It never takes 5 minutes

Often I get requests from people for assistance. Colleagues, friends, acquaintances, past clients, and everyone else. Some of these requests are special. They sound very simple. And even if they aren’t simple for someone else, the asker makes it look like a simple task for me. Oftentimes, they are. The request is usually accompanied by “It only takes you a few minutes”.

Let me get this straight. It never takes 5 minutes. Even something as simple as edit this file to add a fullstop at the end. For a text file I’ll just echo . >> file and it takes a few seconds maybe. But it involves context switching from what I’ve been doing, and back, which can be very expensive.

I quite haven’t figured out how my memory works. A few things, I remember well and can recollect and reference with ease, but more often than not, my memory is very unreliable. My short term working memory is, I suspect, worse than average for daily tasks.

All in all, the obviously-less-than-5-minute task ends up taking about half an hour on average. And it only worsens when I have multiple tasks waiting, many of which “should” take just 5 minutes.

When I don’t do your 5-minute work, it’s very likely due to one of the following:

  • There are more 5-minute tasks pending, and this will have to wait for its turn.
  • There’s a longer task that I can not afford to interrupt.
  • There is more important work. It can include entertainment. If I take just a one hour break a day, that break will most likely be more important to me and my sanity than anything you may need.

If it isn’t covered by the above, I may not be interested. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I like to do it or I will. Nothing personal, though. When someone receives a lot of requests they have to draw a line somewhere or risk compromising productivity, rest, health, sanity and/or worse.

If you need something done fast, bump it up my priority list. If I owe you one, your requests get bumped up. If you pay me, your requests get bumped above non-paying ones, or ones that pay less. Unless there were promises made. If doing it now saves me more effort later, and I see that clearly, and I’m being rational, I’ll bump that up. If it requires a compromise to my existing obligations, rest, or causes stress, and I’m being rational, it will be pushed down. For those who think they perform better under stress, I have this desk under a hanging sword. Be my guest.

Until recently, I had a bad habit of quoting time estimates assuming I do the task and nothing else, without interruptions. It resulted in some quite ridiculous estimates of a few hours where others have quoted a few months. And at times, it resulted in me being in some very uncomfortable situations, where I take weeks for the few hours’ work.

Turns out ten tasks each taking an hour can not be completed in an hour. Or ten hours, for that matter. Depending on the task, my efficiency varies wildly. There will be interruptions. My physical and mental health may just go for a ride, all of a sudden. All pending tasks don’t come to mind when planning for one. Daily chores like eating and shitting also take time. I may get a call from someone after long, and the call can take long. Something may get stuck in my head and take time to get off. Often, I get nerd sniped by a good article, issue, or whatever and go off on a tangent.  Yada yada yada..

Though this was known to me since long, it’s only recently I’ve begun taking care to consider this when planning my work. Accumulated work shoots my productivity through the floor. I guess there’s a positive feedback loop, and I have to work against it. For a lot of things in life, actually. More on that later.

So you think you can’t draw?

I just saw the video here:

I am not an artist. Anything but. My general opinion was that my “art” can make a good torture weapon. And while watching the above video, came up with this:
My-first-cartoon

Not great, but definitely better than anything I’ve tried before. Great, in my opinion, for a first attempt of five minutes in all.

The message towards the end struck a chord. What else am I too afraid to try?

Relevant tweet I came across this morning:

A poem from reddit

When reading comments from AskReddit post What “Truth” are people not ready to face?,  I found this poem.

Whatever space or place you be –
Whatever life you’ve known –
What’s true for you is not for me:
To each, my friend, their own.

No matter wisdom, age, or youth,
Or how you choose to test –
You’ll never really find the truth.

Except that mine’s the best. [ source ]

Although we each have thoughts and views,
On matters known by all;
Your battered claims do seem to lose,
And clatter as they fall.

Your mind and method’s all askew,
We’ve known this all along.
I’d love to think akin to you,
But then we’d both be wrong. [ source ]

Perhaps it’s best to call a truce
In times so tense and taut,
When words fly forth, all fast and loose,
But don’t say what they “ought.”

Thoughts will leap and jump and freeze,
And catch in open air.
Although some speak and aim to please –
Most want their views laid bare. [ source ]

You’re free to wave your flag of white,
And bend to what I’ve said.
Just end your doubt and say I’m right,
And lend me your sweet head.

If I would wound I’d use a knife,
For words, have no complaint.
Don’t seek the silent end to strife:
The weak man wants restraint. [ source ]

I sense, my friend, you’ve seen it fit
To skirt around the topic.
Bellig’rent chomping at the bit
Has made your speech myopic.

Indeed, our words can breed disdain
And serve as life’s cruel sword.
But those same phrases, when contained,
Can be a peace accord. [ source ]

But men of you and I, alike,
Shant use their sword for peace.
War and fighting, talent not take,
Throw one stone, I must, at least.

Words, they are but fickle things
With power, only true.
To tatter every nation’s flag,
Harmony, words do eschew. [ source ]

He speaks of flags, you speak of chomps;
Is this the fruit of labors lost?
For all your circumstance and pomp,
You’ve merely served to self accost.

I won’t buy in: you’re not so trite
As that which you pretend to be,
And nor is she. (Or is it he?)
Regardless, I am right. [ source ]

On magic numbers, and tripping in the dark.

I have a habit of showing off. To anyone who has been around me for a while, this shouldn’t be a surprise. So when I tweaked and tuned my mobile to my usage patterns, people asked about it when they noticed crazy things and I gave many a short tour.

To any experienced android enthusiast, my customizations would be elementary. Rooted stock android on a Moto G 1st gen, Xposed, plus a bunch of nice Xposed mods ( special mention to Gravitybox ) , Greenify (Donation pack with extra goodies like patched GCM) , Nova Launcher (Prime) , Tasker, carefully selected themes and apps all make it look and behave very different from stock android. Giving up my warranty on day 1 was totally worth it. I spent few weeks making my mobile a very personal device.

One particular feature I love showing off is a simple gravitybox tweak, timed torch bound to volume down long press. There’s a dark unlit path I use regularly, which takes approximately 120 seconds for me to cross, and the torch is set to switch off 120 seconds after activation. Practically everyone found it cool. But there was one person who said it is stupid. There’s a CS professor who also happens to be a good programmer ( No, one does not imply the other. ) who said I should instead use ambient light sensors or GPS to detect when I crossed that patch and then switch off the torch. He says he is forced to use magic numbers in server monitoring scripts but that is sub optimal. He was concerned I would trip in the dark if I walk slowly and the light goes off sooner. I had to explain my device had a shitty ambient light sensor and the GPS resolution is often not very fine and takes time, so I will probably achieve similar results with added battery drain.

Today, the light went off when I was in the middle of the path. It has been doing that consistently for the past few days, probably because I walk slower these days. Time to tweak the timeout, and to consider the ambient light sensors more seriously. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to cook up an app anytime soon, since there are more important tasks that keep me busy. Another idea added to my ever growing list of nice-to-have-awesome-features-that-not-many-need.

You can haz time?

To anyone reading this who has the time and likes me enough to invest their time for me, please cook up an xposed mod or a tasker plugin and I’ll take you out for lunch/dinner. It should take a couple of days at most, but beware, I’ve a reputation for underestimating time lines. Following my rule of thumb and multiplying initial gut feeling by 3-5, 6-10 days is a pretty safe bet.

Twenty Questions, and more

Have you heard of the game Twenty Questions? I played it today with a bunch of faculty and students over dinner, thanks to Student Teacher Interaction Council (STIC). STIC organized a dinner today and I popped in for a while.

We were a group of about 20 and played two rounds. Prof. Turbo Majumder was the answerer for the first round and I volunteered for the second. And I have chosen Paul Graham of Hacker News and Y combinator fame. It turned out many people at the table were not aware of him.

Had I never encountered a reference to YC,HN or him anywhere, I would have missed a lot. That made me think, how many people whose ideas or works I am/would be interested in am I missing?

Many things I had studied a couple of years ago when they were state of art are considered mediocre today, things are constantly changing at a faster pace than I can assimilate them. Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t have been able to become as famous as the books depict, or I doubt even survive decently in today’s world. As we automate most things, the jobs that will be available will end up demanding increasingly better skill set, the barrier to employment is raising steadily.

Will we reach a point where we have automated everything and the tasks that are not yet automated require skill that an average person can not acquire in their lifetime? What would happen to the average populace then? Will it happen in my lifetime? The thought is both scary and exciting.

I know not if it will happen in my lifetime, but I know one thing. I do not want to be an average person if and when that happens.


If you are planning to start your own startup, go read his essays on startups. If you are interested in programming and can code in atleast one language, read about lisp and then his essays on lisp. I follow HN, Reddit & Twitter, and recommend you do too.

On completing my first online course

If you’re around me long enough, you’ll know that I love exploring, tinkering and learning stuff. With the advent of MOOCs, I suddenly had access to a lot of courses that present subtopics in a structured way. I tried many times previously, but due to various valid and invalid reasons, I couldn’t complete any courses.

Today, I completed my first online course. By completing I mean following through the course schedule and doing assignments on time. It was Cryptography-1 by Dan Boneh from Stanford on Coursera, and it was good. I used to read a lot on crypto but never did a structured course. Due to my own reasons, I couldn’t take up a crypto course at my university, now I’ve done the first part of a two part course that is structured and is reasonably detailed.

If you are interested in cryptography, and are a beginner, do check it out. The course will repeat next month, and you can take it for free. Actually, if you are an average internet user, I believe you should understand how security in the modern digital world is engineered and implemented. In my first year at IITD, I was made to work hands-on on carpentry, sheet metal work, casting, forging, black  smithy, welding, and lathe machining. That taught me to appreciate the work. I’ll certainly remember how challenging and physically straining the work was if I ever have to bargain with a carpenter or welder, for instance. Similarly, if someone studies the crypto primitives and tries to understand the basis of modern digital security, they will be able to appreciate the inner workings and would respect the engineers and computing devices.

My thanks to Prof. Dan Boneh, for the excellent course, and Stanford university and Coursera for making it possible.

Aside: I never recommend anything unless I try it myself. When people ask me to recommend someone to program their stuff, I decline unless I have worked directly or have reviewed the work of someone in that field. I never recommend a software or a particular technology unless I get my hands dirty with it. Considering that most freshers at IIT Delhi are not familiar with Linux, and will need to be familiar with it for their study here, I have considered recommending Introduction to Linux by The Linux Foundation on Edx. Though I should trust LF on all matters linux implicitly, owing to my habit, I’m trying the course. Just started it and if time permits, I should be done by tomorrow and will post a follow up recommending it.

Update: Took me much longer than expected to finish the course since I was busy and lazy (a terrible combination btw). It covers just the absolute basics, but I’d still recommend it. Takes not more than a few hours to go through it all; and after completing it, you’ll at least know how to find your way around.

Pentadactyl – My secret firefox superpower

I always hated having to move my hands off keyboard to get things done. I love key bindings. After having tried many extensions, I stumbled upon vimperator. It was simply awesome, all I wanted and some more. Unfortunately, it was a bit buggy and I had to abandon it. I missed it for long, until recently, I stumbled upon its fork, pentadactyl, almost by accident.

Pentadactyl uses vim key bindings in firefox, gets GUI rid of all clutter, gives me an extremely powerful scripting interface, and works without a glitch. Everything is customizable, as it should be. I was a fan of vim since long. The composable commands, scripting interface, and a vast collection of plugins made it my favorite editor. I am obsessed with vim. I emulate it everywhere I can. tmux for terminal session management, vimpc for music, and pentadactyl in firefox, vi emulation in eclipse, the list goes on.

For those of my friends who marveled at my firefox use, navigating everywhere with lightning speed, using a command line interface or succinct key bindings for all operations, for those of you obsessed with the simplicity and power of vim, here’s my secret superpower. Pentadactyl. If you are a regular vim user, it should take you just a few minutes to get the ball rolling, you can thank me later.

I’ve started building my .pentadactylrc file very recently. Any tips are most welcome.

On a semi related side note, if you do any serious programming, you need to learn how to use a decent editor. I prefer vim, but emacs is perfectly fine too. If you are thinking of notepad, get away from me before I hit you hard.