Fatherhood: The Beginning

Recently I became a new father when my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. Although she was full term she came a few weeks before her due date. What we thought was a routine hospital visit quickly escalated and a few hours later we were holding her in our hands.

The doctor let me watch the Caesarian section and our baby came out looking like an alien covered in white fluid! She cried immediately. I remember clapping soundlessly and showing a thumbs-up to my wife. They cleaned her up and took her away for a couple of hours for some care.

I was waiting alone while my wife was being stitched up. I made a few calls and then more waiting. Soon I was sitting beside my wife while they monitored her and 2 hours after the event we went back to our room. Our baby joined us in a few minutes!

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After about 3 hours of playing with her (which mostly meant looking at her or carrying her while she blissfully slept), I realized I hadn’t eaten the whole day and stepped out. As I opened my mouth my jaw started hurting. That’s when I came to know that smiling for too long can hurt!

Is this is a good use of your time?

I decided to raise this question putting at risk my meagre readership! Your decision to read this probably comes at the cost of some of your “free time”. When we are working, our employers structure our time so we don’t need to worry about managing it. This typically takes 30-70 hours a week depending on the type of work you do. Sleeping and daily ablutions probably take up another 70 hours a week. This gives you 28-68 hours of “free time” that you need to plan for.

On average humans are very poor at utilizing their time:

  • If our time at work was used effectively, better productivity in a meritocracy would lead to better rewards. This means a focus on creating processes and practices that avoid day-to-day firefighting instead of living in the crisis. However, this doesn’t happen. So fear and panic about our jobs or deadlines become the main motivators to accomplish anything at work.
  • The less said about how we use our free time the better. We might want to do X or learn Y or spend time with Z but we usually end up watching cat videos and scrolling through our social media timelines most of the time.

There are some who are completely fine with this or don’t see this as a problem. This post is not for them. This post is for those who want to do more or better but are unable to. Procrastination is the term normally used for this. A task is already defined either by the person or their employer or others. The task is ignored until the last moment. When the deadline is close, it is worked on and somehow completed but not with very good results. Tim Urban who writes at waitbutwhy.com is now a world famous procrastinator who wrote extensively about this specific issue.

Let us use the Eisenhower Matrix to understand this better. You divide everything you do into 4 quadrants based on urgency and importance:

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  • You have to do Quadrant 1 items. This is the work crisis or home crisis that cries for immediate attention. This some times needs high CPU usage but adrenaline will help you navigate this.
  • Quadrant 2 is where all the great achievements lie. This needs sustained high CPU usage and there will be no adrenaline to push you. Even most bosses will not push you to do these types of tasks unless you are at a higher level of management.
  • Quadrant 3 can be loosely labeled as “Somebody Else’s Problem” that you have made your own. You can delegate these to the right people and save your time but more often than not you don’t.
  • Binge watching a bad soap opera is a good example of Quadrant 4. All the time we spend entertaining ourselves could also be counted here. It is very hard to spend zero time here because even a hard working brain needs some rest. But mostly we overstay in this quadrant.

Why is living in Quadrant 2 so hard? I had posted about a book; Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann; that talks about how the mind works. The mind is easily distracted even when making important or complex decisions. Basically it likes to keep CPU usage low. Staying in Quadrant 2 requires a couple of high CPU usage activities:

  • Deciding what to do: planning, setting objectives or outcomes
  • Doing it effectively: execution

In a workplace, “Deciding what to do” is a leadership responsibility. “Doing it effectively” is a joint responsibility of all employees including leaders. For your personal time, you are responsible for both. Being consistently good at this is hard. You can read Tim Urban’s perspective here. He says you can make it easier on yourself by setting challenging goals in fields that come more naturally to you and easily motivate you. You can also publicize some of these goals in your circles so that you now feel some invisible pressure to deliver. You can literally set a fire by quitting what you do today because panic is a big motivator.

But most of all, you succeed by having the mental discipline to stay in Quadrant 2. This means that first we must plan and set objectives and then for the bulk of the time focus on the moment and execute. We all know that if we actually are focused for the bulk of an 8-hour work day, we will achieve great things. But we don’t!

Are there tools that help you with “focusing”? Interestingly, there is one powerful tool which is over 2500 years old. The new age form of this is called Mindfulness. Buddhist tradition ascribes this to the Buddha and says that this is what helped him concentrate and focus on the problem he was analyzing (the nature of human suffering). Academics still debate whether Buddha’s core teaching was this mental method as a way to analyze complex problems or the canonical doctrine of The Four Noble Truths. We don’t know for sure because the Buddhist chronicles were written down only a few centuries after Buddha died. As an Indian I can feel proud that India was the origin for both physical training practices like yoga and mental training practices like mindfulness! The sad part is that both of these are considerably less popular in India compared to the West.

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What is mindfulness? It means intentionally focusing on your present experiences without distractions. This is basically what we need to live in Quadrant 2! The good thing is just like you can build muscles by physical training, you can build your concentration skills by mental training. You can start with the traditional practice called anapanasati which literally means mindfulness of breathing and then escalates into more and more advanced steps to train your mind to focus.

Does it really work? There has been a lot of scientific research into mindfulness. Research has shown that it actually modifies the brain by shrinking primitive impulse centres like the amygdala and enhancing and better connecting the parts that control attention and concentration. It therefore makes us less of a slave to stress and even to pain. Knowledge industry leaders have already taken notice and Google has a Head of Mindfulness.

You can try this at home using a simple starter video like the one below:

I’ve not gone beyond 10 minutes and I always get distracted. But if you stick with it for at least 8 weeks, you will see results. Trainer-led sessions will obviously help to begin with. There are more advanced steps you can try as you become an expert.

Managing time effectively is critical to achieving stuff in life (if you are into such things). When we consider super-achievers like Einstein (when working as a patent clerk and publishing Nobel winning papers) or Elon Musk (disrupting 3 different industries by age 40) or that guy who became a VP at your office at 35; after accounting for genetics and pure luck what remains that probably explains their success is their relentless discipline in living in Quadrant 2.

P.S: Before I sign off, I need to get back to the title of my post! Is this a good use of your time? If you think not, I can still live with it because you will probably thank me later! Those of you who think otherwise, thank you for your time…

 

 

Degrading the Environment, Indian Style

In my first post on this blog, I tipped my hat to The Ugly Indian. Let’s face it. India is ugly and it’s because of us, the people. Dirtying takes almost zero effort and a cleanup takes a few orders of magnitude more effort. Think about your room. It probably takes a minute to mess it up and an hour to clean it. As a tax-payer, I disagree when people dirty everything and ask the Government to clean up. Tax payer money should be invested in processes like sewerage lines and treatment plants etc. With the right processes it should not be necessary to use tax-payer money to clean lakes and rivers if people took some real responsibility. An unapproved layout next to a lake, dumping sewage in storm water drains, refusing to segregate garbage and similar crimes are the real problem. Let us see how disaggregate (micro-level) behaviour and thinking adds up and affects us at an aggregate (large-scale) level.

Here is one of the most sacred parts of the Bhoganandeeswara temple (near the Nandi Hills), which is over a thousand years old, on the day after the Maha Shivaratri festival. Plastic is floating around in the tank. I did not take any other pictures of the temple grounds that day because it was disgusting to see garbage everywhere. This was the least ugly place if you discount the sanctum sanctorum! An employee of the temple had just started the cleanup which would have probably taken several days.

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Here is a picture of how it looks otherwise:

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There’s even some wildlife here:

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I know I am generalizing but an average Indian just doesn’t care about the environment and our actions show this. It looks like the same attitude seeps into our panels and authorities who assess environmental impact of large-scale projects because after all they are people drawn from the same pool. But they have the capacity to do large-scale damage that costs lives.

Here is an example. This is a satellite photo of Chennai Airport in 2000. The airport is pretty much in the flood plains of the Adyar river and the smaller runway is almost touching the river.

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In 2015, this is how the airport looks like. The smaller runway has been expanded and extended over the river! It is practically a dam because going by the typical Indian construction standards there would probably be debris under the bridge!

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In case you think the river flow is low and cannot do damage, see the below picture which is more zoomed out compared to before. You can see the huge Chembarambakkam lake (upstream and on the left of the picture) from where excess water was released and drowned Chennai Airport (downstream and on the right) along with a lot of low-lying areas last year. Obstructions like this on the Adyar river and its floodplains amplified the flood damage immensely and cost several lives.

Lake and Airport

A similar lack of logic was used to approve the World Cultural Festival (organized by Mr. Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation) to destroy the Yamuna flood plains which are already under attack in Delhi. The event is being organized in one of the widest areas of flood-plains within the city limits. People who can influence the public need to be more responsible and informed before they speak on any topic and this article quoting Mr. Ravi Shankar shows why. There simple references here and here that you can go through to understand why floodplains are important and should not be encroached.  His statements betray a lack of understanding of this.

There is another side that says Mr. Ravi Shankar has the best of intentions and has a track record of cleaning rivers. I have not verified this. But whatever the case may be, the floodplains should be left as is. Even if Art of Living conducts this with zero impact to the environment, it sets a bad precedent. What if a super-rich guy wants to do a mega-wedding here tomorrow? Why not a rock concert?

I am sure a better place can be found for the event. Why not conduct it in a stadium and telecast it on TV? 3.5 million footfalls in 3 days in one place is a safety and security nightmare anyway!

The latest developments cannot be seen on the satellite images but you can observe how the flood plains are eaten away and streams are blocked over the last decade or so.

Yamuna floodplains 2004:

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The same in 2015, before the additional developments to host the event, show how the urbanization is catching up: new bridges, roads, construction on the western bank, old streams are now clogged or blocked and so on. I have approximately labeled the affected zone with a red rectangle based on what I read in news reports.

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The floodplains in the eastern bank next to the Mayur Vihar metro station where the World Cultural Festival is organized is about 450 hectares in area. The western bank is about 200+ hectares. From news reports, we hear that 50-60 hectares have been leveled and debris has been dumped and a pontoon bridge has been built across the river for this. Although this is 10% of the area, it will affect the larger ecosystem. Delhiites may be able to point out which areas on this picture are actually affected now. Please comment below if you know.

Floodplains are naturally marshy, have grassy vegetation and open gravelly/sandy surfaces to to absorb excess flow when required. Aquifers are also recharged with this type of geology. Planting trees in such areas doesn’t make sense because they are naturally not part of the floodplain ecosystem. Not so long ago, during the 2013 North India floods the Yamuna had completely engulfed its floodplains in Delhi.

Since there are no free images, here is a screenshot of this from The Hindu:

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We are taught in Universities to plan for 100-year floods. Now the memory doesn’t even extend 2 years! The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been given some teeth to deal with all these macro problems and I hope these are not of the milk teeth variety.

Another area where we see major issues closer to my home is solid waste management. A space-constrained India that organizes events on floodplains doesn’t have the places to dump garbage. This picture below shows Mandur evolving from a sleepy farming village in the outskirts to being the favourite garbage dump for Bangalore. The images are from 2005 and 2014 respectively. Note that this is now one of many such landfills.

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Food waste, plastic and metals are not items that should end up in a landfill but they do. The villagers here are sick of this “deal with the devil” and now want out. The real problem is that waste segregation by people is not universal and processes to take this segregated waste are not robust enough. The latter is BBMP‘s responsibility but the former is all about the people: you and me. A court decision cannot solve this unless people become more responsible.

This is what happens to segregated waste:

  • Wet waste is all the food waste and this can be composted at home or at larger composting plants. The output is manure and can be used for organic vegetable gardens at home.
  • The dry waste is mostly paper, plastics, metals etc. and these can be recycled at automated plants. Recycling plants sometimes pay people money for this waste!
  • Sanitary waste goes to a landfill

Today, most houses in Bangalore mix and send all of the above straight to the landfill therefore multiplying by several times what each one can handle. It is immensely hard to separate the mixed waste into components for composting or recycling. There are also process failures from the BBMP because in some areas people segregate the waste but it mixed when collected.

There are, of course, some encouraging signs. I’ve seen experiments at our apartment that kids can be taught and are also good at enforcing their parents to be more sensitive. It helps if every house has one person with an environmental OCD. Be that person! The segregation initiative in our apartment building works pretty well and the ladies and kids go door to door to explain this to new folks who join the community. If we did segregation properly we wouldn’t have the Mandur problem. Only sanitary and hazardous waste would go to landfills. As I write this, I also hear that plastic is to be banned in Karnataka and I sincerely hope it is implemented. We need to ensure those who depend on the plastics for their livelihood have viable alternatives and that people are sensitized and trained. Otherwise this is a token initiative that will be destined to fail.

I am not starting a blame game here or pointing a finger at one group. I am equally culpable when I order takeout food and send plastic containers to the landfill. Is there a better way? This thinking is needed at every level, whether individuals or Governments. Japan needs to think about better design to prevent radiation leaks at nuclear plants built on a tsunami-prone coast or the US about oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. The purpose of this post is to encourage us to question what we do today and do better next time.

I was discussing this post with a friend who pointed out that George Carlin once said:

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!

We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.

This is not about Planet Earth which, given time, can probably evolve intelligent life that eats plastic. This is about the survival and well-being of the species that call this planet their home today.

My Experiments with Tennis

Recently I had a crisis of the kind that come up only when your age reaches decadal round numbers. I graded myself on a number of parameters and came up short on several. Career-wise I was fine with what I was doing but everywhere else there was an issue. I hadn’t played a sport or done any physical activity seriously for the latter half of my life. A few games of cricket every couple of years don’t count! I had somewhat kept up with my reading but writing was a zero. This meant I had to do something so I started with yoga and this blog. Yoga, primarily because I didn’t need to find company and it would be good for my back as I have a lower back issue.

This went on for a couple of months and I was doing fine. Yoga was good for me but something was missing until a friend persuaded me to join him for tennis. Over the last few years quite a few tennis places have sprung up in the area where I live in Bangalore. This place – True Bounce Tennis Academy (TBTA) – sounds all structured and rigid but was quite informal. The coaches there were mostly young chaps and knew how to deal with corporate types like me with a good dose of humour to motivate us! They had to be more patient with us than with kids who might end up making a career of this. A few months prior to this, I had gone to enquire at a different place where the dealings were quite different: pay us X for 20 classes; we teach you stuff and test you at the end; if you pass you get to play a person of appropriate level. Makes logical sense but sounded too cold and intimidating to me to go there. I more or less did the same at TBTA! But it was a fun process.

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On day 1, I was down on my haunches in 15 minutes of drills. I couldn’t run any more. This is how the drills work. The coach sets up his position at one point and feeds you balls by hand or racket. You run to the ball, hit it, run to the back of the queue, wait your turn, repeat ad infinitum! With queues of 3-5 people there was no break. When he ran out of balls it felt like heaven. They knew this so the coaches and ballboys sometimes decided they wouldn’t let the basket go empty! After a couple of months I could do 45 minutes of drills. The drills help with fitness, movement and building skill with strokes. It also builds muscle memory. You then get into practice sessions where you hit with a partner or coach. The serve has to be practiced separately. Everything is harder than it looks when you watch the Nadals and Djokers fight it out!

The game was addictive and for several months, work and tennis were all I did. No blogging, no yoga. A confession: I am a huge fan of Rafael Nadal. I believe he won the 2014 French Open final against Djokovic solely because I sat in a certain spot for the longest time before emptying my tank! So running around a clay-court was awesome for me. But having played for a year, I would say my hero-worship has reduced. Getting beaten 6-0 by the coaches here who themselves would get beaten 6-0 by a top-300 player who don’t stand a chance against the Top 30 or Top 10 is humbling. Imagine the Top 4 (yes I know Nadal is out of it now!) in such an environment. We just have to enjoy the show put over the last few years by all these greats. This doesn’t mean I’ve switched camps but at least I swear less now!

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Tennis is quite hard on the body. You need to be able to sprint quickly, do turns at a moment’s notice, switch wrist and elbow actions with each stroke, strength and action on the upper body to impart both power and spin to the ball, head movements during serves and strokes and maintain all this for a couple of hours to play 3 sets. The funny thing in tennis is it takes more strength to hit a slightly slower shot with topspin than a speedy shot with no spin.

Forehand bio-mechanics is demonstrated in this cool sounding Swedish video:

If you are gifted with awesomely fluid bio-mechanics (read Roger Federer) there is nothing like it. Experts recommend that serious players train as much as they play. Interval training for stamina, lifting and rowing exercises for upper body strength, and movement exercises are all essential apart from the usual warm-up which is the only thing I did! If you have a choice, a clay-court is better for your body than the concrete hard-courts.

It finally caught up with me physically. My lower back was the weak spot but somehow it held up fine. My fitness improved. I had knee niggles at the beginning that got sorted out as I played more. I paid careful attention to my grip so that my wrists were fine (my friend got wrist injuries so this is important). I used to get niggles in my neck area and I wasn’t sure how to strengthen it so I didn’t bother. Some parts of the body strengthen by just playing more but others need specific exercises or routines. Recently I sprained the muscle going from the neck to the shoulder and this caused the whole upper back to get locked up. A month of waiting to get better and building some strength. An enforced break, hence the blogging!