struggle.

I’ve mentioned here a couple of times that I have incredibly long arms. What I had not realised is that I have long enough, and a torso short enough, that it is physically impossible for me to snatch with a barbell.

Really.

So in the snatch, you need to use a wide grip and bring up the barbell, and at the same time thrust your hips forward to make sure the hips hit the barbell. The momentum of you having sharply pulled the barbell off the floor, and the hips hitting it, means that the barbell will go upwards, and you squat down and catch it overhead.

The key is that your waist needs to precisely hit the barbell when you thrust your hips forward. If the bar makes contact higher, your stomach can’t convey the same momentum that the waist can. And if the bar makes contact lower, well, let’s not get into below-the-belt stuff here.

And so your snatch grip on the barbell is determined by the width you hold it at so that the bar is exactly at your waist. You see professional weightlifters, and they usually hold the barbell well inside the ends (apparently short arms are a huge advantage in professional weight lifting). Most people in my gym also hold their snatch grip well inside the ends of the bar. Just that I can’t.

I got this photo taken at the gym today to demonstrate this:

Me trying to hold a snatch grip.

I tucked in my shirt to show where my waist is. Notice that I’m holding the bar in the widest possible position. Yet I’m unable to get the bar to my waist. So with my body proportions, if I were to try and snatch, I would be putting myself in grave danger.

The reason I’ve told such a long story here is to illustrate that your choice of profession or game or sport highly depends on who you are. If, for whatever reason, I’d decided when I was young that weightlifting is cool and I want to specialise in that, I would have NEVER made it.

A lot of times, we make the mistake of going for “cool stuff” (or worse, forcing our kids to do something that we think is cool), without realising if we are cut out to do the cool stuff -whether we will like it, enjoy it and be good at it. And sometimes, driven by “inspirational stories”, we push ourselves too hard to get the cool job or college admission or whatever, without realising we may not have the aptitude for it at all.

Now that I tried to find my snatch grip, I know better than to take personal training for snatching. Yes, I should still be able to clean – though every time I’ve tried to learn, I’ve found it to involve too much coordination between my limbs (just like swimming, something else I’ve never managed to learn though my long arms should make me good at it).

I guess I should just stick to my strengths, and just deadlift and chill.

Random Friday night thoughts about myself

I’m flamboyant. That’s who I am. That’s my style. There’s no two ways about it. I can’t be conservative or risk-averse. That’s not who i am.

And because being flamboyant is who I am, I necessarily take risk in everything I do. This means that occasionally the risks don’t pay off – if they pay off all the time they’re not a risk.

In the past I’ve taken the wrong kind of lessons from risks not paying off. That I should not have taken those risks. That I should have taken more calculated risks. That I should have hedged better.

Irrespective of how calculated your risks are, they will not pay off some of the time. The calculation is basically to put a better handle on this probability, and the impact of the risk not paying off. Hedging achieves the same thing.

For example, my motorcycle trip to Rajasthan in 2012 was a calculated risk, hedged by full body riding gear. I had a pretty bad accident – the motorcycle was travelling at 85 kmph when I hit a cow and got thrown off the bike, but the gear meant I escaped with just a hairline fracture in my last metacarpal – I rode on and finished the trip.

Back to real life – what happened was that between approx 2006-09 a number of risks didn’t pay off. Nowadays I like to think of it as a coincidence. Or maybe it was a “hot hand” of the wrong kind – after the initial set of failed risks, I became less confident and less calculating about my risks, and more of them did not pay off.

This is my view now, of course, looking back. Back then I thought I was finished. I started beating myself for every single (what turned out to be, in hindsight) bad decision. And that made me take worse decisions.

A year of medication (2012), which included the aforementioned motorcycle trip, a new career and a lot of time off, helped me get rid of some of these logical fallacies. I started accepting that risks sometimes don’t pay off. And the solution to that is NOT to take less risk.

However, that thought (that every single risk thay didn’t pay off was a bad decision on my past) has been permanently seeded in my brain – whether I like it or not (I don’t like it). And so whenever something goes bad – basically a risk I consciously took not paying off – I instinctively look for a bad decision that I personally made to lay the blame on. And that, putting it simply, never makes me happy. And this is something I need to overcome.

As I said at the beginning of the post, cutting risk simply isn’t my style. And as I internalise that this is how I inherently am, I need to accept that some of my decisions will inherently turn out to have bad outcomes. And in a way, that is part of my strategy.

This blogpost is essentially a note to myself – to document this realisation on my risk profile and to make sure that I have something to refer to the next time a risky decision I take doesn’t pay off (well that happens every single day – this is for the big ones).

The next time I shoot off my mouth without thinking it’s part of my strategy.

The next time I resist the urge to contain myself and blurt out what I’m thinking it’s part of my strategy.

The next time I unwittingly harm myself because of a bad decision I make it’s just part of my strategy.

To close – there was a time when Inzamam-ul-Haq took someone’s advice and lost weight and found that he just couldn’t bat. In a weird way his belly was positively correlated with his batting. Similarly the odd bad decision I take is positively correlated with how I operate naturally.

And I need to learn to live with it.

Ronald Coase, Scott Adams and Intrapersonal Vertical Integration

I have a new HR policy. I call it “intrapersonal vertical integration”. Read on.

I

Back in the 193os, economist Ronald Coase wrote an article on “the nature of the firm” (the link is to Wikipedia, not to the actual paper). It was a description of why people form companies and partnerships and so on, rather than all being gig workers negotiating each piece of work.

The key concept here was one of transaction costs – if everyone were to be a freelancer, like I was between 2012 and 2020 (both included), then for every little piece of work there would need to be a piece of negotiation.

“Can you build this dashboard for me?”
“Yes. That would be $10000”
“No, I’ll only pay $2000”
“9000”
“3000 final”
“get lost”

During my long period of freelancing, I internalised this, and came up with a “minimum order value” – a reasonable amount which could account for transaction costs like the above (just as I write this, I’m changing videos on Youtube for my wife, and she’s asking me to put 30 second videos. And I’m refusing saying “too much transaction cost. I need my hands for something else (blogging)” ).

This worked out fine for the projects that I actually got, but transaction costs meant that a lot of the smaller deals never worked out. I lost out on potential revenue from those, and my potential clients lost out on work getting done.

So, instead, if I were to be part of a company, like I am now, transaction costs are far lower. Yes, we might negotiate on exact specifications, or deadlines, but price was a single negotiation at the time I joined the firm. And so a lot more work gets done – better for me and better for the company. And this is why companies exist. It might sound obvious, but Coase put it in a nice and elegant theoretical framework.

II

I’ve written about this several times on my blog – Scott Adams’s theory that there are two ways in which you can be really successful.

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

This is advice that I have taken seriously, and I’ve followed the second path. Being the best at one specific thing is too hard, and too random as well – “the best” is a sort of a zero sum game. Instead, being very good in a few things is easier to do, and as I’d said in one of my other posts on this, being very good in uncorrelated things is a clear winner.

I will leave this here and come back later on in the post, like how Dasharatha gave some part of the mango to Sumitra (second in line), and then decided to come back to her later on in the distribution.

III

I came up with this random theory the other day on the purpose of product managers. This theory is really random and ill-formed, and I haven’t bothered discussing it with any real product managers.

The need for product managers comes from software engineers’ insistence on specific “system requirement specifications”. 

I learnt software engineering in a formal course back in 2002. Back then, the default workflow for software engineering was the so-called “waterfall model”. It was a linear sequential thing where the first part of the process goes in clearly defining system requirement specifications. Then there would be an unambiguous “design document”. And only then would coding begin.

In that same decade (2000s), “agile” programming became a thing. This meant fast iterations and continuous improvements. Software would be built layer by layer. However, software engineers had traditionally worked only with precise specifications, and “ambiguous business rules” would throw them off. And so the role of the product manager was created – who would manage the software product in a way that they would interface with ambiguous business on one side, and precise software engineers on the other.

Their role was to turn ambiguity to certainty, and get work done. They would never be hands on – instead their job would be to give precise instructions to people who would be hands on.

I have never worked as either a software engineer or a product manager, but I don’t think I’d enjoy either job. On the one hand, I don’t like being given precise instructions, and instead prefer ambiguity. On the other, if I were to give precise instructions, I would rather use C++ or Python to give those instructions than English or Kannada. In other words, if I were to be precise in my communication, I would rather talk to a computer than to another human.

It possibly has to do with my work history. I spent a little over two years as a quant at a top tier investment bank. As part of the job, I was asked to write production code. I used to protest, saying writing C++ code wasn’t the best use of my time or effort. “But think about the effort involved in explaining your model to someone else”, the higher ups in the company would tell me. “Wouldn’t it be far easier to just code it yourself?”

IV

Coase reasoned that transaction costs are the reason why we need a firm. We don’t need frequent negotiations and transaction costs, so if people were to get together in the form of a firm, they could coordinate much better and get a lot more work done, with more value accruing to every party involve.

However, I don’t think Coase went far enough. Just putting people in one firm only eliminates one level of transaction costs – of negotiating conditions and prices. Even when you are in the same firm, coordinating with colleagues implies communication, and unless precise, the communication links can end up being the weak links in how much the firm can achieve.

Henry Ford’s genius was to recognise the assembly line (a literal conveyor belt) as a precise form of communication. The workers in his factories were pretty much automatons, doing their precise job, in the knowledge that everyone else was doing their own. The assembly line made communication simpler, and that allowed greater specialisation to unlock value in the firm – to the extent that each worker could get at least five dollars a day and the firm would still be profitable.

It doesn’t work so neatly in what can be classified as “knowledge industries”. Like with the product manager and the software engineer, there is a communication layer which, if it fails, can bring down the entire process.

And there are other transaction costs implied in this communication – let’s say you are building stuff that I need to build on to make the final product. Every time I think you need to build something slightly different, it involves a process of communication and negotiation. It involves the product manager to write a new section in the document. And when working on complex problems, this can increase the complexity multifold.

So we are back to Scott Adams (finally). Building on what I’d said before – you need to be “very good” at two or more things, and it helps if these things are uncorrelated (in terms of being able to add unique value). However, it is EVEN MORE USEFUL if the supposedly uncorrelated skills you have can be stacked, in a form of vertical integration.

In other words, if you are good at several things that are uncorrelated, where the output of one thing can be the input into another, you are a clear winner.

Adams, for example, is good at understanding business, he is funny and he can draw. The combination of the first two means that he can write funny business stories, and that he can also draw means he has created a masterpiece in the form of Dilbert.

Don’t get me wrong – you can have a genius storyteller and a genius artist come together to make great art (Goscinny and Uderzo, for example). However, it takes a lot of luck for a Goscinny to find his Uderzo, or vice versa. I haven’t read much Asterix but what I’m old by friends is that the quality dropped after Uderzo was forced to be his own Goscinny (after the latter died).

At a completely different level – I have possibly uncorrelated skills in understanding business and getting insight out of data. One dovetails into the other and so I THINK I’m doing well in business intelligence. If I were only good at business, and needed to keep asking someone to churn the data on each iteration, my output would be far far slower and poorer.

So I extend this idea into “intrapersonal vertical integration”. If you are good at two or more things, and one can lead into another, you have a truly special set of skills and can be really successful.

Putting it another way – in knowledge jobs, communication can be so expensive that if you can vertically integrate yourself across multiple jobs, you can add significant value even if you are not the best at each of the individual skills.

Finish

In knowledge work, communication is the weakest link, so the fewer levels of communication you have, the better and faster you can do your job. Even if you get the best for every level in your chain, the strength (or lack of it) of communication between them can mean that they produce suboptimal output.

Instead if you can get people who are just good at two or more things in the chain (rather than being the best at any one), you can add significantly better value.

Putting it another way, yes, I’m batting for bits-and-pieces players rather than genuine batsmen or bowlers. However, the difference between what I’m saying and cricket is that in cricket batting and bowling are not vertically integrated. If they were, bits and pieces players would work far far better.

The Downside

I’ve written about this before. While being good at uncorrelated things that dovetail into one another can be a great winning strategy, liquidity can be your enemy. That you are unique means that there aren’t too many like you. And so organisations may not want to bet too much on you – since you will be hard to replace. And decide to take the slack in communication and get specialists for each position instead.

PS: 

I have written a book on transaction costs and liquidity. As it happens, today it is on display at the Bangalore Literature Festival.

Cross posted on LinkedIn

ADHD and the Bhagavad Gita

A couple of weeks back, I stumbled upon an article I had written for Huffington Post India a few years back about what it is like to live with ADHD.  Until HuffPost India shut down, if you googled my name, one of the first links that you would find was this article. Now, the public version of the article is lost for posterity.

In any case, the draft lives on in my email outbox, and I have since forwarded it to a few people. This is how I begin that article:

There is a self-referential episode in the Mahabharata where sage Vyasa tries to get Ganesha to scribe the Mahabharata. Ganesha accepts the task, but imposes the condition that if Vyasa stopped dictating, he will stop writing and the epic will remain unfinished for ever.

If you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you would ideally want to work like Ganesha writing the Mahabharata – in long bursts where you are so constantly stimulated that there is no room for distraction. ADHD makes you a bad finisher, and makes you liable to abandon projects. You could be so distracted that it takes incredible effort to get back to the task. Once you are distracted, you might even forget that you were doing this task, and thus leave it unfinished. Moreover, ADHD makes it incredibly hard to do grunt-work, which is essential in finishing tasks or projects.

And earlier today, during on of my random distractions at work, I started thinking that this is not the only instance in the Mahabharata where ADHD makes an appearance. If you look at the Mahabharata in its fullest form, which includes the Bhagavad Gita (which, it appears, is a retrospective addition), ADHD makes yet another appearance.

If you distill the Bhagavad Gita to its bare essentials, the “principal component” will be this shloka:

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In Roman scripts—

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

Googling threw up this translation (same site as the above quote):

The meaning of the verse is—

You have the right to work only but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.

And I was thinking about it in the context of some work recently – for those of us with ADHD, this is a truism. Because unless we hyper focus on something (and the essence of ADHD is that you can’t choose what you want to hyper focus on), we have no attachments. It is like that “Zen email”.

Assume that there is a gap between the completion of the work and the observation of the “fruits” (results) of the work. By the time the fruits of the work are known, it is highly likely that you have completely forgotten about the work itself and moved on to hyper focus on something else.

In this case, whatever is the result of the work, that you have moved on means that you have become disattached from the work that you did, and so don’t really care about the result. And that makes it easier for you to appreciate the result in a cold, rational and logical manner – if you happen to care about it at all, that is.

The only exception is if you had continued to hyperfocus on the work even after it was completed. In this kind of a situation, you become excessively attached to the work that you have done (and to an unhealthy level). And in this case you care about the flowers, fruits, seeds and subsequent plants of your work. Not a good state to be in, of course, but it doesn’t happen very often so it’s fine.

The other thing about ADHD and “moving on” is that you don’t get possessive of your past work, and you are more willing to tear down something you had built in the past (which doesn’t make sense any more) and start rebuilding it. Again, this can both be a negative (reinventing your own wheel / wasting time) and a positive (ability to improve).

Random line I just came up with – on average, people with ADHD are exactly the same as people without ADHD. Just that their distributions are different.

Chaupat Raja Cooking

While cooking my dinner this evening, I had a realisation, and not a pleasant one. I realised that the way I cook can sometimes be described as “chaupat raja” model of cooking.

The story goes that there was a town called “andher nagari” (dark town), which was ruled by a “chaupat raja”. The raja had fixed the price of all commodities at “1 taka” (not sure if it’s the same as the Bangladeshi currency).

So if you bought onions, you would pay 1 taka per onion, irrespective of the size or quality of it. If you buy a piece of rope, you would again pay 1 taka, irrespective of its length. The story, as told in my 8th Standard Hindi textbook, has a bunch of hilarious examples of the absurdities caused by this regulation.

A wall has fallen and killed a man. The chain of investigation reveals that someone sold a very large bucket for 1 taka, and the latter used that bucket as a measure for water, and thus ends up building a wall that is highly prone to collapsing.

Another story is that someone needs to be hanged, and the hangman can only prepare a loose noose because for 1 taka he ended up getting a long piece of rope that day. And so on.

Anyway, one of my wife’s criticisms about my cooking is that I sometimes “lack proportion”. Now, it doesn’t extend to everything – for my coffee, for example, I have a gram scale in the kitchen which I use to carefully measure out both the quantity of the powder and the amount of water (next in line is to buy a food thermometer so I can use water of the exact same temperature each time).

However, when cooking certain things, I use rough measures. “Throw in all the carrots in the fridge”, for example. Or “use two carrots”, not bothering about the size of the said carrots. I use “number of eggs” as measure without thinking about the size of the eggs (which varies considerably in the shops around where I live).

And that leads to chaupat raja kind of outcomes. One day, my omelette had too much onion because the onion I decided to cut that day was large. Another day, a vegetable stew I’d made turned out too sweet because there were three carrots left in the fridge and I put in all of them, though normally I would’ve only put two.

My habit of throwing in everything without measuring means that my wife has banned me from cooking several dishes for her.

In any case, what I’m trying to illustrate is that using measures in the kitchen based on numbers of something can lead to massively uncertain outcomes, and is an example of “chaupat raja economics”. What we need is better precision (even using something like “1 cup of diced carrots” is inaccurate because the amount of diced carrots a cup can hold can change based on the size of each dice. never mind “cup” is in any case an inexact measure).

Now that I’ve recognised that my style of cooking is like chaupat raja, I’ve decided I need to cooking. There is no reason that coffee is the only thing for which I should pay attention to bring in precision.

Or maybe it will just take too much effort, and the average chaupat raja outcome in the kitchen isn’t bad (the ultimate outcome for the chaupat raja was banned. The story goes that someone needs to be hanged, but it turns out that the noose is too loose (for 1 taka, the hangman got a long piece of rope that day), so the king decides to find someone whose neck fits the  noose. After much searching, someone suggests that the king’s neck is the right size for the noose and he hangs himself.

 

Losing My Religion

In terms of religion, I had a bit of a strange upbringing. My father was a rationalist, bordering on atheist. My mother was insanely religious, even following a godman. And no – I never once saw them fight about this.

Both of them tried to impress me with their own religions. My mother tried to inculcate in me the habit of praying every morning, and looking for strange patterns (“if this flower on this photo falls, then it will be a good day” types). My father would refute most of these things saying “how can you be a student of science and still believe this stuff?”. I suppose I consumed a lot of coffy bite when I was a kid.

In any case, with a combination of influences, both internal and external, in my early youth I was this strange concoction of “not religious but superstitious”. I had both a “lucky shirt” and a “lucky pen”. Back in class 12, I had convinced myself that “Wednesdays are a particularly bad day for me”.

I really don’t know if this has anything to do with my upbringing, but I would see patterns everywhere. I would draw correlations between random unconnected things, and assume causality. I staunchly refused to admit that I was religious, but allowed for strange patterns and correlations nevertheless.

When I had five minor car accidents during the course of 2007 (it wasn’t a great year for me, and I was quite messed up), I believed (or maybe was made to believe) that it was “my car’s way of protecting me” (I wasn’t hurt in any of those, though the car took a lot of beatings and scratchings). I had come to believe that a particular job didn’t go well because on the first day of work, I had splashed water on a kid on my way back by driving fast through a puddle.

The general discourse nowadays is that religion improves people’s mental health. That it helps people see meaning and purpose in their lives, and live through tragedies and other kinds of unhappiness. A common discourse on the right, on social media, is that it is the lack of religion that has led to the mental health epidemic that we have been going through for a while.

The way I see it, based on my own experience, this is completely backward. The basic thing about religion, at least based on my mixed upbringing, is “random correlations”. A lot of religion can be explained as “you do this, God will be happy with you and give you that”. Or that something was just “meant to be”, maybe based on actions in one’s past lives.

Religion is about “being a good person” and “karma”, and that all your mistakes will necessarily get punished, if not in this life in the next. The long period over which karma operates significantly increases the scope of random correlations that you can draw from life.

First of all I’m good at pattern recognition (something that has immensely helped me in my academics and careers). The downside of being good at pattern recognition is that there can be LOTS of false positives in patterns that you recognise. And when you recognise patterns that don’t really exist, you learn the wrong things, and after that live life the wrong way. And I think that was happening to me for a very very long time.

And so came the lucky shirts, the lucky pens, the precise order in which I would check websites at work every morning and many other things that were actually damaging to life, especially mental health. The pattern recognition was making me miserable, and the religion and superstition that I had come to believe in gave credence to these patterns, and (with the benefit of hindsight) made me more miserable.

In 2012, after having burnt out for the third time in six years, I began to see a psychiatrist and take antidepressants. It was the same time when I had started my “portfolio life”, and one of the items in that portfolio was volunteering with the Takshashila Institution, where I was asked to teach a class on logical fallacies.

That’s possibly a funny trigger, but hours of lecturing about “correlation not implying causation” meant that I started finally seeing the random correlations that I had formed in my own head. And one by one, I started dismantling them. There were no lucky days any more. There wasn’t that much karma any more. I started feeling less worried about things I wanted to say. I started realising that being “good” is good for its own merits, and not because some karma recommends that you should be good.

And I started feeling happier. Over the course of time, it seemed like a big load had been taken off my head. And so, whenever I see discourse on social media (and in books) that religion makes people happier, I fail to understand it.

In January 2014, I met an old friend for dinner. While walking back to the parking lot, he casually asked me what my views on religion were. I thought for a minute and said, “well, I firmly believe that correlation does not imply causation. And this means I can’t be religious”. That’s when I became convinced that I had lost my religion, and had become happier for it. And I continue to be happy because I’m not religious.