Thursday, 1 October 2015

Confessions of a procrastinator

On the 4th of August 2015, I undertook a journey that might perhaps prove to be the most career defining moment of my life. I moved from Chennai to Chicago for my master's. I was leaving home for two years at the least and I had to bid goodbye to the nearest and dearest of my family and friends. I quit my job at Zoho on the 19th of June and had a good 45 days in hand to shop for everything I needed to survive in my new home, pack them up and to meet all my friends one last time before I left.

I also had other plans. At the time when I had still been working, I had planned my post-quitting schedule - to take my motorcycle out for a ride to Bangalore, Bellary and all the way till Hyderabad, as soon as I had finished all my purchase. I had promised my friends and family that I would be doing the ride as soon as I quit my job. What was more surprising was that my parents didn't even raise an eyebrow and I had their full permission to go anywhere I wanted to. The most exciting phase of my life was all set to commence.

The very day after I quit my job, I woke up all excited and made plans to prepare the list of things that I needed to purchase. But as I had 44 more days in hand, I decided to make the list on the next day, and then the next day. And so, my routine was like this - I woke up at 10:30am, slept again at 1:30pm, woke up at 4:30pm and slept again in the wee hours of the morning. The time in between was spent on working on a few illustrations, personal and freelance projects. I started enjoying this schedule and over three weeks went by. I just had about twenty days left.

My mom was getting worried about the fact that I wasn't taking things seriously. She took a break from her job to help me out with all the purchase. She prepared the list for me and every day, we would shop for a few things. But it wasn't going as per what I had in my mind. The things that I thought would take a day to buy, took three. Buying clothes and winter wear took over a week. All the kitchenware, baggage, shoes and everything else was still pending. I had just over two weeks to go. But it still seemed manageable to get everything.

I had to make an impromptu jaunt to Thanjavur - an overnight journey from Chennai, to get some work done at my alma mater. That took a day. A couple of days later, I frantically made a journey to Bangalore for a day to meet my friends. My parents wouldn't allow me to take my motorcycle as I had less than ten days left now and I would be unnecessarily taking a huge risk. I took a bus, met six of my friends in Bangalore and got back to Chennai. That took one more day off my already messed up schedule.

In the end, I still had to meet a lot of friends in Chennai, but couldn't. There was no time left. It dawned upon me that there was going to be no long ride in my motorcycle, at least for two more years. That I had not kept my word on meeting my friends one last time before I left. I realised that I could have avoided getting into this imbroglio had I not procrastinated earlier. I'm not a lazy person, but unless there's an impetus, the person inside me simply refuses to act.

I had five days left. I had to buy stationaries, electrical items, make photocopies of all my documents, buy a few comestibles to survive the first few days, and so on. That day, as soon as I woke up, I decided to write everything down. I prepared a written list of things that had to be done. As usual, as soon as I had my lunch, I went into my room to take a short nap. But as soon as I saw the written list on my desk, it wouldn't let me sleep. I immediately took my motorcycle out to shop for everything I had on the list. It took less than five hours to buy everything and once I had done with the list, it felt as if I were ready for my journey. I had achieved something in five hours, which I couldn't achieve in five weeks.

I have used several To-do list apps in the past like Wunderlist, Google Keep, etc. - all of them have helped me remember all the critical stuff, but haven't prompted me to finish things at the right time, or at the soonest possible time. On the other hand, writing things down and keeping the note on my work desk seems more efficient in helping me organize my time and kill procrastination. This has happened several times in the past and writing things down has always saved the day. While I don't intend to make this article as a motivational piece for people to read, I really hope that this incident would serve as a fine example to make me procrastinate less in the future.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Why this hurry?

In accordance with the last few posts of mine that deal with old age and some questions on life really is, I felt that this would be the most relevant time to think and write on this topic. Inspiration for this post was kindled by a comment I received on my previous post that I had reposted in the internal blog of my company. The comment, by none other than the co-founder of Zoho, read "Every decade in your life will go faster than the one before". On reading it, I suddenly started feeling disappointed, giving a serious thought to how true his words would be.

I remember my childhood days darn well, much more than I would like to admit. The people, the thoughts that used to run in my mind, my crushes and many more - I have very fresh memories of them, as if all that happened just a few days ago. Perhaps the very first incident that got me seriously thinking on this topic was my friend Aishwarya's wedding. In the recent past (about ten years or so), I hadn't attended a single wedding before hers. Although I have heard stories of my college-mates getting married, attending a close friend's marriage suddenly made me feel depressed - felt as if all our youth years were over already. What makes it worse is my habit of listening to songs, keenly observing and remembering the lyrics right from my childhood. When I was barely ten years old, I listened to this song called 'Chaand Sitare' from the movie Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, which had a verse that goes like this: "Pehena ke taaj jawani ka, haske laut gaya bachpan", which roughly translates to "By placing the garland of youth on her neck, childhood smiled and left". As a ten year old kid, I had already started feeling depressed as if my childhood was over.

There's this uncanny link between growing up and seeing things change at a faster rate around you than you can cope up, a phenomenon that we call the Generation Gap, to brand our previous generation as being less tech savvy and apparently less intelligent. We have written essays in junior and high school on this topic without truly understanding what it meant. It is worth noticing that the world has changed at a faster rate in the last decade, than the rate at which it changed in the previous decade. Take an example - the first mobile content, a ringtone, was sold only as recent as 1998, but technology changed so fast that 3G was introduced in Japan in 2001. The first call via a mobile phone was made in 1991 and by 2007, there were 3 billion mobile subscribers, which rose to 4 billion in 2009. Take another similar instance - to reach a market audience of 50 million people, it took the Telephone 75 years, 38 years for Radio, 13 years for TV, 4 years for internet, 2 years for Facebook and only 35 days for Angry Birds. We truly live in exponential times.

It is estimated that a week's worth of an English daily contains more information than a person was likely to come across his entire lifetime in the 18th century. And the amount of information that will be generated this year would be more information than the past five thousand years put together. I hope all these examples would pretty much give anyone an idea of how fast things are changing. The speed at which the world changed during our parents' times wasn't probably half the speed at which it is changing now. Every new technology and change is quickly being adapted to. It is hard to believe that my whole family and relatives are on WhatsApp - the same people who once argued that mobile phones must not be used.

I watched the movie Shawshank Redemption around the year 2008, and there's been a dialogue that I have been remembering ever since. Brooks Hatlen is a character in the movie who is an elderly person and had been in prison for nearly fifty years. He is released on parole and looks to be over eighty years old by then. Once he is out, he writes back to his friends in prison "Dear fellas, I can't believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now they're everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Foodway so they'd send me home. I could shoot the manager while I was at it, sort of like a bonus. I guess I'm too old for that sort of nonsense any more." It makes me think that at some point of time, we might hit a saturation level after which we may not be able to cope up with the ever changing world. Time would have gotten ahead of us.

Thus, it all comes down to a single question - why is this world in such a hurry? Whom are we trying to prove a point to? Do we really need to accelerate change so fast that it would consume our entire life in trying to get accustomed to the changing life rather than just live it? At the current rate of progress, I felt that only the elite few who are privileged and can afford new technology would be able to embrace the change and the others who cannot would be left behind. But the way things are turning out, and technology becoming cheaper every passing day, I see people from even the lowest strata of the society holding a smartphone in their hands. While it delights me that we aren't really leaving anyone behind, and it is only a matter of choice, but not affordability to embrace this change, it still doesn't answer my question - why change so fast?

Startups are at the forefront of the industries that are making technologies to revolutionize the way we live. These are the kind of companies who are driving the change that I have talked about all along. I have spoken to a lot of people from the tech startup industry and have understood that the very reason they are developing their product(s) is to solve people's problems. But then, I have a feeling that the problems that they identified aren't much of a problem at all. Going out and buying groceries from the corner shop is being identified as a problem and they are solving it by delivering it to your house. What's worse, knowing that you are running out of groceries has itself been identified as a problem and a smart fridge is arriving, that will order your groceries for you without your knowledge so that you never run out of groceries! The only way I see this ending, other than an AI takeover or a robot apocalypse is that humans will be outwitted and put out of all possible jobs. There will be nothing much to do in this world for anyone except those few people who would make or control those bots. History has seen the gradual rise of human intellect, and we are currently witnessing the exponential rise of collective human knowledge to unprecedented levels. I can predict a break point at which it will begin to fall, but it would be safe to assume that it isn't until a few tens of decades when that would happen. It would also be safe to assume that it isn't going to happen in the near future, at least till the reminder of our lives.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Time - as we know it, and as we don't.

I asked this question to a few of my friends - "How much is one second?". The question wasn't from a spiritual or a psychological perspective, and I also wasn't expecting the answers in that way. It is a very straightforward question that I want you to answer to yourself before you read any further. A purely mathematical or scientific answer.

Technically, the International System of Units (SI) defines one second of time as the duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of microwave light absorbed or emitted by the hyperfine transition of Caesium-133 atoms in their ground state (Just for explanatory purpose, don't bother about the details). What it does not mention is that the definition is only valid on Earth. First things first - The human experience of time is not an effective measure of time. To have a better understanding of what time really is, we need to consider a few other factors that affect time. In an earlier post titled 'The depths of my mind', I had discussed about spacetime and how time is different from the way we understand it to be. We know three dimensions - The X,Y and the Z axes which we call 3D in short. All objects move relative to these three dimensions. Along with these three dimensions, when we take time into consideration (which we call the 4th dimension) together, these four dimensions are known as Spacetime.

The foremost factor that affects time on Earth is Gravity. Our measure of time or our perception of its measurement is relative to the amount of gravity being exerted on us. It is said that the understanding of Gravity is the solution to many problems. In fact, the problem in approaching many problems is the lack of sufficient knowledge about gravity. We know that gravity is a fundamental and a naturally occurring force by the nature of which all objects attract one another. We were first taught about gravity as an attracting force back in our 6th grade and we used the concepts of gravity till we completed school, or even college for some. But from my very limited knowledge that I have gathered from my interest in reading about metaphysics, I understand that Gravity isn't an attractive force as taught to us. What's more, it cannot be classified as a force by itself. At the very basic level of quantum physics, it would be safe to say that all objects distort (bend or have an effect on) space and time. It essentially means that any object that has a mass has an effect on space and time in and around it. And the bigger the object (by mass), the more is the distortion. The gravity and time that we experience is therefore a distortion of time and space due to the Earth's mass. Let's take a very simple example:

Assume that spacetime is simply a stretchable membrane, much like a trampoline. We place a heavy ball (the Sun) exactly at the center of the trampoline so that it stretches the trampoline downwards. Next, we take a lighter ball (the Earth and other planets) and place it at the edge of the trampoline. We would see that the ball gets drawn to the center of the trampoline and falls towards the larger (heavier) ball at the center. Consider another case - while placing the ball at the edge, if the ball had considerable velocity that would match or perfectly negate the force by which it is drawn towards the center, it would simply keep revolving around the bigger ball. This would explain why Earth rotates around the Sun and doesn't fall towards the Sun due to its gravity. Again, this gravity is technically the distortion of spacetime by the Sun. But why and how is this distortion caused? That's something I would be curious to know myself. The best accepted theory we have on gravity is general relativity, which doesn't in itself explain why mass bends spacetime, just that it happens. We are moving right now through both space and time. Einstein said that these were not two different things but really one thing, called spacetime.

Now, that we have a (good?) understanding of gravity, let's link it to time and see how gravity has an impact on time. As discussed about Caesium atoms earlier, you may know that they are used as timekeepers in atomic clocks. There are atoms of other elements that are used in atomic clocks too, and they are the most accurate clocks that measure time (The most accurate atomic clock loses only one second in 15 billion years, so we are talking about that much level of precision). A direct relationship could be established by saying that time passes at the current rate we know because of gravity. The gravitational pull isn't constant, and it is different at different altitudes on Earth. Therefore, on Earth itself, two clocks at different altitudes would show different times, but the difference would be extremely small as the difference in gravity itself would be very small. Establishing a more precise relationship, time passes slower where gravity is higher. Time on the top of a mountain would pass faster than time near the core of the Earth. But considering this very short distance, the effect would be negligent.

Take an out of the Earth example - clocks on the International Space Station and on the satellites run at a slower pace than the ones on Earth. This shows that gravity bends time in its own way. This phenomenon of time being affected by gravity is known as Gravitational Time Dilation. Take a bigger example of astronauts traveling at a very fast speed to some place and then getting back to Earth. When the astronauts return back to the Earth, they find that they haven't relatively aged as much as the people on Earth have (the basis on which the Interstellar movie was made). Time has passed slower for them, while it has passed faster for those on Earth. Although everyone experiences the effect of time dilation, nobody notices a difference within their own frame of reference (the place they exist).

To simplify, velocity and gravity each slow down time as they increase. Velocity has increased for the astronauts, slowing down their time, whereas gravity has decreased, speeding up time (the astronauts are experiencing less gravity than on Earth). Nevertheless, the ISS astronaut crew ultimately end up with 'slower' time because the two opposing effects are not equally strong. The velocity time dilation (explained above) is making a bigger difference, and slowing down time. The (time-speeding up) effects of low-gravity would not cancel out these (time-slowing down) effects of velocity unless the ISS orbited much farther from Earth. Now, if an object were to move faster, at the speed of light, theoretically, there would be no lapse of time at all - which means that if an astronaut were to travel in a spaceship at the speed of light, he would never become older. Let's say that you are on a chair and spin really fast. It would mean that parts of you are aging at different rates. If you could measure accurately enough, your head and your feet are not the same age!

Now that we have discussed so much about spacetime, the next time you go to the beach to watch the tides, do remind yourselves that the cause of those tidal forces is due to the varying strength in the spacetime distortion with position in space. Not quite simple to think of it that way, is it? I thought life was easier when I simply believed that it was due to the Moon's gravitational pull :)

If you have some more information or explanation on any of this, I'd be glad if you could share it in the comments section below. Do share this article if you found it to be informative :)

Edit: I found this answer on Quora that deals with bending space and time. Quite thoughtful.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Two strangers, one road.

I almost forgot about this incident that I'm writing about. This was rekindled by a piece that I read last week, which made me put my experience in words too.

A lot of Indian movies have this introductory scene where the guy and girl meet on the road as strangers and it proves to be a life changing moment for both. Well, this story is nothing of that sort, except that I met a girl on the road only to see her never again. This happened on the late evening of the 27th of February. I was stuck in traffic on NH4, a small stretch of which I need to travel while commuting from/to office. The road gets too crowded on Fridays owing to the traffic due to people travelling to the city for the weekend. A large number of buses and lorries enter the city on Fridays and almost block the entire stretch that I need to cover.

Somewhere in the middle of the stretch, I found myself stuck behind two lorries and innumerable other vehicles that stood in front of them. I turned off my bike's ignition and stretched out my hands, cracked a few knuckles and turned my head from side to side. Towards my right, I noticed a pretty girl on a scooter stuck in the traffic just like me, who immediately caught my attention (ahem!). Maybe it wasn't her that caught my attention, but there was something quite unusual about what she was doing. She was restless, she kept standing up from her scooter and looking from side to side if there was some gap through which she could squeeze her scooter and get ahead. It looked as though she was rushing to some place, or she was in some kind of emergency, or for whatever reason it was - it definitely looked like she was desperate to get through the traffic quickly.

I noticed a small gap just enough for a two-wheeler to get through, towards the extreme left of the road. I turned the ignition on and turned my bike towards my left. I took one last look at her to check what she was up to, when I found her looking at me. I pointed towards my left, signalling that there was some space to get through and I started driving. She immediately understood and followed suit. It led us ahead of a lot of vehicles, and with some constant twists and turns, we found ourselves covering a lot of ground and it directly led us to the signal, which just turned green as we got there.

We approached the signal near MGR University when I saw a mini-lorry (or call that a mega-sized autorickshaw) in front of me which I was about to overtake from the left and she was on the right. She stretched her hand out and made a gesture, asking me to slow down and not overtake the vehicle. I understood her intention only after I saw what happened next - a motorist from the opposite lane jumped the signal and took a turn towards his right crossed the road right in front of me. Had I accelerated, I would have had to apply the brakes in haste or might have hit him. I did not look at her or thank her for what she did, and just kept driving. It simply didn't strike me that I had to thank her for it. We reached the place where the road branches into two and I had to take the left to reach Anna Nagar. I looked towards my right and looked at her. She looked at me and nodded her head (and probably said something too). I nodded my head in return and took the road on the left, only to see her never again.

This brought two thoughts in my head -

1. Instant Karma - what I had done came back to me. Instantly.
2. Faith in humanity, restored.

P.S: Santhanakrishnan and Neela are two of some of the guys to whom I give an 'exclusive preview' of my upcoming posts for proofreading and feedback. While Neela says that I could have chased the girl down instead of going home, Santhanakrishnan goes as far as asking me if I remember her face, her vehicle's registration number and any additional details, so that they can track her down. Crazy friends I've got!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The autumn of life.

After reading my last post, a friend gave me a feedback about it that, as soon as she finished reading the second paragraph and got started with the third, she expected it to be a continuation of the second. And then she suggested that I could write an entire post on that particular topic that was discussed in the second paragraph - senility.

Senility /sɪˈnɪlɪti/ (defined as a characteristic of or caused by old age) or simply old age as we know, is an inexorable phenomenon that will occur to every one of us. I, approaching my mid-twenties, find myself in a very awkward situation. This is a gradual shift from kids beginning to call you 'Uncle' or 'Aunty' from 'Anna/Bhaiya' or 'Akka/Didi'. I discern my parents ageing. I see a clear shift from how I saw my parents as a kid - their youthfulness, energy and enthusiasm is declining. I need to consider them equal to me and need to rely on them less often. Whenever I needed any suggestions or solutions as a kid, I looked up to them for help, but now, they look up to me for the same. I find it very odd to address older people with their names. The kid inside me still wants me to address them as 'Uncle' or 'Aunty'. These are some of the stuff I need to deal with on a daily basis.

My first experience with perceiving the magnitude of senility began at a very early age of eight. I still remember that day clearly - the 8th of September, 1999 - The day India lost to West Indies on the finals of Coca Cola cup. Every evening, my dad used to teach Vishnusahasranamam to me and about five more friends. That day, we had been keenly watching the match all day, and also while my dad was teaching. I used to watch cricket with a lot of passion and the match ended with India's defeat while my dad's teaching session was still going on. At about the same time, a neighbour suddenly barged into our house and informed us of his mother's death, and that he was immediately leaving for Chennai along with his family. While all the other kids were still sitting, I immediately got up and ran to the bedroom. I threw myself on the bed and started crying loudly. Everyone ran inside and started consoling me by telling that India will win the next series and there was no need to worry. But that wasn't of any concern to me. What made me sad was the news that the neighbor brought. I started wondering what would happen when we grow old and start losing our loved ones one at a time. The very thought of it made me cry.

About one year later, I watched The Lion King movie. If you have watched it, there's this scene in which Mufasa tells his son Simba, "A king's time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king". To me, it translated into "Your parents will not be there to guide you forever. One day, their time will end like the setting sun, and you will be on your own". Maybe these movies and their dialogues are made in a way to kindle such thoughts in kids?

Apart from seeing others grow old, what I'm more apprehensive about is seeing myself getting older. I hope I can somehow survive through my twenties till my sixties without much dependency on others. What frightens me the most is the period after sixties (if I make it that far) till my death. I wonder what kind of memories I would hold. Home, school, childhood, college and work - also everything that I ever stood or fought for - I wonder how much all that would matter. If you have watched The Godfather trilogy, it tells the tale of Michael Corleone, his life and the people around him. We tend to develop a bond with the characters as we progress watching the three movies. The third movie ends with Michael as an old man, sitting alone in his garden, about to die and no one around with him. There's also a short flashback where he thinks about the people he has lost in his life. Next, he slumps over in his chair, falls sideways to the ground, and dies alone, with only his dog present beside him. That made me wonder "Who would be with us when we are about to die? What thoughts would run in our minds when that time comes?" Maybe we just need to find it out for ourselves, impromptu.

I understand that having a 'successful old age' depends on the foundation you lay and how you build your life till that point. That is a very generalized statement to quote, but taking a cue from my previous post, I feel it is very necessary to 'optimize' our lives by making the best decisions with the limited resources of time, money and energy we have, while maximizing the gains. In my opinion, that is the secret recipe to have a regret-free senile life. I hope I would see only happiness and a feeling of satisfaction of having lived a every eventful life when I look back. As Shakespeare wrote in his play As You Like It (an excerpt of which is the poem The Seven Ages of Man) - "Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." The last part of that line - "Sans Everything" - seems to be the toughest thing. Deprived of energy, abilities to walk, talk, hear or see, and no people to share our feelings with, this part of our lives would feel like a curse. 

Since a very early age, I have played such video games which would have multiple ways of finishing the game. I would save the game regularly at checkpoints and explore all the areas in the game so that I leave no stone unturned. If there are multiple endings in the story of the game, I would play it again and again to see how differently it would end each time. This made me wonder if we would look back at our lives and wish that we could have lived it in a completely different way altogether, if we had made different choices and decisions at various points in our lives.

I call old age as the 'autumn of life' because our lives are like the leaves of a tree. We're born in spring and our lives end like the withered leaves during autumn, after which the next generation takes over. Perhaps the best thing that we could hope for is not to be one of the last leaves to fall off the tree!