I love spending time looking at art in museums or galleries. It’s like a big buffet and you can consume more of what you like, and sample some of the other offerings. And just like a good meal, I am satiated, tired, and happy at the end of the indulgence. Mentally and emotionally, that is.
I was with a friend recently at the DeYoung museum who commented on the excessive ornateness of the frames on the art, which distracted and detracted from the beauty of the painting itself. And it struck me, literally and figuratively, how much framing matters.
We exhort ourselves to never judge people by their looks, or a book by it’s cover, but at the end of the day, we succumb to framing. Advertisers have been exploiting our shallow judgment heuristics for years.
So, when given a choice to frame something like a great work of art in good light, why do we choose bad framing? One can understand the opposite, where framing can be used to improve a poor impression, but adverse framing is harder to reconcile.
Really good art should have no frame, just like a truly beautiful woman needs no make up. And closer to my own field, a truly original idea does not need to be dressed up in an excessive number of mathematical equations. And yet, so many beautiful women overdo their face packs, and research papers are written in trappings that obfuscate and confuse, rather than make us more knowledgeable. Why?
At some level we are all insecure, because we do not really know that we are already worth a lot just as we are. So we err by overdoing our framing. We end up not enhancing but cluttering. Like a house with too much furniture or art on the walls that feels less like home and hard to live in, we become uncomfortable in our trappings, and deny the pureness of our own skin and being. This only makes us more insecure and perpetuates the excess framing cycle.
Or, we play the frame game. Signaling becomes the goal of framing. Form over substance. It is why we need to wear an expensive business suit to meet a client, to show we are serious and the client is important. That in itself is not a bad thing, but the client really begins to believe we are more qualified than someone who could not afford the same expensive suit. The converse is worse. When we do not wear the expensive suit even when we are better qualified, that we are downgraded, to everyone’s detriment. Framing to signal is deep-rooted in nature. Birds with better plumes attract better mates. It’s a time-tested outcome of Darwinian evolution. It’s when we try to do more than nature prescribes that we make a mess of things. And when we do it collectively, kowtowing to the exaggerated norms of society, we make things even worse!
We are a strange collection of paradoxes. When we are supposed to be more creative, as in the art realm, we end up conforming more. Art is heavily framed because that’s the way it’s done. No ifs or buts. Casual Fridays exist, but not casual Wednesdays, which I think would be much nicer! But the former has a frame of precursing the weekend.
So it’s acceptable.
Yes, I know I am exaggerating a bit. Frames can be utilitarian. They protect art. Our clothes are frames, to protect our sensibilities. This is what nature intended. But we are cursed to be fooled by frames, and also to indulge in bad framing. Maybe that’s also what nature intended?!
The world is becoming ever more asynchronous. We do many things together, but this has become increasingly likely to be done at arms length. Face to face meetings have become less likely. Even worse, instead of talking on the phone, an email often suffices. Everything has become asynchronous. Truth be told, we probably like it this way!
There are examples everywhere. Instead of playing cards by sitting around a table, we now play internet poker. The same is true of chess, which is not only online but asynchronous, yours truly being a shining example of succumbing to this phenomenon. Instead of the phone, we send emails. Even TV watching, which used to be a joint family past time is now relegated to individual laptops in separate rooms. Instead of the entire nation watching a TV program at the same time, DVR technology has ensured that we all watch it on our own time. Even sports is watched with time delay in so many locations.
But making it convenient to consume entertainment has made it inconvenient for us to spend time together. We are all running to complete the ingestion of content, leaving little time for blank moments when we might spontaneously interact with each other. Is there no way out of this mess?
Here are some ways to fight this, for in this case the trend is not your friend.
- Consume less media. Most media consumption is now asynchronous and done independently of others. We do not watch the news together, not even sports. So just consume less of it. That goes directly to curtailing asynchronous consumption of media. Watch as much live as possible, with someone else. News and sports are ideally suited to this approach.
- Stop recording. It isn’t that hard. Just get rid of the DVR. This will also help in reducing the vast amounts of time spent on TV. It will also help you do just one thing at a time. I began taking my ipod along on a walk to listen to podcasts, and as a result stopped looking around and enjoying nature. I just missed out on the peaceful quiet on my night walks, and I did not realize how much I had enjoyed it till I stopped taking the ipod with me.
- Switch of all cell phones, computers, and singular distractions after some specific time each evening. This really works. My reading went up three-fold once I took this step. And my sleep was much better. There is plenty of evidence that imperceptibly flickering screens can mess up sleep for several hours. After switching off screens, I was not sleeping much more, but my sleep was of much better quality.
- Produce something every day in place of consumption. Instead of only reading, write something, and I do not mean emails. Responding to emails is not “producing” anything, and it does not bring deep satisfaction. But writing, even something trivial like a blog post, feels really good.
- Play team sports, and i don’t mean MPOG (multi player online games). Getting exercise this way is much better than the isolating act of going to the gym and pounding a treadmill alone. There is so much more stimulation getting exercise in groups. Even just hiking can be so much more than just an exercise in exercise. Do things with your hands where community is required, for example gardening clubs.
- Join a few meet up groups. Meetups are cool, new phenomena where interest groups organize get-togethers using web technology. The meetings are in person and synchronous.
Synchronicity is about community, and community is very important. However, we seem to be slipping into a world of asynchronicity. The good news is that this problem is beatable, one person at a time. As everyone, one by one, starts engaging in synchronous activity, we unwind asychronicity rapidly, because when people do things together, a network builds rapidly, and network effects rebuild synchronicity.
Just a month ago I made a failed attempt to get to New York for Valentine’s Day. You see, my wife lives in NY and I was hoping to be there for V day. But instead of reaching there Tuesday evening, it snowed and snowed, and eventually the airlines told me that I could only get there on Friday evening at the earliest. Since I was to return Monday morning, I decided to scrap the trip altogether as there was no guarantee that flights would work okay. This, after being rebooked and canceled four times. When you are not gonna go, you ain’t gonna go!
So I stayed in California, and had five days clear with no appointments. And I got more work done in that time than any recent time I can remember. I really needed those blocks of time, and it had been impossible for me to get those built into my schedule. Except when the weather came to my rescue!
Lesson: Save time just as you would save money. Save it for a rainy day. When it’s there it gets put to good use. Having a stash of free time is important.
In many ways I feel quite stupid for having missed this simple strategy for years. I am quite adept at saving money but I was hopeless at saving time. With this realization I hope to be better.
Where was i going wrong? I let too many people take my time because I did not place a high value on it. When someone would ask to talk to me I would just check my calendar and if the time slot was free I would happily schedule a meeting, not once stopping to think if it was a good use of time. The cost is only apparent later, when you need the time and it isn’t there. It’s just like spending money willy-nilly and not saving for a rainy day.
Going forward i am going to be saving time aggressively. I have been doing it for a month, and things are much better. I have breathing room, and I feel less pressured. I am also saving others too from wasting their time. If everyone saved time aggressively, there would be so much time left for important things.
So schedule less, talk less, do a few things and do them well. Keep it simple. There is plenty of time for that. Time is money or not, but save both.
It is now exactly one and a half years since I saw both, my wife and son, off to school. My son left home to start as a a freshman at UC San Diego, and my wife became a Full Professor at NYU in New York. So what am I still doing here in the Bay area?
I love it here. But more so, it is home for the entire family and someone needed to stay here to keep it that way. Even though we cover three locations: East Bay, Upper West Side, and La Jolla, home is mainly in the Bay area. It’s where all the “stuff” remains. It’s where the extended family comes together for festivals and where we spend all our holidays.
My wife and I spend time in both NY and the Bay area. We try to spend this time together, moving between locations. Whether this is a commuting situation I do not know, but it hardly feels like that. A commute usually means one fixed point and the other one moves. In our case we both move back and forth, a lot together. And our son drives up and down from San Diego, setting various land-speed records I presume!
This seems pretty unique–I know of no other family with our situation, though I am sure there are plenty out there. People often ask me, what is this like? Did you ever think you would end up living this way? How long can you keep this up?
It has been interesting, this nomadic life. There are many questions I don’t have answers for, so the best I could do was to come up with a new term for someone like me–“nomacademic” which is an amalgam of a nomad and academic. Hence the title of this post.
I am still developing my understanding of this new state I am in. Yes, I hardly would have anticipated this life, which is very interesting of course, so let me give you my impressions. It may help me to understand things better too.
- It is tiring and costly. Living in more than one place, two in my case, is more than twice as tiring. Not only do you deal with two of everything, especially mortgages and bills, but it adds up to more than that because you can only be in one place at a time. So things slip and then one needs to fix them now and then.
- You get used to being minimalist. Our place in NY has very little and it feels spacious and bright. I hope we never end up filling it to the brim with things. Feels light and easy. Who would have thought the simple life could be so easy to settle into?
- You learn to travel very light. I get on the plane between NY and CA with what I would call a laptop bag without the laptop. I have a laptop stored in NY and so I do not take one with me when I fly. I also have a lot of things “in the cloud” and can work from any machine from almost anywhere. And my iPhone lets me do a lot from most locations anyway. I keep a few clothes in both homes and so nothing ever needs to be carried. The best part is, I do not have to pack. I have also become adept at making it from door-to-door using only public transport (walk, bus, air, subway–I use them all). Maybe I should take the ferry one day just to make sure I use all five modes of transport in one trip.
- You get used to living anywhere any time. When my wife is in NY and I am in CA, I do not always come home from work. I have cousins and good friends covering various points of the compass in the Bay area and I simply drop in and stay with them. It saves me a fifty mile drive each way to and from campus but more, it lets me spend time with many people I enjoy very much. The trunk of my car always has a fresh set of clothes and other clothing for various kinds of weather, making it easy for me to “crash” anywhere. It’s easy, just keep it simple, don’t get too dependent on too many comforts, and life is really quite simple. Most important–you can make home extend to the people you love.
- You get used to a lot of solitude. I do spend more quiet evenings at home than expected, and it can get awfully quiet. I thought I would write a lot more, but it does not work that way as I learnt. I am not a hermit, so that does not work for me. I ended up watching a lot of TV, but have managed to wean myself off, and its been nice after that. Reading and writing for pleasure is all that I need. So much better than reading and writing for work.
- You don’t have space. Strangely, you think you will get a lot of “space”–and keenly look forward to it. I realized that I already had the space I needed. Luckily my wife always respected my space, even though I am not sure I did hers. I also realize now that having your space is more a mind thing than a physical thing. You can feel like you have your space even in the most crowded subway car, if only your mind is free to roam and do its own thing. That I always had, and so living alone matters much less.
- I spend a lot more time at odd hours in the office. I quickly found that I got more work done in the office when no one was there, and so I stay later than usual and come in a little later too. It also helps me beat all the traffic, which in the Bay area, is a real nuisance.
- I also tend to spend more time in other academic locations now as we tend to go together to these places. We just spent an entire month in India. I managed to travel with just one small handbag, and it made things really easy. It forced me to rule out shopping which I did none of, as it would have meant buying an additional bag. Avoided that. Laundry is a wonderful thing.
- I am getting less work done than I was when the entire family was here. Its been hard. When we are all in different locations, you spend a lot of energy on managing locations and trying to communicate, many times quite unsuccessfully. It can be quite frustrating. So there is stress, let no one doubt that. I am in the early stages of learning to deal with that, and I think I will. But it’s been hard, and stress is an odd thing, it kills your concentration and makes you horribly inefficient. So am working on that to get back my smooth, efficient work rhythm.
- I sleep late a lot. There is a vacuüm in the house that makes me potter around, reading, writing, clearing, etc., all in an effort to fill the place with activity. I have to learn to develop a new routine and go to bed on time. But nowadays, I sleep around 2am, surface whenever and then mosey on to the university. It feels good, even though every morning I get up regretting yet another late night.
There’s is lots more to write about being a nomacademic, and I will return to this theme again. But now, it’s close to midnight and I have only two hours more of time to binge on books and songs and other distractions, till sleep just takes over and shuts me down involuntarily.
I have published papers with almost 50 different people, but yesterday, Rajeev Motwani, with whom I published a paper only two years ago, passed away tragically in a swimming pool accident at his home near Stanford University. This is my first co-author to die, and I am reminded now how deep human frailty can be.
It is so unfair that death stole Rajeev away when he was in the prime of his life. I have known Rajeev for more than a decade, and I remember the early days when he was just beginning to get his feet wet in the VC business and we sat in his office and I explained to him the basics of option pricing. After that he hardly needed to ask, he was so smart that he figured out all the Finance he needed on his own. Of course, I learnt much more from him than he did from me. His book on Randomized Algorithms taught me everything I needed to know in that field. But he also mentored so many students and taught hundreds more. Many of the famous firms in Silicon Valley were mentored by Rajeev. Things came so easy to him, he could do them in a fraction of the time it took others. So he was always relaxed and had time to talk and discuss things.
While it is really sad to see him go, it is also important for me to acknowledge that in this short life, Rajeev did more than most of us would in a lifetime. Death always reminds us that we too are growing old, and that life is uncertain. We must enjoy each and every day, and do our best with it. Who knows if there will be a tomorrow? Today is really all we have.
Is it possible that something unfounded in reality be greater lived than that which is grounded in fact? Can the unreal live longer than the real? Paradoxically, this is true more than most.
Fiction has greater shelf-life than non-fiction most of the time. Classic novels are timeless, whereas an analysis of the current election, or the past one, wanes in interest quite rapidly. Books about economic crises, climatic catastrophe, trends in food and diet, the status of healthcare, are all written to satisfy very current thirsts for information. They are certainly not meant to be appetizing reading for generations. But, novels about the human condition, romance, crime, hate, sweeping histories, evolution, etc., live on forever. Interestingly, religious books last longer and remain rigid in their message, long after the underlying norms and extant practices bear no relation to those of our forefathers.
So, if you want to write a book, what should be your driving objective? Do you want to make a fast buck, capitalizing on the mass whim of the day? Or, do you want to write for generations to come, with no thought of egregious remuneration. Maybe both? Just having completed a manuscript for a text book, and feeling weary but ready to embark on another, these polarized thoughts have been populating my thinking, asking aggressively for resolution. So, the question is: Write another text, for which I have plenty of material, or leap into the unknown, and write a non-technical book for the lay person, about a phenomenon that is both timely, yet has been with us through the ages and will no doubt, always be?
Do not wait with bated breath for me to describe further my alternate paths, dear reader, for I intend not to do so. I apologize if I whet your appetite and then rudely yanked the serving dish away. But I am afraid that being too specific will lead me to the wrong choice. So bear with me, for I prefer to discuss the choice in the abstract for as long as is tolerable. I guess this debate with myself in the abstract may be more useful than one can imagine, since abstraction usually leads to generality, meaning that this little discussion we are having may apply to more than just the question facing me, but to many others that several readers may have too.
Should I write about what I know (a text), or get to know something new as I write (a new book for everyone)?
There are many advantages to the former. Its easier to write, for I have the material at hand already. I have done it before, and can bring experience to bear. There may be a bigger and ready-made market for a text, certainly one of baseline proportions that one can expect with some degree of certainty. There is context, and hence structuring the material will be easy. The content has already been road-tested in my classes, and the effort will pay off as I use the book to teach more classes. Finally, it will probably get done quicker, and will certainly be more career relevant, though who cares about that any more?! Its certainly the path well-trod, and one that I know well.
But what about the other path, that wander into the uncertain? Should not that be given play? Its certainly the less boring path to take. And it will probably outlive the shelf-life of the text, that is, if it survives its infancy. It also comes pre-packaged with freedom, since there is nothing to tie one down after such a book is written. No revisions, no return on investment, no guilt about not teaching it, just because one wrote it! I would place even odds on being satiated with the material upon completion of the text, so that just when it begins to pay off, one does not want to engage with it anymore. My Book for Everyone (BFE) would certainly not bring with it the Curse of Completion, instead, it would enjoin me to move on, and find something new and exciting. There is something exciting about such a literary one night stand!
The Book for Everyone would be mostly also, the Book for Me. No paradigms to adhere to, no structure to obey, or buck. So much to learn, and so much to contribute, timeless, unique and fresh in ideas and perspective. With the Text, I would be content to write what I know, but with the BFE, I’d need to talk to those more in the know, learn about new ideas and trace their history. It would be the most exciting journey and would derail the mid-life crisis I have been in denial from over the past few years. No one said it better than Robert Frost – “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
But, while it seems so clear, I am not yet ready to decide. These decisions are not about excitement alone. They depend also on personal taste, life’s exigencies, ego needs, writing history and ability, and of course, a sharp trade-off between the need for exposition and the need to satisfy one’s curiosity. So, wait and see, there’s a book somewhere in the future, near or far. Which one will it be? I don’t know and to help me decide, I go round and round writing about writing. I am in a “strange loop”, as coined by Douglas Hofstadter in his new book. There is this sort of meta phenomenon going on where to begin writing, I first need to write about writing. As I loop, the centrifugal force will drive me out of the loop, and launch me into one or the other project. And I am using this blog to manage my impatience!