Prem Narula – lessons from a life well lived

About 3 months back, when I heard that Prem uncle passed away in his sleep, I broke down and cried. I cried like I haven’t in a long time. His passing away has left a huge hole that can never be filled.

I was 18 when I had my last substantial interaction with him. I must have met him about 3-4 times since I left Mumbai in 1992 and 26 years later, he (and his wife) still remains one of my favourite human beings. For that matter, his parents were fantastic human beings too.

I got thinking in the last month or so – In a fast moving world, filled with short interactions — why do I miss him? Why was he special? What are the lessons that I can bring in my life and hopefully in yours too from him? What made him an extra-ordinary human being?

He wasn’t my teacher, relative but a neighbour who became much more.

Prem uncle and Sangeeta aunty, lived in our apartment complex were in their 30s when we met them. Presumably, I saw him at his peak — financial and health wise. He had a fantastic business going, the confidence that comes along with having made it and made it very fast. As a 16 year old, going down his career path was something that I seriously considered.

Then, it came crashing down — he had to go through two heart valve replacement surgeries, one anticipated (and I think triggered by chain smoking) and another one because the first valve was defective. Followed by a paralytic attack. Between these three events, he suffered a betrayal by his business partner who pounced on the opportunity to take over the business and drove him out. All of this in a span of 2 years :-(. Having recently suffered a betrayal myself, I can truly empathise the pain and the hurt that he had to go through.

The financial success then wasn’t what made him extra-ordinary. It isn’t his material success in the world that mattered to me. The people who hung around him who craved the reflection of his material success evaporated very quickly.

Here are the lessons that I learnt from him:

As I got thinking, I realised, the reason I loved him, or my sister loved and now his son and nephews and nieces loved him was because of unconditional love and acceptance that he radiated towards us . I truly have never seen any other human as generous as he(and aunty) was in sharing his love. And when he accepted you in his life — he truly well accepted you for all the good and the bad.

When he interacted with you, you were truly the centre of his attention. There were no half measures in terms of looking at others. This was important for a 15 year old kid — a human/an elder paying complete attention to me and acknowledging my viewpoints.

Bringing joy and fun in every interaction with friends and family. Be it the nightly carrom sessions or the hours of Nintendo games or forcing me to play Antakshari (an Indian singing game). The focus was truly to enjoy life and bring joy to everyone involved. To this date, when I miss him, I reach out to my Nintendo and play it. Consequently, I never play antakshari because it reminds me too much of him and wonderful time gone by that can never be recaptured.

Playfulness in relationships. I loved how he brought play in relationships. Minor irreverence perhaps — not the right word  perhaps gentle ribbing are the right words. A minor playful drama with his wife, father and mother pretending to hide his smoking habit while it was out there in the open. Jumping in the car to go get paan in the middle of the night or for that matter getting me to sit on the hood of the Jeep and drive in the beach. It was all great fun.

That’s really it! Living a well lived life doesn’t need trappings of success, huge amounts of money or too many accomplishments.

Looking back at his life and seeing how well I embody those lessons. I find that I fall woefully short. Life today has become too serious, attention fragmented by devices perhaps a small bit of playfulness is what I embody from his life. His passing away has been a wake up call for me to refactor my life to the qualities that I admired in him and admire in others.

It is worth repeating that a life well lived doesn’t need trappings of success, huge amounts of money, too many accomplishments, status but what it needs is unconditional love, joy, fun, playfulness.

Prem uncle – you will be forever missed but you will continue in our hearts. Thank you for all the fun times and the love and congratulations on a fantastic life and life well lived!

prem-uncle
Prem uncle, Sangeeta aunty and their son – late 1990s

 

Understanding Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs)

Neural Networks (NNs) that depend on past history are called Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs). The technical term is networks that depend on temporal dependencies or dependencies that change based on time are called RNNs.

This class of NN’s are distinct than the ones that, for example, do image recognition which do not have dependencies on time. RNN’s have wider applications because most applications have dependencies that depend on time. A key challenge in RNNs is the vanishing gradient problem in which the contribution of information or memory (in the next paragraph) decays geometrically over time.

rnn-cell
Basic Cell in a RNN

The basic idea is that you take a feed forward NN (FFNN) and introduce internal memory state that takes the output from the internal training layer. Thus, our FFNN now remembers what happened before.  For completeness, prediction can be 1..n.

The next step is to chain each of these cells together.

Thus, a RNN is a combination of multiple such cells where multiple inputs are fed into different cells (think prediction of next word is dependent on the last few words), each cell has it’s own memory coming in from its previous iteration and each cell goes ahead and makes its own prediction.

rnns.png
RNNs

The beauty of RNNs is that they can be stacked as lego blocks. To imagine this, think about the above picture as 1 RNN lego block and make the prediction layer feed into another RNN block stacked above it.

Applications

There are some interesting use cases for RNNs:

  • Sentiment analysis
  • Speech recognition
  • Time series prediction
  • Natural language processing
  • Gesture Recognition

Amazon Lex provides a framework to build conversational interfaces using voice and text with .

Optimal behaviour before big decisions

If you ever held a job that requires you to drive long distances or hop into trains switch to a cab etc etc, you surely have noticed that you arrive tired at work. But that’s not all, there is something more insidious that is going below the surface – you maybe making bad decisions that grow progressively worse before the day ends.

The reason for bad decisions is decision fatigue . Decision fatigue states that there is a finite amount of decisions that humans have a capacity to make in a day. It’s like going to the refrigerator to pour a glass of water without replenishing the container and doing that over and over again. A long commute is a sum total of minor decisions taken repeatedly – get in the car, find the optimal route to the train station, be constantly mindful that you don’t bump into the neighbouring traffic and so on. Thus, it makes sense that a long commute would eat into your capacity to make good decisions.

How do we counteract decision fatigue? What’s the antidote?

Decision fatigue was popularised in the last couple of years and I find that most people are aware of it but they aren’t aware of the antidote. In the last 30 years, new research called Attention Restorative Theory (ART) has indicated that spending time in nature has a restorative effect on humans (surprise!).

The nub is that human attention is classified into two components – involuntary and voluntary attention. Voluntary attention is used in making decisions. When you are in nature, walking through the woods there is an aspect of the environment called fascination which generates awe in people which gives the voluntary attention a rest. Spend enough time in nature and the lesser your voluntary attention is used and the better you will get making decisions that require this voluntary attention.

pm-summit-matterhorn

Thus, the optimal behaviour before you need to make big decisions is to go out and take a walk in the nature, look at something that generates fascination in you and give your voluntary attention a break!