How To Start To Understand What’s Going On

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Wednesday, 7.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

UNIX is basically a simple operating system, but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity. – Dennis Ritchie

If you want to understand something you should start by trying to draw a picture of what’s going on. What are the parts, the things that you can see. Don’t forget that people are also part of the picture. And then what are the links, how do things flow from one part to another?

If you try and capture these two things, the parts and the relationships, you’re well on your way to starting to understand what’s going on. Some people call this a rich picture – a combination of images and icons and arrows and words that help you understand something that has more parts than you can easily keep in your head.

Now, you can have a literal “rich picture”, one that’s drawn in a way you can share with someone else but you need to be careful not to confuse your picture with the real thing. Real life is infinitely complicated and the best model of reality is reality itself. Anything else has to be an approximation, something that captures less detail. The challenge is getting the right amount of detail. Too little is useless. Too much is overwhelming. You can only make decisions when it’s just right.

Of course, no one can tell you what “right” is – you have to figure that out for yourself. But drawing a picture of what’s going on is a start. And the thing you can do, once you have a picture, is talk about it. The biggest benefit of making your thinking visible, whether in writing or as a picture or in some other way, is that you can now talk about what you think without having to repeat yourself over and over again.

One of the mistakes we make is thinking that something that looks finished is the end of the process. Take company accounts, for example. They look perfect, so crisp and clear and laid out. Surely there’s nothing more that can be said about them. If you’re an investor, however, those reports are just the beginning. You have to read them and look not for just what is there but also what isn’t there. The story is in the whitespace just as much as it is in the text.

The value of a rich picture is not in its final form – but in its ability to act as a means of communicating more effectively. And that’s the genius of a picture – if it’s used well. After all, why use a picture at all? What else would you use?

Well, there are words and there are charts. Words are good when you’re telling a story – narrating something so that people can follow what you have to say. Just like this post – it’s much more effective with words than in any other medium. Charts help you make sense of numbers – they show you patterns that are hard to see in the form of numbers themselves. But what pictures help you see is structure and relationships – the way in which things relate to other things and what helps things flow and what gets in the way.

The takeaway is this. All these things, words, pictures, charts – are tools that help you communicate more effectively. They help you to take information out of your head and put it out in front of someone else. But their real value lies not in them being there, but in helping you and others make sense of what is going on. They are tools that help you think better and communicate more clearly.

And these are the things that will help you begin to understand what’s going on.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do You Tell A Good Story From A Dangerous One?

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Tuesday, 8.23pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. – Orson Welles

The news is full of stories about the collapse of Greensill Capital – the disruptive fintech that turned out to have little tech and which employed that age old financial instrument – the long con. Greensill Capital’s founder, Lex Greensill, was feted and celebrated around the world. And then the company went bust this month. Another meltdown, this time of a hedge fund called Archegos run by another billionaire, Bill Hwang, seems to be a story of banks falling over themselves to lend to someone with a chequered history because they wanted the fees that would result.

So, there are dangerous stories – people with power and connections pushing a narrative that ends up hurting others. But could you have worked this out before the fact? Was there anything that would have warned us that these people couldn’t be trusted? I suppose you might as well ask if you could have predicted Hitler and everything else that happened after he came to power. Some people would argue you could, others will argue the opposite. Both may be right.

How about the story you tell yourself about your career and your life choices? Or the story you come up with for a new business idea or a project? Or the story about your next year’s business plan. What’s the difference between one kind of story and another?

The reason I’m thinking about this is that I need to come up with a few stories – ones that can convince me that certain projects are worth doing. So what should we consider as we try and create a narrative?

Warren Buffett is usually helpful here so let me draw on what I remember from reading his letters.

It starts with the opportunity. Whether it’s a business or a project or an idea – the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether it has a moat. Why is it protected from the competition, what does it have that sets it apart? Specifically, what does it do that is hard to copy, difficult to replicate, impossible to catch up with? The bigger your moat, the more likely that you have something that has a chance of succeeding.

The second thing you need to ask is whether you have your timing right. Why do this now? What is it about the environment, about what’s going on that means now is the time for this idea to be released into the world? Why will it take off? Why will people realise that this is the thing that they never knew they always wanted?

The third thing you need to understand is the character of the management. And if you are the manager – you must understand your own character. Why should people trust you? Why should they believe in you – why should they be certain that you will do everything you can to do what you have said you will do?

For many of us these are three hard tests. Our ideas may not be unique. The world may not be ready. And we may not be committed to the thing we are pitching.

If that’s the case, don’t bother to pitch at all. But if you have these elements in place or you are willing to work on them – then you might have something that you believe in. And if you believe in it, perhaps others will as well.

Maybe that’s when you’ll have a good story to tell.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

When Is History Not A Good Guide To The Future

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Monday, 9.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Yesterday is a cancelled check. Today is cash on the line. Tomorrow is a promissory note. – Hank Stram

It’s been a number of years since I really looked at markets. I’m starting to take an interest again, because I think I need to understand what’s going on with the world and the years are passing by far too quickly.

I was brought up to be quite conservative around money, to count my pennies and keep track of my spending. There were rules around how much you should borrow, what a sensible amount was and why you shouldn’t extend yourself. For example, you shouldn’t borrow more than 2.5 times your income to buy a house.

What was odd when I was ready to buy a house was that the banks were offering crazy amounts of money. I thought anyway. I was sensible, I borrowed what I thought was the right amount to borrow, rather than what was on offer. And then the financial crash happened and all those overextended borrowers had a rather good time, as interest rates crashed and their mortgages came down. My five-year fixed rate suddenly seemed a poor deal – except that it was affordable and I could get on with it.

Now, back in 2008 the Financial Times said something like all the debt that governments are taking on will take years to sort out. We’re looking at low interest rates for fifteen years. That’s because countries around the world put money into their economies. But what exactly is this and how do you understand what happens?

Robert Kiyosaki had this image of helicopter money. The central bankers fly around and essentially throw money out of the window. The money is so cheap it’s effectively free – so what happens to it. Well, it floats down and piles on top of things. Usually real things – like houses and businesses. So, the price of those things goes up because there’s all this money chasing real things and so people pay more. That explains why house prices rise so fast – if money is cheap then you’ll be willing to borrow more and spend more to get the house of your dreams, as will everyone else. And so you bid the price up and up.

The people this affects most is the ones who are looking for a return on their money – often older savers. Then again, these are the same people who have benefited from a rise in the value of their properties. Low interest rates seem to act like a form of wealth transfer, moving money from savers to borrowers. And if you’d invested your savings over the last five to ten years you’ll have done just fine.

I did that six or so years back, following the advice on a blog called Monevator. It seemed a cool thing, to construct my own portfolio and out an investment plan together. As you’ll see from the Monevator update it’s worked out ok. Returns have been on the order of 7% or so annualised, which is pretty good in a close to zero interest rate world. But I’d have done better, much better, if I hadn’t tried to do anything at all and just invested in a whole world tracker, as Monevator points out.

Now, it appears that there could be issues with inflation. All this extra money in the system as a result of the pandemic could end up pushing prices higher, not to mention the other issues around supply chains and fires and Texas outages. It seems like when one crisis ends another one comes along to make sure life stays interesting.

Anyway, to answer the question I started this post with – what’s history good for? Well, with investing and markets and what’s going to happen next – I think we’ve been blindsided much of the time. The pandemic hasn’t crushed business. If anything it’s shown us that we can do better business. And maybe we can have fun too when we’re allowed out again.

If you have to bet on anything, bet on the possibility that humanity will, on the whole, make things better in the future.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Write A Use Case

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Sunday, 8.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Many artists use their own lives as a kind of case study to examine what it’s like to be human. – Terry Gross

I need to write some use cases soon so I thought I would get my head around what that means.

I’m not interested in the software approach to a use case – where you write out what someone does on your website. The general principle, however, of a software use case can be used to think about your business and what a user or customer might want to get out of their interactions with you.

So, lets step through what we need to figure out.

The first thing is to understand who your users or customers are. Let’s pick an industry I know nothing about – the craft brewing business. Who are the users? From what I’ve seen it’s reasonably well off folk, probably with a good education but who don’t want mass market consumer stuff and want to try something different, and support the people who are making the actual product as well.

So, pick a user. It might be useful to think of a specific individual – perhaps your user is a woman, 18-35, with a desk job.

How could she experience your product – what literal or metaphorical door would she go through to try your craft beer? Would she see it at a festival? Is it the kind of thing that would come up on an online ad? Is it a magazine article that talks about it?

Pick one of those experiences – say the festival. Think of it like walking through a door. What’s the normal course of events that would take place? Would she order for herself, or take a number of orders for friends? Would she try samples before ordering or go for a favourite? What if you had a sign out saying, “Ask for a sample?”

Now, that’s your base case – so what else could happen? Would you walk around with a tray of samples? Would you have a sign somewhere? Would you have a prize of your beers at a particular event? What are the other scenarios that could play out once your customer or user enters that first door?

Okay, now that you’ve worked that out, go back to the beginning. Start with the same user or pick another user and then pick a door. Repeat the process, working through the base case and the possible alternatives.

This might sound a little mechanistic, especially if you’re the kind of person that thinks you already know what your customer wants. But the chances are that you know what you want, but not what else could happen. Perhaps taking some time to think through these steps will mean you’re better prepared for the routes people take and the way they experience you and your business.

After all, you want them to have a good time.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Do You Need When You’re The One With The Responsibility?

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Saturday, 8.11pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Responsibilities gravitate to the person who can shoulder them. – Tom Stoppard

I keep thinking of a video by Larry McEnerney from the University of Chicago where he talks about the experience we have of writing stuff in school. Our teachers read it and tell us what they think. They are often complimentary about what we’ve done and tell us it’s good work.

I had this at University too. In fact, I remember that I turned in an economics paper and at a later date I walked past the lecturer and he growled, “Good paper!” That felt good.

But the fact is the people who have read our work and said it was good all the way through had a reason for doing so. They were paid to read what we wrote. And real life isn’t like that.

Except, it takes time to discover that. When we have bosses and supervisors who ask us to do stuff – we do it like we did at school and they tell us if it was good or bad and what we need to change. And then we move to the next piece of work. But do you wonder what happened with that thing you did? Did it change someone’s life. Did it have an impact? Did it do anything at all?

Eventually, as you get more experience and do more of whatever you’re doing there comes a point – a quite subtle shift – where there’s no one asking you to do something or, more accurately, no one telling you what to do. What you make doesn’t go to someone else to approve. There’s no chain of command that your material passes along.

Instead, there comes a point where you’re the end of the line. This thing you have – that’s the thing that gets delivered. You have responsibility.

If you’ve ever flown a light aircraft you’ve heard the term “You have control.” It’s the handover to you – the point at which you’re flying the aircraft. And it’s good with an instructor because you know that at any point you can hand back control.

I had lessons, but I stopped before I went solo. And that’s the point when you have control – and it’s just you. There’s no one to hand it to any more. You have to take the plane up, take it around and set it back down.

If you get to this stage in your career, to a point when the buck really does stop with you – you might realise a couple of things. The first is that all those years when you thought you could do anything, get it all done on your own – you were really doing things but someone else was taking the responsibility. If you didn’t deliver – well you might get fired. But someone else would stand in front of a client and say that it was their fault because they were in charge.

The second, and more important thing is that you need help. It’s easy to be alone and self-sufficient when you just need to look out for yourself. But when you need to deliver for someone else – for a client, for your business – then you see the value of having others, a team, supporters or someone to bounce ideas off, or who will give you a second opinion.

It’s funny, really. You feel most confident when you have nothing to lose. But when you put your reputation on the line, that’s when you need all the help you can get.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Too Much Information Can Leave You Less Informed

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Friday, 7.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom. – Clifford Stoll

Day 2 of reading a real newspaper and I have suddenly become conscious of how little I really know about what matters. I think the big difference is in going through a news report that has gone through an editing process, rather than something that’s just pulled together by anyone.

The Internet is full of material – and it makes it much easier to get information but it also makes it much harder to know what’s good and what’s not. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t tell you whether something has been investigated sufficiently before someone has written a piece on it. But with a newspaper you kind of expect that some of that work has been done.

I think there’s a fundamental thing that we’ve started to forget in the age we live in. There’s always something new, there’s the next thing, there’s the update. We have to change all the time. It’s part of the deal. I tried to use one of our Apple phones from a few years ago and it’s pretty much useless without upgrades which you can’t get because the OS is out of date or something on those lines.

I’m a sucker for devices but I haven’t bought my own Apple product for around five years now and I don’t think I will again. It’s a waste and it’s only when you stop using it that you realise that these devices are not designed to help you live better lives – they’re designed to consume your time, so you live on them instead.

Not all devices are like that, of course. I have a Raspberry Pi 400 that I bought – well, for no good reason, other than it’s pretty. But it sits here and I use it as my reading machine. And it’s going to work and keep working for as long as the hardware does its thing.

Ah yes, that thing we forget. Stuff that’s been around for a long time has probably stayed around because it’s good. If you turn off the newest thing and try something old instead you might discover a completely different point of view – one that helps you understand things better.

That doesn’t mean turning off technology – but it’s perhaps switching from whatever hot new social media thing is on to reading on the Open Library.

We’re in a golden age where we can access almost anything. The choice is endless.

You must be discerning.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Get On The Right Side Of A Political Argument

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Thursday, 8.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. – Plato

I bought a newspaper today for the first time in a long time. A real, physical copy. And then I read it.

Newspapers are clearly struggling in this new age but there are benefits that come from having a printed paper that are not replicable online. To start with you don’t get stories pushed to you. There is a collection of stories that have been curated and presented and you go through them in order. And that means you’re exposed to material that you might not have normally seen, stuff that the algorithms wouldn’t have served up to you.

It’s interesting contrasting what I saw in the paper with what comes through on social media. I’ve learned a lot about things that I didn’t know. A few days ago I wrote about the Deliveroo IPO and wondered if I should take a punt. Now I know more about why they’re listing, taking advantage of a bump in income from the takeaways we’ve ordered in lockdown. Will we still order the same number once things have eased up? And the big issue for the company is how they treat their riders – as self employed or as employees. These things matter.

Another interesting thing has to do with being progressive. I hadn’t really thought about it but an article by Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times argued that most societies are naturally conservative. It’s quite hard to be open – but being closed comes easily. The thing is that being conservative also makes for easier arguments, especially around things like patriotism. For example, if you think someone is not respecting your flag you can make a big deal about how they’re not being patriotic. Ditto if they’re not supporters of the monarchy. Anything that doesn’t support the emblems and brands of the regime is unpatriotic.

And this is a hard argument to counter. If you’re accused of being unpatriotic for not supporting the police or you’re unpatriotic because you want statues of slave traders removed. Many people will shy away when that argument is swung at them. What can you say back to these people? After all, by supporting the institutions they’re being patriotic, aren’t they? So, you don’t speak out against laws that curb the rights of people to protest or that take away their freedoms because they are being done for patriotic reasons.

But running away is not going to solve the problem. It’s just going to make the other side more confident and they’re going to come after you. That’s what the last US president did and it’s what wannabe dictators do all over the world. If you’re going to stand up to the attack you need a strategy and one approach is to point out the discrepancies between the patriotism that the speakers profess to have and their actions. For example, “If you’re so patriotic, how come you are willing to let children die of hunger in poor households?” Or, “If you’re so patriotic why are you profiting from their misery?” And so on. What you’ve got to do is turn their attack back on themselves – rather than trying to defend yourself or, with your silence, appearing to agree with them.

I’m no politician but what the last few years have shown us is that fiery voices with a big megaphone can make the lives of others very difficult. We need to learn how to stand up to them because they will keep coming.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Should Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

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Wednesday, 7.29pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Your best strategy is to manage your creativity, not your time. People who manage their creativity get happy and rich. People who manage their time get tired. – Scott Adams

Every year or so, it seems, I go back to the quote that starts this post. And it often starts when I notice someone making the fundamental attribution error.

This mistake in thinking, if you’re not familiar with it, comes from thinking that that the reason things are going wrong is because someone is stupid or lazy or ignorant. Why didn’t that task get done? Because your direct report is incompetent. Why did we fail to negotiate the deal? Because our lawyer was a fool.

You will have your own examples of this – situations where you see incompetence over and over again. Why is this – why aren’t people better at doing their jobs?

If you find yourself thinking this way you’re making the fundamental attribution error – thinking that it’s someone’s fault and making things personal rather than looking at the situation and trying to understand what’s going on.

The reason I thought about this issue again was because I was leafing through a psychology magazine that made the argument that people who fail to comply with COVID-19 restrictions are called all kinds of names. I don’t need to provide examples but recent protests come to mind. The attitude of governments is that people are breaking the rules – but they see it only from their point of view. The magazine argued that quite often it’s the people without the resources to cope with the impact of the pandemic that have to break the rules. In the case of protesters – it’s because their voice has been taken away.

The fact is that people will work within the circumstances they find themselves. And if you constrict them within rules that don’t serve them properly – then some people will decide that the rules are not good rules and should not be followed. And we should have sympathy with this – if you don’t want to create this outcome then people with power need to change the situation,

For example, let’s say you have a group that is protesting an issue and wants to do it in public – perhaps what we should do is make it possible for them to make their point – work with them to create the conditions where things can be done safely. People who are in charge will probably argue that they did that and everything still went wrong – but we’re not really interested in the specifics. What’s important is the principle that it’s usually the situation that’s the main factor rather than the people.

What this means for us is that we’re better off focusing on having the resources to do something rather than relying on willpower. If you want to eat less sugar, shop after you’ve eaten and don’t buy chocolate. If you want to encourage people to change their behaviour, work with them to enable the conditions that encourage people to change. Rules are complex things – it’s like the scene in Deadpool, where he says “Rules are meant to be broken” and the other guy says something like, “That’s the exact opposite of what rules are for.” It all depends on who’s making the rules.

This makes a lot of sense for us as well as we try and get on with doing whatever we’re doing. You need energy and you need to allocate it to the right things. If you want to really do something – don’t rely on working hard. Instead, make it easy to do.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The End Of One Thing And The Beginning Of Another

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Sunday, 8.22pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. – Orson Welles

You know that feeling of despondency that comes over you when you reach the end of a series. It happens every so many weeks as you binge watch and then, the final season arrives, and you work through the episodes and then there is the final end, it’s done, the colour is drained from your life and there is a certain emptiness to the world out there.

It got me thinking about stories and how we crave them, however old we get. And the formulas work because they keep us hooked in. We watch and wait, knowing that things will work out but wondering if, just this time, they won’t. And they almost always will because the writers know that if the story goes the wrong way they have to be very careful, because if it doesn’t work out we, the audience, will get really quite unhappy.

Stories are interesting things when you contrast them to life. How do you build a story? You do it by causing conflict, putting things in the way of people, tripping them up, causing problems until, eventually, they make it through.

Life isn’t like that or, at least, it shouldn’t be like that. Life should be easy, the path of least resistance – the way of flow. In life you should study what you like, get good at something that comes naturally to you and spend your time engaged in making yourself useful to others. If you do that things will work out.

Perhaps we’re so used to story, however, that we think that drama is something that happens in real life as well. It shouldn’t though, should it? In real life we should be able to talk things through, work out our differences, express how we feel and have others give us the space to be heard.

Now, of course, when you look around the real world you don’t see that happening – because much of what we see is still filtered through the lens of story. What’s the news other than “stories”? If it’s not entertaining it’s not news, is it?

You might say stories don’t have to be entertaining. They can be a narrative, a bald one. A telling of the facts. But, of course, any narrative has a narrator and the person who tells you the story is going to be constructing a narrative. So that makes things a little complicated – because now everything you hear is a story. And sometimes you’re the narrator and the story you’re spinning is one you’re telling yourself.

It’s hard these days, but perhaps sometimes we should stop for a while, shut off all the stories and experience the world as it is. Or, we could get used to the world as it is – as a world of stories – and get better at spotting the difference between entertaining stories and telling ones.

Cheers.

Karthik Suresh

Here Are Some Of My Favourite Thinking And Productivity Tools

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Saturday, 8.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort. – Paul J. Meyer

I know the pandemic has been hard for lots of people but for many of us the opportunity of being locked indoors with nothing to do except sort out the filing has meant that we have, after a decade or so, sorted out the filing.

One of the reasons I had a go was because of home schooling. I never realised just how much paper schools still use. And I also never realised just how much less productive we have become as a society and as individuals over the last decade or so as the creeping influence of technology has taken paper away from the workplace as a productivity tool. Perhaps it’s just me but I moved away from paper to mostly digital tools over the decade and this last year has been an opportunity to rediscover the magic of paper, if only because I’ve had to print a ream or so a week of schoolwork for the kids.

In this post I’m going to spend a few minutes trying to find the approaches that I used way back when – and that I have rediscovered and re-implemented now.

Let’s start with Tufte and his forums. There used to be a discussion where Martin Ternouth described his system for managing projects using a paper based system. The forum seems to no longer exist but a copy is preserved here and I’ve saved a pdf for future reference.

In essence, this approach manages projects using a folder system. You take notes, slip them into folders and that’s about it. When you need to work on something you take out the folder with the stuff, pull everything in it out on your desk and you’re working with that one project. Everything else is out of sight and in the filing system – which can be a pile of folders in a tray or, my preference these days, filed in a lever arch file.

Now – why is this system better than todo lists or a Getting Things Done approach? Well, it’s because the best “reminder” you can have is the thing itself. If you have a folder that has what you need to do on a particular task – then you can pick that up and get on with the work. For example, we had to sort out a change of energy supplier and it was a matter of seconds to find the folder with the paperwork and get on with the task. Now, you could have a todo list with the item “change supplier” on it but without the filing system that lets you get to the information fast it all to easy to just put off sorting things out.

I don’t use a system just as Ternouth described – I’ve got a few tweaks that make it my own but the main point is that after ten years I’ve simply started to reuse the system that let me, in the old days, manage hundreds of projects without getting overwhelmed. And it works just as well now.

The other things that I have started to use have actually been learned from watching the kids and the way in which teachers teach now. For example, they are really very organised. It’s not about textbooks any more. You have material that’s customised for the learner, a clear idea of what’s going on and lots of scaffolding in the form of graphic organisers and reinforcing material. And they use lots of colours because kids like to draw.

And all that is so much nicer than doing everything electronically. I’m rediscovering the pleasure of making something by hand, colouring it in with bold colours and childish abandon. Not worrying about getting it perfect but just getting on with it and enjoying the act of creation. Of course I worry that it’s rubbish but that’s the point of school – not to be perfect but to learn new things and practice, trying to improve every day.

Sometimes I feel that we spend a lot of time and energy trying to work out new ways to do things that work just fine as they are. And then I remember that finding a new way to do something doesn’t always invalidate the old way – it just means you have one more way that may be useful in certain situations. I couldn’t do a lot of what I do now without technology but I do wonder we understand when technology works and when it doesn’t work. But that’s something for another day.

I suppose for many of us the one thing the pandemic has done for us is make us realise just how much we can do virtually. As we move increasingly to screens, however, perhaps we’re also starting to realise just how much we like to do physically.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh