The Infernal Logic Of Choice

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Monday, 8.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. – Eric Morecambe

One of the problems with reading Terry Pratchett is that certain phrases roll around in your mind, mocking you with their unblinking gaze.

Take, for example, that you have to learn to believe the little lies – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, wishing wells, and others that we do not speak of in front of children – so that you can believe the big ones: truth, justice, mercy.

“Stop!” you say, of course truth and justice and mercy exist. But they don’t. Grind up the universe, say Pratchett’s characters, sieve all that is in existence and you will not find a molecule of mercy, a grain of truth, a drop of justice. These are entirely human concepts that exist entirely in our heads and we choose to believe them.

So, if you need to do something is there a right way to do it and a wrong way? For example, if you want to achieve your goal should you go straight for it in the most direct way possible, even if there is a good chance you’ll stumble? Should you take the path that has the least risk? Or should you go big, swing for the fences and hope to hit a home run.

Take working life, for example, A direct approach might be to go for what you always wanted to be – a cellist, an actor – even though there is a chance that you might not make the cut. Or you could take a low risk route – apprentice to a trade, become a professional. Or you could strike our on your own, start a company, live the startup life and get rich quickly. Or fail fast and try something else.

And then of course you could just wander about and fall into something – maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t – but quite a few people end up decades later wondering how they got there and whether it could have worked out differently.

The point is that there is no “right” way. If you don’t mind the stress of the ups and downs you can make certain decisions. If you can live with skating on the edge of what is legal and what isn’t – you might find an edge. It’s a personality thing – I’m conservative, perhaps too much. But I can live with that.

In the end if there is no truth, there is only the truth according to you.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Something New Is Sometimes Something Old With A New Name

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Sunday, 9.06pm

Sheffield, U.K.

My journey is where I’m at right? It’s the monopoly board of my life, and I’m making my rounds. – Saint Jhn

We used to go to France every summer for a camping holiday.

Before the pandemic hit, of course.

Before one of those summers, the winter before, we went to a farm for a Christmas market. As we wandered around the stalls we came across one that had handmade armour – a helmet, mail chain and a sword. So the small people started trying these out and I looked around the stall and noticed some game boards with a strange pattern I hadn’t seen before.

These were handmade by the stall owner, I think, and were an old style of board with locations where pieces could stop and lines along which they could move. I thought this was a very interesting idea but I didn’t buy one at the time. I should have. We spent much of the summer in France creating boards on the lines of the one we saw with cardboard and pens. By the way, one of the reasons you had lines on the boards rather than squares like a chessboard or passages like a maze is that these games were often carved into tables and it’s easier to just make a line with a knife.

Okay, it’s now three or four years later and I’m reading research and thinking about how to remember this stuff I’m reading. A few days ago I wrote about coming across the work of Vera F. Birkenbihl and thinking this was new and cool. As a reminder an ABC list is when you write down the letters of the alphabet vertically on a page and then write down words that capture the essence of what you’re reading.

Something like this.

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The idea is that writing down these words will help you remember what you read better when you look back at the words. I still need to get my head around the theory behind that but if it’s a memory thing I thought why not create “123 lists”. This is for numbers and you put down figures that you want to remember. I have a 123 list that I’ll come back to in a few weeks to see if this works.

But, if you have ABC lists, then what happens if you connect related words – draw a word, circle it, draw a related word and connect the two? Something like the image above. I thought I could call that an “ABC Connect”. Pretty cool, yes?

Now, we can draw these diagrams but when they get bigger it’s probably easier to use software and my go to software for drawing words and connections is Graphviz. If I use that to create this kind of connection you’ll get something like this.

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I was on the Graphviz website and idly browsing through the theory of graphs when I came across a paper titled A Short Note on the History of Graph Drawing so of course I had to read that. The paper has a definition:

“A mathematical graph consists of a set of nodes and a set of edges. An edge connects to a pair of nodes.”

So… this is my “ABC Connect”. Ah well, it sounds good anyway and is a little less confusing than the word “graph” might be.

But, even better, the paper starts by talking about how nodes and edges can be seen in Morris gameboards from the thirteenth century.

If you drew one out, it might look like this.

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And these are the same boards we stumbled across in that market stall all those years ago.

Anyway, mathematical graphs help you see patterns in data – family trees in genealogy is one of the best known examples of applying these techniques. My own work uses these extensively but now I have a few names for what I do – old ones and new ones.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is Single, Double And Triple Loop Learning?

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Friday, 10.06pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer. – William S. Burroughs

I have now started a programme of research that is going to take the next five or six years and I have to spend the first couple of years learning all that I can about the area that I want to study.

It’s worth getting clear, then, on what we mean by learning.

Let’s say you learn to do something, like bricklaying. There’s a process to it that I don’t know about at all. But I imagine it goes something like this.

You have to learn about lines, straight ones and curves. You need to know how to keep things level. And then you have to put down bricks, one after another, and glue them together with cement.

Something like that.

Single loop learning is about learning how to lay bricks well. Doing a good, clean job. It’s a skill, a trade.

I once saw an invention that helped people lay bricks and cement them in faster, but I don’t see that in practice.

Perhaps it’s a matter of pride that a good bricklayer can do it with their hands and they get better over time.

Double loop learning takes a step back and asks why we’re doing what we’re doing. What’s the difference between a brick wall and a brick arch and a brick fence?

Why would you use a single skin rather than a double and why would you lay bricks in a particular way, offset on each row rather than in a pile?

This kind of learning helps you ask why you’re doing something and if there are other options, or what’s the best option and what the reasons might be to do one thing or another.

Then there’s triple loop learning which is seeing this whole process of thinking and reflecting on it.

This is when you ask yourself why brick – why not straw or wood?

Why a house built in the open rather than one built in a factory and assembled on site?

In this day and age do we need brick – or should houses be 3-d printed instead?

But why would people change, what if they love their brick history and don’t want to see it disappear?

These kinds of questions are about more than brick and about more than a building – they are about hopes and dreams and fears and changes and need time to reflect and consider and try and experiment.

The thing with learning is that it provides a competitive advantage.

Knowledge is power – people who learn better earn better. Organizations that have people who learn better are run better and work out better.

That’s the theory anyway.

Now, my area of interest has always been around sense making and decision making.

Most decisions aren’t about numbers or money but about people doing things that they think are the right things for them to do.

But we don’t know a great deal about how to get people to think better together.

That’s what I’m going to be thinking about for the next half of this decade.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Do You Do When You Haven’t Got Any Ideas?

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Thursday, 6.53pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. – Linus Pauling

I had an idea for a post as I was driving but now that I am at the keyboard it’s lost – and I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was good. Maybe it will return.

In the meantime let’s talk about something else, anything else.

I’ve been thinking a lot about slowing down, about taking time to do things over, learning a little more each time and making whatever you’re doing better. And then I think about speed and getting whatever it is done fast and moving on to the next thing.

The danger with slowing down is that you never get anything done so it helps to have an external deadline, one you can’t miss. If you have to write a talk by a certain date it needs to get done or you’ll be speechless when it matters.

But you can’t slow down for everything – so you have to be selective. Most things can be done fast but you have to take time and take care over what matters. To do that you need to know what matters.

Things that matter are all about art. I was reading somewhere that art is what appeals to your emotions. It’s music and painting and novels that tell your story, that tell all our stories.

Even when you have data, the story is what makes the data come alive.

I wonder if what drives successful people – ones that are successful at what they do and at who they are – is that they are working on their art when you strip it all away.

Perhaps engineers are sculptors – Elon Musk seems to see his projects as a mission – a calling. Warren Buffett has talked about his collection of businesses – like a collection of old masters at a gallery. Maybe that’s why they do what they do – because their work is really their art.

And creating good art takes time. It takes practice. It takes effort and reflection and frustration – and yet more work.

And you do it even if you don’t need to.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Find A Focus

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Wednesday, 8.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you just focus on the smallest details, you never get the big picture right. – Leroy Hood

There is stuff that is interesting.

And then there is stuff you get paid for.

What’s the difference between them?

I had a research induction today where I learned what happens over the three to five years you are going to experience.

It starts with excitement – there’s so much to learn and discover and do.

Then it turns into overwhelm and worry and a sense of being lost.

And then you find your thing, spurred on by a deadline, and focus on something specific and achievable.

Then you pass.

This pattern repeats again and again in life – first you experience a broad sweep across the canvas of your life and then you focus and focus until you are doing the thing you do.

Or, more precisely, the things you do.

Having the big picture, the wider knowledge, helps you do the small things better.

If you’re an accountant, for example, you will be a better accountant if you understand that some clients want to beat a competitor, while others want a comfortable life, and how they act will depend on what they want.

It’s not just about the numbers – it’s about them and what they want and need and if you get that you can help them more than if you just look at their numbers.

The mistake is thinking that you have to be one or the other, a generalist or a specialist.

That’s not the way to look at it.

Being a generalist is for you – it helps you be a better person because you see more and understand more.

Being a specialist is for others – you help someone who needs help with the specific thing they need help with.

And that’s why one pays and the other doesn’t.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Does It Take To Write Something Good?

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Tuesday, 7.37pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly. – Thomas Sowell

There’s more and more non-physical stuff out there, floating around the universe, thoughts and ideas and memories and asides and intimate moments and insipid chatter. The stuff you could turn off and you don’t and the stuff that you’d never find in any other way. And I wonder, do we already know what we should do and don’t because we can’t or because the incentives are wrong or because it’s just too complicated or because some voices are loud and insistent.

Let me back up a little.

Writing is thinking. I use this blog as a place to think – to understand what I think about something and so what you are seeing and reading is thinking in progress. I’m not trying to persuade you or sell to you or convince you of anything. I’m just trying to work things out.

But if I were trying to sell to you I’d have to take the thoughts I think and repackage them in a way that was persuasive and convincing, that told you a story you could believe in and buy into.

But what if there was no point. Should I still do that? Perhaps because it could make money? Perhaps because I believed it was a good thing to do – perhaps because you needed it?

Let’s take an example – if I were to talk to you to try and convince you it would make sense to have a story – one that sounded authentic and natural – like the way people are on telly. Of course, you know that it’s all scripted – you really really know that in your heart of hearts but you don’t want to believe it. Because it’s more fun to believe that it’s all authentic and natural. If you want to see what happens when you don’t work off a script search for Grand Tour Series 2 Episode 4 Review “unscripted”. It’s educational.

Ok, so I’ve told you that you need a script to do a good job. Now should I also sell you a teleprompter? Do you need some software to help you out – that scrolls text while you’re reading to the camera?

Well, I wondered if I did and had a quick look. And then I remembered you can do everything on the command line in Linux. So if you want to go through a text file and scroll the lines you can use a one liner using the awk programming language that looks a bit like this:

awk '{print;system("sleep 0.75")}' file.txt

That’s it – that should work and you can change the number to make the scrolling slower or faster.

awk, in case you don’t know, was first written in 1977 by Alfred V. Aho, Brian W. Kernighan and Peter J. Weinberger and the version that we now, gawk, was written by Paul Rubin and Jay Fenlason.

I don’t know about you but I like the fact that a 40+ year old program can help you do something you want to do and you don’t need to buy anything else or do something new. You just need to be willing to learn and think and use what is already out there.

But I can’t sell you that idea and I won’t try. There’s no money in it, after all.

I’ve just poked a hole in a theory I was holding – one that suggested that a willingness to pay for something was an indication of value. Therefore if it’s free it has no value. And that’s not the case, not for almost everything that adds value to my own working practice.

If you’re wondering where I’m heading with all this then let’s just look at the picture at the start of this post.

I don’t think I’ve done anything that’s listed there – but I would if I weren’t trying to think things through.

This list comes from a BBC video on scriptwriting if you want to get some useful information.

For now, I think I’ll move on.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Living Heart Of A Research Project

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Sunday, 9.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

‘Research,’ for me, is a big word that encompasses a lot of different activities, all of them based around curiosity. Research is traveling to places, or studying snowflakes with a magnifying glass, or excavating one’s memories. Research is walking around Hamburg with a notebook. – Anthony Doerr

I came across the work of Lynda Barry at the start of the year and got very excited. I ordered all of her books and started to try out the ideas in there. And then I got stuck.

One of the reasons that I got stuck is that she asks you to slow down, to spend time. Time is what you need when you’re creating something and you need even more time when you’re trying to find out what you are meant to create. That kind of knowledge doesn’t come fast, you have to work and work and work and if you keep working you’ll stumble across something and realise that it’s your thing.

I work fast. Computers work for me – it’s easier to create images digitally and type on a computer than it is to work things out by hand. But there’s a realness to physical creations and I could argue that the way I use computers is as close to the physical experience as possible – hand-drawn images and prose as poetry. But what makes it out on this blog is a fraction of what comes in, and that stuff piles up. I’m on my third notebook of the year and have a lever arch file full of notes. When you have that much stuff how can you process it all?

I suppose the only way you can do that is by becoming more selective about what you read and write and think about. Today, for example, I came up with the idea of post-Western thinking and found there are a few papers out there that use that term. It makes sense because the way we think has been shaped by the tools we had. In the West, the printing press was the way people got their ideas across. It’s easy to print words and so people started to use words. Now, if you look at an academic paper, you can see the results of “word” thinking – and it’s easy to assume that this is the best way to think rather than consider that perhaps it was the best way to think when your only option was to use a printing press.

Lynda Barry’s idea is that a notebook can be at the centre of your research, the thing that pulls in everything and lets you work with what you have. The heart of the work. You have freedom in a notebook – freedom to use words and draw and colour and frame and point. Freedom to make sense of things in whatever way works for you.

But once you think you have something that’s worth sharing you’re not limited to a printing press to publish your ideas any more. You can use a blog and mix drawings and words. And of course there’s audio and video and everything else. And what this lets you do is tell stories that are more than just words. But what does that mean?

I was thinking about using a journal as a place for research and remembered coming across art journals earlier in the year – the kind of thing that Lynda Barry’s students do. If you search for art journals and research you then come across videos on using art based methods for research like this one by Dr Helen Kara. Dr Kara also talks about indigenous research, which is summed up in the phrase “nothing about us without us”, and talks about how you can include more than just words in your thinking – using artifacts, stories, song, tattoos and so on. You’re not limited to the traditional approach any more – and this is what sparked the idea that there might be this thing called “post-Western” that seems to capture what’s going on here.

Now, of course, you’re not going to change the system – not in academia, not in teaching and not in any other ingrained system that has a purpose. You may not agree with its purpose but it is what it is. You can do all the arty stuff you want to do in your notebook but if you want to be published you have to do what the journal reviewers want you to do. That’s the system and you’re stuck with it.

A lot of people who want to change things get stuck at this point. They don’t like the system and want it to change – not realising that the system is a living thing – a giant that is perfectly capable of swiping back at you when you try and sting it. And it will make you retreat under the sheer power of its blows. There’s no point trying to fight it. Not if you want to make a difference.

I’m too new at the whole research thing to know what is the “right” thing to do – but I’m pretty sure that the world is divided into two kinds of people – those that think there is a right answer out there and those that are right that there isn’t. You will make life easier for yourself if you do what is convenient. But I’m also too old to conform to a way of thinking that’s now a couple of hundred years out of date.

Here’s the takeaway. Your notebook is your happy place – the place where you do what you want the way you want. Don’t fight the system – give it what it needs and try to change it from within. But remember that the system is always the old way – and what you’re working towards is the new way – the post-whatever-is-now future.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why It’s Hard To Really Understand What’s Going On

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Saturday, 9.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There are many plants in our garden but two will make the point that I need to make in this post. One was a young holly tree, spiky and in the wrong place. I dug it out without too much difficulty. There is holly everywhere so we used it to make some toys. The other is an unidentified beast, some say an Acanthus, that is impossible to get rid of. It has roots that go everywhere and they all seem tangled up and connected and any roots you leave come up the next year, even more luxuriant and irritating.

I have now started a PhD programme and so I’m thinking about knowledge and how to get it and make sense of it as it’s something I am going to spend the better part of this decade working on. So what does knowledge look like?

For most of us, we tend to learn things that have some sort of hierarchical structure to them. Something like a tree – an approach called arborescent. You essentially have the constant subdivision of things, a trunk into branches and leaves on branches. A branch does not connect to another branch and a leaf has nothing to do with other leaves – they are separate and distinct.

A Rhizomatic approach, on the other hand, comes from the idea of a mass of roots, where you have connections between the roots. There is no clear start and end, but multiple points at which you can enter and exit the mass. Knowledge is more like this – in the real world anyway – where what matters is connections and the route you take through what is there.

One of the nice things about being back at university is that I have access to research papers. But the trouble is that many of them are unreadable. I looked through a few to find an explanation of this rhizomatic – mass of roots – idea and Wikipedia explains it far more clearly than the papers do. Still, they make certain points and I want to try and capture those ideas.

That leads to a complication. Some time back I wrote about how Warhol never improved on anything and how this might be a good thing if what you want to do is create. The thing with research, however, is that it’s a process, a cycle, of reading and thinking and questioning and writing and reading your writing and thinking and questioning and rewriting.

There’s going to be a lot of this so it makes sense to be selective about what you read. And you need to have a way to write things down because writing is thinking.

This is going to lead to challenges that every researcher has faced since the dawn of time. Things like note-taking, indexing, referencing, avoiding plagiarism. And because I prefer to do everything on the command line I need a way that works for me. I think I have the bones of a system because this is something I’ve worked on for a good few years now, putting pieces in place as I’ve gone along.

What I’ve got to do is slow down. Because the purpose is not getting out words as fast as I can. The purpose is to put words together in a way that is good.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Have I Never Come Across This Learning Method Before?

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Friday, 9.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Learning never exhausts the mind. – Leonardo da Vinci

I came across a YouTube channel on brain-friendly thinking and it has a number of techniques that I’ve never seen before.

Martin, the creator of these videos, uses techniques created by Vera F. Birkenbihl, who used to be one of Germany’s leading management consultants.

She devised a set of thinking tools that are known as analogous graffiti. There are three of them: ABC lists, KaWa and KaGa. This is how you use the first two.

When you’re reading a book or listening to a talk you might make notes as you go along – either linear notes or sketchnotes. If you use the ABC list method what you do instead is write out the letters of the alphabet vertically on a piece of paper and then write out the words that seem important as you read the book.

For example, I had a look at How to create a good advertisement by Victor O. Schwab. I haven’t had time to read the whole book but I looked through the table of contents and the first few chapters and created the ABC list shown in the image below.

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Then I went back over the list and underlined the really important words in red. The ones that seemed to pick out the essence of the message in the book – what makes a good advertisement.

The second technique, KaWa stands for connotations of words. What this means is that instead of having all the characters of the alphabet you pick a word, like “advertisement” and then write out the words from your ABC list using the word you’ve chosen as an anchor. You can see this in the image that starts this post, where I’ve tried to connect words in the list to the letters of the word “advertisement”. You don’t always have enough letters so you have to be creative, like I’ve been with “headline” and “guarantee”.

The last technique, KaGa is for graphic associations. This is where you add drawings to help you visualise the words and ideas you’ve put down on the page, which I’ve done in black on the image that starts this post.

Why would you do all this?

One reason is that by going over the material in this way you’ve picked out the important words that the author felt they had to include. And these words, when seen again, help you recollect the points that were being made. It’s easy, for example, to see that your advert has to ATTRACT attention by using a good HEADLINE and by showing what ADVANTAGES the reader will get. It must cause them to take ACTION. Your enemy is DELAY. Be SPECIFIC, use FACTS. Be clear about the REWARDS the reader will get and GUARANTEE your product – remove risk. Make sure you TEST and are in line with TRENDS – selling ice to Eskimos and all that. And above all, be NATURAL.

Now that’s quite a good summary of what I might take away from the book if I read all of it carefully. And if I look at this picture a year from now I’ll probably remember those concepts pretty easily – perhaps more clearly than a linear note. I think it might even be more useful than a sketchnote which takes down lots of material visually but is not necessary organised for retention and learning.

I think I’ll be using these methods more in the future.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh